Meandering Cartagena and Medellín
Itinerary: an afternoon in the Old City > day of diving > excursion to Playa Blanca > wandering El Poblado in Medellín > hiking Piedra del Peñol and exploring Guatapé > paragliding over Medellín and touring downtown > visiting Parque Arví
From hazy sunsets and blue waters to cozy cafes and sky-high city views.
Before I left on my trip, I had done research on the various places I wanted to visit and started cracking the figurative spines of travel guide e-books. I was feeling decently well informed until my mother pointed an all-too-obvious (to her) gap in my learning: Romancing the Stone.
Set in the Colombian jungle, the 1984 ‘action/romance’ film follows Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas on an adventure to Cartagena. If you’re like me two months ago, I won’t spoil it for you, but I’m happy to report my journey to Cartagena was much more by-the-book than by-the-movie.
I was warned by one of my El Cocuy companions that it’s a tourist trap, and I can confirm that she was right. I was so determined to go because of its fame, but inevitably found the resultant tourist culture slightly disappointing. However, the old city is without a doubt beautiful and made the visit entirely worthwhile.
I arrived in Cartagena after a 31-hour bus journey from Guican, and as awful as that might sound, I will just say that I’m very good at sleeping in transit — I actually found it quite productive! Coming from the severely air-conditioned bus, my first impression of Cartagena was hot and humid. And as I Uber-ed into the old city, I added ‘hazy’ to my list of descriptors. I guess it’s to be expected given all the cars clogging the streets, very few of which would probably pass U.S. smog tests, but I was still a little taken aback to see the ocean’s horizon so fuzzy.
After dropping gear at the hostel and changing out of my bus clothes, I set off on a self-guided stroll of the old city, sampling the storied ceviche and dropping into cafes along my meandering of the vibrant streets. (Note to honest-to-goodness vegetarians: I know I betrayed you, but I’d be lying if I said I regret it. Fish on the coast is pretty great!)
I joined the flock of tourists and locals to convene on the robust city wall (for which Cartagena is famous) to enjoy the sunset, and then strolled back to my hostel, window-shopping the sidewalk souvenir arrays, which include bright beaded necklaces, hand-made city paintings, TOMS-esque shoes, and patterned bucket bags that come in varying shades of brown.
The next day I rushed through my free breakfast before walking the short distance to the dive shop for my two-tank scuba trip to the Islas del Rosario. The islands are a short boat ride from Cartagena but feel a world away; the old city hustle is replaced by island leisure. Beautiful bright blue waters surround the small islands, with coral reefs just below. The shallow dives were full of fish, and the dive instructors were adequately insistent on safe practices to ensure the health of the reef. And bonus: as part of the dive package, we enjoyed a nice lunch at the resort before heading back to Cartagena.
Little did we know, however, that the winds had picked up while we were on the island, making crossing the channel a very different experience than the initial go-round. Our first clue of what lie ahead were the large, dense ponchos draped over each seat. Previously, when I’d picture ‘ocean spray,’ I’d imagine a faint mist from waves pleasantly crashing against coastal rocks. This was different. My seat mate and I held the poncho over our heads as water slapped against us with roughly the same force as an obnoxious sibling play-fighting (not quite painful but annoying when insistent). The clothes that I had foolishly donned for the journey were soaked through-and-through by the time we arrived safely back in Cartagena.
Leaving behind the languid pace of Rosario Islands, the following day I joined a bus tour to Playa Blanca and found the only similarity to the island was the color of the water. Almost every inch of the white sand beach is the marked territory of a local, who is more than eager to sell you a piece of shade or use of a plastic chair or oily massage or cerveza or cold water or fresh fruit or… you get the picture. It’s an oceanfront shantytown of Easy-Ups and entrepreneurial vendors. You get a glimpse of real life outside the protection and price of the walled city. The dichotomy is somewhat alarming. I’ll be the first to admit that I was a mixture of relieved and disillusioned to return to the tourism center with its costly restaurants, talented street performers and costumed fruit sellers.
Having spent a full day on a bus to get to Cartagena, I felt privileged to fly to my next stop: Medellín. I’d heard from friends that this city was a fan favorite, and it quickly became one of my highlights as well. My hostel was located in the fantastic neighborhood of El Poblado, and had I not felt a sense of responsibility to explore the city, I could have happily spent my days in Medellín holed up in the neighborhood’s coffee shops and wandering the tree-lined streets adorned with trendy boutiques and restaurants.
