I departed Cartagena in rough shape after falling off a sidewalk due to the condensation on my sunglasses and taking a nosedive on the cobblestone streets. A lovely police officer picked me up (literally jerking me from the ground) and helped dust me off before we realized the blood dripping on the street was actually coming from my knee. Pulling myself together, I iced my wrist and knee before embarking on the next leg of my Colombian journey to Medellín, the country’s second largest city.
View of Medellín in the valley of the Andes
Medellín is most commonly known as the former cocaine and murder capital of the world. It was home to Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellín cartel, one of the largest and most lucrative cocaine operators in the 1980s-90s. It was a dark, dreary place juxtaposed with beautiful valleys, thick-forested hillsides and one of the Colombia’s two rivers rushing through it. The cartel controlled the local government and police and often terrorized anyone or anything in its way. It was a fearful time for the people of Medellín.
Today, locals aware of their past fight aggressively for their future. With Pablo Escobar’s passing in 1993, the cartel’s influence over the city dissipated and the City of Eternal Spring enjoyed a rebirth. The Metro train system is state of the art and transports locals from poor neighborhoods across the city and high into the hilltops. While 40 percent of the population continues to live in marginal areas, locals of all economic backgrounds use the Metro to whisk them into the 21st Century. The city spans from north to south (like Bogotá) and red brick skyscrapers, top-tier shopping malls, restaurants, museums and universities are plentiful in Medellín. Outdoor art decorates the main plazas and an abundance of birds, flowers and lush vegetation crowd city streets.
Plaza Botero, an area in Medellín with 23 bronze sculptures donated by Fernando Botero
Medellín has a population of about 4 million people. It is named after Medellín, Spain in the province of Extremadura and is located about 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above sea level in the Aburrá Valley of the Andes Mountains. I stayed in the Poblado District of Medellín, a modern upscale neighborhood, where I looked down on the bustling commercial district and across the horizon to the Andes. It is fully accessible by Metro and is a convenient and safe area to be based.
Bandeja Paisa, typical food for the Antioquia area. Avocado, beans, chorizo and plantains
Medellín is clean, progressive and green. The people are conversationalists eager to share their desires to be recognized leaders in academics, textiles and flower-growing specialists. On a Metrocable car over impoverished neighborhoods through densely forested areas, I met two sisters ages 18 and 20 studying international business. We conversed in broken Spanish. Traveling on school break from Santander, Colombia, they hope to be business owners one day and work in fashion in Medellín. My guide Santi who does speak English is studying international business to sell sporting goods abroad. His girlfriend is a lawyer and his sister a struggling fashion designer. Locals demonstrate entrepreneurial skills on every level. Sidewalks crammed with fresh fruit and vegetables give way to merchandise for sale, while other vendors peddle desserts and typical Colombian favorites like arepa and bean dishes.
It’s easy to study and to work in Medellín. If people choose not to study, it’s because they may have been influenced by the drug trade and believe the “good times” are coming soon. They sit and wait while the rest of the people in Medellín create opportunities and chart a new direction for this world class city.
I arrived in Cartagena, Colombia after an hour plane ride from Bogotá. There are three climates in Cartagena: Hot, Hotter and Hottest with an occasional gust of wind. Immediately, I conjured notions of melting like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. The thermostat reached 80 something but with 90 percent humidity sweat dripped from my face and other crevices of my body I won’t admit. The locals blame Global Warming. I fault Mother Nature in need of hormone regulation.
Old city Cartagena, look out gate
Cartagena de Indias was founded in 1533 and named after Cartagena, Spain. It’s a city of approximately 1.2 million people nestled conveniently on the Caribbean Sea. It’s known for its active port, tourism and oil. Cartagena served as a valuable port to the Spanish for nearly 300 years and was repeatedly attacked and destroyed by pirates wanting access to riches. Goods along with gold, emeralds and silver traveled by road throughout Peru and Ecuador and then by ship from Cartagena to Panama to Puerto Rico or via Havana and to Spain until the 1800s. It wasn’t until Colombia fully gained its independence that Cartagena’s economy declined greatly and people abandoned the city.
