Colombia – Readers Travel Tips – Debbie's Caribbean Resort Reviews

DUGOUT CANOE TO PARADISE, LA BOQUILLA COLOMBIA…………..James Smith

The dugout canoe didn’t look that seaworthy but the kid in charge of it did seem confident. Besides his smile was infectious, so I nodded in agreement and jumped in. He quickly cast of and polled us away from the shore and into another world.

La Boquilla is a tiny fishing village east of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. There is not much to draw one to the village itself sitting on a narrow strip of land between the sea and mangrove swamps. In fact the evident abject poverty of the village may drive many away. Beyond the village though are attractions that make the journey worth it.

The beach at La Boquilla is spectacular. It is in all ways much superior to the ones back in the city, whose skyline can be seen on the western horizon. During the weekends this beach is crowded with people who stream out of Cartagena to enjoy its spacious beauty. There a dozens of simple seafood restaurants and beach shack bars to provide all with food and drink. Midweek however the place is practically deserted. Both the beach and village are easily reached by taxi or local bus from Cartagena.

Aside from the beach, La Boquilla has one other attraction. At the eastern edge of the village are several dugout canoes drawn up on a shingle of land. For the most part they are used by the local fisherman who can be seen in the nearby waters with their unique circular nets. It is possible to rent one of them and a guide for an excursion into the swamps. The canoes are quite seaworthy, despite their appearance and the enterprising young men who man them are very competent. Depending on how long of a tour you want , and when in the week, trips can cost between $5.00 to $15.00 and are worth every penny.

Within minutes of casting off, you leave the village far behind and are plunged into a unique world. Narrow channels of water snack between clumps of jungle. All of it is alive with fascinating flora and fauna., so make sure you bring your camera. At some points the overhanging trees block out the sky and it’s like sailing through a green tunnel.

The actual swamp is not that big, bordered by the sea, and the nearby Airport and coastal highway. However once in the middle it, it seems infinite. It only requires a little imagination to pretend you are in the middle of the Amazon thousands of miles to the south.

Part of the swamp tour includes a small isolated beach separated from the main one to the west. it is possible to stop her for a swim and or picnic if one wishes to. The guide will either wait or return for you at a prearranged time. Eventually the tour ends and you are returned to the hustle and bustle of civilization.
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SHOPPING IN CARTAGENA………….James Smith

Cartagena Colombia is a shoppers paradise with goods to suit all tastes and budgets. The relatively low value of the local currency, the Colombian Peso, in relation to North American and European currencies ensures your money will go a long way here.

Naturally coffee is a mandatory souvenir. There is no way you want to come home after a trip to Colombia and not be able to offer a cup to your friends, neighbors and coworkers. Besides after you enjoy a cup of this wonderful elixir, while visiting the city, you’ll be hooked and want to load up for yourself.

Coffee can be purchased just about anywhere in the city, but here’s a tip. Stay away from the tourist shops when buying this. Naturally the price is inflated, but not necessarily the quality. For coffee and other similar purchases like tobacco and alcohol, your best bet is to shop where the locals do at one of the large department stores, Vivaro, "the Colombian Walmart", or the more upscale Magali Paris.

Both chains have stores in El Centro. Prices and selection here are generally better than at those shops geared toward the tourist trade. You can also buy small packets of different brands which make great and practical souvenirs for those back home.

After coffee, Colombia is perhaps most famous for it’s gold and emeralds. There are numerous jewelry shops in both El Centro and Boca Grande many of which can make up a custom piece within a couple of days. When you visit be sure to check to see if there is a small attached factory where you can watch these skilled craftsman at work.

Other good buys worth looking at include reproductions of Pre Colombian art, leather goods such as boots and belts, and beautiful hand made vests, bags and wall hangings. For those who enjoy bargains and don’t mind haggling this is the city for you. The beaches and streets of Boca Grande are filled with people who will try and sell you anything.

For the most part what is offered is the same as one finds at almost any tourist destination around the world. Cheap T-shirts, imitation designer sunglasses, fake Rolex watches and Cuban cigars abound here. To say that their sales pitch is persistent is an understatement and being kind. One enterprising individual must have the airline schedules memorized. On my last day he had added cheap nylon flight bags and suitcases to cart all the other souvenirs home to his wares.

