It’s been six weeks since I spent my 37th birthday in Cartagena, one of the best in recent memory. I’d been to Cartagena twice before, but it was Viviana’s first time.
Due to a Home Away vacation rental voucher I’d won in last year’s Passports with Purpose fundraiser, I had the rare opportunity to splurge on luxury accommodation for us.
I went all out, booking a two-story penthouse on the 32nd and 33rd floors of a new building located between the Old City and airport. I wanted to surprise Viviana, so I told her we were staying somewhere modest.
Early on a Tuesday afternoon in late September, we took a taxi to the Jose Maria Cordova International Airport in Rio Negro. After checking in, we headed over to our gate, where I proceeded to discuss strategy with Viviana.
VivaColombia is a discount airline, so they don’t assign seats, and most people don’t pay the extra few dollars to select them.
Seats are on a first come, first serve basis, and I wanted to be as close to the front of the plane as possible to avoid having to wait for the whole plane to empty out in Cartagena.
Well, as it turned out, the exact opposite would happen. We heard multiple boarding announcements for a different flight to Santa Marta, but none for ours, until the very last boarding call.
The gate number had changed, and neither of us picked up on it. Needless to say, we had to both take aisle seats at the back of the plane. Doh.
Upon arrival in Cartagena, we took a taxi to our building, where we met the housekeeper who let us into our penthouse for the next three nights.
Everything was exactly as it looked in the photos. Viviana was certainly surprised by our new digs, and I was looking forward to a few nights of luxury.
Day 1: Tuesday Evening
After unpacking and taking some photos, we washed up and caught a taxi into the Old City. Though it was overcast, I still wanted our first stop to be a sunset cocktail at Cafe del Mar.
The bar is located on top of the old, cannon-lined wall. The Caribbean breeze is a constant, and on a clear day, you have perfect views of the setting sun.
I opted for a mojito, while Viviana tried a Singapore Sling for the first time.
Next, we wandered down off the wall and through the city until we reached Carmen restaurant’s new Cartagena location in the Anandá Boutique Hotel.
It was too hot and humid for the courtyard, so we opted for the more brightly lit dining room.
I’m going to save the food photos for a separate post, but I’ll throw out a spoiler, our first night’s dinner at Carmen topped both our lists of best meals on the trip.
Day 2: Wednesday
Wednesday morning I awoke to find the downstairs level decorated in birthday balloons and a “Feliz Cumpleanos” banner. It was the first in a series of surprises throughout the day.
I don’t want to give away all of Viviana’s trade secrets, but I must say she doesn’t mess around when it comes to helping someone celebrate his birthday!
For brunch, I suggested Mila, a pastry shop and restaurant recommended by my friend Juan. He’d been in Cartagena the week before to help celebrate the birthdays of a few mutual friends of ours.
When Viviana excused herself to use the restroom, I thought nothing of it, until later when a waitress brought over a chocolate cupcake with a single, sparkling candle, as the Spanish version of the happy birthday song played over the sound system.
From Mila, we took a taxi to the San Felipe castle, which incidentally, we could see from our apartment, along with the rest of Cartagena.
It felt just as hot as the last time I walked around the fort three years earlier.
We both needed a break from the intense humidity, so we headed back to the apartment to cool off. Once there, we booked a day trip to the Rosario Islands and Playa Blanca.
I wanted to show Viviana a bit of Bocagrande, even though I knew the beaches weren’t that great.
On the way there, I told her about my first experience in 2009 with the aggressive touts, especially the women offering massages who start slathering goop on you for free, as they continue to try to seduce you into buying a full blown massage.
I wasn’t going to fall for it this time! I still had vivid memories of escaping into the sea to wash whatever it was they tried to slather on me.
We rolled up to the beach, and grabbed a little yellow cabana, which was serviced by a bar and restaurant thirty meters away.
Immediately upon arrival, we were swarmed by touts. The women offering massages were a familiar sight, and there were guys selling bracelets and jewelry too.
I know they’re all working hard to make a living, and I appreciate that, but it’s their aggressiveness that grates on me.
You go to the beach to relax, but before you can even sit down, you’ve got all these people in your face, blocking your view of the water.
Viviana was very polite, but eventually one of the massage ladies smeared some goop on her, and she took that as her cue to escape into the water.
