I was excited but nervous about my trip to Cartagena, Colombia. This had nothing to do with the "danger" of Colombia. I was born in the country - so I'm not really afraid to go there (just like any other "dangerous" country, you set the level of risk for yourself). I was more worried because my "marinovio" hated Cali (this is where most of my family lives) and I was really worried that he'd have a horrible time in Cartagena, a city that I remembered quite fondly from childhood (I lived in Santa Marta when I was about 3 years old, and my family went to Cartagena on a weekly basis). I am pleased to report that Antonio loved Cartagena (although he did have a hard time with the Caribbean heat) and that we're planning to return soon. Yes, there are issues in Cartagena, but I think the city & country are working towards fixing most of these. Feel free to message me here (or on Twitter) if you want some personalized tips or have some q's on Cartagena, I'll be glad to give you tips to make your Cartagena trip as nice as ours was. I'll start by giving you a view into the La Boquilla/Morros neighborhood where we stayed for most of our 1 month trip.
La Boquilla is the ultimate when it comes to juxtapositions. There are two main areas in La Boquilla. You'll probably stay in the Morros area of La Boquilla (this is the Southernmost part of the "neighborhood". Think modern & posh...kinda like a residential area in Miami. There are tons of beach front condos, hotels and resorts all with tons of amenities. I was told by locals that this is where the Nouveau Riche of Colombia likes to holiday. Buildings are around 15 stories tall and they usually include Turkish baths, hot tubs, multiple pools, gyms, and 24-hour security. I put the word "neighborhood" in quotations because the Morros area of La Boquilla is not really a neighborhood. There's no sense of community, very few restaurants, and very few places to shop. Think of it more like really nice buildings that are set up more as a gated community. I did not find the neighborhood until I stepped off the complex on my first day in Cartagena to take a walk on the beach. At this point, the guard at the building warned me of two things: to be careful with my phone, and not go too far to the right as it was unsafe. I thanked him and headed out to the right anyway.
As a rule, when you head to foreign countries, you should listen to the advice of the locals. But, I like to really get to know an area, so I decided to head a little further north to the original La Boquilla. What I found was humble (and I mean humble) homes, seafood restaurants geared towards the locals, tons of fishermen getting ready to start their day, cars of all kinds using the beach as their highway (buses, motorcycles, hondas), and packs of homeless dogs (this broke my heart). Some dogs seemed to be doing ok, others looked a mess, mange, ticks...you name it. As a lifelong doggy guardian, I wanted to help all these dogs, but alas...there's only so much you can do. A small note, these dogs are not aggressive. They are completely chill with humans and pretty much will keep to themselves. This area of La Boquilla is significantly dirtier than the Morros area, but I think this is mostly due to the way that governmental resources are spent. Each morning that I walked in this area, I saw the restaurant workers cleaning up the beach and doing what they could. The people here care.
As I mentioned, La Boquilla/Morros is an area of juxtapositions. These lines blur from time to time. Sometimes not for the best. For example, on two of my daily walks, I saw dead dogs on the beach. Scrawny, sad looking things that broke my heart. Their dead bodies were washed by the waves into the water. I just could not go back in the water in fear of having the body of a dead dog meet me in the ocean. First because my best friend just left my life last Summer. Petey was my best friend, and seeing these poor (obviously malnourished) dead dogs on the beach brought on a flood of emotions I was not ready for. Second because I did not want to swim in an area where a corpse may accidentally rub up against me. Level headed me knows that tons of things die in the ocean, but swimming in the ocean was out of the question for me after that. I tweeted to the Colombian tourism board to ask what was being done about the issue (spay/neuter would be nice), but my tweet was ignored. Not a very good social media strategy. I've traveled to many places in the world, and I want you to understand that this is something that happens in developing countries. I've seen even worse things in the Philippines, Dominican Republic, and other places; but our travel dollars, and being outspoken on things we dislike will make the countries' governments pay attention and fix things. I'm hoping that by writing about this, you will both go to Colombia and be vocal with the government as a tourist on the things you'd like to see change.
Overall, I loved La Boquilla and Cartagena. I did not feel unsafe in the Nothern part of the neighborhood. I did not take my phone, had no jewelry on and nothing of value to offer, just to be extra safe, but the area was crowded, full of locals, and everyone was friendly. I can see tourists being robbed, but only if they do stupid non-sensical things in this area of town. This area is not filled with pushy people selling you stuff, but with humble locals who are just trying to make a living. IMHO you will be safe. Go and check it our and spend some money at the local restaurants. Your meal will be delicious fresh fried fish, taken out of the ocean that same morning and it will cost you next to nothing. It's a win for you and for the community.
