As our last stop on the Panama cruise, Cartagena (officially called “Cartagena de Indias”) is a bustling port city in Colombia that has given rise to massive waves of tourism for quite some time. With a vibrant Old Town and stunning beaches in the modern part of the city, it’s no wonder that so many travelers flock to check it out, as well as get a taste of what Colombia is all about.
I had particularly been looking forward to visiting Cartagena. Prior to going, I knew about its beauty, since I saw so many online photos from my friends who’d gone, as well as travel vloggers on YouTube with their videos of the stunning city. Perhaps call it the “Instagram effect,” but the social media posts gave me all the more reason to look forward to going to Cartagena for the day.
Our ship docked in the morning, and we soon hopped off to catch a guided tour of the city. My family and I, along with several dozen other passengers, piled onto a bus coach, and we soon set off towards the heart of town.
Now, it’s no secret that Colombia gets a bad rep for being a dangerous country (especially known for its drug-smuggling past). While that might be true for some parts of the country, I found that Cartagena was not like that– sure, there are probably some sketchy parts of town that one shouldn’t be wandering at night, but the city in general is so incredibly touristy that the worst that could happen is getting ripped off from vendors trying to sell you a souvenir at an inflated price. In other words, Cartagena is quite safe.
First stop of the day was at Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a fortress located on top of a hill that overlooks both the Old Town and the modern city. Built back in the 1530’s, it was constructed to guard Cartagena from possible attack, as it’s a port city, and fortunately, it only saw two major sieges in all of its existence. Today, it remains a very well-preserved monument for visitors to check out.
While I didn’t find the fortress any more different than others I’ve visited, I did appreciate the lovely views of the colorful Old Town and the striking high-rises of the modern side. I hadn’t expected Cartagena to be so big, but apparently, I was wrong!
Soon after, we took our bus coach to the Old Town, where many of the tourist attractions were located. Our tour guide took us to one of the numbered calles (“Calle 39,” I believe), which is essentially a street with many souvenir shops that sold artisan items, e.g. bags, clothes, hats, etc. I even saw many vendors sell non-Colombian items, including Panama hats (actually from Ecuador) and Cuban cigars!
We were given about 30 minutes at the shops (which I felt was too long, but then again, money needs to be made…). I did buy a few postcards to give to friends and colleagues, but my family and I decided to leave the shops and check out the neighborhood for a bit. We had noticed a couple of colorful streets near the shops, and we wanted to see them in case our tour didn’t take us there (spoiler alert: they didn’t).
If there’s one thing that makes Cartagena such a tourist draw, it’s their vibrant, pastel streets. They’re the stuff of an Instagrammer’s dream, and I’ve seen plenty of photos from my friends who’d gone strutting their stuff at these places. While I’m not the one to pose for the camera, I still wanted to see and take photos of the colorful streets for memory’s sake.
My family and I only wandered a block off from the shops to see Calle de las Bovedas, which was one of the colorful streets in town. It certainly didn’t disappoint with its multi-color architecture, and we of course spent some time happily snapping away. Only thing we had to be careful about were the cars, as they constantly zipped through the one-lane street!
We reconvened with our tour, and we set out together on-foot to the bustling part of the Old Town, where we first visited the Palacio de la Inquisicion, where we learned about the Spanish Inquisition in Colombia during the 17th century. It’s also the museum of torture, and we got a brief tour of the various instruments used for torturing prisoners back in the day. I didn’t find it anything interesting, considering that such museums exist all over the world, so I just dismissed it as a blip in our guided tour in Cartagena.
The Old Town was absolutely bustling with people, tourists and vendors alike. If I hadn’t known just how touristy Cartagena was, then I saw it very much so in the heart of the historic part of town. It was a matter of fending off vendors trying to sell us items on the streets while paying attention to the information our tour guide was giving us– while not much different from other places I’ve visited (e.g. Morocco, Peru), it was still overwhelming.
Passing by the Cartagena Cathedral, we reached Plaza de Bolívar, appropriately named after the Venezuelan political leader who unified many of the South American countries (Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, even Panama) after Spanish rule in the early 19th century. We soon hit the spacious Plaza de la Aduana, with gorgeous buildings that included the Parroquia San Pedro Claver.
Afterwards, we hopped on the bus coach once more to take a scenic tour of the modern part of town, with numerous high-rises and miles of beaches that look like something out of Miami. Our tour soon drew to a close by 14:30, as our ride brought us back to the port, and we returned to the ship for the day.
To be honest, our guided tour wasn’t the best, but nevertheless I’m glad that it took us to several notable parts of the historic town. Even getting a glimpse of the colorful streets (albeit on our own) was worth it, and if anything, the visit gives me all the more reason to revisit Cartagena on my own in the future. Along with Guatemala and Costa Rica, I hope to head back to these Latin American countries some day.
…and that concludes my two-week vacation! From Mexico to Colombia, it’d been a relaxed time at sea, with the occasional excursions that gave me a taste of what each Latin American country had to offer. I also got to add more countries I’ve visited to my list, which isn’t bad at all. There really is a lot to do in these places, and I’m glad to have checked them out.
More travel adventures to come soon. Until then!