I stayed behind to watch our stuff, which gave the crab guy an opening. He kneeled down, and cracked open a crab leg to give me a taste. I bit out the little bit of meat, thinking it was a free offer.
Before I realized what was happening, he began to crack open a series of crab legs, dripping a little lime juice on each before handing them to me. After ten of them, he whipped out his rate card.
I said there was no way I was paying 40,000 pesos ($20), but he shook his head, and said it was only 20,000 pesos ($10), which was still a ripoff in my mind.
For the same price, I could’ve ordered a proper lunch from the beach restaurant servicing us. I got angry, and told him he’d tricked me, while at the same time handing over a 20,000 peso bill.
That was the last we saw of him, and I swore I’d never to go back to the beaches of Bocagrande.
The crab incident was the last straw, so we called it quits at the beach, and returned to the apartment for birthday cake.
That night, we went out for a nice dinner, followed by a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride through the Old City.
I wasn’t paying too much attention to our guide’s words, but I did catch which homes belonged to famous Colombians, including Shakira, Juanes, and Fernando Botero.
Day 3: Thursday
The next morning, we woke up to grey skies, which soon gave way to torrential rains at exactly the same time we were suppose to leave the apartment for our trip to the Rosario Islands.
Between staying in bed, and going out in the rain and choppy seas, it wasn’t a hard decision. We called the tour company and cancelled the trip.
A few hours later, the rain let up enough for us to venture out, so I took Viviana to La Cevicheria, where I’d eaten twice before during my last visit to Cartagena.
The restaurant had expanded from an initial six or seven tables to include a much larger dining room with a cute blue and white motif, and lots of semi-naked mermaids hanging off the walls.
After lunch, we took a taxi to the Convento Santa Cruz de la Popa, which occupies a hill overlooking Cartagena.
There wasn’t much to see up there, aside from a panorama view of the city.
In the evening, we took my friends Karen and Eric’s recommendation, and went to dinner at Demente, a tapas bar in the Getsemani neighborhood.
The tapas were excellent, as was the atmosphere, and owner’s big drooling bulldog.
I could’ve spent the whole night there, sipping chilled white wine, while working my way through the tapas menu.
It’s a short walk from Demente, no more than a few blocks, to Cafe Havana, the best salsa bar in Cartagena.
We arrived early in order to get a table, and I splurged on the menu’s fanciest rum to further celebrate my birthday.
The salsa bar began to fill up, and as I recalled from 2010, there wasn’t much room to dance by that point. I was a smidge intoxicated, so we didn’t stay too much longer before calling it a night.
Day 4: Friday
The sun was shining for our last day on the coast, and while we missed our chance at Playa Blanca, we still had the building’s infinity pool to enjoy.
After a late morning dip in the poo, we went back to Mila for another delicious lunch, and then wandered around a bit more.
It was so hot, we didn’t last long before retreating once again to the air-conditioned apartment.
When it came time to leave for the airport, a warm glowing sun had begun to fall toward the horizon.
While it would’ve been nice to have that sunset our first night, it did provide a pretty backdrop as we began the journey home.
Dude, what an excellent way to spend a birthday! Beautiful views, good food and your special lady at your side. This is what life is about. Congrats amigo!
Thanks, and it also felt like my first real vacation in a long time (I was offline almost the whole time).
Nice write up off my adopted city.
A word of advice regarding the beach vendors at Bocagrande.
You have to be polite but also very firm with them….Otherwise…well you already know.
Trust me, I was being polite but firm to all of them, but it was both annoying and exhausting. If I go back for a fourth time, I’d rather spend a few nights on one of the islands instead.
All you could always spend a lovely relaxing day here…http://www.karmairi.com/
$110,000 COP per person, includes welcome cocktail and 2 course lunch…you wont be bothered by any beach vendors.
I am so happy for you Dave!
Thanks Kevin, hope you’re doing well too 🙂
Hahaha I can’t believe you of all people got suckered into the crag dude on the beach. I was there last year and between him and the oyster guy, they drove me nuts. It’s funny on the wiki page for tourism in Cartagena they mention this trick
Watch out for vendors selling oysters: they will give you an oyster as a present (regalo) to taste. They will quickly crack the shells and serve you a number of oysters, after which you will be told that they each cost 2,000 pesos.