Cartagena is a city of two parts. There’s the new city where real people live, work and hustle, where traffic and industrial smog make you want to run for the hugging coastline, where the buildings are functional and not so pretty. This is the no nonsense side of town. It’s just on the other side of a protective stone wall that houses a magical maze.
Behind old fort walls is a city that sends you back in time. Like a meticulously designed movie set ready for the most romantic storyline, this enchanting energy of the old town explains the flocks of lovers hand in hand, in slow stroll, eyes glazed in love, a honeymooners heaven.
The streets are stocked and stacked with the famous mochila bags, hats, art, and local crafts. Tourists need not to go more than a few steps for their fill of Colombian memorabilia. Eager vendors even come to you, sometimes annoyingly so. With so much interesting, colorful work it’s hard to pass by without at least a brief inspection. It’s a hustle with huddles of folks haggling, crowding sidewalks, sellers chasing buyers, everyone looking to negotiate a deal and walk away with that feeling of scoring.
Not one muted nor missed, bright walls line narrow streets and push right up to the edge of the solid stone enclosure. Colors pops at the turn of every corner, creating a grid of beautifully preserved architecture where Colonial buildings meet caribbean flare.
The cuisine is seasoned with the same bight, bold, Caribbean intensity. Colombian dishes with a Caribbean spin are full-flavored. Seafood is king, ceviche dominates, and mojito is the drink of choice. Salud!
Cartagena weather can get scorching hot and the city’s pulse slows during the day. People seek shelter, hiding in their homes, under trees or slumped on stoops. By night, the streets come alive with happy mojito induced faces. The old town is safe and entirely walkable making a slow sauntering from one bar to another practically inevitable. Every place has two for one’s, buy two get one free, or some similar combination to make sure you accidentally-on-purpose have just one too many twisting the pretty atmosphere into a hazy kaleidoscope.
Homes in Cartagena house little secrets. There is history in the details. After a while one starts to notice on each entrance lives a creature shaped door knocker. These days, they are just decorative detail that add to the charm of Cartagena, but once upon a time this is how families advertised their professions. This is just one of the many fascinating tales that make this city’s old town special.
At face value it’s easy to see Cartagena as tourist trap but a with a little effort it’s a city full of gems. It’s a city of long history, deep culture, and plenty of fun.