Cartagena: Living up to Expectations or Not?

Cartagena Street Vendor
October 29, 2010
Is this art?
November 5, 2010

Cartagena: Living up to Expectations or Not?

By Stephen Bugno

When a city has the reputation that Cartagena has, it takes a few days to absorb the city to see if it lives up to its hype. So I spent the first day walking the postcard perfect streets of the old city. It is  gorgeous– a colorful, energetic, hot, grand colonial city. But that is just the surface. It will take more than one day to get a deeper appreciation to this city of Gabriel Garcia Marquez´s Love in the Time of Cholera.

art school cartagena

Inside the courtyard of Catagena's Scool of Fine Art

I set off from the cheap Hotel Marlin, a friendly little hostel with dorm beds and huge painting of a marlin in its lobby. But my room is musty and smells like moth balls. It is located in Getsemani, a seedy district of crumbling buildings and fading facades. I pass prostitutes and coke dealers on my way into El Centro, the part of the city where the aristocracy used to live. Getsemani is where the artisans once called home. But I´m assured it´s safe enough–this is where most of Cartagena´s budget accommodation is located, so it can’t be too bad.

I pass through Parque del Centanario which is home to some little monkeys, a few iguanas, and a sloth. ‘I was in Panama for weeks and never saw a sloth. And there’s one right here.’ An Australian tells me as we’re looking up into the tree watching the sloth scratch himself for five minutes.

cartagena centro street

A street in Cartegena's El Centro district

I grab a big cup of icy sugarcane water from a vendor in the park who ladles his drink out from his beverage-filled aquarium on wheels. It is hot here. And humid. But I don’t mind, I´ve been up in the high elevation of zona cafetera, or coffee country, which was quite cool and wet.

Cartegena is rightly a popular tourist destination. When Saturday comes around, I walk past tour groups with their umbrella-wielding tour guides, who are explaining all the history behind these colorful three-storied facades and the accompanying courtyards which I can’t see, and of the pirates that have tried and failed over the centuries to breech these ramparts, and of who have fought and died to keep Cartagena.

I enter the Inner City through the three-arched Puerta del Reloj. On the other side is Plaza de los Coches–named for the carriages, or coaches that wait here for local journeys. Before that it was the slave market.

A steet in Cartagena's San Diego district

The Inner City somehow has the feel of New Orleans, with its heat and humidity, its holiday atmosphere and boutique hotels, but without as much of the sin. Instead of French, it´s Spanish colonial architecture and instead of jazz, it’s all sorts of different music.

After reaching the top of the city walls, a great place to watch the sunset from,  I continue to Plaza Santo Domingo. Immediately there are menus flung in my face from the five or so restaurants that line this square. Hawkers are selling water, hats, bubblegum and other trinkets. Souvenir sellers have their jewelry, colorful woven bracelets, and ceramic Botero reproductions spread out on the cobblestones. It is beautiful, but not worth the hassle of lingering. I keep walking. Horse drawn carriages lit with candle lanterns pass by quickly.

I stroll through Parque Fernandez de Madrid, a quiet flower-filled square in the San Diego district. This is where the middle classes once lived: the clerks, merchants, priests, and military. But I wind up at Plazuela de San Diego, a pleasant tree-filled square just outside the School of Fine Arts. I duck into the school’s courtyard to see the current art exhibit under the arcades. In the evening I’ll be back in this very hip square to see some street acts and to hang out. The overpriced restaurants’ seating pours into the street. But there are plenty of people filling the beaches of the park and sitting around at every other available spot. I grab a beer from the corner store and have a seat.

Click to see more photos from Cartagena.

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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 20 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


  1. ayngelina says:

    I don’t know why people put up such a fuss about Cartgena being the jewel of South America. It is a pretty city but far from my favorite.

  2. Stephen Bugno says:

    @ayngelina It is definitely a beautiful city, I certainly wouldn’t recommend skipping it, but I just didn’t feel the need to linger past a couple days, as so many others do. But yes, I could list plenty of cities that I enjoyed more than Cartagena.

  3. Simply Sha says:

    I would concur with Ayngelina and Stephen. I find Cartagena’s vibe to be touristy and somewhat artificial. Inside the walled city it’s hard to even get Colombian food and it’s more expensive than the rest of the country, including Bogota. Though smaller and less cosmopolitan, I enjoyed Santa Marta and its outskirts much more.

  4. My introduction to the city was by Marquez, however, I never got a chance to visit the place. The images are absolutely lovely, but somehow too picture perfect, as if they are made to look so good and have not really evolved into it…

    Anyway just my opinion…but this is not the only city plagued by over-touristiness…

  5. Stephen Bugno says:

    @Sid Cartagena does get quite scruffy as you move away from the old city center. And I agree, there are plenty of cities plagued by too many tourists. Some are still worth visiting, some are not.

  6. Sharon Cohen says:

    Defently. Cartagena is one of the most injoible places I ever seeing.

    Hostel Marlin

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