Go Cartagena: City of Golds on the Sea of Blues
First thing's first.
It's Not Narcos
I can't say that enough. While Netflix's historical drug drama is a solid and -- relative to what most American TV viewers know of the Colombian coca trade -- informative piece of entertainment, it is not representative of the Colombia of right now.
The country just passed one of the most comprehensive peace deals in its history, big enough to have landed President Juan Manuel Santos with the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Although the people of Colombia narrowly rejected the first draft of the agreement in a #classic2016 referendum, the reactions of the FARC (left-wing guerrillas who spearheaded the long-raging Colombian civil war) and the government spoke volumes of how dedicated they were to keeping peace intact. After coming quickly to common ground on revisions provided by the opposition, the deal was finally passed in November.
Even when the rest of the country was embroiled in Narcos-esque violence, the port of Cartagena was a bastion of safety and neutrality, where the likes of Pablo Escobar and the brothers Rodriguez maintained vacation homes and private islands. It is a place of pleasure first, business second - although that hasn't always been the case.
Short Version: Cartagena is safe(r than Detroit, that's for sure).
Old Town, New Tricks
There are "old towns" and then there are Old Towns. "Old Town" Pasadena if you've ever been, for example, is...not. At all.
Then there's the French Quarter down in New Orleans, one of the USA's few true Old Towns, where the history of the neighborhood demands respect and acknowledgment, and there's an inescapable feeling that you've wandered into a foreign world... a loud, bluesy, boozy, spooky world.
Cartagena's Old Town is an Old Town. Built around the indigenous village of Calamari in 1533, the walled city comprised of Old Cartagena and Getsemaní was completed in the 1600s, making it a real old Old Town (by my lousy American standards). And since then, it hasn't changed.
The interiors of most buildings within the walled fort are borderline brand new, but the facades have been untouched for decades, fusing the past and the present block by block. It's like navigating a large, outdoor museum, except actually fun and beautiful and not everything smells like grandma's house.
Within Old Town you'll find plenty of modern things-to-do, most notably shop and eat. A surprising (for the cynical traveler) but good rule to go by when wandering the weathered stone streets: if it looks handmade, it probably is. Go figure. The street merchants aren't exceedingly aggressive, and their wares -- mostly jewelry and clothing -- can be stunning.
Oh, and buy a guayabera. If there's a shirt that'll make you feel about 100x cooler than you are, it's a guayabera. Google it.
As for eating, err on the side of seafood. Cartagena sits on the southern edge of the Caribbean, and the Sea isn't all looks. From ceviche on the beach to simply grilled octopus/lobster/shrimp/snapper served on a table standing in crystal clear water to a breakfast of arepa and coffee, Cartagenan cuisinie will treat your stomach right.
La Vida Noche
It's hot in Colombia.
I mean, duh - but you should probably remember that. Not that it'll let you forget. Daytime Old Town is fun and hot, but nighttime Old Town is fun and not.
That's when you can watch the sun set behind the wall with a drink in your hand, meander the colonial avenues and feel the day's heat radiating from every building, getting lost in the gold wash of the street lamps, then salsa to a live band atop the old wall, a drink again in your hand. Nighttime Cartagena is a dream, not soon forgotten.
If you're feeling a little adventurous, the neighborhood of Getsemaní is a short walk from the old city, where like Brooklyn in NYC or Silver Lake in LA, gentrification has taken hold for better and for worse. For the better, there are some serious bars and restaurants tucked into the maze of streets and plazas, where you'll find tourists and Colombians mingling to the heat and music and dance.
Beauty Beauty Beauty Beauty Rockin' Everywhere
There are altogether few places I've known in the world where I'm content to spend a full day laying on the beach, doing nothing but get wet and dry off, rinse and repeat. I like to stay active, to explore and ingrain every square foot of a fascinating new city into memory. And of course I love to eat.
That being said, I don't think there's any better beach experience than stretching out with your book on a towel, and being able to flag down any of the wandering ceviche carts for a styrofoam cup of pure delicious (and a cracker). Between that and literal coconut drinks mixed in literal coconuts with the straw and the umbrella and everything and yes I do mean alcohol - I firmly didn't know these existed outside travel ads - I'm reevaluating my mental definition of "beach."
However, a brief disclaimer: you should learn about 10 different ways of saying no, thank you in Spanish. Never have I met a more aggressive foot masseuse. Then again I don't believe I've met any other foot masseuse(s? masseese?), so maybe it's an industry trait.
Let's go with that.
Once you've had your fill of sand and shrimp, do what you can to find yourself on a boat out to the islands dotting the bay. For a first taste of the Caribbean, gliding over seven shades of blue seas to visit a half-flooded aquarium, a questionably legal restaurant/bar/collection-of-tables-in-shallow-water, and one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen (Playa Blanca), is unbeatable; a memory that'll forever provide warmth, even in the dead of east coast winter.
Because I can't wait until my next stroll along the old wall, or plunge into El Caribé, or sip of Juan Valdez granizado. If you're pondering your next getaway or adventure (or both), Cartagena should be a top contender.