OK, OK it’s not very original and there’s not a lot of bad or ugly about Cartagena but the title sounded cool and was obviously enough to get your attention. So, if you’re a morbid person just skip to the bottom now to see the bad and ugly. If not, let’s start with the things we really like about Cartagena.
First and foremost, it’s a beautiful, historic city that is truly one of the jewels of the Caribbean and, for you history buffs, a UNESCO world heritage site. The short history lesson is it was Spain’s key shipping port for pillaged gold and treasure and, consequently, was a major target for attacks by foreign nations, pirates and buccaneers. As a result, Spain built numerous forts and ringed the city with a protective wall that made the city virtually impregnable.
Today, the walls and forts are in remarkably good condition and the city has expanded beyond the walls to become a large urban metropolis – with all the amenities of a large city – and a major tourist attraction. Those amenities include not only grocery stores, shops, restaurants and theatres but, from our perspective, a well-protected harbor along with good boating facilities and services.
The boating facilities that we took advantage of included: Club Nautico, a secure marina/yacht club that is walking distance to the walled city and where we were able to anchor the boat and pay a reasonable fee (approx. $30 week) to dock our dinghy, dispose of garbage, fill our water tanks and use their restrooms; David Arroyo, the shipping agent we used to check us in with Immigration, Customs and the Port Captain since they do not deal directly with boaters in Colombia; Renzon Herrera, the sailmaker, who repaired our torn mainsail (for the second time); MultiElectricos, the company that rebuilt the electric motor in our windlass that crapped out just as we got to Cartagena; and Sven at Labratario Electronico Aleman, who diagnosed all the other components of the windlass system to determine that the motor needed to be rebuilt; plus the numerous local chandleries for smaller items like courtesy flags for Aruba and Curacao – our next destinations.
Having the boat in a safe, secure location gave us “piece of mind” (I’ll get to this later) to be able to leave the boat and enjoy some of the amenities. One of our primary objectives was Spanish lessons (finally) so we ended up taking a one-week intensive course at Nueva Lengua that was comprised of 4-hours of lessons each morning followed by Spanish activities in the afternoon. These activities included salsa dancing and cooking lessons, trips to the Botanical Gardens and to Castillo San Filipe, and a barbecue at the home of one of the teachers. Let’s just say Audrey is a much more advanced student than me and leave it at that…
Once we had the boat safe and repaired, and our Spanish lessons behind us, it was time to enjoy the city. You’d think we’d start with the many tourist attractions, right? Nope. If you’ve been reading our posts to this point, you’d know that we tend to be a little more social and less touristy when we get to these places so we started with a happy hour on Celebration with fellow students from our Spanish school then proceeded to become intimate with an area called Getsemani, which is chock-a-block with bars, clubs, hostels and good, cheap restaurants (e.g. $3 for a lunch that included soup, salad, chicken, rice, beans and plantain plus $1 for a beer) and home to Plaza Trinidad, the local hub for hanging out, live entertainment (not necessarily good entertainment) and cheap shots that they set on fire with no precautions that we could see other than their V for Vendetta masks. We even got Audrey to stay out really, really late to party at Mister Babilla’s, a Getsemani nightclub where she got up on stage for free drinks from the staff that dresses in a different theme every night.
Eventually, we did get to some of the tourist attractions including the Botanical Gardens, Castillo San Filipe and the beaches of Boca Grande. But, in our opinion, one of the main attractions to Cartagena is just walking around the beautiful old city and seeing the architecture, churches, shops and the people. In fact, this is one place where the pictures really do speak for themselves and I’m sure we didn’t even see a quarter of the old city.
Now, before we get to the bad and the ugly, the other good for those who are considering a visit to Cartagena is safety and security. We can’t speak for everyone but our experience has been excellent. We walked everywhere – even at 2 o’clock in the morning –and never felt threatened once. It may seem odd to visitors but there are police everywhere, however it appears that they are more a deterrent than a security issue as we never saw them arrest or detain anyone. Hell, we were anchored right across the bay from the navy base and even had submarines to protect us.