RESTAURANTS IN LA BOQUILLA - MORROS
There are very few restaurants in the nicer part of La Boquilla. This means that you have 3 options:
1. Walk north to the local La Boquilla restaurants (bring cash). Here you will eat with the locals, and get gorgeous fried fish (you can pretty much bet it came out of the water that morning) alongside some arroz con coco and patacones. It's freakin' awesome!
2. Eat in the Morros area. The restaurants are cheap and ok...but nothing to be excited about. Skip the restaurants in the hotels. They are overpriced and not worth the money at all.
3. Go to Cartagena proper. Since, this is the area furthest from the old city, you will need to take a taxi there. You can hail one from the street or have your hotel/building call one for you. It should cost you between $13,000-15,000COP ($6USD). Any more than that and you're being robbed (not really - since everything is so cheap, but I suggest always having 15,000COP on hand. When you reach your destination, just hand it to the cab driver. Don't ask "how much" or they will quote you a much higher price. There are tons of great places to eat here and they won't cost so much. I'll link out to my recommendations once they are live on FriendsEAT.
WHY YOU WILL LOVE LA BOQUILLA MORROS IN CARTAGENA
I know we discussed the bad, but if you are looking for a relaxing, amenities packed beach vacay, this is the neighborhood for you. It's super convenient and just 5 minutes from the airport. The noise from the planes was not an issue. The beaches are relatively clean and peddler free. Just say "No Gracias" and go about your day. The locals will figure out that you're not there to purchase things. That being said, if you want a foot massage, you can get one cheap. Fish vendors are there early in the morning with their incredibly fresh catch - awesome if like us you have a kitchen. There are also walking cevicherias (ask for them without salsa rosada), and walking bar carts. You get a lot more for your money here than you do in other areas of Cartagena, so if you are ok with not being in the middle of things (and can afford two $6USD cab rides per day - you're set).
WHAT TO DO IN LA BOQUILLA/MORROS
Swimming & Sunning: The beaches are clean, warm, and calm here. You can swim without fear of riptides and you can walk in comfortably. Unlike the rest of the beaches in Cartagena, you won't get as many pushy people selling you stuff here. Yes, they are there...just not as much as in other areas. There are guys on the beach that will rent you an umbrella and chairs for about $5USD. Totally worth it not to get a sunburn. You can be a beach bum, order some ceviche, get a drink on the beach, and even get a foot rub. (Just skip the oysters - all other seafood is pretty much ok).
Watersports: I don't do many sports, but every afternoon there were people kitesurfing, para sailing, and jet skiing. The area is known for this and people were definitely taking part.
Go to the old city: The old city is a 10-15 minute taxi ride. We spent tons of time there. Click here (once I get the link up) to check out all the awesome stuff we did.
Eat Fresh Seafood: Remember how I told you that there were restaurants if you walk north past the luxury buildings? Eat there. Fresh, delicious fried fish with patacones and arros con coco. You can't beat that!
Take an excursion: As the people working in your building. It is in their best interest to keep you safe, so if you want to hire a boat to take you to the islands, they will have an uncle-brother-cousin that can take you. Most of these islands are not posh, but you will have quiet white sands and really good fish. Skip Islas Rosario - not worth the money unless you're spending a few days there. The boat ride is long and hawkers there are quite pushy.
WHERE TO STAY IN BOQUILLA MORROS
There are plenty of hotels and all-inclusive hotels that you can stay at, but we stayed in two different apartments we found on AirBnb and had a wonderful time at both. They both had full kitchens, were on the beach and had plenty of amenities. I highly recommend both.
***If you do book and you haven't yet used Airbnb - use my code. If you do we'll both get a discount on our next stay www.airbnb.com/c/cvalbuena?s=8
1. Walde's Apartment: For about $120 per night, we got a 2 bedroom, 2 bath with a HUGE deck and a hammock on the beach. Our host Waldemar was awesome and his "ama de llaves" Amalfi was an amazing cook. We paid around $20USD per day for her to come in. She was there pretty much all day did the shopping, made lunch AND dinner, cleaned house and did the laundry. She was incredibly nice and we miss her arroz con coco a lot. If she opened up a restaurant in NYC, she'd make bank - cause I'd be there daily. The internet here was a bit spotty, but fine for anyone who does not work online like I do.
2. Ligia's Place: Ligia's apartment was a 1 bedroom, 1 bath, so it was significantly smaller than Walde's place, but the internet was faster. It also came with an "ama de casa" named Roxana. She was also a great cook, AND she was included in the nightly price...we paid around $105 per night so this was a total steal. Ligia was a great host too and gave us both early check-in and check-out.
***If you stay at either place, make sure to tip these lovely ladies. They do a lot of work and they put tons of love into what they do.
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