Caribbean Cartagena, and carnaval in Barranquilla

Population: 944,000 inhabitants (and some mosquitos)
Altitude: 2 meters / 6.5 feet above sea level
Temperature when I was there: 28º Celsius / 82º Fahrenheit

Sunday 10th February 2013

10.1360527621.1-cartagenaCaribbean Cartagena

Arrived by plane in Cartagena in the afternoon, took a bus to the centre, and spent time in the blasting heat looking for a comfortable but affordable hotel in this expensive town. We found one within an hour, with airconditioning: El Viajero 2. It’s also within the city walls (historical centre), and doable at COP 80.000 (about EUR 35) per night, because we’re staying 5 nights.



First impressions: very touristy, very pretty, very colorful, very hot. The atmosphere, the people and the music are definitely more Caribbean. We’ll be able to make many colorful photos here and there are lots of nice souvenirs for sale.

We’re not far from the sea and you can walk on the wall by the sea. In the evening we found an excellent Spanish tapas restaurant called Síbaris. Prices in Cartagena’s restaurants are almost European but the food was delicious, service excellent and we enjoy getting away from the typical Colombian food.


Monday 11th February

Carnival in Barranquilla

Okay, if we had known that it would cost 6 hours travel time back and forth, we might not have gone as a day trip. But the carnival in Barranquilla (1.2 million inhabitants) was well worth experiencing. The bus companies all promised 5 quarters travel time but in the end each bus ride was 9 quarters (two hours and a quarter). The trip between the bus terminal and Cartagena centre was also half an hour or more. And in Barranquilla we needed taxi rides of half an hour each.

Anyway, the taxi took us right to where the parade was going to take place. We let a hustler take us to one of the raised spectator’s grandstands, the COP 12,500 (€6) entrance fee each also included hot food (empanadas, ajiaco and other soups) and drinks. Only 10 minutes after we got there, the parade started! It went on for hours.

The atmosphere on the grandstands was very mellow and everyone was just enjoying themselves, cheering, calling out to their friends in the parade, and taking photos. Meanwhile we were able to get food and drinks from the people who had apparently built or hired that grandstand, they were super friendly and funny.

They say it’s the biggest carnaval after Rio de Janeiro but I’ve seen bigger parties in Salvador, Recife and Olinda in Brazil. It was fun though! By 4.30pm we’d seen enough and took a taxi, long bus ride and taxi back to Cartagena.

Tuesday 12th February

Lazy day

After all that traveling yesterday it was time for a lazy day wandering through Cartagena and having lunch and drinks at a slow pace. We discovered some streets and parks we hadn’t seen before. It was very hot…

In the evening we wanted to eat at an Italian place but it was still closed until 7.30pm and we couldn’t look inside. We decided to get a small starter somewhere else and found a very nice Creole restaurant called Krioyo just around the corner. The starters turned out to be huge and tasty!

We were the only customers. Until…. of course….. out of all the 12 empty tables, a family chose the table EXACTLY next to ours. Why? Why do people do that? I almost wanted to ask them.

We went to have a look at the Italian restaurant afterwards but it turned out to be very posh-looking, freezing with airconditioning, and even more expensive than Dutch restaurants. I’ll make some lasagna at home in the Netherlands! We went to another stone oven pizza place we had spotted in a more middle-class part of town instead of the upper-class part. We shared a very good small thin stone oven baked pizza.

Wednesday 13th February

Boat trip to Islas del Rosario

We got up at 6am today to have breakfast and go to the harbor early to hopefully be able to book a full day boat trip. We had heard it was best to book it through reliable agencies, some of the smaller boats are in a bad state or have drunk captains… some have even sunk. We booked through the official ticket window (COP 35.000 plus 12.000 tax each = about EUR 22 including lunch). We were hearded onto the big boat already containing about 100 people and waited for about 40 minutes for the boat to leave. Some people had already been waiting over an hour.

Drunk in the morning

A few fat Tokkie-like people were seated close to us and they started drinking aguardiente (some sort of gin or rum) at 8 in the morning! They even had a little girl with them. The older girl started dancing, and the entertainment guy happened to walk by and she grabbed him and she even bent over for him to dance behind her, but she was so lewd that he laughed and made excuses and left. At noon they were so drunk that they both fell asleep. In the afternoon we didn’t see them anymore.

The guy without shirt was one of those morning drinkers (hard liquor) who fell asleep after and missed the whole trip

Silly entertainment

Immediately when the boat left at 8.30am, some guy with a microphone started the entertainment! We decided to simply join in and I have to say it was quite funny, helping the long boat ride seem shorter. He made all kinds of jokes, for example we were going to visit an aquarium with big fish, dolphins and sharks and he suggested to grab your chance if you wanted to feed your mother-in-law to the sharks.
He also made one half of the boat compete against the other half. Two men had to do a dance to win points, and collect as many towels as possible from their half, then as many shirts, then as many bras and bikini parts as possible. Then a few women had to dress those two men up with the collected items (bikinis and women’s hats) and they had to do a dance again.


