I was looking for a quick birthday getaway. I wanted it to be a place that was easy to travel to and one blessed with warm weather, sand, beaches, and drinks by a sparkling pool — but that was the easy part. The destination had to be new to me (I’ve already traveled much of the Caribbean). It needed to be a place that was both festive and educational. Filled with adventure, while simultaneously rich in culture. And bonus points if it was affordable, and if it offered me a chance to practice my Spanish.
Increasingly, over the last year and a half, I had noticed Cartagena regularly in my Instagram feed. The pictures were beautiful and evocative of a place that felt much farther away than it actual was. I was taken with the colorful buildings, the colonial architecture, and the cobble stone streets of Old City. I was mesmerized by the brilliant sunshine and the way it gingerly kissed the skin of the people basking in it. And I was intrigued by firsthand reports of how delicious and affordable the (sea)food was.
Last year, when a friend mentioned that she would be celebrating her birthday there, I realized that my general curiosity in Cartagena had heightened and become something more. I had not yet visited South America (although an impromptu trip to Buenos Aires would change that) — and as an avid traveler, that was unacceptable to me. I decided that a tourist-friendly city like Cartagena would be an ideal entry point into an unfamiliar continent. And after some research and numerous conversations, I became hopeful that Cartagena would check every single box on my destination wishlist (as noted above).Now, having just returned from Colombia a few days ago, I can tell you that the trip exceeded my expectations. While we did not get to do everything on my itinerary, we were able to achieve that which cannot be planned or forced — genuine awe, a childlike giddiness and the breathlessness that comes from pure exhilaration. It fulfilled every item on my wishlist and left me with treasured memories of one of my greatest travel experiences to-date: the pink sea located in Galerazamba (see my full trip itinerary below for details). Cartagena is a culturally rich city and given that it is about 45% black, the African influence on its culture is quite strong and incredibly well-preserved. The vibrant and dynamic palenqueras have become an international symbol for the city, but as I learned on our tour with Alex Rocha (founder of the highly-recommended Experience Real Cartagena) these women do not reside within the city limits but instead, about an hour inland in Palenque de San Basilio. According to the UNESCO website, it is “one of the walled communities called palenques, which were founded by escaped slaves as a refuge in the seventeenth century. Of the many palenques that existed in former times, only San Basilio has survived until the present day.” Despite racial discrimination and economic hardship, the African language, customs, arts and culture of 17th century Palenque remain strong and intact. A visit to the dance studio, for example, will bring you face to face with traditional African drumbeats and dances that have been performed for centuries and now, painstakingly passed down to the children of Palenque. As a product of the African diaspora myself, a visit to the village (especially with Mr. Rocha, who is known and beloved by the palenqueros) was a glimpse into my own cultural mirror. There, I witnessed my past, surviving and flourishing despite external obstacles. And I witnessed my present too, as certain aspects of life in Palenque are reminiscent of places in the Caribbean, Africa and some areas of the U.S. South and Midwest today. Afterwards, I left with a sense of pride — not only because of who I am, but also, because of who I came from (much love and gratitude to the ancestors!).
When we traveled back to Old City that day, I noticed the palenqueras posing for pictures with tourists and smiled. What I had learned hours before made me keenly aware of my connection to each of them. And they are aware of it too. Lina, the first palenquera I met kept pointing to her skin and ours saying, “tu sangre,” or your blood. I believe she was saying, “your blood is my blood.” And she is one hundred percent accurate. The history of the palenqueras and the African traditions they have maintained for centuries demonstrate that they are far more than mere tourist attractions, but instead, enduring symbols of perseverance, ingenuity and strength.
@culturebykaren blaxploration rating for Cartagena, Colombia: ✊🏿✊🏿✊🏿✊🏿✊🏿 (5 out of 5)
Due to overwhelming demand, I include my full trip itinerary below:FOUR-DAY CARTAGENA ITINERARY (designed for a group of 4)
Saturday, 7am – JetBlue Flight 1533, from New York City: I highly recommend this flight (este vuelo). It is an affordable and direct flight from JFK that gets you into Cartagena (CTG) by 12pm. Especially crucial for shorter trips, this flight schedule allows you to maximize your first day in Cartagena.
Saturday, 12:30pm: Arrival at the Conrad Cartagena. A 30-minute ride from the airport, the newly-opened Conrad Cartagena hotel is breathtaking from the moment you enter its breezy, open-air lobby. Its generous wood doors, adorned with ornate, massive silver knockers will be the first thing you see. The first thing you’ll notice though, are two enormous busts of black women with scarves tied around their heads, which are positioned directly in front of sizable entrance doors. While researching accommodations, I found a discounted rate exactly two months before our trip. With that rate, we secured two ocean-view suites, each with a balcony and two queen beds. The spacious rooms are immaculately decorated, complete with African-themed artwork, wooden benches situated in the ample bathrooms with a full bathtub, shower, and double sinks, and a comfortable lounger on the balcony.
Saturday, 2pm: Pool and Lunch. The Conrad Cartagena has four pools to choose from as well as a jacuzzi area. Waiters from The Sun Bar, the poolside cocktail bar, circulate frequently to take your bebidas orders. You can also order food from Sea Salt Grill, the restaurant directly adjacent to the pool area. The seafood here — for lack of a better word — is scrumptious. We feasted on grilled octopus, garlic shrimp, red snapper ceviche, and even a cheeseburger with yucca fries.
Saturday, 8pm: Birthday Dinner at Donjuán. Our flight was delayed so we ate dinner earlier than anticipated and ended up forfeiting our dinner reservations at Donjuán. We tried to rectify this later in the trip, but we never made it back. This restaurant comes highly recommended so be sure to visit on one of your trips to Old City. And make reservations — due to its popularity, they are known to turn people away in droves.
