colombia, Travel tips

Ambassador Advice: What to Do in Cartagena, Colombia

I clutched my camera to my chest as I closely followed my guide through the maze of narrow aisles, trying desperately to keep it dry as rain rushed hard and fast off the tin roofs that cover the vendor stalls at the Bazurto Market.

Admittedly, this was not a part of Cartagena, Colombia, that I even knew existed until I arrived at the Mercado de Bazurto (Bazurto Market) that morning for a half-day tour with Visit.org.

Why You Should Opt for an Immersive Experience in Cartagena

My first trip to Cartagena had been with a friend almost two years prior, and like most tourists, we mostly stayed within the walls that surround the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to the 1500s. We wandered leisurely through the cobblestone streets, sipped mojitos at outdoor bars and retreated to our apartment in each afternoon to swim in the pool. But less than 10 hours after landing in Cartagena for my second trip, I found myself seeing what life is really like for many Cartageneros outside the walls.

This is the goal of locally-guided Cartagena tours such as these: to lure tourists away from away from their lattes and gelato, and show them that there is more to Cartagena than colorful, colonial homes.  

Market life in Cartagena’s Mercado de Barzuto

What to do in Cartagena, Colombia

My tour guide that rainy morning was an impressive young woman named Marcy Luz, who works both as a tour guide and bookkeeper to support her family. Ana María González, a Bogota native and co-founder of the Visit.org partner NGO Fundación por la Educación Multidimensional (FEM), joined us on the tour to serve as our translator, since my Spanish skills are basic at best.

FEM is one of the few organizations in Cartagena dedicated to empowering the local Afro and indigenous communities, which are located on the outskirts of the city and largely shut off from its riches.

My tour guide Marcy Luz

Why We Need to Impact Local Communities in Colombia

Colombia has one of the most extreme wealth gaps in the world, and Ana told me social mobility there is actually three times as hard for Afro and indigenous people. Access to education is limited – especially for those who live in rural areas, which have a hard time attracting teachers – leaving teens vulnerable to sex trafficking, gangs and drug use. So three years ago FEM launched their insider tours of Cartagena to generate both much-needed income for FEM’s programs and as well as provide jobs for young people in the communities it serves.

FEM also runs Volunteer Hostel Cartagena to support its programs.

How Sustainable Tourism Helps Cartagena

At first local hotels and tour operators were skeptical, Ana said, not thinking tourists would want to see the “other” side of Cartagena. But they were wrong. Today the tours cover more than 50 percent of FEM’s operating expenses, and that percentage continues to grow.

The first stop we made that morning was at a large outdoor metal working shop at the market’s edge. It is actually a co-working space of sorts, with five or so independent metalworkers all working on their products – one man showed off the frame for the lanterns that hang from the famous horse-drawn carriages of the old city. We then continued to work our way through the damp, dark maze of stalls, passing sellers hawking everything from spices to vegetables to clothing to household goods, occasionally needing to seek cover from the rain – at one such stop, I stepped backward and right into a hole in the ground, sinking into mud (and who knows what else) up to mid-calf.  

Party favors for sale

A Cartagena juice stand

An Authentic Cartagena Experience

The market, usually a hive of activity, was rather subdued on that Tuesday. Marcy Luz and Ana explained that the weather was likely keeping most shoppers at home. However, it seemed the faithful were still there, mostly older men who were perched in brightly colored plastic chairs deep in conversation about the day’s events or enjoying their favorite market eats.

It was only about 10:30 a.m. when I was offered a beer – which I happily accepted, since the rain had no effect on the already soaring temperature. I sipped it while learning about Champeta, a popular Afro-Colombian style of dance music, at a booth that specializes in renting DJ equipment and CDs for parties around town. I was generously gifted a Champeta CD that has since become a favorite of mine.

Learning about Champeta

Collecting Souvenirs

At the next stop, a little further into the market, was an intersection where a handful of teenage boys were lined up painting on white poster paper that was hanging on the walls in front of them. In assembly-line style, they each used a different color to add a particular detail or design to posters advertising upcoming Champeta parties – I got a personalized one to take home. I had seen some of these posters on fences on the outskirts of the market and was surprised by this old-school method of advertising. But I guess they get the job done – Marcy Luz and Ana said these parties regularly draw hundreds.

Poster making in Cartagena.

My favorite souvenir from the market was actually an empty water bottle. It doesn’t sound like much, but the bottle contains a variety of dried herbs and plants that were selected, chopped and inserted in front of me by a traditional healer. All you need to do is add rum, and then you can drink from it to settle an upset stomach or apply it topically to cure cuts and scrapes. Marcy Luz and Ana told me this type of medicine is, unfortunately, dying out in Colombia as young people seek out modern treatments instead of the old ways – as one example, only seven or eight midwives are left in all of Cartagena.

A traditional healer in Cartagena

An Off-the-Beaten-Path Eatery in Cartagena, Colombia

The last stop of the day was in an area of the market known as Pascado Frito, where you can buy fresh fish to take home or eat right there on the spot. It’s where you can find market staple Restaurante Cecilia, which has enjoyed a bit of fame thanks to an appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” Cecilia was there and welcomed me with a wide smile as she stirred about a dozen pots cooking over hot coals, and scooped out rice, fish and other delicacies for the few customers who started gathering for lunch.

What to do in Cartagena, Colombia: have lunch at Restaurante Cecilia

Even though I wasn’t that hungry, I knew this meal would be too good to pass up, so I dug in. I’m pretty sure the rice had shark in it. I’m a vegetarian, but it was OK because I was tasting the real Cartagena.

To book your own immersive Cartagena, Colombia experience, go to Visit.org.