I had a lot on my plate in the months leading up to my departure for Peace Corps. While I slowly dropped a lot of my commitments (actually, I kind of dropped them pretty rapidly), I was busy spending quality time with the people I love and not spending quality time researching Colombia. But if there’s anything that the months leading up to my departure taught me, it’s to say yes to experiences because you never know if that’s your only chance; therefore, when my friends asked if I wanted to go to Cartagena for a day trip, I said, “yep!”
Cartagena is a beautiful port city, and the capital of the department called Bólivar, southwest of Barranquilla. It is set apart from the other coastal cities by having an area still nestled between historic walls filled with colonial architecture and historical sites; a vibrant modern area that many websites call “Colombia’s Miami Beach”; hip tourist areas that bridge these two. Outlying these areas that generate tons and tons of money are countless neighborhoods with people living in poverty.
Saturday morning, five of us met up bright and early (5:30am) in our training town to hop on our first leg of the trip to Baranoa. From Baranoa we switched to another bus that took us straight to Cartagena. We had really lucky timing with all of our buses on the way there, arriving at each connecting spot just when the next bus was leaving. We were dropped off near San Felipe de Barajas Castle, a Spanish fortress constructed in 1536 on a hill that allowed the guards to observe both land and sea. While it is open to visitors, we did not stop, but rather continued northward to the Old City.
Alex, who was serving as our tour guide for the day but was staying in the city overnight, headed to his hostel to drop off his bags, while the rest of us continued on in search of coffee. We made the wise choice of quickly veering off the busy main road to enter into a narrow street flanked by multi-story buildings with beautiful balconies. I commented that it felt like I was back in Spain. We luckily stumbled upon a Juan Valdez (the Colombian Starbucks, though much better) pretty quickly, and stopped in for some much-needed coffee, pastries, and bathroom while we waited for Alex to catch up.
From there we wandered. The area was definitely heavily-focused on tourism, with shops selling artisanal goods (most of which are not made in Cartagena or even Bólivar), and countless fruit carts selling cups of sliced mango, papaya, and watermelon. We entered the university right next to Juan Valdez, and marveled at their gorgeous courtyard. We stopped into two five-star hotels to gape at their chandeliers, spiral staircases, and to use their wonderful bathrooms, fully stocked with toilet paper, soap, paper towel, and even air conditioning (a bathroom grand slam). We saw multiple bicycle rental locations, and multiple walking tour groups. We climbed up to the top of the wall that surrounds the old city to check out the sea, the gigantic yachts anchored at the pier, and see Bocagrande, the modern center. We wished we could stay at night to see it all lit up.
After a little walking to work off our muffins, we stopped for gelato. While I enjoyed my tiramisu, I was jealous of Sam’s pineapple basil. Then we wandered to one of the cultural centers that is the main hub of FICCI – Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de las Indias, or the Cartagena International Film Festival. There we saw a small gallery of art, the cases for which were cleverly constructed from cardboard. The Lladró pieces there were not at all like my mom’s nativity set! While we determined what we wanted to do next, we watched as people covered plastic chair after plastic chair with seat covers to create a fancier setting.
We stopped by the Cevichería to check out the menu for lunch, but it didn’t open until 1:00. At 12:15 it already had a line out the door thanks to countless internet and travel book recommendations. We carried on to a “Caribbean fusion” restaurant (read: Colombian), and were joined by another volunteer who was in town for the film festival. After finishing our delicious plates, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to get cocktails (which are not really a thing in the pueblos where we live). We found ourselves at a place called El Barón, a place that felt weirdly like a hip Minneapolis cocktail joint, and were soon joined by two other volunteers. After some very expensive cocktails and a good chat about literature, we were ready to leave. We went outside to find Alex napping on a bench after all the walking.
Unfortunately, our trip home wasn’t quite as quick as the trip there. We closed our circle, and went through Barranquilla instead of taking the back roads, and arrived at home exhausted. It was a really fun day, but now I can’t wait to go back for an overnight stay!