BEST free (OR almost free) THINGS TO DO IN CARTAGENA
Find a spot on the centuries-old wall at sunset and take in the view. Anywhere is good, but my favourite places are sea-side at the Baluarte de San Francisco (near the Hotel Santa Teresa), "Cafe de al Lado" - the space "Next-door" to the famous, and also famously expensive, Cafe del Mar, or head to the wall that overlooks the India Catalina and enjoy the chaotic spectacle of the afternoon-rush-hour commute. No matter where you choose, there will be a helpful vendor at your beck, eager to sell you a refreshingly cold cerveza. For added reflection points, contemplate all the incredible things those walls must have seen, since they were built way back in the 1600s. Sigh.
Get taken out to the ballgame as Cartagena's long-held passion for baseball is put on show at the weekly Sunday games. If I'm not playing (read about THAT here), I like to watch the games in Calle Pedregal in Getsemani. They also happen in Bocagrande near the Hospital and at the foot of Castillo San Felipe. For me, this is a glimpse of the real Cartagena. Music blaring, kids sucking on bolis (homemade ice-blocks), old-timers from the barrio debating the best hitting order and baseball played in the street with neighbours looking on from their bedroom windows. For many people in Cartagena, Sunday is their only day off, so it's not uncommon for the beers and aguadiente to be passed around fairly early in the day as folks settle into relax mode. Baseball season runs March - November.
3. Tierra Bomba
It's just 15 minutes by lancha (outboard-motor-powered boat) from Bocagrande, but Tierra Bomba feels like another world - with practically private empty beaches, and local islanders living very simply and happily. You can get to Tierra Bomba for as little as 2,000 pesos each way ($1) if you go through the Pueblo and don't mind waiting until the ferry is choc-a-block full of people before it leaves. Once there, make your way through the "town", past the colourfully painted houses, the dusty football pitch, and the fresh fruit juice lady with the best views in the country, to Playa Linda then settle in to your own Corona commercial; from where you'd rather be...
Chess (Ajaderes), Ludo (Parques), Dominoes and Cards - Cartageneros are quite partial to a bit of a boardgame (another reason I must have been born here in another life!). Pass by any plaza and you will find the tinto (coffee) vendors vying it out over a hotly contested game of cards (especially Plaza San Diego and Parque Fernando Madrid). Chess is the domain of Plazas Simon Bolivar (by day) and Trinidad (by night). And there's permanently a game of Ludo happening in Callejon Ancho in Getsemani. Stand there watching the men play long enough and they'll invariably invite you to play. If you want to experience Cartagena like a local, you'll happily accept.
5. Fly a kite
Although August is official "Mes de las Cometas" (Kite Month), there's plenty of wind most of the year here in Cartagena, especially close to the sea, and an afternoon spent kite-flying is a lot of fun! During the windy months there'll be kites for sale on the beaches and around key flying spots like the grassed area near the wall on the corner of Avenida Santander and Avenida del Mar. Or for extra crafty fun - make your own! Personally, I can't keep from singing "Let's Go Fly a Kite!" from Mary Poppins the entire time.
Something I always enjoy doing, no matter where in the world I am, is to jump on the most public form of transport I can find and just spend an hour or so riding the routes. Ok, so if you only have a short time, this might not be high on everyone's agenda. But I think it's a fascinating, almost-free way to experience a city. Here in Cartagena you will pay a maximum of $1,500 Colombian pesos (75cents). Locals will hand over less for short distances. Once you've moved past the pimped-up driver's area (glitter, neon, signs praising God, giant speakers, fluffy dice etc etc) you'll need to choose your seat. Seat selection is crucial in non-air-conditioned buses (the majority) - you want to be near an open window or door on the non-sunny side. Then sit back and enjoy the ride! At various points in your journey vendors and buskers will board the bus - they'll be selling chocolates, drinks, pens, books or rapping, singing, dancing. Many will share their unfortunate stories and ask that you give a little to help support them. You'll sit next to and maybe even converse with young and old. You'll learn the Spanish word for STOP as it is repetitively shouted to the driver. You'll see barrios that show a very different Cartagena to the one within the walls. You'll listen to Reggaeton, Champeta, Salsa and Vallenato. You'll also sweat. A lot. So be sure to bring/buy plenty of water.
7. I want to ride my bicycle!
Are you singing Queen too? Digress. So bicycles have pretty much taken over Cartagena. First there were a few rental places, then next thing they were springing up on every single corner of Centro and Getsemani. Goodness knows where they all came from. Bike rental is cheap. Usually around 3,000 pesos ($1.50) an hour and Cartagena is perfect for exploring by bike; it's flat and most of the sites are super close. Wait til the sun is about to go down and things are cooler, then cycle to Laguito to watch the sun set over the palm-framed sea. Or cycle beside the bay at Castillogrande or Manga and check out all the beautiful people keeping fit and families strolling with rollerblade-clad kiddies.
Pretty much most nights of the week, somewhere in Cartagena, there will be a free movie showing. Not only do they make great language practice for those looking to improve their Spanish, often the movies selected provide wonderful insight into Colombian or Latin American life. There's Tuesday night movies at Camara de Comercio, Wednesday night movies under the stars in the absolutely amazing Claustre de Convento Santo Domingo (the courtyard for Cartagena's most ancient convent) and Thursday night movies and short films at grungy Quiebracanto Cinebar (sit on chairs salvaged from the now-decaying Teatro nextdoor).
The people of Cartagena love music and dance, so to properly experience the city you're going to have to cut a rug. Or at least watch. There are countless free music and dance options here, from the free bands playing throughout the bars of Getsemani (enticing you in to buy a beer or two) through to dance classes at Ciudad Movil and the public zumba performance that happens on Sunday nights at Plaza Trinidad. Or just find a house with a decent sound system around Getsemani (there's dozens!) and dance with the locals in the street. If your budget stretches to include a cover charge, check out my descriptions of bars and clubs here.
10. To market, to market
Check out the sensory assault that is the Mercado Bazurto, the city's public market. Deafening music, tropical fruits, un-refrigerated meats, fish-juice-filled muddy paths and smells that range from vomit-inducing to hunger-making to floral depending upon the section you find yourself and the direction of the wind. Read more about the market here.