South America isn’t exactly known for its vast plethora of vegetarian options, and Cartagena, Colombia is no exception.
That being said, I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years, and I managed to find plenty to eat during the eight days I spent in Cartagena (and various beaches nearby).
As long as you like corn-based foods and melted cheese, you’ll be good to go.
That’s essentially what two of the most popular foods in Cartagena are–both an arepa and an empañada are basically cornmeal dumplings filled with cheese and/or vegetables, egg, etc. They can also be filled with meat, but those are as common as ones with just cheese, and they’re all completely delicious.
Although sold in restaurants all around Cartagena, arepas and empañadas are also commonly sold in street food carts, which are everywhere and super cheap.
The carts are also a good place to grab late night munchies after you stumble out of the club at 4 a.m., since many of them also sell kebabs. I got corn on the cob from a cart a couple times, and once the dude even put a bunch of potatoes with salsa on a stick for me, which was way better than I’m making it sound.
Colombia is also home to a zillion different kinds of fruit, which I realize isn’t exactly the most filling. But go to a nearby supermarket, pick up a few fruits, buy some yogurt (you can get a pack of six yogurt cups for 6 copa, which is the equivalent of $2 USD), hack those bad boys up, chuck them in a yogurt cup and you’re in business.
As with anywhere, don’t let the lack of a bunch of vegetarian options scare you into not going. Cartagena is beautiful, cheap, and to be fair, I was still craving arepas a week after I left.
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.
I have always been a huge proponent of taking chances. For one, it makes for way better stories. I’m not talking like Steve-O level stuff, but more like, taking a year off after high school and moving to Guatemala (check), singing karaoke at a bar in Costa Rica when you’re the only non-native Spanish speaker there (check), or staying out all night before your early morning flight and just sleeping on the plane (check times a billion).
The latest chance I took is that I skipped my own college graduation yesterday and wore my cap and tassel on a beach in Colombia instead.
Five months ago, my best friend since I was born (literally) invited me to meet her in Cartagena, Colombia over Memorial Day Weekend. I live in California and she lives in New York, so I see her for 24 hours out of the year if I’m lucky. I said I would go and started saving up, and two months ago when I went to buy the ticket, I realized that those dates coincided with graduation weekend.
I spent the better part of three weeks debating about what to do, and you already know what I decided. I only regretted it for a few minutes when I saw my graduating friends’ Snapchats of them all together at graduation, and I had a serious case of FOMO…for five minutes, and then I remembered I had been floating around in the Caribbean with my best friend I never get to see instead of standing in a hot, crowded stadium for six hours, and I felt better.
Last summer, I backpacked around Europe with a friend and fell head over heels in love with Barcelona, Spain. Ever since I left eleven months ago, I’ve been saying I wanted to live there and have a post-college non-office job for a few months before I decided to Adult. After buying my Cartagena ticket with no real plan, I decided just to go for it.
Next week, I’m traveling to Madrid, Spain by myself for four days before moving to Barcelona.
I have no idea how long I’ll end up doing that for or what I’m doing after, and about once a day, I have a momentary freak out about traveling alone, running out of money, etc. etc. etc. But this is what I’m doing, and obviously, I’m pretty excited about it.