Experiencing The Real Cartagena on an Grown-Up Gap Year
I’m always looking for great places to visit on my adult gap year, places that I feel safe and welcomed as a black woman. This is one of my priorities when I pick potential cities to visit.
I visited Cartagena for the first time in August, 2018, and it is definitely one of my top ten cities to visit as a Black Woman. It’s easy to get to from the US, reasonably affordable, full of culture and history, beaches and little islands.
I decided to visit Cartagena for many different reasons. I went to Bogota, Colombia in February of 2016, and really enjoyed it. While I was there I heard that all the Black people in Colombia were in Cartagena, and y’all know I love being where the Black people are. I also wanted to learn how to scuba dive, and since Cartagena is on the coast, I thought it would be a good place to learn.
This was supposed to be a solo trip for me, but the week before my trip, while I was in Cuba, I met another Black Woman who would also be traveling to Cartagena the same time as me. We actually stayed together for most of her trip, so it was great to have a roommate in the apartment. I also met some women on a group tour that were a blast to hang out with, and a woman from a facebook group I am in was in town at the same time. We met, hung out for two days, and are already planning our next vacation together. Cartagena provided me a wealth of Black Women to hang out and bond with.
Getting to Cartagena.
To get there, I took a direct flight from Miami airport to Cartagena and it looks like all the places that tourists stay in Cartagena are within 45 minutes of the airport. I took an Uber from the airport to my first airbnb, but I couldn’t get an Uber later, so I started using only taxis.
What to do in Cartagena.
I love visiting local museums when I go to a new city. Unfortunately there weren’t any museums in Cartagena I wanted to visit. There are a few museums in town like the Museo de Oro and the Naval Museum, but I didn’t want to see those. I had already spent an excessive amount of money in the gift shop of the Museo de Oro in Bogota and didn’t need to repeat that experience. Plus I heard that the museum in Bogota was better than the one in Cartagena, so I didn’t bother with it. Most military/war museums are not my thing.
Shopping in Bogota is interesting. For most the most part, I found most things to be overpriced compared to what I expected, how I valued things. In Centro there were a log of stores selling local knick knacks, and some were actually really expensive. There were a number of malls all large, with very welcomed air-conditioning.
Las Bóvedas are old dungeons turned into stores, but skip these, unless you’re just going for the experience, it’s not worth the shopping. Most stores had the same items, were totally overpriced, and a tourist trap for cruise passengers.
I spent most of my time there buying food at restaurants or small local markets, and it wasn’t until one of my last days that I found Carulla, a local grocery story that was like a Whole Foods, but with a larger, nicer selection and cheaper prices. If you’re staying in an AirBnB, and need groceries, make sure you check out this store. Their bakery was divine.
The food in Cartagena was amazing. One of the traditional meals is mojarra - a fried whole fish that is typically served with coconut rice and fried plantains (patacon). I ate mojarra more times than I actually remember. There is a pretty traditional drink that I had multiple times too. They call it a coconut lemonade, but it’s really a limeade mixed with coconut cream. I don’t normally eat coconut, but I cheated with that drink over and over and over again. Try these two when you’re in Cartagena.
I learned to scuba dive with Diving Planet. I’m now a PADI certified Open Water Scuba Diver. I explained more of the process in these videos.
Pre-Dive Jitters: https://youtu.be/KhIGxbllYo0
Post-Dive Thoughts: https://youtu.be/xlm68h17Dhg
Cafe Del Mar - Every guide book, website, and human, will tell you that Cafe Del Mar is a must do. You’ll hear about the great views and what an awesome place it is to hang out. Let me tell ya - it’s good for a selfie, or a time-lapse of the sunset over the ocean. But the food is not good, and takes a really long time to be served. The drinks aren’t much better, and are completely overpriced. It’s full of tourists vying for the best views. You can get the same view from other parts of the wall, without paying anything, like the locals do. If you ignore my good advice, make sure you get there at least 30 minutes before they open to get a good seat by the wall.
Palenque - I loved this little town. I took a great tour, but this deserves it’s own post. Hopefully I’ll be writing it soon.
Real Cartagena tour with The Real Cartagena and Alex Rocha - I usually hate group tours, but this was such a good one, I didn’t even mind. Check the link for more info.
There are a ton of forts and castles to visit in Cartagena, but I have to admit, this isn’t really my thing, so I skipped them all.
Where to Stay In Cartagena
I heard the best places to stay were in Centro (in the walled city - expensive and Gethsemani (which is a trendy, gentrified area with some 5 star hotels that used to be crack houses 5 years ago). I didn’t stay in either of those places. I stayed in a Airbnb in El Laguito (Edificio Conquistador), and another one in La Boquilla (a fishing village). The last one was in Sonesta apartment/hotels, and I had access to an onsite restaurant and gym. The apartment was a 2 bd/2.5 baths with 5 beds and spare mattresses for $27 a night.
I love a city where I can blend in like a local, and with minimum Spanish (still practicing with Duolingo) born and bred Colombians think I am one of them. I really liked Bogota when I visited in 2016, but Cartagena blew my mind. It was everything I needed - beach, great food, wonderful people and a culture that makes me feel accepted. If you’re going on a grown up gap year, I definitely recommend you checking out Cartagena. I spent two weeks there, and it was one of the best parts of my gap year.