Saturday, 11pm: Birthday Drinks at Cafe Havana. I’ve never been to Cuba but Cafe Havana in Old Town definitely made me forget I was in Colombia for a quick second. The deliciously strong mojitos are rivaled only by the live salsa music and the festive, energetic crowd.Sunday, 10am: Breakfast at Adesso Tu. Located in the Conrad Cartagena, this decadent breakfast buffet (7am-11am) includes local cuisine like arepas and empanadas, a sumptious array of tropical fruits and juices, an omelette station, and fluffy pastries of every variety imaginable. Indulge!
Sunday, 11am-3pm: Freestyle Time. It’s always good to build in some freestyle time to just go with the flow and do what you feel. For us, on this particular day, it was pool, beach, snacks and cocktails.
Sunday, 3:30-8pm: Explore and Shop in Old Town. Within the walled city, there is plenty to do and see on the streets of Old City. The colonial architecture is captivating and there are a variety of shops to choose from — indoor markets, jewelry stores, clothing and handbags and souvenir shops. This is also where you will witness the famed palenqueras in action and snap a photo with them, if you’d like. If you need a quick cool-down, stop by a gelato shop or even better, La Palettería for delicious popsicles of every flavor imaginable. My favorites are passionfruit and anything with lulo (a local fruit that I am currently obsessed with), but a myriad of chocolate, caramel and dulce de leche options also abound.Sunday, 8pm: Dinner at Baruco by Cuzco. Unfortunately, Donjuán is closed on Sundays but we stumbled upon a great find a few streets over: Baruco by Cuzco. It’s a gastropub with an airy feel to it, thanks in large part to an open ceiling that leads directly to the night’s sky (el cielo de la noche). While there, a talented band performed salsa and latin jazz music that left me with no choice but to get on my feet (peep my Instagram “Colombia” highlights, if you want to see the evidence). Baruco is well-known for its drinks, the decór, and the music. In terms of cuisine, I preferred the seafood at the Conrad. Monday, 9am: Palenque de San Basilio Tour with Experience Real Cartagena. I write in additional detail above about this incredibly personal and heartfelt tour of Palenque with Alex Rocha of Experience Real Cartagena. One of my favorite parts of the day was our bus ride. It afforded us an opportunity to pepper Alex with questions about various aspects of daily life for black people in Cartagena and in Colombia, as well. His responses were always illuminating (entertaining, too) and I learned a great deal about Colombian life from a black man’s perspective.
In Palenque, we toured the classrooms of the elementary school, made a visit to a private home to sample homemade coconut sweets and cake, and best of all, attended a class at the dance studio (el estudio de la baila) with local kids from the village. There, we learned traditional African dances and enjoyed rap lyrics performed by some of the young boys in their native tongue — a creole language derived from Spanish, Bantu and Portuguese. For lunch, which is included in the tour price, I selected deliciously crispy fried fish and plantains, yucca fries and coconut rice. This experience is a must-do as it was an absolute highlight of the trip.
Monday, 4pm: Freestyle time.
Monday, 8pm: Dinner at Biblioteka. Back at our hotel, Biblioteka is its signature restaurant. It carries the library theme all the way through with its decór and the fact that some items are served in hollow, wooden “books.”Tuesday, 8am: Totumo “Mud” Volcano and Pink Sea Tour. We were picked up in front of our hotel by a van labeled, Backpackers. Charlie, our tour leader, introduced himself and explained a bit about what we should expect. Some of his descriptions sounded a little unrealistic at the time, but they would all prove true. During the drive to the volcano, he led our group –and the 3 additional passengers who joined us — in our very own version of carpool karaoke (songs by Lauryn Hill, Drake, Cardi B., etc.).
We arrived at the Totumo Volcano before 9am, and ascended the steep staircase until we had reached the very top. One-by-one, we fell gently backwards into the mud pit where men waited for us neck-deep. Once inside the mud, these masseuses offered each of us a lengthy massage, rubbing the mud into our face, skin and hair. It was well worth the $5 charge. The mud of the Totumo Volcano is said to contain various beneficial, natural deposits that are great for skin. After sitting with the mud for a time, we descended the volcano’s peak and waded into a nearby river. The women there patiently washed the mud off of us, leaving no trace (except for whatever they were unable to remove from my braids). That was an additional $5. Afterwards, we ate breakfast (included in the tour price) and visited a museum in Galerazamba.
And then: the pink sea. It is impossible to fully describe this experience and of course, the pictures (while absolutely epic) do it no justice. How can I possibly articulate the feeling of being surrounded on every side by warm, pink sea water that stretches as far as the eye can see? How can I verbally impart the translucence of the water, the frothy foam that sputtered and bubbled up along the shoreline, or the hard, salt crystals that lined the sea floor? I simply cannot. You have to go on this tour and inhale all of this deliciousness (tan mágico) for yourself.
After frolicking and posing for a plethora of pink sea videos and pics, we had worked up an appetite. We drove to a nearby restaurant for a traditional Colombian lunch and a traditional Colombian dance lesson given by a local girl who was about eleven years old. The entire day was a phenomenal and adventurous end to an already unforgettable trip. What I know for sure is…you’ll love it. And when you book, be sure to ask for Charlie.Tuesday, 8pm: Dinner at Carmen. We were pretty exhausted after an exhilarating day of excursions. That said, this highly-recommended restaurant may have been worth the energy. Located inside of the Anandá Hotel, Carmen supposedly has it all. According to Essence, “the decor, ambiance, and vibe is one you must experience when you’re deciding where to eat in Cartagena. Not to mention, the food is delicious: from grilled octopus to the catch of the day you’ll be wanting to come back daily.” Qué maravilloso!