One of the best places to shop for at is Las Bovedas in El Centro. This is a series of twenty-three dungeons built into the ancient outer wall of the city. Originally they were built as barracks and then used as storerooms and powder magazines,. Now twenty-two have been restored and turned into small upscale shops. The twenty-third is a small bar run by a retired matador. Naturally it is decorated with artifacts from his past, including capes posters and several mounted bull heads. it s a great place to take a break from shopping. The large Vivaro department store is located close by, for those who want to get all their shopping done in one go.

Finally one set of vendors always worth dealing with are the Native Indians. They’ll set up in the same locations as the other vendors, mainly on the beach and Avienda San martin in Boca Grande. They sell elaborate wood carvings, and colourful clothing, vests hats and ponchos. For the most part they are much more polite and reserved then the other vendors, almost shy. Some real bargains can be found here.

Whether you are spending a week there, or a just a day excursion from a cruise ship, do take the chance to shop till you drop in Cartagena, and remember to leave plenty of room in your suitcase before you go.
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CASTILLO SAN FELIPE DE BARAJAS, CARTAGENA………………James Smith

In 1586 a fleet of British ships under the command the infamous Privateer Francis Drake, dropped anchors off Cartagena. The British stormed ashore and quickly defeated the Spanish garrison. Cartagena was the repository for all the gold and other treasures from the Spanish colonies in the new world. It was stored here in immense ware houses prior to being shipped across the Atlantic to Spain.

The British soon discovered that the treasure houses were empty. The wily Spanish, having been alerted to the attack had hidden the treasures in the nearby jungle. Furious at this deception, Drake threatened to sack and burn the town unless the treasure was delivered into his hands. After lengthy and bitter negotiations, he accepted a ransom. and sailed away content. Cartagena was spared.

Humiliated at the ease with which one of their principal cities in the colonies had been captured, the Spanish began building an immense series of fortifications to defend the port. One of the harbour entrances was sealed and forts were established on small islands to defend the other entrance. The entire town was enclosed in walls twenty metres high and thirty metres thick. Hundreds of cannons were mounted to cover all approaches.

The constructions and improvements became an ongoing project that would last over one hundred years. The pinnacle was the construction of the massive impregnable Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fortress in the new world, on a hill overlooking the town. Construction on it began in 1630 and was completed twenty-seven years later.

In 1741 Britain and Spain were again at war. Once again a British fleet sailed over the horizon and dropped anchor off Cartagena. A force of 186 ships and 20,000 troops under Admiral Vernon faced less than 3,000 Spanish defenders under Don Blas de Lezo. This time the outcome was different. Unable to best the new immense fortifications and wracked by disease, the British were defeated and sailed away.

Visitors to modern day Cartagena, a resort city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, are assured a warmer welcome than either Drake or Vernon was. It is still possible to see the numerous small forts. The walls, carefully preserved, still surrounds the original part of the city, now a UNESCO world heritage site. The centre piece is still Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, perched on an imposing hill and visible from almost all parts of the city.

The fortress is open to the public for a nominal charge. Guided tours in English and Spanish are available or you may choose to wander about at your leisure with the help of a guide pamphlet. One can wander the ramparts and climb the battlements. There are fantastic views of the city, bay and Carribean Sea from here. Pose beside one of the ancient cannon and let your imagination run wild as you scan the horizon for enemy sails.

Be sure not to miss the tunnels that snake under the fortress. Dug into the hill, they were especially designed to allow the defenders to repulse a land attack from any direction. They are designed in such a way that sound travels through them to always give the defending troops knowledge of exactly where the invaders were. Nowadays the tunnels are well lit with electric lights, but it does not require much to imagine the terror of fighting in them with only flickering candles, or worse complete darkness.
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GALLO LOCO, CARTAGENA COLOMBIA……………James Smith

Ok I’ll be honest, I’m not sure of the name of this place. That requires a little clarification I guess. I used to know the name, in fact I’ve known the last three names they’ve used. Odds are though, that it’s changed again since my last visit. Irregardless of what it says on the sign on the door, this is still a fun place and worth a visit.

