Cartagena de Indias … it’s in Colombia…and it’s our first trip to South America. We’re here for Christmas on our annual holiday trip to warmer climes. First, unlike in the film Romancing the Stone, it’s properly pronounced kar-ta-hayna, not
kar-ta-hanya. No ñ.

Second, it’s hot in more ways than one! Oddly, the humidity rises in the evening as the temperature lowers, so it feels pretty warm just about all the time. And we understand that December is one of the cooler months. If the heat bothers you, be prepared. Be sure to book yourself into a hotel with a great swimming pool, because the beaches aren’t as appealing as other Caribbean beaches you may know about. Let’s be honest … they are very crowded. They’re also full of vendors wanting to sell you almost anything imaginable. We had thought to dip in the ocean anytime we got too hot, but it was not to be. And the pool at our hotel was small and unappealing.



















So, where’s the charm, you might ask? It’s in the old walled city (Centro) and the up-and-coming area of Getsemani, a flurry of color and wall art that some might consider graffiti but the more adventurous find to be a great expression of exuberant local inventiveness and artistic talent. San Diego is an area built around a square that we discovered on our last two days there. More later…



















Bottom line … if you want to eat, drink and move around inexpensively, Cartagena can hardly be beat. We found cab rides to be inexpensive with helpful drivers … and they were a welcome, air-conditioned way to get around. We hailed cabs from all over the place, two to four times a day, and were only disappointed once. An entire cab ride from our hotel, two miles from the old city, cost less than a New York City cab before it even goes one foot. And several cab drivers refused tips as well.

HERE ARE OUR BEST DISCOVERIES ABOUT CARTAGENA
SPLURGE ON YOUR HOTEL:  We didn’t, and we regretted it. Since everything else … food, getting around, great drinks … is so inexpensive, indulge in fun and comfy lodgings. As I said before … a good pool is a must. On our last two days there, we discovered an area …  San Diego… that wasn’t really talked about in the Cartagena reading material we checked out before we went. It boasted many boutique hotels and seemed to be converting many buildings to add to their numbers. The ones we peered into all had small pools and the air of an oasis. And the area had the feel of Centro without the crowds or the surfeit of vendors. If we go back, we’ll definitely look for one of those small hotels. With a pool.



















DON'T STAY TOO LONG: Three to five days is enough for what we really wanted to see and do in Cartagena. Perhaps if we had followed our own (belated) advice and splurged on our hotel, in a different area, we may have felt differently. Cartagena was interesting enough that we’d be willing to go back and try again. We stayed in Lagunita but would try another area if we return.

NH GALLERIA,
where we saw a stunning exhibit of photographs of the Palenqueras hermosa…women who stroll the streets of Cartagena selling fruit and wares from baskets atop their heads. Though these women, when you see then on the street, are dressed in gloriously colorful costumes, the exhibit puts fifty of them in identical white dresses and displays them in five rows of ten on a black wall. The exhibit, called “Weaving Streets, “is the photographic essay of Columbian artist Ruby Rumie and has even been translated into postage stamps. This small gallery, located across from the wall on the corner of Calle 35, is a cool and beautiful oasis. (Note: We also learned—too late—that you SHOULD NOT take these ladies photos without buying their fruit or offering them some sort of compensation.)




















THE MUSEO DEL ARTE, as contrasted to NH Galleria is, sadly, not air-conditioned, and the impressive collection of Columbian art there is suffering. There are extensive works by Enrique Grau, and his model Rita is featured in several paintings, silk screens and sculpture. His loving portrayals of her in many moods and poses make you wonder what their relationship might have been, though extensive web searches reveal nothing.  Cecilia Porras’ work is also featured and it made me sad to see she only lived to be 52 … but she created a great deal of good art in her short life. The museum is in a 17th century Customs House on the Plaza de San Pedro Clavier. The plaza is peppered (and definitely spiced!) with the wrought-iron sculpture of Eduardo Carmona. These charming figures, reminiscent of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, depict Columbians in everyday tasks. We stopped to wonder at a different one each time we wandered through the Plaza. (Looking him up online, I found he had a hugely successful exhibit that was unveiled in Fort Myers, Florida in 2016. Some pieces will be permanent—and I’m hoping to see them!)




















WE TOOK A VERY ENTERTAINING WALKING TOUR with Free Tour Cartagena. Our guide, English-speaking Edgar, really should be acting on the stage or in films. If you take the tour, keep your fingers crossed that he’ll be the one to tell you about the history of his city!

















FOOD! It’s hard to go wrong with the food in Cartagena. The food is fresh and good and inexpensive. We returned to three places in particular: Enoca, El Bistro (PERFECTLY cooked tuna steak) and Carbon de Pollo, which is a few blocks from the gargantuan beach of Bocagrande. All three were so reasonably priced we couldn’t believe our luck.  We also enjoyed Casa de Socorro in Getsemani, and by chance found a table at Restaurante Don Juan on Christmas night. Later, we learned Don Juan’s one of the highest-rated, hardest-to-get-into restaurants in Cartagena. It just happened to be the only one we saw that was air-conditioned, looked interesting and seemed to have space that night—lucky Old Dogs! Mostly, we feasted on seafood wherever we went. 

WALKING AROUND
… and even getting lost, we discovered places we hadn't necessarily been heading for. The colorful buildings of Getsemani, the simple shops next to elegant designer establishments, the parks, the horse-drawn carriages that add their own peculiar “fragrance” to the area…all in all, mucho eye candy! And it must be said that Cartagena goes all out for Christmas…the abundance of Christmas lights at every turn were a particular delight. 

CABS: They are now well regulated, and you can find them almost anywhere except pedestrian-only areas. I even rediscovered my high school Spanish in friendly conversations with most of our taxi drivers, much to my husband’s surprise and delight. And they are wonderfully inexpensive!!

Here’s a hint I picked up online before our trip—if you get sick in Cartagena, check out a service called AMI at http://amiasistencia.com/cobertura/cartagena/. You can call the service and request a doctor. Proviso: If they’re busy, they may not get to you immediately and you may have to call back until a spot opens up. But they can send a doctor to your hotel/lodgings, check you out there and prescribe whatever you need for a reasonable fee. Luckily, we didn’t need them, but forewarned is forearmed.