It’s been a big year for travel and it’s only April. This is the year my oldest daughter turns 16 and ever since my girls were little, I have promised them a mom/daughter trip, for their 16th birthday, to a destination of their choosing. The only criteria was that the trip would be 5-7 days, so it had to be a destination that made sense to visit for less than a week from NYC. It has been so much fun watching their imagination change and grow over the years as their 16th birthdays got closer. It’s such a big world, and thanks to all of the traveling we have done, they have the gotten the same travel bug that I have. So, settling on just one place was not an easy task for Tori. Her parameters were, a) someplace where she could practice her Spanish, b) someplace she has never been, c) somewhere in Central or South America. After a fair amount of research and deliberation, we settled on one of Lonely Planet’s choices for Best in Travel of 2017 – Cartagena, Colombia. In addition to fulfilling her requirements, Cartagena also offers fairly inexpensive flights from NY, very little time change, and a strong dollar.
When my dad first heard I was taking my 16 year old to Colombia on vacation, he said “Are you sure that is a good idea?”. You see, he traveled to Colombia on business in the late 80’s and remembers not being able to leave his hotel room without a body guard. Well, Colombia is certainly a different place today! Even during the 80’s when drug cartels ruled the country, Cartagena has always been one of the safest spots, but Americans still didn’t really consider it as a vacation spot. I am happy to say that is a different story today.
Cartagena is a port city on the Caribbean coast founded in the 1500’s by the Spaniards. The Old Town is walled and surrounds some of the most vibrant and colorful cobblestone streets I have ever seen. The city is bursting with colorful homes, lively people, bougainvillea filled balconies, and endlessly perfect photo ops. Cartagena is not so much a place to do as a place to be. Wandering the alleyways of the walled city and the even more colorful streets of neighboring Getsemaní, provides boundless eye candy and culture to soak in for several very hot afternoons.
Things to know before you go:
- The time in Cartagena is almost the same as Eastern Standard Time so jet lag is very minimal.
- It’s hot – all the time! Even though the thermometer may only read 80 or 85 degrees, it is a very tropical climate and humidity is high. So 80, feels like 90. Plan your activities in the morning or afternoon and spend midday in a shady restaurant courtyard or at the hotel pool.
- The dollar is very strong so everything seems reasonably priced.
- Cartagena is experiencing a culinary explosion. There are so many great restaurants to experience. Use the opportunity of the strong dollar to eat at some of the nicer restaurants without breaking the bank but don’t miss the street treats either. See my post on Culinary Cartagena for more on the amazing food.
- There are so many beautiful boutique hotels with center courtyards. Find one with a pool. Two places we loved were Anandá Hotel Boutique or Bantu Hotel.
- It’s a great place to practice Spanish. First, the Colombian accent is, in my opinion, the easiest Spanish to understand. Words are spoken clearly and succinctly compared to other Central and Latin American accents. Second, very little English is spoken at all. Even if people do speak a bit of English, they often pretend not to. What surprised me the most was the lack of English especially on tours and in hotels.
- You do not need a Malaria pill or a Yellow Fever shot before your trip to Cartagena (Or Medellin or Bogotá for that matter). But if you plan to travel to the countryside – and you should (see my post on Adventures in Cartagena for more on this) – best to get it and be safe.
- Colombia is a country with minimal means new(ish) to tourism. It didn’t take long for the locals to figure out that tourists are a gateway to a better life for them. When you are there, you really feel it. You won’t go too far without a street vendor trying to free you of your Colombian pesos. While persistent, they are very respectful when you say no and they don’t push too hard. The fruit and hat vendors come in handy for the super hot days. Pro tip: Don’t go through the trouble of packing and carrying your sun hat across the globe – wait until you get there, and buy one from the locals.
- A walk on the walls of the city during sunset are a perfect way to end each day. Most places recommend Cafe del Mar on the Baluarte de Santo Domingo. It is certainly a gorgeous place to see the sunset and a very lively atmosphere. We preferred the more serene setting of the Baluarte San Francisco Javier. Complete with comfy chairs and a jazz band, it was a terrific sunset spot. Pro tip: Since Cartagena is so close to the equator, the sun always sets at 6:30pm! For us Northeasterners, this seems very early, especially when the weather is warm. Have a cocktail first during sunset, then head out to dinner after dark.
- A visit to the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is great but with blazing sun and no shade you should plan to go either early in am or late in afternoon. Also, explore some of the many underground tunnels for a respite from the heat. A hat is a must.