Our November trip to Cartagena, Colombia was a consolation prize.

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One of the lovely streets inside Cartagena’s historic walled city, eerily quiet.

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.

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The formidable Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, overlooking the Cartagena harbor entrance.

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.

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A pretty corner with the historic wall in the background
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Another deserted street in the historic district. Anyone who’s ever been to Cartagena knows what a rarity this is.
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Even the coconut vendor was bored.
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These lovely ladies are palenqueras, a very familiar sight to Cartagena tourists. They are descended from African slaves who founded Palenque, the first free town for Africans in the Americas. Things being what they are, the ladies were happy to sell us a banana and pose for a photo in exchange for a generous tip. It still felt like too little.
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.

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The imposing statue of Christoper Columbus in the sprawling Plaza de la Aduana (Customs Plaza).
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Cartagena has a sad history as a major port of entry for the African slave trade. Plaza de San Pedro is named after San Pedro Claver, a Jesuit priest who devoted his life to helping the slaves. If anyone ever deserved sainthood, it was he. His namesake church is one of the most beautiful in Cartagena.
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Another view of San Pedro Plaza, with a collection of iron sculptures by Eduardo Carmona. In normal times, this plaza is a mob scene!
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Carmona’s whimsical metal sculptures can be found all over the historic district.
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Who is that masked man? Mugging behind the only Fernando Botero statue in Cartagena, in Plaza de Santo Domingo.
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Every Colombian city and many towns have a Parque Bolivar. In Cartagena, it’s dominated by a huge monument to Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of South America
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Getting a shine in Parque Bolivar
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Plaza San Diego and its pretty gothic church
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!

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In normal times, this corner of the Getsemani neighborhood is flooded with tourists and food vendors at all hours of the day and night. It was almost deserted when we were there.
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.

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Posing in front of a model of the tall ship ARC Gloria, the training vessel and official flagship of the Colombian Navy.
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Airy center courtyard of the Naval Museum
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Street entrance to La Serrezuela Mall, in the former Circus Theatre building
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The shops and restaurants of La Serrezuela surround this beautifully restored former bull ring, now used for all types of public events (in non-pandemic times).
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Late afternoon skyline looking east, from the open-air top level of La Serrezuela
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.

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Perfect time for a sundowner! The spire in the background is Cartagena Cathedral.
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Adios, Señor Sol. The church to the left is San Pedro Claver (mentioned above).
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The welcoming staff of the Hotel Movich. They were thrilled to have customers!
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!

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30 Comments

  1. BEAUTIFUL Pictures!! Some day I will make it to Columbia. Good to see people taking precautions. VERY Sad about the lack of tourists to help keep people afloat, but also nice to have a little breathing room for you. Airports and planes don’t bother me too much. People wear masks and I do the sanitizer thing…it’s always what happens when you get to the destination. So far so good. Glad you were able to get away and revisit a place with a different perspective :-).

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Pam! It was a great trip. The plane rides weren’t too bad, but there were plenty of people in the airport who were hanging too close together and weren’t wearing masks. Maybe it’s because it was our first plane trip since covid, but we were a little spooked. Now that the vaccines are getting out, hopefully we’ll have a brighter 2021!

  2. Great post, as usual! Glad you got out to sightsee in Cartagena and good to know people there are taking the pandemic seriously unlike some idiots in the USA.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Nancy! It really is hard to understand how folks up north are behaving, with the world’s highest case and death rates. Sad, and scary. Let’s hope the vaccines really start to get out there and people get behind them.

  3. I love going with you on your trips, but where’s my drink? Seriously, your photos are terrific and as you know, I’ve not been to Columbia, so I take full advantage of tagging along with you. Thanks….

