It was a dark and stormy night. The chill in the wind seemed to say “GTFO” and the unforgiving streets of La Candelaria held omens unforgiving for the two gringos. So they packed their bags and went to sunny Cartagena.
No really, though, it was cold and we had spent a week in Bogota so we said peace to Bogota and caught a $29 flight to Cartagena. (Fun fact: The day after we booked our flight the airline went on strike and cancelled, and I’m not exaggerating here, EVERY flight from Bogota except ours. God was really looking out for us there because we’re like really good people.) We stepped off the plane and immediately felt like Kate Winslet in that scene from the holiday where she sees LA for the first time and smiled all the way down the Pacific Coast Highway. Or Miley Cyrus in the first verse of Party in the USA. Or that part of Miss Congeniality where Sandra Bullock just got the makeover so she struts cos she knows she’s hot AF. Like that. We felt like that.
Cartagena is a gorgeous old colonial city (there’s a lot of ignoring of genocidal pasts for the sake of enjoying a vacation. No one loves it but we all do it) whose walled city is still full of old buildings, each painted a brighter color than the next. We arrived after 10 PM and the CITY.WAS.LIVING. The walled city feels very much like downtown Savannah or the French Quarter in New Orleans where tourists are out drinking until all hours of the night (more recs in that regard here). We grabbed dinner and then a beer in this bar called KGB Bar that’s entirely KGB themed. It was cool until it gave me election PTSD and then I had to go home so Nick could hold me on account of the tears.
THE NEXT DAY we did the following activities:
1. FREE WALKING TOUR OF THE CITY: Most of what there is to do in Cartagena involves walking around to soak in the colorful buildings and enjoy the vibrancy of the city itself. We made a really great attempt to do the official walking tour I found on the internet but we gave up 2 buildings in. The city is small so you’re likely to pass everything on there anyway, none of the suggested sites was that incredibly noteworthy in its own right, and walking past most of the sites for the sake of it doesn’t necessarily enhance your time in the city by that much. That said, none of this is meant to knock Cartagena because we LOVED IT! It’s just that there’s no need to do the official walking tour. Verdict: Definitely spend a lot of time strolling around and meandering up and down the colorful streets, but don’t do any sort of walking tour. Not worth it.
2. INQUISITION HOUSE: When the Spanish colonized South America they engaged in shameful conduct with regard to first nations here, but were pretty remarkable in their stellar treatment of Jewish Spaniards. LOL JAYKAY they persecuted everybody. So I’ll make this story short by telling you all a little tale:
In 1492 the King of Spain was sitting around one day in the palace he stole from some Muslims and took credit for (true story) and he was like “Hey Queen, I’m bored. What should we do to entertain us?” And she was all “IDK, want to violently expel all the Jews from our lands if they don’t convert after hours of torture?” To which the King responded: “LMAO Girl, you crazy! Yea let’s do it, what the hell?!” And thus began the Spanish Inquisition. Then the Jews fled, and some of them went to Spanish colonies, under the perfectly logical assumption that Spanish people would only engage in widespread persecution of minorities if they actually lived in Europe. LOL JAYKAY joke was on them! The Spanish then brought the inquisition TO South America, specifically Cartagena, where they then tortured and forced conversion on not only the Jooz but also Native Americans. The end.
So anyway all that is to say the house where all this torture took place is now a museum. Inside you’ll find such relics as old torture devices, original paintings of actual Jewish humans being tortured to death, and some bibles. The museum was actually on its way to being overall a good memorial to what went down for so long until the end, when we walked outside to the museum’s courtyard to find the following:
1. A life-sized replica of a guillotine to show people what that looked like. By itself, pretty disturbing but completely logical when placed in an Inquisition Museum. Not so logical? The museum-sponsored attendant BLASTING REGGAETON music next to the gallows. Stop asking me questions because I don’t the know answers. Swing and a miss, Inquisition Museum.
2. All the children whose parents were taking smiling, beaming, happy pictures of them while playing and holding up peace signs on the real life-sized gallows across the courtyard from the guillotine.
Verdict: You should go if you’re in Cartagena because it’s cheap and important, but expect the museum itself to be basic in its discussion of the inquisition and brace yourself for some disturbing treatment of the serious subject matter while in the museum.
3. BACK TO KGB BAR: Idk, man, we just wanted to drink more and this place was fun. Go.
Cartagena overall is an incredibly beautiful city and if you go to Colombia, you absolutely MUST go. It IS expensive so if you’re on a budget trip, consider doing only 1-2 days there. Although you’ll undoubtedly want to spend more time in this gem, it’s small enough that limiting your visit here to that time frame won’t leave you feeling like there was much you didn’t get to see.
From there we went eastward along the Caribbean coast towards Tayrona National Park. 4 hours to the east is Santa Marta, a port city that has garnered a reputation as a backpacker’s destination though in our opinion, undeservedly so. Santa Marta is in essence a port city. To get anywhere near Tayrona from the coast you’ll need to travel through, and it has an airport which makes it convenient for flying into the region if that’s how you plan to arrive, but by itself it doesn’t offer much. Don’t stay there.
We stayed for three nights in Taganga, the next town over from Santa Marta. During that time, we:
1. Went to La Playa Grande: The main beach in Taganga is accessible (not exclusively, but) primarily by boat. We paid $2 US and hopped into a boat with a makeshift engine with a guy who yelled at us on the street, and he drove us to the next cove over, where there were plenty of beach chairs to rent for the day. This day wasn’t groundbreaking by itself, but was definitely cheap, gorgeous, and relaxing. Verdict: If you have time to kill in Taganga or Santa Marta, sure why not head to the beach for the day? If you’re running out of time, you’re not missing anything you can’t get elsewhere.
2. Went tubing in Palomino. Y’all. We picked up on this rec from some cool fellow travelers at our hostel in Taganga. Here’s the deal: We took two buses a total of 2.5 hours to the east, much closer to where the actual national park is situated. We hopped off the bus and found the guy on the side of the road in Palomino with a bunch of river tubes. We paid him $25,000 CP which is like $8-9 American dollars. We hopped on the back of a dirtbike for 10 minutes. We survived being on the back of the dirtbike. Then we hiked half an hour with the tube over one shoulder and beers over the other to where the hiking “trail” meets the river. Then I shoved my ass in a tube and opened a beer and did nothing but float down the Palomino River for 2.5 hours. The rapids were calm so the whole time we were just chilling. Anyway, despite what Nick will tell you I was really fucking good at navigating my way down the river and everyone had a good time and everyone survived. There the end.* Verdict: Make this a definite. So worth the money.
In all, if you’re in Colombia, make sure you spend time up north. Were we to do it again, we’d actually skip Taganga and stay in Palomino, much closer to Tayrona. We very much wish we could have done more in Tayrona and Palomino. More on this and more in the area here.
*I’d like to take moment to address the rumors that I crashed into several trees at this juncture. I haven’t seen them myself, but from what I hear there are some rather mean-spirited memes floating around on the internet suggesting that I “crashed into every tree in Colombia” and that I “looked like a beached whale flopping my limbs around in a futile attempt to avoid the trees.” These rumors are false and reposting these memes constitutes bullying. I looked like a graceful-ass swan the whole time. Trust.