Rum & Rumba in Cartagena de Indias

Text and photos by Jessica Solt

There is a place bathed by the Caribbean Sea where sunsets are so heavenly they hang framed in your memory forever. The sun might be disappearing into Cartagena’s horizon, but laughter and celebration begins to sprout all over the city, like tiny bubbles before reaching boiling point. The old Cartagena de Indias suddenly becomes lit by antique lanterns, revealing wandering tourists, handicraft vendors, horse carriages, and couples walking hand in hand or taking bike rides through the labyrinth streets of the fenced city. 

As Colombia’s fifth largest city and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, visitors flock to Cartagena de Indias year-round. This attraction isn’t new. Historically, Cartagena’s excellent geographic location made the city an ideal target for colonization and exploitation. In pre-Columbian times the coast was inhabited by Caribbean Indians who fought expeditionists fresh off the boat, looking for new lands. Greedy invaders hailed from England, France and Spain with intentions of turning Cartagena into a commercial port and slave trading area. Protecting the city from trespassers became a priority as early as the XVI Century, hence the construction of forts and the need to encase an entire city behind stoned walls. The statue that stands in front of the old port shows a woman holding an open hand straight ahead toward the sea. A short message reads Noli Me Tangere—Don’t Touch Me—warning pirates and other invaders to keep out. But don’t take this too literally. Today Cartagena welcomes everyone with open arms. 

With temperatures soaring as high as 90°F by day, it’s no surprise that the best time to venture through this enchanted town is at night. First-time travelers who are willing to let loose—at least for a couple of hours—should break the ice with Cartagena aboard a Chiva Rumbera, a colorful party bus of sorts that offers passengers a taste of what this place is all about: mystery, fun, dancing, singing, and mere madness. 

Published on LatinLover issue #03