Staying in the old city is a must. While Cartagena is a gentle mix of old and new, the brightly colored restored colonial mansions, convents and narrow alleyways suggest a rich history filled with hardships and sacrifice yet wealth and opportunity. The wall, which separates Cartagena’s past from its present took more than 208 years to build and was approximately 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) around the city. Today, much of the original wall stands. I spent hours walking along the wall admiring sea views, church towers and radiant sunsets.
old city in Cartagena with wall in foreground
Wandering through the old city can be done on foot or horse carriage. There are distinct plazas dividing the town each marked with a church and filled with statues and beautiful gardens. Locals peddle artwork, purses and shoes on the street and restaurants cater to tourists serving the typical specialty of coconut rice, ceviche (raw seafood salad) and sugarcane water. I sampled mojitos (take note Cuba, the Colombians do it right) and thoroughly loved the ceviche since it’s made fresh and prepared without onions. Find a restaurant with live music. It’s worth the effort. If you prefer shopping, plenty of stores will cater to your desires for emeralds or crafts.
I admit I am a witch!
I recommend hiring a guide and walking the old city on day one. It provided me with a sense of Cartagena’s history and allowed me to make a mental note of the churches and museums I wanted to see more in depth. I’ve always had a soft spot for witches and the Palace of Inquisition delivered my aspiration to live a former life of sorts. Locals say Cartagena is a place of myth and legend and burning people at the stake or execution by guillotine adds to the allure. Cartagena served as the third in the Spanish empire to have a Holy Office of the Inquisition. It tried all non-Catholics and others who practiced “black magic” from roughly 16th century until independence from Spain in 1811.
Outside of the old city sits the neighborhood of Getsemaní, which is still strangely within the original fortification and about a 5-10 minute walk from the clock tower or focal point of the old city. Getsemaní served as the servant quarters in colonial times and is now enjoying a rebirth with new restaurants and music clubs popping up on every corner. While the old city provides a handful of 4-5 star hotels, Getsemaní advances the cause of backpackers who can be found hunched over on sidewalks in the morning and frequenting drinking establishments in the evening.
New friends in Cartagena
Whether you are alone or with a group of friends of all ages, Cafe Havana on the main drag is not to be missed. The $5 cover charge includes a tasty and strong mojito and a mix of locals and tourists dance until the early morning. Getsemaní also is home to the Miss Colombia Pageant, a source of pride for the entire country. Pictures of former contestants grace billboards and decorate walls in many restaurants in Cartagena.
It’s important to mention luxury hotels have sprouted up along the coast in the neighborhoods of Bocagrande and Castillogrande. The guides refer to the area down the peninsula as the Miami Beach of South America because of the high-rise apartments and expensive boutiques but to me the area is a fine example of modernization. If you are visiting Cartagena for the weather and want to stay at a fancy hotel, walk to Juan Valdez for coffee and hear lots of traffic, then it’s possible Bocagrande/Castillogrande is the place for you. I admit the area provides incredible views of the Caribbean but possesses little character.
The beach at Majagua- Rosario Islands
Since I was celebrating my birthday in Cartagena, I chose to spend the day on the high seas. I booked a tour to the Rosario Islands about a 45-minute boat ride from Cartagena’s port. As the boat neared the dock at Majagua, white sandy beaches and a colorful spectrum of Caribbean Sea greeted me. Layers of turquoise and aqua colors blanketed the ocean’s surface and darkened as the shallow floor gave way to deeper waters. The salt water stung my freshly burned skin but with a soft silky touch, the water’s temperature warm and inviting. Birds circled and waves crashed. Locals hustled jewelry and fresh lobster (or not so fresh as I was warned). My gracious hosts prepared a local birthday dessert consisting of fruits and jelly. They must have noticed the disappointment on my face and quickly returned with a brownie with ice cream and a Spanish version of Happy Birthday. I eaves dropped on my fellow tourists, attempted to read my travel magazines and relaxed with an open-air massage. My only advice is to bring an extra towel. Towels are for “el cuerpo solo” (the body only) and I learned with rapid hand gestures legs and feet are not part of the equation.
Another Birthday Cake at the Charleston
When I arrived back to the hotel, Charleston Santa Teresa, my lovely tour operator surprised me with another birthday dessert. A chocolate cake lined with real whipped cream and filled with a sweat fruit layer. It looked big enough for two people but I didn’t want to disappoint anyone so I ate it all. I really need to stop telling people it’s my birthday! Eating three desserts might be over the top.
I finished the celebration dining at Cuzco Cocina with my new friend Zoe from New York City via Australia, dancing, eating and drinking (damn mojitos) the night away. At 2:00 AM, I confidently swerved back to my hotel taking selfies in various parts of the old city. It may seem I am a better photographer under the influence.
What to see and do in Cartagena
Whether you spend a long weekend or two weeks in Cartagena, make the most of your trip to this vibrant and historic city.
*Walk in the rain. Watch the drops beat against the sea and the old wall. Nature’s sprinkler greeted me on a morning walk and I was thrilled.