One of the positives of working in an economically depressed country is that when you earn an income as a professional, your monthly earnings reach into the millions! But here in Colombia, that’s only in Colombian Pesos. Trying to figure out exactly how much that equates to and how many days it will last takes a little bit of time, especially when my weekly groceries were costing me over 300,000 pesos! So, after carefully saving my pesos for several months, I had some savings to spend when friends (Juliana Shapiro), and family (Julie and Doug Dawson) came to visit. Here’s some photos of our adventures to give you a better idea of the touristy side of Cartagena and the north coast of Colombia.

Cartagena de Indias

The highlight of Cartagena is its Historic Center. The city of Cartagena de Indias was founded by the Spaniards in 1533 and was a vital port city for moving huge amounts of slaves into the new world while funneling gold and silver out of Peru and Ecuador, as well as emeralds out of Colombia. Sugar cane, tobacco and coffee beans were other important exports. All of these riches, of course, were destined for Spain. But during the 1500’s, pirate attacks became so fierce, the Spaniards had to build a thick fortress wall around Cartagena as well as several armed forts along the coast to defend Cartagena’s bay. This historic walled city and the forts have been beautifully preserved over the centuries and UNESCO identified it all as a World Heritage Site in 1984. I love to stroll the cobblestone streets, taking in the colorful buildings, the shops and restaurants, the bougainvillea-draped balconies, the roof-top bars and wide European plazas. The horse-drawn carriages clip-clop down the street and the angled light of the setting sun transports you back in time. It’s very magical, and romantic. People come from all over the world to have their weddings and honeymoons here, and it’s easy to see why. 

Cartagena’s wall is no longer filled with armaments, but vendors, locals and visitors walking the wall to enjoy the city and the setting sun.
It’s fun to stroll and eat at restaurants on top of the wall surrounding the city, then drop down into the historic center to enjoy the architecture and culture of Cartagena.

From the walled city, it’s an easy walk along the public boat docks to the city park, Parque Centenario. Families of monkeys, sloths and iguanas call this place home and it’s always fun to spot them in the trees.

On the other side of the park, the working-class district of Getsamani begs for a wander. This is an historically important African-Colombian neighborhood who after years of being known as crime-ridden and unsafe, has recently united to rebrand themselves as the art district with colorful streets, fun restaurants and artisans lining the walkways. It’s really fun to take pictures of all the colors in Getsamani!

Cartagena, of course is all about the beach. There’s wide beaches, narrow beaches, crowded beaches, desolate beaches, and everything in between. I love paddle boarding along the remote stretches, or walking among the chaos of the tourist beaches. But my favorite experience during the windy season is being wherever I can watch the kite surfers pull off their high-flying tricks. 

Baru Peninsula and Rosario Islands

For boat and beach lovers, a quick-getaway to “the islands” is always a favorite activity. Off the coast of Cartagena, the Baru Peninsula and the 30+ islands of Rosario National Park boast white sand, clear blue waters and all varieties of resorts for your pleasure. I took some day tours out to this area for snorkeling adventures, to see the Colombian National Aviary, and once to a sweet resort on a weekend get-away. 


A little further afield is the historical community of San Basilio de Palenque, the first free African community in the New World. Slaves were an important reason for Cartagena’s growth and thousands were brought to this city throughout the 16th and 17th century to build the fortification walls and to keep the wealthy living in a style in which they were accustomed.

This monument to Benkos Biohó, who is reaching towards Africa, is in the center square of Palenque.

Benkos Biohó, a former African king from either the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola, was one of those slaves captured and brought to Cartagena. But in 1599, he escaped. He fled into the swamps to the south of Cartagena and built a powerful community with other escapees. Despite being from several different African countries, they combined their vocabulary and developed an original language of Bantú, or Palenquero. They also designed a unique organizational structure for their community and a system of escape routes, with maps braided into women’s hair, to aid other slaves still in Cartagena. Their efforts paid off. The network of different Palenque communities grew so successfully that in 1603, the Spaniards were forced to sign a “Capitulation of Peace” in hopes of limiting the number of slaves escaping to the swamps. By 1713, probably to save face, the Spanish crown issued a Royal Decree that officially freed the Palenqueros from slavery, thereby giving this community status as the first free African community in the New World.

Today, the approximate 3,500 residents of Palenque work hard to keep their history alive. They maintain their Bantú language (the students study it in their school) and it is recognized as one of Colombia’s native languages. They still live by their original organization of community policing and laws. Many of the community members have taken on African names. And they proudly promote their African oral, musical and cultural traditions by giving tours of their community, and presentations in the streets of Cartagena. It’s common to see the Palenqueras, or women, dressed in their traditional clothing selling sweet treats from baskets on their heads. They are famous for their coconut cake, syrups, peanut or tamarind balls and fresh fruit.

My sister, Julie, and I with the Palenqueros in Cartagena.

UNESCO declared this community, San Basilio de Palenque, a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005. I wanted to see more, so we took a tour and thoroughly enjoyed learning about their history, their dances, and their famous candies. The Palenque flag is Black, representing their homeland and the people from which they came, Blue for the ocean they crossed, and Green for the new land they have populated. Palenqueros believe that when they die, their spirit will return to their homeland in Africa.

Minca and Tayrona National Park

Finally, during the long weekends, I have gotten a little further afield from Cartagena to explore the mountain oasis of Minca and the remote mountainous areas around Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park.

It was here where I had my most favorite Colombian adventure so far:

I had spent much of the morning lounging in a series of tropical waterfalls and chatting with other visitors. By early afternoon, I decided to head out and discover another area of the national park before dark. A few people had told me that if I found a bus heading to the west, I would find some more beaches and interesting sites within a 30-minute drive. So, with this in mind, I headed out to the main road and waited for a bus to pass by. Before long, a large white van pulled up along side of me, and a young woman in the passenger seat rolled down her window and asked me in Spanish for directions to the next beach. I stared at her thinking it odd that she was asking ME for directions, but I relayed the directions that the other locals had given me. She smiled and turned to the young man in the driver seat and they agreed to carry on. But before they pulled away, I quickly said, “I’m going there too. Do you have space in your van for this Gringita to ride along?” They both smiled, shrugged their shoulders and the driver pushed a button to open the side door. And you wouldn’t believe what I saw; over 20 smiling people who welcomed me with gusto into their traveling family party! A middle aged man jumped up from his makeshift place in the aisle and he insisted that I sit down in what I realized was a wheelchair, while he found some space further back in the van. As the door shut beside me, everyone was full of laughter and questions. “What is your name?” “Why are you standing alongside the road?” and “How do you like Colombia?”. One by one they introduced themselves and I met the grandmother, her children, many of their cousins and, when the littlest found their courage, their sweet little-kid faces poked up above the seats to say “Hello” to me in English. They were all on a week-long coastal road trip and were so happy and welcoming to have me along. I ended up spending the rest of the afternoon with them at the beach, eating lunch, drinking beers, and swimming in a river known for its crocodiles! (I didn’t know that at the time!) At dark, I returned to the main road to find a bus back to my hostile, with promises that when I adventure to each of their respective towns around Colombia, I’d look them up again. They gave me a lot of hope for what my adventures outside of Cartagena could be like in my future. 

My First Colombian Family Adventure

Thanks to Julie and Doug Dawson and Juliana Shapiro for helping me explore Cartagena!