When I first visited it in 1996, the place was called Club Bananas Disco. It was technically part of the Decameron Hotel/Resort in Cartagena. That is to say guests at the hotel got in free. Anyone else ended up paying a cover charge of around $10.00 US, or the equivelent in Pesos. The amount changed almost nightly as the Colombian Peso was fluctuating wildly that week against the US Dollar. For your $10.00 you got access and an open bar which is a pretty good deal.

The place is located in Boca Grande, the long narrow peninsula that contains Cartagena’s hotels, and night life. It’s actually near the point where the peninsula bends back towards the harbour., hear the Caribe and Hilton Hotels. It’s a fair walk from the Decameron, but there is a shuttle bus and taxis are cheap and plentiful.

The place is right on the beach and in the day time also serves as the water sport centre for the Decameron Hotel. The second floor also contains the hotel’s Japanese Restaurant. The food and service are well worth a visit. That is provided you can get a reservation, it is that popular.

This a party place, and in Boca Grande that’s saying something. It’s not as fancy, trendy as la Escollera the large thatch roofed beach front disco a few blocks away. That is the place "to be and be seen at" in Cartagena. Then again it’s not as crowded, expensive or stuck up.

What it is though, is a place to dance and party to loud, very loud music. At least that’s downstairs. The upstairs is a little quieter, as is the patio that overlooks the beach. A quick word of warning, many, though not all, of the extremely beautiful local ladies that frequent the place, especially the dance floor and tables around it, are shall we say "available." That is to say they are working girls. They’re actually kind of the tacky fun charm the place has. On the other hand families staying at the hotel are here also. That says a lot about attitudes in Cartagena I guess.

My last visit here I noticed that the name had been changed to Gallo Loco ( Crazy Parrot). This didn’t surprise me in the least. in the intervening year the place had also been called Klub Kactus, or at least one of the guide books I’d picked up told me so.

There didn’t appear to be any other changes when I reentered the doors my first night in Cartagena after a four year absence. The dance floor was still packed , the music loud and the bar crowded. There was one important change however as I found out. they’ve changed the rules, and there’ s no longer a large cover and open bar.

I discovered this after "generously’ ordering a round for two taxi loads of fellow Decameron guests. I was then presented with a whopping bar bill, seconds after they’d all downed their drinks. Fortunately we soon discovered that the smaller upstairs bar was still a Decameron guest only all inclusive one. Personal favourite drink here is Cafe Colombia a coffee liqueur. Ask for it in a brandy snifter with ice, trust me.

Rumours reached during my stay the Decameron may move it’s operation out of the bar. The beach club, all inclusive bar and Japanese Restaurant may be moved into the main hotel complex. I don’t know if and when this will happen. However I’m not worried, whatever happens, the place will still be there in form or another. Odds are the name will have changed, if it already hasn’t, but not much else will have.
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MATADOR BAR, CARTAGENA COLOMBIA……………….James Smith

Cartagena was originally Spain’s chief fortress in the new world. Anyone who has visited this fascinating Caribbean seaport city and seen the numerous forts and massive wall can attest to this. In the north west corner of Centro, the original walled city, is an ancient fortification, now put to a modern use.

Las Boveidas is a series of twenty three chambers built into the main wall. Each is a long and narrow room with curving ceilings. They were originally used as barracks and storage rooms for munitions and other supplies.

Now they are a series of upscale shops that serve the needs of the thousands of tourists that visit Cartagena regularly. That is at least twenty two of them are shops, the twenty third one is something altogether different. It is a bar, perfect for taking a break from shopping, or the strong Colombian midday sun, or both.

To be honest I don’t know the real name of this bar. I honestly don’t think it even has one. For me and everyone else I know who is aware of this place, it is simply the Matador Bar. The reason for this name is evident the minute you step through the door.

The entire place is a living testament to bull fighting. The walls are covered with photos of bull fighters, mainly ancient black and white faded prints. Interspersed with them are posters, detailing some of the most famous of this rare bread of men. Naturally there are a couple of mounted bulls heads as well staring down at the small wooden tables. Finally there are the beautifully coloured capes, spread out to view, on the rounded ceilings.

This tribute to the profession of the Matador, doesn’t end with just the inanimate decorations and furnishings. The owner, bartender is a retired Matador himself. A veteran of several brushes with death in the arena, he is more than willing to share his experiences over a glass when business is slow.

