If the cities of Colombia were a family, Cartagena would be Cali’s bigger brother. Where Cali has parks to meet friends, Cartagena has sophisticated plazas. As Cali is reckless in its loud salsa music, Cartagena is calmer with its romantic lighting and dining in the streets. And whereas in Cali you still feel its development and transition, walking in the streets of Cartagena, you can feel its history and a more mature vibe.
Around 500 years ago Cartagena was a goldmine and as a result, when the Spanish arrived during the colonial period they tried to build a wall around the entire city to keep everyone else out of their new capital. However, by the time the wall was finished sum 200 years later, the natives, led by a militant called Simón Bolívar, finally broke in for good while claiming Colombian’s independence. Today though, the wall still stands and resemblances of European occupancy are still in full effect. Cartagena is lined by narrow and coloured streets, with flowers draped over balconies overhead. Large churches, a castle, the palace of inquisition where slaves were tortured, and large plazas either for organizing slaves or selling goods are also still found throughout old town. Contrary to the past, these now have all been transformed to make a romantic ambiance where people dine in the middle of the streets as well as in the plazas encircled by tall, overshadowing buildings. At night, the city has a light glow and is so peaceful. There are a number of things to do from watching traditional “Cumbia” dancing, and African “Mapale”, to going for a horse ride in carriage, to going to one of the world renowned salsa clubs to dance, or climbing the wall to have a beer with friends as you listen to the waves crash on to the rocky coast in the background. Old town really is a cheaper way to experience European culture, though with a Colombian flare. If that isn’t enough, there is a whole other modern side to Cartagena outside of the wall that has been developed in more recent years.
Outside of the wall, the coast line stretches up to form beaches separated by lines of rocks still spiking out from the coast which further protected Cartagena in the past. These beaches are decent, but nothing compared to the islands that you can reach from one of the ports at the northern part of the city. Still, it’s really convenient to have beaches to walk to, and kite surfers sometimes go out on the water if there’s enough wind. Going through this part of town, it seems like you’ve switched to a new city. There is a lot more space to walk, bike, and scooter around, and the buildings are round and have a more standardized look. If you’re looking for a live “vegas style” nightlife, this is the area to go to in Cartagena. Casinos, and rich hotels follow the coastline, and there are plenty of clubs. I much prefer the cultural ambience in old town, but it just depends on what you want. As for the food, the arepa is fried here, and there are many more restaurants that cater the vegetarians because of the amount of tourists. These restaurants are also cheaper too. One in particular called “Girasoles” serves a lot of different food you wouldn’t really find elsewhere in Colombia such as eggplant, spinach epanadas, balls of fried lentil, and oat smoothies.
In Cartagena, you feel the weight of being single sometimes. You wish you had someone to walk through the streets with, and you envy couples dining under the lights. It’s easy to become lonely when you are traveling alone, and when you get lonely you become a more desperate person. That is one reason why it’s so important to make friends, and learning Spanish to the extent that I have allowed me to make deeper connections with people in Cartagena. I can understand people more, and respond with a certain amount of detail in a timely manner. I can also joke or start my own topics. On top of that, Colombians seem to have more integrity and dedication towards their family, friends, work, and lovers which I admire and respect very much. There is happiness in traveling alone, and there is happiness in sharing and I am so glad that I have been able to share this time of my life with these types of people.
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