Following in the footsteps of my hostel roommates, I took a day trip to Guatapé, stopping along the way to hike Piedra del Peñol, described by many as a rock monolith, which I find very apt. La Piedra juts into the sky with the well-trafficked stair climb zig-zagging all the way to the top. Amusing to some and daunting to others, the steps are numbered, so you can keep track as you go. I forget the final count, but it was more than 600. The effort is rewarded with 360 views of the artificial lake that was made by a dam and has made the town a popular stop for travelers.
As a brief aside, I’ve learned of a few city rivalries throughout my Colombia tour: Bogotá vs. Medellín, Guican vs. El Cocuy, Guatapé vs. Peñol. ‘Friendly’ but for the latter two, contentious to the point of crossing out one name for another. As a staunch NorCal supporter in the two Californias debate, I can relate.
After my stair-master exercise for the day, I jumped in a tuk tuk to Guatapé and walked around the tiny town with elaborately painted buildings for a few hours before heading back to the big city.
The next day I indulged my white-person adventure-tourism impulse and went paragliding in San Felix, with stunning views of the Medellín. (I’d skipped over the adrenaline capital of San Gil, so this was my concession.) As a first-time paraglider, I’ll admit that I felt a little nauseous after the sky-high spirals, but exhilarated all the same — and thankful my breakfast had time to settle! That afternoon I walked around downtown, visiting the botanical garden (with cool graffiti nearby), Botero Plaza and capital buildings. There is a free walking tour similar to Bogotá's, which I didn’t do, but was well-liked by others at my hostel. Quick heads up: the tour isn’t offered on Sundays and fills up quickly, so register in advance!
My final day in the city, I visited Parque Arví, which was a semi-confounding collection of dirt and paved trails through a large city park/small nature reserve. (One moment you’re walking a clearly defined dirt path, the next you’re spat out onto the main road without a clear indication of where you’ve ended up or where you should go next. Don’t be me — get a map and have a route in mind!) The main attraction for me was the tram ride, which offers another birds-eye view of the city.
Visiting both of these cities taught me the dangers of listening to fellow travelers’ opinions of places or having guidebook-inspired expectations. I enjoyed Cartagena and Medellín, and I would definitely recommend visiting both, if for very different reasons. Plus, now I can rest easy having seen the setting of Romancing the Stone first-hand.
Next Stop: Manizales and Salento
DETAILS, TIPS & TRICKS
What I DIDN’T See
Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park. This national park comes highly recommended for its stunning beaches and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. It’s also the launchpad for the 4-day Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek to ancient ruins. I decided against visiting the park because it’s closed for restoration the month of February (which didn’t gel well with my plans) and against the trek for budgetary reasons (already committed to the Inca Trail in Peru). However, others I’ve met on my journey spoke very highly of the park and the trek.
- La Mulata: very busy when I went, but quick service and fresh food. Best seat in the house is in the far back covered garden — walk past the kitchen for a cool, leafy, shaded seating area. Serves up the classic Cartagena coconut rice (a nice break from the standard white stuff).
- Panaderia y Pasteleria Mila: fancy cafe if you’re in the mood for decadent deserts or just need A.C.
- Juan del Mar Pizzeria: located in the Plaza San Diego, which is great for quality live music at dinnertime. Offers delicious Italian food with quality service and a nice atmosphere.
- La Cevicheria: just a few doors down from Juan del Mar, this is a popular spot with sidewalk seating and indoors too. The service is quick, so you can get in-and-out or linger a while. Ceviche is fresh and flavorful, if a little pricey.
Medellín — so many cafes, so little time. I mainly lingered on this one leafy street lined with cute coffee shops and boutiques.
- Pergamino Cafe: hot spot in the late afternoon; lovely latte art and phenomenal almond croissant. Just thinking about it…
- Bonhomía: open-air restaurant with a menu that spans American, Italian and Latin, each genre with its own alcove opening up to the spacious shared seating area. Parties with divergent tastes have found the perfect compromise, and a great atmosphere to top it off!
- Natto Mercado y Concina: fantastically fresh food, a great reprieve from the frequently fried cuisine of Colombia — and plenty of vegetarian options!
- Como Pez en el Agua (CPA): cafe with a nice setting and decadent (albeit tiny) deserts; serves local Juan Valdez-association coffee.
- Cafe Velvet: my favorite cafe by far — fantastic space to sit a while; you can enjoy the sidewalk-adjacent patio or venture to the back of the cafe for cozier couches and natural light. Oh, and the lattes are great and deserts are scrumptious. I had to stop myself from going back multiple times.
