We’re big fans of Cartagena. Any city by the sea automatically wins points with us, but Cartagena also has a fascinating colonial history, well-preserved fortifications, and arepas con queso. Now, perhaps other Colombian cities also boast arepas con queso (think thick, hot corn pancakes stuffed with cheese and maybe ham too), but we found them here, and so they will always be associated with this coastal Colombian town.
A highlight of our time in Cartagena was our visit to the barrio of San Francisco with Context Tours. One of their Deep Travel projects, this walk aims to introduce visitors to the contemporary life of the city, away from the charming city walls and the high rises of nearby suburbs.
Location and arrival
Cartagena is located in the north of Colombia, on the Caribbean coast. It’s a popular departure and arrival point for boats to and from Panama, which could be an adventurous way to arrive! If you’re looking for a less watery route, there are direct flights from several US cities; arrivals from other countries tend to route through Bogotá. Internal flights can be very affordable, and even cheaper than travelling by bus — we flew from Medellin to Cartagena in less than an hour for US$30 — much better than $50 for a 12-hour bus trip. Of course, bus travel is another option, and if you’re coming from nearby cities like Baranquilla or Santa Marta, it’s worth considering. The bus station is 11km from the center of Cartagena.
There are plenty of accommodation options in Cartagena, from budget hostels to five-star hotels. Backpacker hostels and guesthouses cluster around the Getsemani area, right near the old town, and business hotels line the waterfront between the old town and the airport and are also present in the upscale Bocagrande district, five minutes by taxi from the old town.
There are plenty of buses plying every route you can imagine, at at only 1800 COP (US$0.57) a ride, they are very affordable. We almost exclusively used Uber for short journeys: a typical 2km ride hovered around 5000-6000 COP (less than US$2), which was slightly cheaper than taxi prices we were quoted, and so convenient!
Deep Travel Cartagena
During our stay in Cartagena, I went on Context Travel’s Deep Travel Foundation tour: Deep Travel in Barrio San Francisco. This half-day experience allowed me to visit a low-income neighbourhood that I would never have been to otherwise. The guide, Alex, took me up La Popa hill for to see Cartagena from above, to a market to experience the daily life of thousands of people (and have an empanada and a juice) and to his youth centre to take part in the work he’s doing to change his community. We ended the day with a delicious dinner and a chat at his house, at the foot of a hill topped by a school founded by Shakira.
It was a fantastic experience. Alex was obviously a well-known and respected member of the community — dozens of people stopped him during our walk to say hello or tell a quick joke. I met two of his cousins in the market, and all of his immediate family at his home. I felt welcomed into the community and saw some of the challenges they face: we couldn’t walk around the neighbourhood the day I visited as two gangs were fighting at the time.
Alex’s youth centre takes kids off the streets, away from the gangs. He gives them a safe place to learn and play, while reducing the chance that they’ll get involved in crime or get pregnant at a young age. I felt privileged to be able to take part in a programme that was obviously changing a community.
What is Deep Travel?
Deep travel is a mindset more than anything else — it’s the idea that you don’t want to just see the surface of the places you visit, you want to dig deeper, go farther, and learn more. If you’re culturally curious and make an effort to connect with locals and immerse yourself in their culture, then you’re a deep traveller.
Deep travel is a beautiful, transformative thing. As you make an effort to understand local culture, you’re building cultural bridges and fostering understanding. You’re making the world a little bit smaller, a bit more connected. You’re fostering change: in yourself, in the people you’re connected with, and in the places you visit — perhaps only a little, but a little good makes a big difference.
The Deep Travel Foundation
The Deep Travel Foundation is an organisation that works together with Context to create unique opportunities for travelers while also investing in the sustainable development of a destination.
For example, you could join the Made in Florence walk, which brings travellers into the workshops of local artisans in Florence, Italy to see local artisans at work. The foundation helps run an apprenticeship program which places students from a local trade school with the artisans to keep these century-old businesses a viable part of Florentine life.
Another program in Rio de Janeiro assists with a school gardens project in a favela, and of course the Barrio tour in Cartagena is another walk you can join.
How can I get involved?
There are many ways you can get involved: take one of the tours, make a donation at deeptravel.org, volunteer your time on one of the projects, or make a suggestion for another Deep Travel Project.
Context is currently looking to grow the program, by partnering with groups that give back to their community and connect with local issues, and then incorporating this mission into a Context experience. If you’re involved in a community project or know of one that you think would suit, email Natalie on email@example.com.
The project should:
1. Invest in and sustain a local community.
2. Be currently established by a strong, local partner.
3. Have a public facet (a physical location) that allows for interaction with visitors, not just during a Context walk.
Context provides private guides and (very) small group tours for the intellectually curious traveler. PhD and MA-educated guides take you deep into your destination, and with a maximum group size of six, you can ask as many questions as you like!