One of the highlights of my recent trip on the Thomson Dream Pride of Panama cruise was spending a day in the Colombian city of Cartagena.
You may not have heard of Cartagena (pronounced Cart-a-hay-na) but it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with one of South America’s biggest fortifications, and miles of narrow, cobbled streets lined with colourful, Spanish Colonial buildings.
It’s a wonderful place to spend a day, and I recommend allowing yourself plenty of time to simply soak in the atmosphere and walk around.
If you have time, in the morning, you can take a tour of the Mangroves outside the city, where locals have made their living for generations, fishing, crabbing and farming. We took a tour on a dug-out canoe steered by someone else (fortunately, given my disastrous sense of direction) and sailed through narrow channels in the mangroves. It’s a pretty spectacular experience, where you can see kingfishers, pelicans, sloths and some pretty spectacular flora and fauna. We also got to watch the local fishermen throwing their nets and collecting their crab baskets, with their children.
At the end of the tour, we were given fresh coconuts to drink from – a very welcome offer, as it’s seriously hot and humid here. The local children offer shells for sale at a dollar a time, before nicking your coconut if you’re not careful!
It’s defininitely worth taking a tour of some of the best sights in the old city – if you’re feeling lively, one option is to take one of the city’s “party buses” or chivas, which are brightly painted, and play live “Papayera” music, which I secretly suspect is a lot of fun for five minutes and like living in the fifth circle of Hell for the remainder of the day.
We took a walking tour, and it was a brilliant way to explore the streets, and gain insights into the buildings we passed. But just walking around is pretty, too.
Kick off your tour with a walk along the city walls – originally built in the 16th and 17th Centuries to protect Spanish gold from pirates. They’re 20 feet wide in places, and offer amazing views over the Caribbean Sea, and city skyline. You’ll also spot regular windows in the walls, which once were used by cannons – today, they’re a meeting place for young couples, and are known locally as “lovers’ windows”.
On the outskirts of the Old Town, you’ll find a series of arches under the walls – these were originally dungeons, but have been converted into a series of thriving craft stalls. The stalls sell a range of souvenirs and locally made hats, paintings and jewellery.
As you wind through the cobbled streets, what strikes you most is just how pretty the whole place is – the streets are dotted with old churches and pretty squares, while the houses are gorgeous hues of sunshine yellow, electric blue, orange and red. Peep through the odd open doorway and you’ll catch a glimpse of beautiful courtyards and internal balconies.
We stopped for a cold beer at Bohemia mid-morning. This uber-fashionable, laid back spot plays mellow house music in a shady courtyard, with a swimming pool hidden at the back of the bar. There are plenty of places to eat in Cartagena – we stopped at La Cocina de Socorro, where we feasted on red snapper with delicious coconut rice and fried plantain.
It’s also worth checking out Cafe del Reloj, which serves a fab range of ice creams and frappes, alongside some of the best coffee we had in Colombia (most of the good stuff is exported).
A fun game to play while you stroll is ‘spot the doorknob’ – back in Colonial times, the huge wooden doors of houses in Cartagena were decorated with doorknobs that signified the occupation of the owner. A fish denoted a merchant, while a lion was a teacher, and a lizard was for a writer.
By far the best thing to do on a shore trip to Cartagena is watching the sun set from the city walls – there are loads of bars serving cocktails to choose from, and there’s something very special about watching the sun go down over the Caribbean with a drink in hand. It’s almost too much fun – we got back to the ship with barely two minutes to spare before it sailed!
Thomson Cruises offers a seven night Pride of Panama cruise on Thomson Dream from £1,034 per person. This cruise sets sail from Montego Bay, Jamaica and visits Cartagena, Colombia; San Blas, Panama; Colon, Panama and Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. Based on two adults sharing a deck four or five outside cabin on a full board basis, this cruise departs on 5th January 2016, flying from London Gatwick airport. Price includes return flights, transfers, port taxes, tips and service charges. For more information or to book visit your local Thomson travel shop, thomson.co.uk/cruise or call 0871 230 2800. The Colombian Mangrove tour costs £40 for adults, £28 for children. A city tour of Cartagena costs £34 for adults, £20 for children.