The 1984 classic Romancing the Stone, starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, follows a unsuspecting author who is thrown out of her element on a treacherous journey through the mountainous landscape of Colombia. Her mission is to save her sister from villainous captors. To the young author’s dismay, she must venture on a jungle trek alongside a ruggedly handsome vagabond with questionable intentions. Their destination: Cartagena, a beautiful and historic city by the sea.
When I was in my teen years, my dad and I watched the movie together for the first time. To this day, it is one of my favorite movies. Complete with a dangerous quest, a heart breaking betrayal, and, of course, romance. Romancing the Stone was my first introduction to Cartagena, Colombia. One which resulted in my impression of the Caribbean port city being a tropical paradise bursting with color and culture.
Last month, a dear friend and I embarked on a trip to experience the coastal splendor that is Cartagena. With visions of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner dancing around in my mind, my spirits were high yet expectations were few. We were prepared to expect the unexpected and be pleasantly surprised.
And pleasantly surprised we were! Here are my 7 tips on how to navigate the colorful colonial architecture, cobblestone roads, and Caribbean coasts of Cartagena, Colombia.
Tip #1 Eat, Drink, Be Merry
During our travels, we met a friend native to Colombia, who was able to make some great suggestions on food to try and drinks to taste. Cuzco, a Peruvian restaurant located in Old City, offers an intimate, dimly lit atmosphere and affordable pricing. It was also highly recommended, and rightfully so. For just over $35, one could enjoy a cocktail, a flavorful dish featuring lobster tail, shrimp, and scallops, along with a dessert. As one who greatly enjoys seafood, Cartagena has a lot to offer; it's fresh and plentiful. However, there are a plethora of other well priced options for those who shy away from seafaring flavors.
Colombia's official national drink is called, Aguardiente, and can be found at most establishments where alcoholic beverages are sold. Derived from the Latin phrase meaning hot water or fire water, the clear anise-flavored liqueur boasts a very unique and bold flavor. Although the drink was served with a lime wedge and salt, I found the liqueur's flavor was better savored unaccompanied.
Tip #2 Get Lost
This is certainly an idea to which Kathleen Turner's character, Joan Wilder, can relate. However, her experience might not have been considered as enjoyable, and it certainly wasn't on purpose.
At the end of the 16th century, in an effort to safe guard the enormous wealth the Spaniards had amounted in the port city, a wall was erected to protect the city's fortune. The wall holds within its structure a great history. It also stands as a pretty obvious boundary around the Old City. So, even when purposefully getting lost, one might walk to the wall and once again find their way.
Stroll through the narrow streets and admire the colorful colonial architecture. Discover one of the many plazas, grab a coffee, enjoy a snack, and people watch. Wander through the shops. Embrace the rich history of centuries old structures and cathedrals. Allow yourself to get lost in the beauty and charm that Old City Cartagena has to offer.
Tip #3 Uber
Likely you've heard of Uber, the transportation app that allows you to arrange safe and easy transport conveniently from your mobile device. If you have never used Uber, downloading it for use in Cartagena might be a wise choice, especially if you don't speak Spanish. Uber allows travelers the opportunity to arrange transportation to any destination at a set price without the worry of being duped into paying higher fees or being taken to the wrong place. Uber is easy to use, however, it does require an internet connection, so be mindful of your cellular data.
Tip #4 No Comprendo
It's always respectful to learn a few words in the local language, so learn a little bit of Spanish before you travel. Remember that Spanish can vary depending on the country in which you are traveling. Research popular Spanish words and phrases as they are spoken and understood in Colombia. My personal favorites are, "Cuanto cuesta?" meaning "how much does this cost?" and "Donde estan los banos?" translated in English as "where are the bathrooms?".
Tip #5 A Shore Thing
Just southwest of Old City lies Bocagrande, boasting modern, new-age structures. Lined with beaches, this area of Cartagena offers breathtaking views along with an eclectic dining scene. However, due to it's urban surroundings, the beaches of Bocagrande are less then appealing when compared to the crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches that the Caribbean often offers. But don't dismay, Baru is merely a bus ride away. Baru, along with the Rosario Islands, features a picturesque beach scene complete with margaritas. Transportation is easy to arrange. Just talk to the concierge at your hotel and you'll be soaking in the sun in no time.
Tip #6 Peso Yourself
The exchange rate currently in Colombia is $1 USD to approximately $2.800 Colombian pesos (COP). It's helpful to note that with COP, while measured in the thousands and ten of thousands, the number itself displays a period in place of where we are used to seeing a comma. This information is quite helpful when using an ATM, which generally offers a fair exchange rate depending on whether your bank charges additional international transaction fees. In addition, the $50.000 peso bill only displays a "50" and therefore is not to be mistaken for having less value. It can get somewhat confusing trying to calculate what you're spending. With the current rate, $10.000 COP equals approximately $3.50 USD.
Tip #7 Dress Appropriately
Cartagena lies just North of the equator, therefore the average temperature is in the mid 80's. Shorts, skirts, and dresses will help to keep you cool. My token piece for the trip was my Stillwater Skirt from Hazel & Mae. With vibrant colors and a comfortable fit, this skirt is both cute and practical for walking the streets of Old City.
But dress appropriately... literally. Situated between the sea and the bay, Old City Cartagena experiences what I would consider to be a very strong breeze, pretty consistently. Therefore, loose, free flowing dresses might not be suitable for an evening on the town. Speaking from experience of course.
I will be returning to Cartagena again and hope to bring home memories of new and exciting adventures. With these few tips in mind, I encourage you to create a unique and unforgettable experience for yourself, exploring the many wonders that beautiful Cartagena, Colombia has to offer. Chau!