If you’re lucky, or interested, and his wife isn’t looking, she frowns on him showing off, he’ll even lift his shirt and show you his scars. Souvenirs of the ring, when the bull for once got the better of him. One look and it becomes obvious that bar tending is a more sedate occupation.

I’ve been here several times and make it a point to drop in for a drink at least once every time I’m in Cartagena. The place is never crowded, some regulars, locals usually and the occasional tourist, who wanders in out of curiosity while shopping next door are the main clientele. It’s a great place to escape the sun and humidity of the city. It’s cool and dark inside, and the ancient ceiling fans do keep the heat at bay, as does a cold beer or glass of rum.

My only complaint is that the place is never open during the evenings, only during the day. Then again this is Latin America and even old retired Matadors have better things to do in the night then tell stories to touristas. There are plenty of other bars in Cartagena and plenty of pretty girls to impress with tales of daring, and if they’re lucky a quick peek.
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TABLE DANCING, CARTAGENA STYLE……………James Smith

Cartagena, the syllables roll off of your tongue in an almost seductive manner. Why shouldn’t they, for this place offers all one would need in a vacation destination. An exotic foreign land, warm climate beaches, and perhaps even a hint of danger. This last point however is perhaps exaggerated. While unfortunately many parts of rural Colombia are best avoided, Cartagena is as safe or safer than any other comparable Caribbean city. One only needs to remember to pack your common sense with the sun block.

When the sun goes down and the cool breeze comes in off the water that’s when the fun begins, and Cartagena has more than its share of enticing night life. The city is divided into two main zones or districts, the modern high-rise, hotel beach zone of Boca Grande and the original old walled city, El Centro located a short distance away. Each has its own unique charm and attractions which both compliment and contrast each other. Cartagena offers something for everyone.

First is dining out, and while many of the cities hotels boast fine restaurants, they are by no means the only choices available. There is no way to begin to list all of the numerous restaurants in Cartagena, suffice to say one can’t go hungry here. Naturally seafood places predominate, but one can find something to satisfy all tastes and budgets from fine dining in Centro to fast food in Boca Grande. Cartagena boasts some excellent steak restaurants and a wide variety of other dining establishments including everything from Italian to Japanese cuisine.

In Boca Grande one should consider Dany el Churrasco Argentina for steak dinners, or Restaurante Nautilus with its sailor suit waiters and nautical decor for seafood. For something a little different there is Yap Yaps an authentic Japanese Restaurant in the heart of Latin America. In a hurry, there is always the Colombian version of McDonalds, Kokorico an inexpensive and popular fast food place complete with its own "golden arches."

El Centro also offers an equally extensive selection of dining establishments. In keeping with its more sedate pace the restaurants here are usually smaller and more intimate, perfect for that special meal. Recommended are Bodegon de Ia Candelaria and Pacos for seafood. The first is perhaps a bit pricey by local standards but very elegant. Don’t forget the tiny roof top bar El Mirador with its view of the city, after dinner. The later is a small charming establishment off Plaza Santo Domingo and if the weather permits dining at a candle lit table in the square is not to be missed.

Tucked away on a small side street off Plaza Santo Domingo is Donde Olano, which is worth the search for it. Here again seafood, especially Lobster, is the main fare on the menu. The surroundings are not only elegant but literally antique. The building the restaurant is located in is 300 years old and all the furniture and even the place settings are antiques. Try and be extra careful with the cut glass wine decanter.

There is no need to call it a night after dinner. For a quiet relaxing evening try any of the small bars and cantinas in El Centro especially those that surround Plaza Santo Domingo and relax and soak up the atmosphere at an open air table with a few friends pleasant conversations and a Cafe Colombia or a cold Polar Beer. Recommended are again Pacos and Cafe Santo Domingo and the tiny Bar Conde La Cruz located between the other two.

Wishing for a little more excitement, grab a cab and head for Boca Grande where the party goes on until dawn. The main area for discos and night clubs is at the Carrea 1 and Calle 5. Here is the giant thatch roofed La Escollera Disco located right on the beach. There are several other smaller places located around here all with parties that never seem to stop. At the end of the peninsula is Gallo Loco, popular with locals and guests of the Decameron Hotel who have free admission and free drinks included in their hotel package. By the time you read this the name will probably have changed again. In the last couple of years it has been called Bananarama and Klub Kactus.

