Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
June 9, 2024

Cartagena de Indias - a place to sweat your ass off in the beautiful narrow streets filled with vibrant life and culture. A city where historic charm meets modern challenges. A city where, once again in my life, I was reminded to challenge initial impressions and seek out deeper connections.

A colorful street in Getsemaní, Colombia, lined with bright umbrellas and colorful buildings.
There is a certain beauty in how the mundane and messy environment chaotically blends with exotic and unusual details, creating a complex yet simple feeling of welcome

While living my isolated and remote lifestyle in Taganga, I debated with myself about where to go next. On the one hand, I was drawn to Medellín, a place highly praised by other travelers I met. On the other, my heart craved for Cartagena to experience its small, colorful, and lively streets. Although several people suggested that Medellín might be a better option, especially since I was planning to stay longer, feelings and proximity won this battle.

Sadly, traveling from Taganga to Cartagena, I was once again reminded of the trash covering the beautiful Colombian landscape. The peak of all that was when a driver, almost proudly, threw the wrapper of the candy he had just bought straight onto the ground without a second thought. The pollution issues were even more evident in Cartagena, where wandering slightly off the beaten path often led to places cluttered with piles of trash and construction materials. Be it next to the flowing river, green trees, or under the bridge - no place was safe.

Continuing with the theme of issues in the country, while traveling, I met an ex-police narcotics officer who was traveling to meet his son who serves in the Armada de la República de Colombia (given that my Spanish is not advanced, there is always a possibility of an error). Leaving aside the impressive fact that he was aware of where my home country is and some history about it, I was impressed by how deeply he was reflecting on his own country and its issues. On top of all that, this encounter was even more special as I learned a new word - débiles, which, given the context it was used (government) and the context of where I have heard this word in another language, was somewhat amusing.

Heading linkStranger

An array of international flags (including one that looks like Lithuanian) hung across a street, with green foliage peeking through.
That awkward moment when you're not sure if you're seeing your flag or the flag of Bolívar

Deciding between Medellín and Cartagena, I was trying to gather as much information as possible. As usual, this led me to reading a lot of comments and messages on different forums. This meant that before even reaching Cartagena, I had already planted a seed of bias in my mind.

Reading many different discussions, I felt that people who could be associated with me due to looks or life status were not really welcome here. Honestly, it's not hard to understand the locals' resentment of extranjeros who come for drugs, prostitution, or cheap thrills.

This seed of prejudice made me feel like I wasn't really welcomed here. All the small details and first interactions in Cartagena seemed unfriendly (or I was mentally prepared to see them in this way). However, after some time, I met some local people and with each encounter, I felt more at ease. Granted, I didn't come here for drugs or sex, so I think it allowed me to meet the kindness of the locals and see the true beauty of the place.

I think the more I learned and experienced, the freer I felt. Initially, I felt that there was no place for me outside the walled city, but as time passed, I felt more and more at ease, able to observe and appreciate the authentic side of Cartagena.

Heading linkMy Take

Mulata Cartagenera painting by Enrique Grau Araújo
Mulata Cartagenera by Enrique Grau Araújo

I came to Cartagena because I wanted to walk through those narrow and vibrant streets. While they might not seem special in the grand scheme, they captivated me from the moment I saw pictures of them, and I wanted to experience them firsthand. I also needed a stable place for a longer time to finish up the remaining work on Invoicy. On top of all that, I happened to be close to Cartagena. Considering all that information, you can understand my biases and reasons.

Cartagena is undoubtedly a tourist-filled city with its fair share of problems. It's a place where historic beauty and vivid streets coexist with inequality and exploitation. Like any city, your experience will greatly depend on your intentions.

So, in my case, how was the old town that initially intrigued me? Surprisingly, I wasn't disappointed. Perhaps it was due to timing or other factors, but there were almost no other tourists when I wandered the streets of Getsemaní. I loved the blend of vibrant colors, colonial architecture, and the somewhat unpolished, messy environment. I got what I wanted and was happy.

Shockingly, I was almost never bothered in the old town. From others' experiences, I was prepared to be constantly approached by vendors, but in reality, it was far from the truth. Maybe it was because I wore plain, worn-out clothes, or maybe my tan made me look less like a tourist. However, all these theories were shattered when I finally visited the beaches of Bocagrande. I hadn't felt so “special” and loved by every vendor in a long time. Everyone was my amigo and hermano. Everyone had the best cocktail at the best price. Everyone had all the things I needed (even if they weren't on the official menu). Honestly, at some point walking back, I walked by the ocean just so I didn't get bothered by all of my brothers and sisters who had so much to offer.

The beaches in Cartagena aren't to my taste (there are closer islands, but at least the most popular ones have a bit too much of a party vibe for me), but I didn't come for them. The weather is very humid and hot, but I'm okay with that. Safety is a debatable topic, but if you don't come for drugs, prostitution, or parties, I think the city becomes much safer for you. The old town and its vivid, colorful, narrow, and charming streets are wonderful.

Is it a place to stay for a long time? For me, no. I think two full days would have been enough to explore the major gems of the city. But I don't regret staying longer. One of the most important takeaways from that trip was that, over time, I was able to shift my perspective on things seeded by others, reminding myself that most things in life should be experienced firsthand.

Heading linkStatement Rain

A street stall in Portal de Los Dulces displaying a variety of traditional sweets in clear glass jars.
Variety of traditional sweets in Portal de los Dulces


— I loved the vibrant colors and how they blend with the less polished parts of the street.

— While cocadas were too sweet for me, I think visiting Portal de los Dulces, finding the oldest seller with the sweetest smile, and buying some local sweets is a must.


— Honestly, those party night chiva buses are pretty annoying.

— Probably the place where I saw the biggest amount of machismo throughout my life. It's mind-boggling how local men basically auto-aim women with their eyes.

— I believe that pollution is a serious issue. While it's not noticeable in the old town, once you wander off, you will certainly find piles of trash. The most painful ones are next to the river or in other natural areas.


— The humidity and heat are intense here. Be prepared to sweat.

— I was surprised by the number of policewomen. I haven't seen such a ratio in other places.

— The honking in the streets is sometimes out of control. Next time, I'll bring the strongest handheld horn for a bit of revenge.

— The colorful and sticker-filled old buses reminded me of Ecuador.

— Nothing brought as big a smile at the grocery store as checking the receipt when you finish shopping. Especially when you have a full cart, and the security guard signs off like a movie star.

© 2024 Edvinas Byla

(my lovely corner on the internet™)