I spent five nights in Cartagena and Playa Blanca in late March and early April, which happened to overlap with Semana Santa. While I have no real attachments to Easter (I’m not religious, and my family never did much for Easter when I was growing up), Semana Santa is a popular time to visit Cartagena. People told me to expect tons of tourists due to Cartagena being a major cruise port. When I mentioned I was visiting during Semana Santa, they shook their heads in disbelief and warned me that I wouldn’t be able to walk through the city.
Cartagena contains a walled area, which is one of the most historic parts of the city.
The walled city abounds with brightly colored buildings and flowers, which double as backdrops for influencers and boyfriends of Instagram.
One morning, I visited Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, named after a saint who assisted and proselytized to African slaves. The exhibits in the church were in English and Spanish and described San Pedro Claver’s background and work.
Another morning, I walked to Castillo de San Felipe, which was outside of the walled city. Enterprising water vendors lined the walk to the fort, but most of them left me alone when they saw that I was already holding a bottle of water.
Inside the fort, I tried to stay in the shade as much as possible. (The sun and heat were no joke.) The lower levels of the fort contained passageways that reminded me of the Vinh Moc tunnels in Vietnam. I had to use the flashlight on my phone in a couple of unlit areas.
OK, in my last post, I spoke at length about how Medellín was humid, but man, Cartagena took it to another level. Highs were in the 90s during my stay, and the mugginess compounded the heat. Nothing—not even air conditioning at full blast or toweling off after a shower—dispelled the stickiness.
When I walked around the walled city during the day, I thought everyone was misguided in warning me about the crowds; it was quiet when the sun was out. Once night fell, though, out came the packs of tourists that I was promised—I’m talking about Disneyland-level crowded.
Getsemani was a charming neighborhood adjacent to the walled city. Street art was scattered throughout the area.
I stayed in Getsemani for one night, and when I stepped outside of my hotel, I usually saw elderly men playing chess. Like the walled city, Getsemani livened up at night, but I was able to walk through the streets a lot more comfortably than in the walled city.
One of my friends in NYC recommended that I have a limonada de coco while I was in Cartagena, which was the best rec. The almighty limonada de coco was creamy and icy, tangy and sweet—all the things a drink should be.
The limonada de coco was like a piña colada but with lemon instead of pineapple and no booze. The drink was exactly what I needed in the stifling humidity, so I didn’t miss the alcohol. I went to the air-conditioned (praise be) Época Café a few times during my stay and had the same order every visit: a limonada de coco, avocado toast, and fries. Such a basic order…and perfect for me.
For Easter, I spent the night at Playa Blanca, which is about an hourlong bus ride away from Cartagena. Accommodations on Playa Blanca are rustic, with no running water and limited electricity. I stayed at Hostel Ichthus, which was no-frills but very clean and pleasant. It was right on the beach, but I didn’t see a speck of sand on the floor of my room. (I suspect the staff used magic to keep the sand out.)
When I wanted to take a shower, I had to notify the staff since they would have to prepare the water for me. This wasn’t a big hassle, and I had no issue running out of water; I simply turned off the tap while lathering up. Electricity was turned off from 11 PM to 7 AM, but again, this wasn’t much of an inconvenience—I just charged my electronics ahead of time, and I was asleep during these hours, anyway.
My bed had a mosquito net, and a couple of hammocks were on the property. These happen to be some of my favorite things, so I was very comfortable. Two cats liked to hang around the hostel, and although I had to keep my distance due to my allergies, they were adorable.
Playa Blanca is a day tripper hotspot, and vendors circle around the beach while the sun is up. I kept moving by walking up and down the beach, so the vendors didn’t bother me much; they seemed to focus on people who had planted themselves on the sand. When I faced the ocean, it got more crowded as I walked farther left. The farther right I walked, the quieter it got. I settled at a spot on the far right of the beach, where no vendors were, and read there.
As the sun sets and day trippers leave, Playa Blanca shuts down. Vendors pack up, and many eateries close their doors. This was when I enjoyed Playa Blanca the most; I kicked back on a hammock and listened to the waves.
Bioluminescent plankton hang around Playa Blanca, and I booked a tour through my hostel to see them at night. At around 6:30 PM, a staff member stopped by my hostel to walk me to a boat for the tour. Once everyone in the tour group was equipped with life vests, we boarded the boat and began motoring. Water splashed into the boat, and I worried about my phone since it wasn’t in a waterproof case. This seems so obvious in hindsight (I can’t call myself Ms. Common Sense), but if you’re thinking about a Playa Blanca plankton tour, keep your electronics in waterproof cases or just leave them behind at your accommodation. Unless you’re a skilled photographer, it’s very tricky to take photos of the plankton, anyway.
The boat ride was only about 15 minutes, but it seemed a lot longer due to my preoccupation with keeping my phone dry. We finally stopped at a quiet spot, where our tour guide swirled the water with his hand. A glowing aura followed his hand, and the guide explained that motion in the water caused the plankton to luminate.
We were welcome to swim in the water, and a bunch of people in the group jumped right in. I was perfectly happy just swirling the water with my hand, so I stayed put in the boat, along with a few others. We floated among the plankton for about 25 minutes before motoring back to Playa Blanca.