Should You Go to Cartagena?

There are plenty of things a mother doesn't want to hear from their 20-something-year-old daughter.

“Mom, I'm pregnant,” is probably number one on the list, but I'd imagine that “Mom, I'm skipping my university graduation ceremony to go to Colombia” is somewhere in the top 5.

That’s exactly what I did, and I lived to tell the tale. (And my mother was pretty cool about it, actually.)

I flew by myself from San Francisco to New York for a layover, met up with my friend and her two friends (another girl and her boyfriend), and flew on to spend a week in Cartagena with them, followed by one day by myself, and then flew to Spain (which is where I've been living for the past five weeks).

Cartagena is colorful, cheap, and lined with narrow cobblestone streets, the steady clip-clop sounds of horse hooves, and dudes selling Aguila beer for one copa.

(A copa is a Colombian peso, and one pound is equal to more than 3,800 copas, to give you an idea of how cheap it is. Also, it's totally cool to drink on the street there).

I can't speak on the safety of Colombia as a whole for a solo female traveller, as I was mostly in Cartagena and various beaches around there, but I can say that I felt completely safe everywhere I went. Everyone I encountered was incredibly friendly, kind and accommodating.

Well, almost. We’ll get to that.

Torre del Reloj, Colombia

1. Have a safe plan to get from point A to point B

One of my travel companions has an uncle in Cartagena, who recommended that we take Ubers instead of taxis, which was hilarious to me, since the amount of attacks on passengers by Uber drivers in San Francisco was so high that I refused to take Uber while I was living there.

Regardless, while we mostly walked everywhere, we took Uber if we were going somewhere far, and not only was it super cheap (like most other things in Cartagena), but completely safe, and the drivers were all really friendly (always a plus).

Walking around at night also felt completely safe. Just make sure you know your way or have a map/phone with an international plan and GPS, because the streets all look pretty similar, and one could easily get lost.

2. Learn some Spanish

As a general travel rule, knowing at least a few words and sentences in the language of wherever you're going is just a good idea.

Playa Blanca beach

“How much will the cab cost,” “where's the nearest hostel,” “is there a bathroom here,” and “can I have two mojitos” are all obviously very important phrases that will help you out.

3. Stay at a hostel

If you're traveling alone, staying at a hostel is a great way to meet people, for not only safety reasons but just general fun-having reasons. Your one-peso Aguila will taste better with a friend or three anyway.

4. Know the exchange rate

This one isn't necessarily for safety, but for general convenience. I'm terrible at math, and I realized after the fact that a street food vendor charged me extra for my potato kebab (way tastier than it sounds and a good late night snack option for vegetarians, such as myself. Street food carts are essentially Cartagena’s 3 a.m. pizza place equivalent).

Colombian peso

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for…

5. If you're going to do drugs, be super safe about it

My last night in Cartagena, I stayed in a hostel after my friends left and met a bunch of random other Americans. We went to a rooftop bar and danced until 4 a.m., and on our way back to our hostel, two police officers stopped us and asked to search our bags.

This had happened to me and my travel companions five days earlier, but we didn't have anything, and they let us go.

This time, however, one of the Americans had cocaine on him, and the policemen took him to an ATM and made him withdraw cash as a bribe.

A Dutch girl I was telling the story to at breakfast the next morning told me the same thing had happened to her friend, and two English dudes I met had a similar story.

I was completely unscathed and the American ended up being fine - aside from losing around $100 worth of cash, that is.

As with traveling to anywhere, use general safety precautions, arm yourself with a little knowledge before you go, and you'll be able to enjoy Cartagena for the beautiful city it is.

Note: We always recommend checking government advice before travelling to Colombia.

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Jessica Nemire blogs at Ready. Jess. Go.