A couple of years ago, my friend Kevin and I made a pact that if he ever quit work to get his MBA, we would go on a cool trip somewhere before he gets schooled. Well, surprisingly, Kevin did quit work, so the time came to pick a place for an adventure. With a trifecta of having cheap flights, first-time travel to South America, and quick flight with no jet lag, we decided to go to Colombia!
After doing some research, it turned out that Colombia had a lot to see. From the Andes mountain range, to fishing villages, to big cities, we decided to cover 3 major cities: Cartagena, Medellin, and Bogota. All 3 cities provided different weather, terrain, culture, and food.
Day 1. Orlando to Cartagena
My cheap flight on Spirit airlines came with a caveat… I had to fit everything that I would need for 8 days in a small backpack. Otherwise, I would have to pony up $60 to carry my bag as a carry-on. Luckily, my wonderful fiancee helped me pack everything that I would need for 8 days on the road. She’s an expert packer! To see how she does it, head on over to Packing Lists, Hacks, and Tips
I was nervous while walking towards the check-in but luckily everything went without a hitch. Pro tip: It looks like the biggest thing that Spirit looks for is the number of bags that you have in-hand. I think that as long as you have just 1 piece of luggage (no small purses or plastic bags in hands) and your luggage doesn’t look like a giant backpacking backpack, you’ll do just fine.
A little over 1 hour into the flight, the views outside my window were simply spectacular. I now understand why people say that the color of the Caribbean Sea is pure turquoise. Here was my view as we got closer to Cuba.
Cartagena – First View
A little before landing, I got my first view of Cartagena. I was a little surprised to see the shabby looking buildings and houses right underneath the flight path. From my view, it looked like a maze of dirt roads and random trash fires. I instantly started having fears about how the area where I will be staying is going to look.
Right after the plane landed, I amusingly walked right off the plane and onto the tarmac. What did not amuse me was the intense heat and humidity that hit my face. I thought Florida would have prepared me for the humidity, but boy was I wrong. The airport folks led everybody to the customs line and almost everybody went to the non-nationals waiting line. Although it took me about 45 minutes to get through the wait, the customs agent happily stamped my passport after asking me “what is your occupation” and “the number of days that I’ll be staying in Colombia.”
Cash is King!
The next top priority was to get some cold hard Colombian Pesos (COP). FYI, they use the dollar logo to denote COP. I had done some research and found out that Colombia is a very cash heavy country and that many places only accept cash. Pro tip: There are absolutely NO ATMs in the baggage area. The only ATMs at the airport are located at a hidden corner on the far end and next to the security checkpoint. There are about 6 different bank ATMs located there. Also, don’t be alarmed if one or two ATMs reject your card. I personally use Venture by Capital One, and I tried 4 ATMs before my debit card was finally accepted.
Getting a Taxi
It is almost guaranteed that you’ll be staying in the Old city and the easiest best way to get their is by taking a taxi. They are cheap, safe, and organized. What’s great about the Cartagena Airport is that they make the process of getting a taxi very simple and transparent by having you get the taxi fare ticket in advance. So, here’s what you’ll have to do. Exit the airport and make an immediate left. Soon, you’ll come across a big “TAXI” sign. Tell the lady behind the counter “Old City.” Don’t worry if you don’t speak any Spanish. She sees enough tourists all day long and will understand what you mean. It doesn’t matter where your hotel/hostel is as long as it is in the Old City. The taxi stand will then print you out your fare receipt which you take to the very first taxi in the line.
Cartagena – First Impressions
The taxi ride took about 15 minutes and gave me my first street level view of the city. I saw a ton of little mom and pop shops. People on motorcycles and scooters. Nobody following any traffic rules and everybody honking at each other for absolutely no reason. And a lot of interesting smells and aromas. I was loving all the chaos and action. Soon we were driving parallel to the Caribbean Sea and then the city’s famous fortress walls appeared out of nowhere. Then, I started seeing street vendors selling fruit, people hanging around inside stores doing nothing, people repairing motorcycles on the sidewalks, and just a general but controlled mayhem. Before I knew it, I was at the hostel. I simply gave the fare receipt to the driver and handed him 13,500 COP ($4.50). A similar ride even on an Uber would have been around $10 back home.
When traveling internationally, I like meeting other travelers. This is really easy if you stay in a hostel. On top of that, if you do your research right, you can find really affordable and decent hostels to stay in. For my 3 night stay in Cartagena, I stayed at the Mystic House hostel
located in the main street of Bohemian Getsemani Neighborhood. The hostel came with a shared air conditioned bedroom and private bathroom. There was a common area where people could hang out on couches and watch TV. Connected to this was the kitchen on one side and an outdoor patio on the other.
San Felipe Castle
After checking into our hostel (Mystic House), it was time to start exploring. We decided to checkout Castillo San Felipe de Barajas or The San Felipe Castle. After a short 10 minute walk to the castle, we arrived at the ticket booth and paid 25000 COP ($8.50 USD) entrance fee which seemed a little steep for Colombia. I thought everything in Colombia was dirt cheap for American tourists. I guess the Castle somehow still gets enough visitors to be able to charge such prices. One thing you should be prepared for is the hoard of annoying vendors. They’ll try selling you water, juice, and snacks. But, all these food vendors disappear once you get past the main entrance.
It takes about 10 minutes to walk up a gentle slope to the top. Then, you start grasping the immense size of this fortress. The Spaniards built and rebuilt it in the 1600s. The burgeoning trading city of Cartagena needed protection against the marauding pirates of the Caribbean. The view from the top is simply breathtaking, and you get a feel for the lay of the land. On one side, you’ll see the ritzy tall white condos of Bocagrande. On the other is the old world colonial architecture that Cartagena is famous for.
One of the coolest things to do at the castle is to walk a few of the dark tunnels. Soldiers used these tunnels to defend the fortress. It’s an eerie feeling walking thru the maze of tunnels and is not recommended for anybody that might get claustrophobic.
Pro Tip: Each person should take at least couple of bottles of cold water with them when going up the fortress. The heat and humidity is unbearable at times in Cartagena during most of the months.
Dinner and Drinks With Friends
One of my friends, Jordi, from Grand Rapids, Michigan just happened to also be in Colombia. We met up with Jordi and his family who lives in Cartagena at a restaurant & bar called Demente which is located at Plaza de la Trinidad. Demente is a very lively open air tapas style restaurant with excellent beer and drinks. For food we tried the Aji Dulce Frito (fried sweet chillies & flower salt), Criollas Bravas (Criolla Potatoes, brava sauce & aoli), and a whole variety of delicious pizzas. For drinks, we tried Aguardiente’ which literally translates to Fire Water. Aguardiente’ is derived from sugar cane and has a distinct aroma and taste of anise. The brand we got was called Real 1493 which was extremely smooth and chased down really well with ice cold water.
After dinner, we did what most locals and tourists alike do at night in Cartagena and hung out at Plaza De La Trinidad. The plaza was bustling with energy with tons of people sitting around and just chatting with friends. There were tons of food carts selling really tasty foods like empanadas, arepas, and hot dogs. Then, we ended the night at Bazurto Social Club that is renowned for playing Champeta music.