Bus from Guican to Cartagena
Oh heyyy 31-hour bus(es) ride. The general crowd wisdom dictates you should take the night bus back to Bogotá and then transfer or fly to your next destination. And admittedly it would have taken less time, but I stubbornly abhorred the idea of backtracking all the way south to the capital just to go north. So I took the 4:30 a.m. bus to Tunja from Guican (40,000 COP) — stop by the bus ticket office just off the main square to check the schedule and buy a ticket in advance. As I passed through Duitama, they put me on a different bus to Tunja (consolidating passengers), but you don’t have to pay an additional fare. Upon arrival in Tunja midday, one of the many bus attendants standing by will ask you if you’re going to San Gil; tell them Cartagena and then try to keep up as you become the hot potato passed back and forth between various people and are finally put on a bus that will make its way to Cartagena, likely passing through San Gil on the way. Be sure to have cash on hand — the fare is 100,000 and in the shuffle, you might not have time to stop at the ATM. And as is often the case, you’ll pay the bus attendant after you’ve already boarded. Don’t worry if you didn’t get a bathroom break or snack in Tunja; the bus will more than likely have (free) facilities and the bus makes several stops at small towns along the way, where you’re welcome to jump off to buy refreshments. Many of the buses have assigned seats, so if you’re not given a specific assignment, you may have to shuffle around as people get on and off. And most importantly: bring a blanket. Or warm jacket, layers, fuzzy scarf, etc. The night buses are notoriously frigid.
Using Uber in Colombia
Technically speaking, Uber is not legal in Colombia because the app doesn’t pay Colombian taxes (or something to that effect — I’m fuzzy on specifics). But in practice, it’s popular and accessible. Just make sure you ride in the front seat so as to not attract attention. Plus it gives you a chance to chat with your driver and, if you’re like me, practice Spanish!
Bus + taxi from Medellín airport to El Poblado
Just pop outside following signs to ground transportation — pass the taxi cue and you’ll see a few buses loading passengers and luggage. Tell the assistant ‘El Poblado’ and they’ll put you on the right bus (9,500 COP). The bus gets you into the city and pulls over on a busy thoroughfare for all the El Poblado people to get off. Taxis are eager and ready to take you the remaining distance — it’s worth it to buddy up with another traveler and split the fare. There will likely be someone trying to help you into the cab for a tip, which is not altogether necessary. Feel free to ask the cab driver the fare before hopping in (should be less than 10,000 COP) or ask them to run the meter.
Public transit in Medellín
Because I’m an eco-nerd, the Metro may have been my second favorite part of the city (following coffee shops of course). For just 2,400 COP per ride, you can hop on the spotless, smooth train with wide waiting platforms and spacious train cars. Buy a single use card from the ticket window (during reasonable hours) or get a reloadable card for several trips. From the Poblano station, head north toward Niquía to get downtown or the north bus terminal (Caribe stop). In simple ingenuity, each platform is labeled with the station name as well as the next stop, so you know if you’re on the right side of the tracks. Similarly, the recorded announcements on the train give you advance notice, so you can time your exit. From the Acevedo stop, you can transfer to the gondola that will take you up into the hills for a view of the city and onward to Parque Arví for an additional fare at Santo Domingo (6,000 COP).
Bus to and from Guatapé
From El Poblado, take the Metro to the Caribe station and cross the bridge to thriving metropolis that is the Terminale de Norte. A mix between a low-budget mall and a massive transportation hub, the terminal can be a little overwhelming with all its food stalls and ticket windows. Ask the information desk or a passerby which window sells tickets to Guatapé and make your way through the maze. The bus is 14,000 COP each way and takes about an hour. Be sure to pay the full fare to Guatapé, even if you’re getting off at Piedra del Peñol as it’s beyond the town of Peñol — best to do this on the way to Guatapé rather than on the way back. Join the other travelers getting off at the gas station and begin the ascent to La Piedra via the adjacent staircase. Yes, there are stairs before you even get to the main attraction. When you get to Guatapé, first swing by the ticket office to buy your return ticket as the buses fill up — you’ll only need a few hours to tour the small town.
- Cartagena: Republica — beautiful building in a central location of the old city with somewhat temperamental Wi-Fi, room-temp showers, free breakfast and helpful staff. The pool and rooftop are very nice, the courtyard is inviting, and the facilities are kept clean. The dorms are a little crowded but the bunks are spacious nooks with and outlet and light. The hostel has A.C. for the nights, but turn it off during the day to conserve energy, which is awesome!
- Medellín: Rango Boutique Hostel — trendy hostel in a great location in the El Poblado neighborhood (on a quiet street backing up to a park, which means the only noise at night is the hostel’s music or guests). HOT SHOWERS. Cozy blankets and each bunk has a reading light and outlet. Great Wi-Fi and chill communal areas. Fantastic free breakfast — the bread is amazing.