I kicked off my multi-month Latin tour by ringing in 2015 in South America’s party city: Cartagena, Colombia. From what I can tell, Cartagena is catching on as a major global tourist destination. Even though the city was packed with mostly Argentinians, it’s clear to see that the stigma of Colombia being a dangerously scary country is starting to go away amongst European and American travelers.
So if you’re planning way ahead on where you might want to spend your next New Years, or just thinking about where to visit next for a girls/guys getaway, here’s some insight to get you swinging your hips in the sweltering Colombian city before it catches on with the masses.
THE BASIC INFO
While there are several historical sights to see, I would definitely classify Cartagena as a party destination. So when you’re sick of Las Vegas, Ibiza, and New Orleans, Cartagena might be a good next. Its proximity to the equator keeps it around a sweaty 90 degrees (F, or 32 C) all year long (with humidity to match). It’s a vibrant city that seems to be full of people looking to have a good time. You can carry alcohol on the streets, and on holidays like New Years most of the open-air bars spill out onto the streets, restaurants and cafes take over entire squares, and live music shuts down every street in the Old City.
The traffic is insane, making New York almost laughable by comparison. Cars and motorbikes drive in seemingly nonexistent lanes, stop at the very last second, and haul ass around every corner. Swarms of pedestrians fill every gap between bumpers and on the sidewalks at intersections. Taxis here are cheap and plentiful though, so avoid the stress of driving and take a cab when you need to get somewhere far off.
WHERE TO STAY
The main touristy neighborhoods of Cartagena are the Old City, Getsenami, and Bocagrande.
The Old City is full of beautiful, colorful European/Spanish/Caribbean style buildings (at leas that’s how it looked to me, I’m no architecture buff), outlined by narrow streets held tight within the old city walls. On New Years Eve most of the streets are closed to traffic. Instead, every intersection fills with live music and countless people dancing the night away with Aguardiente in hand. It’s impossible not to have a blast while making your way from party to party. This is the area where you’ll find those beautiful sunsets from Cafe del Mar, tons of shopping, and a more European feel.
Getsenami is the backpacker’s area which seems to be a little more rough around the edges, but still feels safe. This area is only a few blocks from the old city, and is full of hostels, cafes, pizza shops, and bars, set right among houses where you can look inside any open door or window and see a family eating dinner or watching television in their living room. Kind of makes you wonder just how “dangerous” a place can really be when everyone’s home is basically wide open, right on the street.
Bocagrande is I guess like a Colombian Miami. It’s the peninsula of shiny bright skyscrapers that you’ll see first when you fly in. I hear it’s for the rich peoples, which is why I didn’t spend much time there. I am not a rich people. On New Year’s Day I walked from the Old City to the beach in Bocagrande in about 45 minutes along Santander. The beach was packed, and certainly nothing special with dingy water, meh sand, and right across the street from a giant shopping mall. If you’re going to do the beach don’t waste your time on Bocagrande. Head to Playa Blanca or the Rosario Islands instead.
BOOK IN ADVANCE DURING HIGH SEASON
If you’re going during high season such as New Years, Christmas, or Carnaval, definitely book in advance. I booked my hotel in October and struggled to find an affordable, decent place. I was looking at a budget of under $50/night which eliminated pretty much every hotel. And all of the recommended hostels were already booked up as well. Luckily I came across the poorly reviewed Hotel San Felipe for about $48/night, but I found it to be perfect for what I needed. It was double the price through most hotel booking sites, but I managed to get it half off on hostelworld.com. Lots of backpackers told me they had trouble showing up and finding room even for one traveler. A few of them had to keep moving between hostels every day because they couldn’t find vacancy for their entire stay.
A few people I met couchsurfed with people outside of the touristy neighborhoods and had absolutely fantastic experiences hanging out at the local bars and paying less than $1 for a beer. As Colombians have been so incredibly welcoming and genuinely nice from my experience, I say if you can find a couchsurfing opportunity, go for it!
I thought that the hotel staff would at least speak a little English but they did not. Some of the hostel staff spoke a bit, but it definitely helps to know enough Spanish to help you get around and pay for things. Obviously the more Spanish you know the better off you’ll be, and the deeper and more authentic your experience will be too. From my experience Colombians are insanely happy to chat with foreigners and help them practice their Spanish. You’ll meet so many more people and engage in so many more memorable conversations if you just attempt to speak to them in their language. If you’re too timid like I was, drink a couple of beers and give it a go. It’s like they light up when you attempt to communicate in their language.
Overall, use your common sense and you should be absolutely fine in Cartagena. But traveling to developing cities in Latin America call for some additional precautions that you might not practice in say, Paris or New York. For example, I would freely walk around most US and European cities with my DSLR strapped across my chest, or use my iPhone as a map while wandering the streets aimlessly. I didn’t really pull out either one in Cartagena very often, as to not draw any more attention to myself as a target for being robbed. Maybe it’s a little paranoid, but poverty in this area was very real and obvious, so I also kind of felt like a dick flaunting that stuff around. You just don’t see it anywhere.