Feeling lucky then try one or more of the several casinos located in Boca Grande. The one in the Hotel Caribe just off the main lobby is very popular and the setting matches the overall "old world" elegance of this establishment. It should not be con fused with the nearby "Caribe Casino" which is also worth a visit. There are also several smaller establishments either in the other hotels and/or on the main street, Avienda San Martin. The larger ones usually have facilities for credit card cash advances if your luck turns, and most are a convenient place to exchange money in the evening with better rates than hotel front desks.

When you’ve exhausted all these choices then head over to Calle de Arsenal near the convention center. The street is lined with several small bars and restaurants and while the pace is livelier than Centro it is not as frantic as Boca Grande. The most popular spot is Mr. Babillios, a restaurant and home to "table dancing" Cartagena style.

This requires some explanation before you think it is an "adults only establishment" .The restaurant is located in a small old building with a tiny courtyard which separates the dining rooms. There is no dance floor due to the small size of the place so the locals have improvised. After dinner patrons climb up onto the large oak tables and dance the night away. Usually they remove the dishes first.

A good introduction to Cartagena’s night life is the nightly Chiva Bus tour. This is an open bus that tours the city every night stopping at several night spots for a drink and then continuing on. The bus has its own open bar and live band to keep you amused between stops. Reservations can be made through your hotel. For something less exciting and more intimate a horse drawn carriage ride through the old city can also be arranged.

Getting around Cartagena is easy. In addition to the above choices, taxis are both plentiful and cheap. There are no meters and prices are set depending on how many zones or districts one travels through. From Boca Grande to Centro is usually $3.00, while within a district it is $2.00. Make sure you negotiate the price beforehand and note prices increase late at night. For the more adventurous there is the local bus system which may appear chaotic, but is actually as efficient as it is colorful. Renting a car for the city is not recommended due to the narrow streets and heavy traffic. The local saying is that drivers consider traffic lights as only Christmas Decorations.

Cartagena has all one has come to expect of a major city and tourist destination. The hotels offer all the requisite amenities, swimming pools, currency exchanges, tour desks. Many if not most even offer satellite television so you can keep in touch with what’s going on at home after a long day of shopping or sight seeing. This last amenity to me at least seem superfluous though. As you can see there is a lot more to do in Cartagena when the sun goes down than relax in your room and catch HBO or CNN. Go ahead get out and enjoy the night, that’s what vacations are for.

GETTING THERE:
There are regular charter flights from both Canada (Toronto and Montreal) and the United States on a weekly basis to Cartagena or nearby Barranquilla with onward ground transportation (approx. 2 hours). Alternatively there is direct service on several American and Colombian carriers from Miami Florida to either Cartagena direct or to other cities in Colombia with onward connections.

DOCUMENTATION:
Canadian and American travelers require a Passport and a tourist card (provided free by the Tour Operator or Airline). Other nationalities should check with their respective embassies or the Colombian Consulate.

ACCOMMODATION:
There are several cheap hotels in both Boca Grande and Centro where a room can be had for as little as $1 5-20 per night. These however are very basic. Dependent on the level of luxury one wants, rooms at Cartagena’s better tourist hotels can start at $100.00 per night. The best bet is to buy an air/hotel package. This can run dependent on what you want from $930.00 to $1650.00)() in low season and $1100.00 to $1950.00 in high season. These prices may include a meal plan and/or all-inclusive options (All prices are per person not including taxes)

MONEY:
The basic currency is the Colombian Peso. US dollars are also recommended, will be accepted at some but not all places as are credit cards, although your passport is required to make a credit card purchase. There are hundreds of ATMs in Cartagena mainly in Boca Grande. Some but not all will accept Canadian and American credit cards and the exchange rate is at bank rate. Please note they will not accept more than a 4 digit PIN.

FOR FURTHER INFO: Colombian Government Trade Bureau 4100 Yonge Street Toronto ON (416) 512-9212

Fax: (416) 512-9458

Colombian Government Tourist Office, 140 East 57th St. New York NY USA l0022

(212) 688-0151; Fax:(212) 752-8932.

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Last updated May 30, 2001

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