I like to think I’m the kind of person that plans things well but also flies by the seat of her pants enough to keep life super interesting. When it comes to planning and researching before taking a trip, I try to get the info I need usually from up-to-date websites or from people who have actually been where I’m going. I also speak Spanish so my trip to Cartagena, Colombia should have been a cakewalk, with minimal surprise, as I had no plans other than digitally nomading and spending time at the beach. So here are 3 things I wish I had known before spending a month by myself in Cartagena as well as some travel tips.
1) Cartagena Beach Vendors
I read a little about how they can ruin your time at the beach, but I had survived the markets of China and the beaches of Brazil so I thought I knew what I was in for. Wrong.
Pushy and manipulative are too kind of words to describe the situation.
And I call it a situation because I had no idea how the tourism industry worked in this part of Colombia! It’s a network of vendors that all try to scratch each other’s backs by sending you to their “brother” or “cousin” across the way because he or she sells the best bracelets or beach chairs. They start by offering you a free gift because you’re special to them, like the start of a bracelet or 1 minute massage. Then they continue without telling you the next part has to be paid for.
As human beings, they seem to be kind and helpful. But when they try to sell you something they have no concept of giving up. Forget reading your book or relaxing in peace and quite at the disappointingly murky beach, because you’ll spend all your time fighting off women trying to massage your feet and braid your hair and men trying to sell you a lunch you have to walk 10 minutes to get to. I ended up paying for a chair I didn’t know wasn’t free, and paying 50 of the local currency for a massage that, while wonderful, was not what I agreed on. (I actually didn’t have the cash on me to give my masseuse, so I told her I would come back and find her the next day to pay her. When I came back she gave me an extra leg massage for actually holding true to my word!)
Cartagena Travel Tip – If you go to the beach on the mainland of Cartagena like Boca Grande, take a friend! You can and most certainly will get through it alone, but you will be exhausted from saying no and swatting at people trying to touch your hair and put lotion on you. With another person there, they are far more likely to take no for an answer (eventually) and won’t push as hard. Safety in numbers folks.
Trust is a very important thing while traveling, as you end up putting your life in the hands of strangers and good souls more times than you can count. However, no amount of reading can give you the life experience you need to really grasp when and when not to trust people.
Traveling as a solo female in Cartagena, I was high on my can-do confidence but struck out when trying to make friends at first. I don’t know about you ladies reading this, but I find it hard to find female friends while traveling and sometimes its really hard to tell if the guys you meet in a touristy city are genuinely trying to befriend you or, shall we say, play the long game with ulterior motives.
Cartagena Travel Tip – Your trust is limited and valuable. Don’t just give it to anyone! Don’t be suspicious of everyone by any means, but always be ready to have a plan B or be ready to improvise one on the spot if you get uncomfortable. And when you trust someone new or that you don’t know, don’t relax into it too much and let your guard down too fast. Follow your gut; its what got you where you are today!
Lastly, thing number three I wish I had known about beforehand:
3) Airline Strikes
I booked a small trail of tickets with Avianca from Cartagena to Medellin, then three weeks later from Medellin to Sao Paulo. To my chagrin, most of the airline pilots went on strike a few days before my flight out of Cartagena with the soonest ticket replacement they could offer me being 2 weeks into the future. I took the refund option and quickly got a 15-hour bus ride to Medellin instead. Weeks later, many pilots were still on strike and my flight to Sao Paulo was delayed 10 hours but at that point I was happy to still have a flight! Out of my three things, this was the least concerning to me, as it didn’t affect my mood. Because how can you take underpaid pilots wanting higher pay personal? (say that 5 times fast!)
Cartagena Travel Tip – go ahead and buy the airline tickets! If there is a strike, be patient, but you should get a full refund if the alternate ticket options don’t work for you. Even if things get delayed, you’ll be happy to just have a spot on a plane instead of having to buy a fresh ticket with another airline so close to your departure date. Plus, taking a bus or car or even boat when you hadn’t planned on it can lead to far more adventure and sights you might never have seen!
When all is said and done, I wouldn’t have traded my time in Cartagena for anything. The things I learned on that particular trip about myself and how other parts of the world can work are invaluable to me. Cheers to travel and all that comes with it!
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If you’re traveling to Cartagena, Colombia or somewhere else in South America then find out more about what to do with one of these Colombia Travel Guides.