Cartagena’s streets are lined with colorful houses, bustling with the constant sound of horse-drawn carriages clopping down the cobblestone and full of guys with push carts selling beers for the equivalent of 33 cents each.
That’s probably not what you picture when you think of Colombia, though.
Thanks to movies, television and the widely-known fact that Colombia is a major hub for cocaine, the country is regarded by most of the rest of the world as a highly dangerous country, and certainly not a safe vacation destination for 20-somethings.
Except it is, because I vacationed there, and nothing bad happened.
It should be said that since my three friends and I were only in the hyper-touristy Cartagena and its surrounding beaches, I can’t say with 100 percent confidence that the whole of Colombia is safe to visit, since I haven’t been to the whole of Colombia, so I have no idea.
I can, however, say that Cartagena is beautiful, and cheap, and I can give you a bunch of tips on how to have a fun and safe trip.
JESSICA’S DOS AND DON’TS FOR CARTAGENA:
DO: Go to Playa Blanca
Located about a 45-minute car ride from Cartagena’s city center, Playa Blanca on the Isla Baru is easily one of the top 5 most beautiful and laid-back places I’ve ever had the fortune of visiting.
Also, on the way there, we checked out the Aviario Nacional de Colombia, which is basically a conservatory with a bunch of unusual birds running around. It is also where I saw two emus engaging in intercourse, which is definitely not something you see every day. Or really ever.
We hadn’t booked any accommodation at Playa Blanca before we arrived, so when we first got there, we walked to the various hostels that dot the beach (which were either beach shacks or hammocks mounted between palm trees in lieu of beds) to compare prices. I was incredibly excited about the hammock prospect, but we opted for a shack instead, which only ran us the equivalent of $3 USD per person. Sleeping in a hammock would have been chill, though.
We spent the 24 hours that followed either floating in the clear blue water or laying out in the hammocks or on the sand. I also went snorkeling and spent the better part of 20 minutes floating around with a school of around 50 squid, so that was dope.
The island also contained a bunch of cheap places to get food. I got an arepa and a rum and Coke for the collective equivalent of $5 USD.
Which brings us to:
DON’T: Get food poisoning
The arepa/drink combination was a good idea, but getting pre-cut fruit in a bowl from a dude wandering the beach peddling fruit bowls probably wasn’t. I am not providing details at this juncture, but I was quite sick and it was highly unfortunate and you should avoid it at all costs.
DO: Be very clear on the exchange rate
My mathematical skills leave something to be desired, so there was a good 3-5 hours in which I thought I took out 200 Colombian pesos (Copa) and not 20, so I thought I had lost the equivalent of roughly $66 USD, but then I looked at my ATM receipt and saw that I had not. Cartagena is very cheap, so it can be easy to spend a lot by making a ton of inexpensive purchases and losing track of what they are. Make a budget, learn the conversion rate, and keep track of what you’re spending.
DON’T: Be an idiot about doing drugs
I’m not your mother, so I’m not going to tell you not to do drugs, but I am going to advise you not to be an idiot about it if you decide to do so.
On my last night in Cartagena, I was leaving a rooftop club around 4 a.m. (additional DO: go to a rooftop club. This one was called El Mirador) with some people I met at my hostel, and two cops pulled up on motorcycles and asked to search us.
They didn’t search me, presumably because I was the only girl in our group of seven, but everyone else got shaken down, and they found cocaine in one of the guys’ pockets and ended up taking him to an ATM to make him withdraw money as a bribe.
We were all unscathed, but the guy lost the equivalent of $100 USD.
MAYBE: Go to the mud volcano
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I agreed to go on a day trip to Volcán de Lodo el Totumo (or “Mud Volcano,” in Gringo Speak). I just heard “volcano” and I was sold.
Basically what it is is a giant pit full of liquid-y mud located at the top of a volcano. You have to climb up some pretty steep stairs to get to the pit, and then down a sketchy ladder to get into the pit itself. Around ten volcano-goers are allowed into the pit at one time, and are then told to lay down in the mud while under-tipped employees massage you.
I’m not a fan of a) being slathered in mud or b) strangers touching me, so while I’m glad I did it for the experience, I was a little stressed out by the whole thing. It’s absolutely impossible not to get completely covered in mud, which is why after 15 minutes or so, you’re escorted to a spot back on land where more under-tipped employees dump water over your head and wash the mud off of you so thoroughly that I almost thought I should have bought the woman who was washing me dinner first.
I’m putting this down as a hard maybe because I did it more than two months ago and I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but if this sounds like your cup of tea, go forth and mud volcano, my friend.
TL;DR: Don’t be scared out of going to Colombia. As with traveling anywhere else, use some common sense and you’ll be golden.