We began our trip around the world in Colombia, more specifically the city of Cartagena. And what a phenomenal start to our trip.
Cartagena is full of color, culture, beauty, and fantastic food. Cobblestone streets and colonial architecture are only two small remnants of the rich history that created this charming coastal city. But Cartagena has so much more to offer than its history.
Colonial architecture & modern beaches
Honestly, words can’t do justice to how delightful and colorful the architecture is in the Walled City (aka Old Town), which is Cartagena’s historic center and main attraction.
Our photos can’t do this justice either but can at least hopefully paint a better picture. If only I could post a picture that could share the culture or food as well!
We stayed in Cartagena for two weeks in Bocagrande, directly across the street from the beach.
This beach is by no means one of the highlights of the city. There are far more beautiful beaches not that far away, and the beach here is filled with vendors constantly trying to sell you stuff. Yet, there is something undeniably lovely about being so close to the shoreline.
Bocagrande and the Old Town are only a short distance away from one another, but the stark contrast between the modern skyscrapers lining the beach and the colorful, colonial architecture that fills the Old Town will leave you feeling like you are in two different cities.
During the first week of our stay, we spent most of our time between the pool, the beach, and the Walled City. Our apartment had a large balcony overlooking the bay, so we began most of our mornings with a cup of coffee on the balcony. I seriously cannot imagine a better way to start each day!
Taking strolls along the beach at sunrise and watching the sun disappear over the Caribbean from our rooftop pool at sunset was becoming our new norm, and I loved every second of it.
Honestly, two weeks is plenty enough time to explore this city, but I could have stayed there simply relaxing and enjoying it for so much longer.
Mercado de Bazurto
During our second week in Cartagena, we spent much more time exploring the city. This city has so much to offer, but the experience in Cartagena that stands out to me the most was visiting Bazurto Market (or Mercado de Bazurto).
We visited the market on a tour with Maria, a local guide who was born and raised in Cartagena and began her own tourism company—Discover Cartagena by Locals. She had a vibrant passion for sharing her city with others and provided one of the best day tours that I’ve ever experienced.
Visiting the market felt like an authentic experience that we could not have fully appreciated without Maria guiding us. The market was dirty, smelly, and chaotic, but it was a true example of real life in the city. If you are up for a bit of adventure, you can experience the real Cartagena here.
I would not recommend trying to navigate the market without a local guide. You will not find tourists at Bazurto Market, and it is unlikely anyone will be able to communicate with you in English. Although the market is rough around the edges, all of the local people we met there were incredibly kind and welcoming.
We even had the opportunity to eat at Cecilia’s, which was visited by Anthony Bourdain. You would have never known this place was on the television show of a food icon, but the flavorful dishes were everything I could have hoped for and more.
It is humbling and heartwarming to me that the woman who cooks this glorious food had no idea who Anthony Bourdain was at the time he visited.
The most bizarre part of the dish she prepared for us was shark meat. Yes, you heard me right. We ate shark… Honestly, I would have never known that it was shredded shark meat if no one had told me.
While we would never seek out shark meat, we try not to pass up an opportunity to experience the authentic culture of a place we are visiting. In Colombia, it not uncommon to serve meat from sharks that are accidentally caught as bycatch in order to avoid pointless killing and waste.
This is the perfect example of how it can be difficult at times to find the right balance between responsible travel and authentic travel experiences.
We also had delicious versions of seafood rice and coconut rice. The plate of food in front of us appeared incredibly simple, but the flavor profile of the dish was anything but basic.
As we continued our tour through the market, we ate fish and other local foods from various stands, danced to champeta music, and visited with countless locals.
Champeta music originated from the Caribbean coast with influences from African culture, and it has this super fun, upbeat tempo that is a blast for dancing. I cannot recommend a visit to the market enough if you ever have the opportunity.
An evening in the Walled City with a Cartagenera
When the tour ended, Nick, Maria, and I went to grab coffee together in the Walled City. Maria showed us her favorite architecture and the best views within the Walled City.
She also introduced us to Loncheria Polo Norte where I honestly believe I encountered the best empanada of my life. And I’ve eaten a lot of empanadas over the years.
We were having such a great time that we ended up spending the entire evening together. We had drinks on a hotel rooftop overlooking outstanding views of the city, followed by dinner at Cebiche & Ceviche, which was fantastic.
We sat outside at a bar afterward and watched local performers until we were too tired to talk anymore. We spent much of the evening with Maria having stimulating conversations about Colombia and its history as well as its current state.
It was fascinating to gain so much insight into Maria’s personal experiences as a Colombian. Colombia has come such a long way in such a short amount of time. To hear firsthand of the fear and violence that was prevalent throughout the country was truly eye-opening.
I cannot recommend a tour with Discover Cartagena enough if you want an authentic, local experience. In addition to gaining an incredible tour experience, we made a lifelong friend out of Maria. One year later, we still keep in touch, and I hope that will never change.
Another highlight from our time in Cartagena was the combination tour we took to Totumo Mud Volcano and Manzanillo Beach. To continue reading about this and more from our trip around the world, click here.