Whitewashed colonial balconies overlook cobblestone alleys, where people, cars, and horse-drawn carriages navigate skinny one-way streets. A man stops to buy fresh papaya juice while a carriage driver in a top hat washes down her horse. Simply walking down the streets of Cartagena is an experience on its own: street blends into sidewalk as you weave through people and try to soak in this romantic city.
Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is enclosed by walkable walls that took 200 years to build, intended to protect Cartagena from pirates in the sixteenth century. Now, it’s Colombia’s most popular tourist destination, and it’s easy to see why: from colonial splendor to modern skyscrapers steps away, Cartagena lies right on the beach, with salty sea breeze hitting the historic city off the jagged coast.
Cartagena’s wonders aren’t limited to land, either: thirty minutes away from the coast lie a cluster of islands – Bocachica, Isla de Piratas (Pirates’ Island), an island circled restlessly by birds, and Isla del Presidente, where Colombia’s president helicopters in for a dose of Vitamin D. The islands are peppered with abandoned houses on islands left alone to protect their ecology, and fishermen float between the islands to net fish and dive for crabs. The water here is so clear that I can see groups of blue-and-white-striped fish dart before our boat as we coast towards the harbour at Isla del Sol.
Stepping onto the island, we’re greeted by the familiar sound of salsa playing in the background as men sell handcrafted jewelry. People eat fresh-caught lobster and salty patacones with their feet dug into toasty sand, with cans of Club Colombia beer by their sides. A dip in the translucent water is refreshing and if you swim far enough out, you can see the mangroves of Playa Blanca stretching into the water.
When we clamber back into our boat to make sure we avoid the five o’clock witching hour in which the gales become too dangerous to sail back into the mainland, we have to prod a friendly iguana off our engine, where he sunbathes with no care as to the humans milling around him. Our ride back to Cartagena takes us past Isla Choló, where fishermen sell their fresh catch and lunch tables sit only slightly above the water, so visitors can enjoy their lunch partly underwater. Huts speckle the horizon as we zoom back to Cartagena.
After milling about the streets some more, we climb into the back of a horse-drawn carriage to take us to dinner. The rhythmic clip-clop of horseshoes striking cobblestones evokes the feel of a colonial time long gone with pirates, traders, and fortresses, and it’s hard not to fall in love with this jewel of a city in Colombia.