Of course it was all very simple and silly entertainment but we enjoyed it because everyone was having such fun. Most people on the boats were Colombian tourists from other cities, but there were also some people from other South-American countries or Europe or USA.

On the boat we could buy fruits, empanadas, icecream, coffee, etc. Lunch was also included.


We passed a few important historical fortresses, and many islands, and some fishermen. After a few hours we got to the island with the aquarium, they had all kinds of big fish and turtles. And dolphins that could perform tricks. They also showed us how fast some of the predator fish were., throwing small fish into the ponds. All the while, birds also tried to steal their share of fish. It was educational and nice.

We then continued to Playa Blanca, an idyllic beach with white sand and turquoise water, just cool enough to freshen up in, but not cold. It took half an hour to unload the big boat using smaller boats. By the time we got off and got to the lunch place, the first half was already finishing their food so there was room for us to sit. It was a lunch of fish and coconut-flavored rice and a banana cracker and some salad. Fedra also bought a really cheap piece of lobster which she loved. Live music in Caribbean (almost Brazilian) style was played.

‘Relaxed’ beach time

After that we found some comfortable seats in the shade for which we had to pay of course. As predicted by Lonely Planet we were harassed by a lot by hawkers and salespeople (necklaces, massages, sarongs, drinks, water scooter rides), but most of them left us alone after we said no thanks. One woman started giving me a ‘free demonstration’ massage on my foot but I didn’t want her to and it hurt (prompting her to say I needed it, and I needed to relax), but she wouldn’t stop, even when I told her I had my personal masseuse and pointed to Fedra. We had to be more unkind to her before she finally stopped and went away.

Other than that the beach was mellow and relaxed, the water cool enough to cool down in, the chairs comfy, the beer cold, and we laughed about a cute boy unexpectedly jumping into a hole some man had been digging for his girlfriend (he had no idea who the kid was), then when he started digging a new hole the boy jumped into it again… and in the end we laughed about the girlfriend being dug into the sand, Fedra took a picture with their camera of him, and her head.

Boat ride back

The small boats came again to bring the people back to the big boat. Of course some people only just made it on time (and who knows who was left behind..?). One old, very overweight woman was very immobile and caused scenes when trying to get onto the small boat, and then from the small boat onto the big one, panicking and blocking the way for tonnes of people behind her, until a man simply shoved her onto the big boat. So many people here are obese. It is no wonder with all the carbohydrates and sweetened stuff they eat. That doesn’t prevent women from wearing ultra-tight clothing. It is not always a pretty sight.

The boat trip back was mellow, we didn’t sit on the top deck with the entertainment because the only empty seats were in full sunshine (very strong here close to the equator). We sat in a shady part outside on the lower deck, and later when it got cooler we moved to a spot in the evening sun. We could see Cartagena’s quite impressive skyline coming closer. It has many tall buildings but the difference with most other cities is that those buildings are all white.

We are staying in the historical centre though, which contains beautiful Spanish colonial architecture.


In the evening we went to a sushi place we had seen the evening before, Tabetai. We had expensive but de-li-cious sushi! One of my rolls contained mango, and Fedra had a spicy roll with big fried prawns and all kinds of other nice ingredients. Some rich Colombian kids sat next to us, they were sooooo blase… But there were also other Colombians and other tourists.

We decided to skip the mud volcano tomorrow. It’s basically a long long trip again, for a short moment of fun lying in the mud of that volcano, whereas we already had a mud treatment in a spa before, and a peeling as well.

Bagging the groceries

Another random observation: bagging the groceries. It takes ages and causes long queues in the supermarket. Why? Because the cashier does it. After the shopper paid, the cashier takes his or her time to put all the groceries into small plastic bags, tying each bag closed with a double knot as well. The person who bought the stuff, simply waits and watches!  As do all the other people patiently waiting in (a long) line.

And nobody seems to conceive the idea of helping the cashier out and packing their own groceries. Let alone the idea of bringing a bag from home instead of wasting all that new plastic.

Thursday 14th February

A lazy day! We slept late, watched the end of a movie, had brunch in El Bistro (great food, nice vibe), then wandered to a plaza we didn’t know yet and which turned out to be really nice.

It had a cafe called El Balcón, on the 2nd floor with a lovely balcony overlooking the little Plaza San Diego where we stayed the entire afternoon reading and writing and chatting and watching everyday life down on the square below, and enjoying mojitos, coffees, fruit juices. In the evening we had dinner and another mojito. And we felt sad about the last warm holiday-like day coming to an end!

Tomorrow we’ll fly to Bogota for one last day there (we’re glad we changed it to one day instead of two), but it will be about 20 degrees colder there. And then on Saturday we’ll fly back to cold cold Netherlands where we’ll land Sunday morning, possibly in snow?!

Some random other photos from the Cartagena area…


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