Back To The Beach in Cartagena

The Jewel of the Spanish Main–Cartagena
Copyright: Elle Druskin 2011

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA

Do you remember Romancing The Stone with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas? If you do, you might recall the story starts with Turner in Cartagena delivering a treasure map to ransom her sister. Being Hollywood, it wasn’t filmed in Cartagena, but in Mexico. Oh well.

If you loved Pirates of the Caribbean, if you want Caribbean history, romance and a sense of adventure with your beach then it’s Cartagena for you. Cartagena is one of the oldest beach resorts in the New World thanks to the Spanish. This was a very wealthy city so pirates, or if you prefer, privateers made raids or attempts to raid Cartagena, the most famous being Sir Francis Drake who detested the Spanish. Pirates galore in the city’s history and you can find out more about them at the museums. Even if you’re heading to Cartagena primarily for the beach, you should make time to see the Gold Museum which includes a kind of stronghold room with beautiful gold jewelry along with pre-Colombian items.

Like many other beach cities, there are plenty of things to do including a horse drawn carriage ride down the narrow streets—kind of fun, and excursions to islands off the coast, especially the Rosario Islands—about 2 hours by boat from Cartagena. For now, just concentrate on this walled city with its cathedrals and old town. Because this city is on a peninsula, it is almost surrounded by beaches which is nice for you. You will also see an old fort at Bocachica built to guard the entrance to the city when it was a major city on the Spanish Main.

Don’t pack your surfboard
Don’t plan on a lot of surfing at Cartagena, it’s pretty unusual unless the red flag that is supposed to warn swimmers out of the water appears. That seems to be a signal to optimistic surfers to hit the waves. Generally, the water on these beaches is safe, not a lot of riptides and little heavy wave action. If you are looking for water sports, you can go kite-surfing, wind-surfing, and scuba diving. There’s a load of water sports schools that cater to tourists, just make sure your instructor speaks enough of your language so that you understand what to do. Generally, this is not going to be a problem; Cartagena is a tourist mecca although remember, the primary language is still Spanish. If you enjoy kayaking or paddling a boat, you can do this at Cartagena. We were paddling out to the fort and nearly run over by commercial tuna fishermen who were FAR TOO CLOSE to the shoreline and they didn’t seem to care that they nearly plowed into us. They were flying an international flag so I always wondered if they were doing something very illegal and this was an anomaly but take it as a warning to watch out although enough people take out small boats that you should feel safe. If you want to snorkel, go for it, because this is the Caribbean and you should see some tropical fish.

En garde!
Shopping Tip: Watch out for anyone touting emeralds and gold in Cartagena. Yes, it’s true, Colombian emeralds are magnificent but if the price is ridiculously low, you are not getting emeralds. For that matter, even if the price is high, you might be buying junk unless you are knowledgeable enough to know what you are looking at. If you must buy them, go to a bonafide shop, pay more and know you are not throwing money away.

What’s great about Cartagena? You are definitely in another culture and won’t forget it. One of the things I got a kick out of was the beach peddling, especially fresh fruit. I can remember telling some woman that I would love a nice big slice of her fresh pineapple—it looked so juicy and tempting. She wasn’t fussed at all that I didn’t have any money on me (and I wouldn’t take much to the beach if you are alone because chances are it might not be there when you get out of the water). This woman was quite an entrepreneur in her own way, she was more than happy to give me some of the fruit on the proviso that she would collect the money on the following day. Suffice to say, she was back the next day and was paid. After that, she was happy to open a line of credit for me on the beach; if I didn’t carry money, she trusted me to be back the next day with whatever I owed her and she was going to collect. It worked out fine. I definitely recommend the fresh fruit sellers on the beach. Try some of the local fruit in juices—my favourite was guanabana, but go ahead and try them all.

Rosario Islands and wildlife
While you are in Cartagena, you should make the time to get to the Rosario Islands. These islands are coral formations so it’s a natural habitat for all sorts of marine life and it’s a great place for snorkelling and diving. If that is not your thing, you can water ski, canoe and windsurf. Waters are very calm and clear and just plain beautiful. And, the sand is white, unlike Cartagena where it is brown. I got a huge kick out of the parrots on the islands. Over the years, they have become accustomed to tourists being around and they dive-bombed my plate at lunch time to help themselves to whatever I had not eaten. No fear at all of getting close to people and it was fun to watch.

I’ve heard there is good deep sea fishing around Cartagena, (heck, if there wasn’t, why were those boats that nearly ran us over, out there?) but have not checked it personally. I recommend chilling out, and don’t neglect any chance to enjoy the local music and dancing. Colombians, like many South Americans, are great dancers so if you catch a dance going on somewhere in the evening (usually at the hotels) go ahead and join the fun! It’s part of the culture and older people, kids and everyone in between will be up and dancing. I was amazed at all of them and pretty hopeless in comparison, but hey, part of the experience. Don’t expect to Samba, that is Brazilian. Cumbia is the most well known Colombian dance so give it a shot.
Dancing Tip: Most Latin dances are fast so some of the tricks to success include taking very small steps—no long ones, you don’t have time. Stay close to the floor, barely lift your feet, you don’t have time. You will notice this if you watch the other dancers. Finally, the movement looks like it is in the hips but it is really in the bent knees that enables you to shift the hip forward or backward. Get out there now and go for it!

How’s the food? Like any seaside city, you are going to find lots of fish restaurants and cerviche is pretty common on menus. Sweet potatoes served in a variety of ways is part of Cartagena cuisine. A typical meal will include something salty and something sweet. If you’re worried about food being too spicy, no need to fret. Typical food is not overly spiced. Do try the empanadas—meat filled pastry, and grilled plantains. I am not going to recommend the yucca fries—they look like French fries but made from yucca. I didn’t like them, found them too dry but other people might enjoy them. Most of all, enjoy the beaches and the beautiful Caribbean water. Vamos a la playa!

Where’s our next stop on the tour? Rhodes, one of the many Greek islands. See you on the beach!

Here’s your quiz:

Ixia Beach is located on which side of the island:
West
South
East
North

The beach that is crowded with day trippers from ships is:
Lindos Beach
Ixia Beach
Kalithia Beach
Elli Beach

The beach that is located under the acropolis is:
Falikraki Beach
Lindos Beach
Kalithea Beach
Ixia Beach

The language of the ancient Jewish community of Rhodes was:
Aramaic
Hebrew
Ladino
Greek

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