I expected to like Cartagena more than I did.
Everyone who’s traveled in Colombia recommended the city to me, but I wasn’t prepared for the number of tourists and touristy experiences crammed into a tiny space inside the old walls. I really prefer to explore new places to learn what it’s like to live and work there, not to have a manufactured touristy experience, and at times I let my disappointment get the better of me and got depressed wondering if anything in the city was real. Of course, that’s cynical – Cartagena is real, and there’s a lot that’s truly beautiful about the city. It’s just that I felt out of place. I simply wasn’t there just to party, and sometimes I felt like I was the only one.
Still – I explored and kept my eyes open and was able to discover a few experiences in the city that didn’t feel so conventional.
On my first full day in Cartagena I finally admitted to myself that the cold I’d been fighting was getting the upper hand, and I took the day off to lie in a hammock at the hostel and recover. Cartagena was my first truly tropical city, and it was sweltering – but lying in the hammock, sweating, taking shallow breaths and languid movements to stay as cool as possible, I started to sense the appeal of the sweltering city. There’s something delicious about relaxing into the heat and sweat; waiting for every faint breath of air that stirs the leaves of the huge tree in the courtyard; listening to the wild parrots shriek in the branches; watching the hostel’s kitten chasing lizards in the little garden. It felt peaceful and enjoyable to learn how to love the heat.
When I was well again, I explored the city on my own to find little refreshing bits of quiet.
One was a coffee shop/bookstore built on a colonial corner in a quiet street in old Cartagena, a few blocks away from the heavy tourist traffic. I couldn’t resist the books. Bookstores just have a better atmosphere. Original colonial brick arches framed this shop, books were crammed in floor-to-ceiling shelves complete with ladders for reaching the top shelf, and I was so inspired that I justified picking up a copy of The Little Prince in Spanish and staying for a cappuccino.
On another day I got up around sunrise and walked the old city walls while the city woke. At that hour, the humidity is enchanting rather than oppressive, lit by delicate rosy sunrise hues in a sort of flower-colored haze that makes the city seem mysterious rather than damp and miserable. A soft breeze came over the tops of the walls. None of the street vendors were awake enough to try to sell me anything yet, and I didn’t see any other tourists out. On the walls near Cafe del Mar, I found a euphonium player doing scales and warmup exercises, not performing for anyone, just enjoying playing his instrument.
Likewise, strolling the walls after midnight with a friend was a peaceful way to enjoy the city. As a woman, there aren’t many places in Colombian cities I’ve wanted to go after dark (it’s not that I’m afraid, it’s just common sense) – but with a tall, male, Scottish, drunk friend I felt pretty secure, so we wandered the city and climbed the walls to watch the moon over the ocean. At that hour the breeze cools the city a bit – coolness being something quite precious in Cartagena – and we could see the ocean lit by the waxing moon. Cartagena at night felt safer than other cities I’d been in, and it’s a lovely way to enjoy the streets with less heat and fewer tourists.
So in the end I was able to find meaningful, quiet moments even in a city as loud and superficial as Cartagena.