We arrived pretty late after a long bus from Santa Marta with our travel buddy Camellia. At one point the bus stopped on a road with lots of other traffic - we understood the reason to be that there were no lights in the next village. Not sure why this stopped us as vehicles usually have their own lights but the police were there so it must have been a lighting emergency.
The bus station is a half hour drive away so we bundled into an uber and went to Getsemani the cheaper gringo part of town. It was dark but the city looked extremely pretty and after the faff of finding a room when everyone wants to 'help' we settled down to sleep whilst Camellia hit the town.
We'd read on someone's blog that getting up early in Cartagena is a must to beat the crowds and the heat. So we were out by 6am to do some sight seeing, which felt very strange! It is an old walled city, fortified by the Spanish because other countries, including Britain, had their eye on also claiming this land for themselves. The old town is just a small part of the city though, and we enjoyed the juxtaposition of the very old city walls and castles mixed in with the twinkling glass towers that make up the financial district's sky line.
The only people out at 6am were coffee sellers and people that hadn't gone to bed yet. Rather than joining them for a beer, we chose coffee instead and a few pastries to keep us going before a proper breakfast later on. The buildings in the old town were all higgldy pigglydy with ornate wooden balconies on the second floors and flaking bright coloured paintwork.
Walking the narrow streets took us to squares, triangles and finally to the edge, where we found our way up onto the wall. Here we were treated to a different view of the city, and circumnavigated the old town, observing as the city woke up and the streets became full of locals eating their breakfast and walking to work or school, appearing through gaps or roads through the wall.
Once the sun was fully up we were rather pleased/smug that we'd gotten up so early. Walking on that wall in the full sun would have been god awful. On our way back we passed the covered arches of Portal De Los Dulces, home to loads of homemade sweet stalls. We bought some super rich super tasty dulce de lech fudge.
Opposite the arches underneath Torre Del Reloj (the grand entrance to the old town) we stumbled across a cute little book shop, unfortunately all the titles were in Spanish and they had nothing for our reading age of 4-6 year olds.
As we walked back to Getsemani we saw more and more of the city slowly shaking off the cobwebs of the night before and getting ready for a new day. Fruit and veg sellers were wheeling their carts through the streets, shutters were rattling as business started opening up and rumbles started to echo down the little street we walked as our stomachs told us it was time for a proper breakfast.
Beiyú was the lucky cafe, its main selling point was a great glassless window under a mass of ivy which was great for people watching. Later we decided to move hostels to get a cheap double room as we were in a dorm in the place we stayed the night before. This was to prove to be a big mistake.
The rest of the day was spent admining and blogging until 4ish with a really tasty lunch to break up the boredom at a little cafe next to our hostel called Caffé Lunático. They served us a little complementary mug of mushroom soup as an appetiser... it was amazing!
In the evening we walked back to the old town to catch the sunset at Cafe Del Mar, a bar on the western facing corner of the wall. It was obviously a popular spot, as locals and gringos alike were all there to see the show, accompanied by expensive gin and tonics. The security was pretty heavy handed here but we thought the canons were a bit excessive.
Looking out into the Caribbean Sea from behind a canon we tried to imagine Francis Drake's entire navy anchored off shore holding the city to siege. Not much has changed to this view since the 1500's, except the addition of a massive freeway that would probably make storming the city even harder when confronted with Colombian drivers.
From here we stumbled upon a nightly dance show in one of Cartagena's many little squares. The dancers moved their bodies faster and with more force and bigger smiles than I've ever seen before. They were fabulous, and somehow managed costume changes in the middle of the square, accompanied by live music, and bell ringing ice cream sellers weaving in and out of the crowd. We were impressed.
After a few beers on Plaza De La Trinidad back in Getsemani, we were ready to call it a night. A slapstick street performer provided the entertainment with such a simplistic idea. He had a hat and a wig which he would use in different ways to mimic people walking along the street. In an instant he could go from being a huge body builder, to a stooped over old lady. He captured people's characters and movements perfectly and had everyone in stitches, including a police man on duty who seemed to be his biggest fan.
Back at our new place Hostal Getsemaniwe had a problem. In our whole two years we have not yet had to deal with bed bugs. But once we turned off the light I felt the bites. I was covered already in mosquito and sandfly bites on my legs from the last week but these were new on the shoulders and neck. On went the light and we found the biter. We moved rooms and of course they were in the the new room too. So at 2am we found ourselves back in the hostel over the road that we'd been in the night before. What a palaver, oddly Camillia was still awake and welcomed us back.
On our last morning we managed to nip over to the San Filipe Castle for a quick tour of the grounds, including the old escape tunnels. It was an impressive old building and we now know its possible to run round in under half an hour!
In my mind I was expecting the cousin of Dubrovnik in Croatia, however I think Cartegena is perhaps the niece. It had bucket loads of charm, it just needs a spot where you can jump in the sea to cool off after a morning of sight seeing!