Our November trip to Cartagena, Colombia was a consolation prize.
Many months ago we booked a trip to Austin, Texas to celebrate my Mom’s birthday and Thanksgiving with our family. “Surely the pandemic will be under control by then,” we silly people told each other. But by October, the latest wave of COVID-19 was raging in the U.S. (and continues to rage, pretty much unabated). For the sixth time this year, we made the decision to cancel another trip. Just too risky for Mom or for us.
Since I already had the time off from work, what could we do instead? We chose Cartagena, Colombia’s famous colonial capitol. We had visited Cartagena a few years ago (here’s our post about that trip) and had been wanting to return. Also, since domestic air travel resumed in Colombia back in August, we hoped there had been enough time for airports and airlines to work out the kinks and make sure biosafety was as tight as possible (it’s only an hour-long flight from Medellín).
Colombia’s Philadelphia: The Cradle of South American Independence
When many people hear “Cartagena, Colombia,” the first thing that might come to mind is the ’80s movie “Romancing the Stone.” But Cartagena is so much more. Known formally as Cartagena de Indias, the city traces its roots to the original indigenous people who settled there. Later, it was one of the most important ports in the Americas during the Spanish Empire and then played a central role in the liberation of South America from Spain, led by Simon Bolivar, the “George Washington of South America.” The walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 1980s.
In normal times, Cartagena is a popular cruise ship destination and has a reputation for being over-touristed. The city is also legendary for relentless street vendors touting everything from cheap trinkets to hats and sunglasses to even hip-hop performances. That’s why visiting during the pandemic was appealing: Maybe we’d get to experience Cartagena at a slower, calmer time, with no virus-spreading crowds to avoid. Our hunch turned out to be right, and we basically had the city to ourselves. But the vendors were worse than ever. As pesky as they were, our hearts went out to them; they’re just trying to survive these difficult times like everyone else. And their cash cow – the hordes from the cruise ships – is missing in action at the moment.
In Cartagena, our risk management strategy was to stay outside.
We accomplished that, with the exception of a couple of restaurant meals, a mall visit (La Serrezuela) and one museum tour (the Naval Museum). It goes without saying that we constantly wore masks (except when eating and drinking) and took every opportunity to use hand sanitizer or wash our hands. As in Medellín, it was very rare to see someone inside or on the street without a mask. The few times we entered public buildings, we were happy to see that they were observing strict (and in some cases very high-tech) biosafety protocols.
Here are our the highlights of our out-in-the-open visit to Cartagena, Colombia.
Plaza-to-Plaza Walking Tour
We’re big fans of the Moon travel guides, and the Colombia book lays out a walking tour that offers great information on each of the historic plazas in Cartagena’s walled city. We spent an entire morning following the route from plaza to plaza and learning new tidbits about Cartagena’s colorful history.
Getsemani Street Art Tour
The street art of Getsemani, Cartagena’s popular “hipster” neighborhood, is not to be missed. We followed the walking tour laid out by another blog (thank you, Career Break Adventures!) and took so many pictures that we’ve decided to spin them out into a separate post. Check it out here!
Just Walkin’ Around
Our favorite thing to do on any trip was tailor-made for this one: exploring on foot and seeing where our noses take us. We made two off-the-radar discoveries: Parque Apolo and the La Matuna barrio.
On this visit to Cartagena, we stayed in El Cabrero, a block off the beach and just to the north of the historic center. This vibrant little neighborhood includes the former mansion of Colombian patriot Rafael Nuñez, now a museum (currently closed due to COVID). Twice elected president of Colombia, Nuñez is known for orchestrating a new Colombian Constitution in 1886 – an achievement that is honored by Parque Apolo across from the museum. This pretty little park features the sweet church that Nuñez built for his wife and also a monument honoring key figures in Colombian history – including busts of Carib indigenous leader Carex and Domingo Benkos Biohó, the hero of the African slaves’ fight for freedom in Colombia.
La Matuna is a local Cartagena neighborhood sandwiched between the uber-touristed Getsemani and walled historic districts. Besides its own collection of street art, La Matuna has unexpected surprises. Got a smashed cellphone screen or a broken watch? Check out the electronics repair alley. Need a document typed? The elderly men armed with typewriters will fix you up. And if you’re as big a fan of ceviche as we are, you can’t miss El Sombrero.
(NOTE: the following photos are in a gallery – just click the first one to click through the bigger versions.)
Two Indoor Sites Worth a Visit
We’re glad we had finally had a chance to visit the Museo Naval de Cartagena (Naval Museum). Occupying two historic buildings – a former Navy hospital and a Catholic school/convent – the museum has extensive displays laying out Cartagena’s colorful military history and the role of the Navy from the Spanish colonial period to the present day. We had an excellent English-speaking tour guide and had the place completely to ourselves until the very end, when a few other visitors trickled in.
We’re not big shopping mall fans, but we also had to check out La Serrezuela, a landmark new shopping center in another historic location that served as a bullfighting ring/theatre complex until the 1970s. La Serrezuela also felt reasonably safe, since there were so few other patrons. And the views from the top floor of the bull ring are worth the (free) price of admission. That’s also where all the bars and restaurants are, so it’s a great place to unwind with a cocktail.
Getting High at Sunset
No, it’s not what you think!! Cartagena is renowned for its rooftop bars and restaurants, which offer the perfect venue to take in the stunning city views at sunset. This time, we chose the rooftop of the Hotel Movich with its panoramic views of the harbor and the Caribbean to the northwest.
A few more thoughts about travel in a pandemic
Obviously, traveling to a major city by air is riskier than staying home. We would never have made a trip like this in a country like the United States, where virus case numbers are still extremely high and so many people are not being careful enough. Colombia has had its problems with COVID, but by and large people here trust science and follow the rules – and cases and deaths per million are a lot lower than many other countries in the Americas.
Even so, we knew we were taking a calculated risk. We only felt unsafe one time: in the crowded waiting area at the Cartagena airport, and on the flight home when Viva Air wasn’t doing a very good job of enforcing assigned seating. It was enough to make us decide that we’ll avoid air travel until we can be vaccinated, just to be on the safe side.
Bottom line: We’re really glad we were able to see Cartagena at such a rare and quiet time, with so few visitors. And best of all, we got to satisfy our travel itch, at least for a little while!
Coming Next: Street Art in Cartagena, Colombia!