Confession: On our honeymoon in Cartagena, Colombia, my husband and I did not take a dip in the therapeutic mud at the Volcán del Totumo.
It sounded lovely. We could have made time for the excursion to slather on some warm gray mud. But instead, I discovered a new travel delight: slowing down and not worrying about hitting everything on the list.
I’ve always valued long stays—I spent four months in Spain and ten months in Costa Rica—and I love living somewhere long enough to memorize bus schedules and take painting classes. But my short trips had always been frenetic—seven days in Italy meant Rome, Florence, and Venice. A ten-day European rail tour included Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. For six days in Guatemala, I read two guidebooks cover-to-cover and planned accordingly.
But before our honeymoon in this historic city, I researched only hotels. When people asked what we’d do, I said, “Wander.” Cartagena would reveal itself to us.
We began our days with lazy hotel breakfasts first at the boutique, Casa La Fe, (where I’d slowly comb my hair on our balcony overlooking a lush plaza) later at the grand Charleston Santa Teresa (a former convent, now painted a deep yellow.) After arepas (pancake-like patties) and papaya juice—perfect in the steamy Cartagena air—we strolled down the narrow streets and along the wide city walls. We admired flowers spilling out of balconies. We dropped coins in the buckets of performers posed as fishermen. When a rotund waiter named José offered a tour we accepted because, why not?
José shared Cartagena’s darker history, pointing out the small, cross-topped window on the Palace of the Inquisition where once accused others of heresy. He made us crane our necks toward the sky to see corner roof tiles that were violently upturned. “To keep away witches on broomsticks,” he explained. He stopped at one of the many doors that must have been twice as tall as my husband and said that every elaborate knocker, from curled lizards to slender hands, revealed the history of the people who once lived behind it.
The day after José’s tour, we did go to an island—a mangrove-lined strip of land and mosquitoes called Barú—where we could only wander the sandy grounds of our hotel. It was a mistake. We should have spent that day getting lost in Cartagena, hearing street performers slap drums and peddlers coo about the paintings and coconut jewelry slung over their arms.
When we returned to the city and drove through an opening in the many-meters-thick wall and wheeled our suitcases into a fountain-filled courtyard of the 400-year-old building that was the Hotel Charleston, the city’s charms infected us all over again. This time, we knew which emerald shops to pass to get to the overweight nude sculpture (a gift from artist Fernando Botero) reclining near a church; and how to find the instrument shop where a purring cat always sprawled across the glass counter.
We didn’t ascend to the hilltop convent for views of the city. We didn’t tour the church where San Pedro Claver, known for ministering to slaves, is buried. I didn’t become an expert on Cartagena, but I learned to appreciate its rhythms. And that’s not something I did in Paris or Rome or Amsterdam.
Go: Founded nearly 500 years ago, Cartagena is in the middle of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. While it’s one of the country’s largest cities, it feels small to visitors who usually stick to the old walled and very walkable part of town.
Getting there: Several airlines fly to the city, with direct flights often departing from Miami or Fort Lauderdale. Cartagena’s Rafael Núñez International Airport is a short taxi ride from the historic district.
When to go: Cartagena is hot year-round (temperatures in the 80s are typical and siestas are embraced.) Avoid October, when heavy rains are common.
Rachael Jackson is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and a former staff reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. Her last post for Intelligent Travel was, “Finding the Flavor of Cartagena.”