Whenever possible, have the hotel/hostel call you a taxi or book one through an app like Tappsi. Apparently there are some shady unofficial drivers out there who will take you to a secluded area, and before you know it some randoms are jumping in the car to rob you of your belongings. Also, again on the borderline paranoid front, you should always have your windows up, doors locked, and keep your cell phone, camera, and wallet in your pockets. I’ve heard numerous stories from Cartagena and beyond of people being robbed at gunpoint while at a red light, and the taxi driver does absolutely nothing about it but sit there and wait for the light to change. And with the way people weave their way in and out of parked cars at the street lights, it’s easy to see how this can happen so quickly and easily.
Keep your bag strapped on you and in full site at all times. A girl I’d met in Cartagena had her bag stolen from the back of her chair while eating at a cafe in Plaza de la Trinidad. Once she realized what had happened she immediately told the cafe staff, who worked quickly to watch the surveillance and identify the thieves. Hours later when she’d already gone to bed, the thieves returned to the cafe where they were busted by the staff. She got a call to head down to the police station, where she met the thieves face to face. Unfortunately they had already sold her stuff, but the police at least made them give her the money they made from the sale. Sadly this kind of thing happens ALL over the world, especially in hot tourist destinations. And most Colombians I’ve met seem genuinely disgusted with people like this. Their country has transformed so much over the past few decades and they’re finally welcoming tourists and even able to travel the country themselves. The last thing they want is for a few bad guys to ruin their country’s transforming reputation.
If you’re a solo female traveler, just take the usual precautions and you’ll be fine. I thought I’d be a prime target for men to catcall me on the street and aggressively try to pick me up in bars (not that I think I’m hot shit or anything, it just tends to happen a lot in places where my light skin/hair/eyes is a minority), but I can honestly say that that rarely happened in Cartagena. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I’ve “lost it,” but I’m told that Colombian men are actually quite timid. I’m not sure about that, but I do know that I was hit on and cat-called more on any given day in New York than I was during my entire stay in Cartagena.
If you choose to buy drugs in Colombia, best of luck to you. I have no firsthand experience with that, but I met a group of Australians who claimed they followed some guy that they’d already bought stuff off of before into some house, where they were robbed of everything they had on them at knifepoint. Also I don’t think the police have much tolerance for tourists doing drugs so again, good luck.
And for fuck’s sake, get the hell out of the hostel, get away from the backpacking crowds, and go enjoy the city with some locals. Meeting these people who stick to the hostel scene and only party with other foreigners blows my mind. You’re going to Colombia for a different experience, so go experience it. Don’t get caught up in the same familiar, English-speaking comfort zone you have back home. You don’t have to know perfect Spanish to try new foods, enjoy good music, or have a Colombian teach you how to dance.
If you do decide to go celebrate the new year in Cartagena…
WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING AT MIDNIGHT
Making out with a hot Colombian! Okay, okay, perhaps that’s not exactly in your cards for whatever reason. Luckily there are plenty of parties to choose from, but almost all of them come with a hefty price tag. I didn’t do one of these, but if that’s your scene I would advise you to book early to save a bit of cash. I met several people who booked last minute tickets to some of the most well-known parties and managed to get in just fine, but they PAID for it.
Expect to pay at least $75 for a BYOB & food event, $125 for a fancy fireworks & yacht cruise, and upwards of $200/$300 for an all-out rave/concert with well-known Latin artists.
I chose not to buy a ticket in somewhere because 1-I didn’t want to be confined to just one place the entire evening, especially if it sucked, and 2-I hate spending money just to get into a place. So pretentious.
Luckily you don’t need to shell out a fortune to have a good time on New Years. I met up with a Colombian from couchsurfing and a few other people she’d recently met through friends. We went for tapas, bought a few bottles of beer and some Aguardiente, and walked over to see the fireworks in the Old City. The fireworks definitely weren’t as hardcore as I thought they were going to be (I guess I’m spoiled by the Macy’s Fourth of July show), but they were being lit off only about 100 feet away from us into a crowd full of people so that was pretty sweet. They lit them off near Cafe del Mar, just outside of the wall, so grab some drinks and head to the lawn just before midnight for a front row view.
DON’T PLAN ON SLEEPING
I lived in New York for eight years and after many nights of seeing the sun rise in a drunken stupor, I thought that city never slept. But I think Cartagena may have New York beat. Again, I am getting older, but after my night of drinking and dancing I was ready for bed at about 330am. As I made my way back to the hotel the parties were still going strong. Most of them had moved off the streets and indoors now, but I was told some would last until well into the afternoon on January 1st. Then on January 3rd I woke up at 3am to loud booms, only to look out my window and see a full on firework show going on AT THREE IN THE MORNING. What the hell?
Cartagena is still relatively cheap for US residents to travel to. Right now 1 USD is equal to about 2300 Colombian Pesos, putting beers at about $1/$1.50, and most basic meals well under $10. Also it’s cheap to get here on a budget airline like JetBlue and Spirit. I paid $350 one-way for a flight two days before New Years. I think round trip was only slightly more. Regardless, Cartagena is definitely a contender for an unforgettable, affordable trip, just make sure you’re ready to party and dance!