In the walled city of Cartegena colors paint more than the architecture. The air is vibrant. In shop windows brightness is celebrated. The city feels like art.
We began our experience at Bastion Luxury Hotel on a Saturday afternoon.
We checked in and headed for the rooftop pool. After a couple of hours relaxing, we decided to explore. First up was La Mulata, a Caribbean-inspired restaurant with great food.
Next we walked to the open square near Torre del Reloj, the clocktower at the entrance to the walled city.
To say this area is live is a gross understatement. There’s live music. Restaurants. Bars. Rooftop parties. People just hanging out soaking up the atmosphere. You’ll also find vendors selling sweets and more. All this excitement in a place with history dating back to the 16th century.
Later that night we made our way from the walled city to the nearby Cafe Havana for some salsa dancing. Because what’s a trip to Colombia without salsa dancing?! Cafe Havana is the spot. I understand why it is highly recommended by locals and tourists alike. It was packed with people have a great time dancing, drinking and mingling.
This was day one.
On Sunday we decided to get a formal tour of Cartegena. The hotel concierge recommended Marco and he showed us many of the highlights. On the list was Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa, a monastery that sits on the highest point in Cartagena.
It is gorgeous, with views of the city to match.
We also saw Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a castle that began construction in the 16th century, though it took 150 years for it to be complete.
That evening we went to Alma for dinner. Afterwards the cobblestone streets invited us to walk with no other motive than exploration. And the bustle of the square at night inspired us to stay out later than normal.
If you want to see Cartegena outside of the typical tourist attractions, ERC is where to go. Our tour guide, Alex, began explaining the real Cartegena as soon as we were out of the walled city. He pointed out local residential areas as we drove and explained the social class levels. In Colombia regions are ranked from 1 – 6, one being the poorest.
The walled city and all its charm and beauty set against people living in homes without windows was sobering. The street carts in the walled city had fresh, pretty fruit, but passing through levels 1 and 2 it was obvious that freshness levels were not the same.
As we continued to Palenque, which is about 50 miles from the city, Alex shared the history and culture of the region. Upon arriving in Palenque, he introduced us to residents of the town that would be helping with the tour. I loved that this tour included the people that lived there.
Palenque, officially titled San Basilio de Palenque, was the first free slave town in the Americas. It was established by runaway slaves in the 16th century and still maintains many of its own customs.
The town is a UNESCO-declared ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Even now it has its own unique language and the children take classes to ensure the Palenque culture is not forgotten. While we visited some of the local children performed for us. We were treated to a performance by Kombilesa Mi, the hip hop group from Palenque that travels the world sharing their talent.
If you want more info on Palenque, here is an article from culture trip that offers a brief history.
The next day we chartered a boat to visit the Rosario Islands, Cholon, Playa Blanca and Playa Agua. We ate lunch in the ocean and hubby had fun flyboarding.
It’s interesting how just the day before we were engrossed in the beauty of history, learning about the first settlement of freed slaves in the Americas and the next day we were island hopping.
This is part of the draw of Cartegena. There’s culture, history, great food and fun. We were able to build an experience that fit all of the people in our group.
On our last day we walked the city and shopped. Palenque women were by the shops taking photos with with tourists. Of course I had to get a photo.
Seeing their town days before made the moment even more special. It also gave me the perfect memento of my Cartegena experience.