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Aw, thanks, Muriel! You can tag along any time you like 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Vickey – done. I’ve never done it this way before (usually people sign themselves up using the Subscribe box on the right). Hopefully it worked. Let me know if you get a confirmation email. And THANKS for subscribing 🙂
      – Susan

  4. WOW, you guys sure were fortunate to be able to enjoy the historical beauty of Cartagena without the tourist hordes. So happy you were able to get your travel fix for a while and share the experience with all of us. Cuídate bien.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Henry! We’re really grateful we got to see Cartagena without the crowds. Take care, yourself, and hope to see you soon 🙂

  5. Beautiful pictures and wonderful commentary. The last time we were there we saw El Papa. Quite an experience. We’re not flying either until the vaccine. Until then we’re still traveling by car throughout the US (can’t visit California right now) and just trying to stay as safe as possible. Next week is Bryce canyon, Zion and Death Valley. We are so fortunate.
    Be safe,
    Steve

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Steve! Wow, that must have been an amazing experience to be in Cartagena with El Papa. What was the occasion, a saint-naming? We also are choosing car travel at the moment (with the exception of this trip). What a great way to stay isolated but see some beautiful country! Bryce and Zion are two of our favorite places in the U.S.
      Enjoy and be safe!
      – Susan

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Donna! We travelers have to do the best we can in these weird times, eh? Hope you’re safe and well 🙂

  6. Cartagena looks beautiful, I would love to travel there one day. I love the history lesson of Simon Bolivar and Cartagena being the Cradle of South American Independence!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Gracias, amiga! Hope you get to see Colombia someday 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you! Colombia really is an undiscovered gem (well, Cartagena is not so undiscovered, but you get my meaning!). Oaxaca and many other inland places in Mexico are waiting for us to discover them, once this COVID stuff has blown over. Hope you two are well!

  7. Out in the open sounds like my ideal trip! I’ve heard Cartagena is lovely and your pictures certainly convince me. Love all the colorful buildings and parks you visited. Plus, a rooftop cocktail for sunset always sounds like a good choice!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Becky! It was a really different kind of trip, but enjoyable all the same. Hope you and yours are well!

  8. Perhaps what I appreciate most about this post is your honesty in how you found things to be with travel. A city mostly empty but the vendors now more active. The fact that you flew but won’t again until vaccinations. It does look like a gorgeous city, one well worth exploring in the future.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Sue. We realized we were walking a fine line with this post, taking a trip like this in the midst of a pandemic. We aren’t necessarily encouraging others to do the same – it has to be a personal decision based on risk. Thus the honesty. We’re still glad we went, though. And it was really special to be able to see Cartagena at such a calm time. Hope you two are staying well and healthy! 🙂
      – Susan

  9. Not a bad alternative to Austin, Texas! And, much safer probably. While I think Austin residents take their precautions, I know from experience that rural parts of that state do not!

    Beautiful and colorful Cartagena! Your amazing photos brought back memories from when we visited by sailboat. But, such a rarity – and treat – to visit this popular historic city without the crowds. I guess your next little trips will have to happen by car!? 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Liesbet! Yes, Austin residents have done a better job (for the most part) than a lot of other areas in Texas – but they’re still struggling. Just yesterday they announced they’re going to tighter restrictions because the hospitals are filling up there. And in the last couple of days, the virus has really surged here in Colombia as well. We’re glad we went to Cartagena when we did, since it probably wouldn’t be too advisable now. Time to sit tight and hope we can get vaccinated soon.

      Glad you got to see Cartagena by sailboat! We missed a chance to sail there when we were in the San Blas in Panama – is that where you came from? And yes, we’re going to stick to our car adventures for the next few months, at least.

      Hope you guys are doing well! Where are you these days?

      Cheers,
      Susan

  10. Such a rare opportunity to see beautiful and colourful Cartagena without crowds. Thank you for sharing your trip with us. Wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you so much, Natalie! Same back to you and your family, and here’s to a Happy New Year!

  11. Not such a bad consolation prize! It’s good to hear that safety protocols are being followed. When we travelled within our home province this summer, we too experienced the magic of very few crowds (no pesky vendors though), but as elsewhere, lack of visitors has been such a hit to the economy. Best of the season to you and John.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Caroline! All the best to you and your family as well, and Happy Holidays!

  12. Hey John and Susan, wise move on not celebrating with your mother/in-law at the moment. Looks like you enjoyed quite a colorful escape regardless. We’ve never read much about Cartagena, so this was definitely a nice window into a new place to see.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much – glad you enjoyed the post. Happy Holidays!

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