Contrary to what some might think, this is a short list and most of the items aren’t really Cartagena’s fault. However, we thought we should let you know, especially if you are considering a visit. First, besides the areas within the walled city, which is a major tourist destination, Cartagena is a large South American city that has its fair share of socioeconomic problems e.g. large poor population, dirty streets, inadequate infrastructure, etc.
Second, the water in Cartagena Bay, which is where we had to anchor is dirty, muddy and a foul greenish color. It’s so bad that we got really thick growth on the bottom of our boat within 2 weeks and had to have a diver clean it since I had no intention of jumping in. Consequently, we didn’t do any swimming. Plus, the water on the Caribbean side (outside the bay) is not that great either as it gets the runoff from the Rio Magdalena, one of largest rivers in the country. There are better beaches with cleaner water off the islands, e.g. Isla Rosario, that are about one hour by speed boat from the city but if you are thinking of a blue-water, Caribbean beach vacation, you may want to go elsewhere.
Third, and this is by no means Cartagena’s problem and very unique to a small percentage of visitors, is the boat services that I mentioned earlier are not up to world-class standards yet. For example, we had the mainsail repaired and it appears that it will do the job but the panels don’t fit well and could end up jamming in our in-mast furling system once we get underway. And, the rebuilt electric motor for the windlass initially didn’t seem strong enough but after using it a couple of times it seems to be getting better (???). Not sure if that’s good or bad but I went back and talked to them (in my poor Spanish) and I think they said there was nothing more they could do. In their defense, you can certainly purchase new sails and new windlasses here – if you are willing pay the duties and wait for a month or so. The fact is they don’t have anywhere near the number of boats that we see in the US or Mexico so the options are limited.
Finally, and this is more humorous than a problem, but you better walk around with a calculator if you plan to visit Colombia as the exchange rate is approximately 2,400 Colombian Pesos (COP) to 1 US dollar. Yes, do the math and you’ll see why an “expensive” lunch we had at La Cervichera in the old city cost 100,000 COP. On the other hand, we felt rich when we went to the ATM and withdrew 1,200,000 COP!!!
Yes, we’re on an extended sabbatical and life is good BUT we did have two events that on any scale were very ugly.
First, the holding for anchors and moorings in Cartagena Bay is terrible and for some reason we became the target for dragging boats and bad anchoring. We “rescued” 2 boats with no owners onboard that broke off their moorings and dragged close to us. Another one actually hit us causing minor damage to our toerail. Then, Audrey had to jump onboard a fourth that nearly hit us when the parents left their 11-year old daughter to look after it while they went shopping. The final incident (we hope as we’re leaving tomorrow) occurred when a boat anchored much too close to us and when we complained they said it was fine but the next day we had to fend them off to prevent them from hitting our boat. In short, if you’re planning to visit by boat and anchor in Cartagena Bay, make sure your anchor is really set, put out as much scope as you can, AND watch out for other boats.
The other much more serious “ugly” occurred when I (Richard) nearly choked to death – seriously – at the teacher’s barbecue that I mentioned. It was probably my own fault as they were serving large pieces of steak with plastic knives that couldn’t cut it so I figured I’d just chew it. You can guess what happened next and I can assure you that it’s completely different from what you see in the movies. People tried hitting my back and doing the Heimlich maneuver but it didn’t work so I gasped for air for what seemed like 10 minutes while the hosts called an ambulance. Fortunately, the steak worked its way out after a scary amount of time and the hosts were able to cancel the ambulance. It’s a good thing it did because nobody seemed confident that the ambulance would show up in time and many of the parents and older generation at the BBQ were actually praying. In the end, it was a close call and we are very happy that it worked out but from now on I will be chewing the shit out of my steaks and you should too…
We Love Cartagena
In the end, even with the bad and ugly experiences, we love Cartagena and highly recommend it as a destination for boaters and non-boaters. In fact, it’s the first place that we’ve gone to on this adventure where we’ve said we could actually live here. We’re not sure where we will end up but we’ll always keep Cartagena in mind as we travel through the Caribbean and back to Miami. Who knows, we could end up back here one day.