The Secret Lives Of… A Tour Guide In Cartagena

Duran Duran

On the Caribbean coast of Colombia, a man named Duran Duran shares his love of Cartagena with visitors from near and far.

Some want to see the main sights, others come to explore backstreets of the colonial walled city on foot, but all leave with the benefit of this experienced guide’s knowledge of history and awareness of small details with big meaning. When Duran Duran leads the way, curious travelers learn more about the story of Cartagena than they might discover on their own.

After exploring Cartagena one morning with Duran Duran, he stopped to take a phone call away from the group. From what I could gather, he was confirming plans to meet friends for lunch and play pool for the afternoon. I got to thinking about how he lives a normal day, what he learns from people on his tours, and about how his work has influenced the way he chooses to travel.

Have you changed the way you travel since you became a tour guide?

My work has taught me that a place is not only buildings, but a lot more. Now when I travel, I get in touch with a tour guide. This gives an instant connection with local culture and the best guides customize tours in any way you want.You meet a variety of people through your work – what have you learned from these encounters?

I meet all kinds of people on my tours, and I’ve learned that everybody is just trying to be happy. Traveling and learning makes a lot of them very happy, and I’m glad to be a part of that. Visitors are also very curious about the Colombian people and have many questions on our customs and culture.

Tell me about a typical day for you – what do you do for fun? How do you spend time with your family?

I start each day with a reminder of how grateful I am for each new day in my life. I work six days a week, and go cycling three times a week. I love reading history and work on improving my command of the English language. My favorite days are spent at the beach with my wife and our kids.

In your work as a tour guide, have you learned anything unusual about Cartagena’s history?

Many local people don’t know that their names are connected to important events in the history of Cartagena and Colombia. By reading about history, I discovered that many common names have deep significance.

Do you have any advice for people visiting Cartagena for the first time?

Do not change money in the streets – under any circumstances. This is a common scam. They not only will shortchange you on the exchange, but they will take your money and give fake bills that you will not be able to spend. And if you take a photo of our palenqueras, the colorfully dressed women that carry large bowls of fruit on their heads, it is customary to leave a small tip in exchange for the beautiful photo.

If travelers want to interact with locals in Cartagena, where should they begin?

Travelers should venture to a regular neighborhood like Getsemani, to wander the streets and eat the traditional food of Cartagena. They must also join in and dance cumbia and salsa.

Duran Duran works as a tour guide with Singular Luxury Travel.

Jessica Colley is a freelance writer living in New York City.

Searching For Stories (And Vacation) In Cartagena, Colombia

David Farley

I had come to Colombia to write – or at least I had hoped. But on my third day, I was sitting in the bar of the Santa Clara Sofitel hotel sipping mojitos spiked with lulo juice, one of the many exotic fruits found here, and all I could write about in my notebook was that I had nothing to write about. A friend of a friend who works at this hotel found me a guy here who takes care of a toucan. But that wasn’t the story I was hoping to write.

It was nearly a whim that brought me here, booking a ticket on the new JFK-to-Cartagena route on JetBlue. It was almost a personal anomaly for me but I had no itinerary and I did little research. What did I know about this part of the world? I knew that singer Shakira and actress Sofia Vergara were from near here. Perhaps on some level I pathetically half expected (or hoped?) all the women to look like Ms. Vergara, whose physical appearance reminds me of a woman I still wish I was dating. I was wrong. I also thought I could maybe kickstart a book idea I had after visiting Bolivia a few years ago – a book about the coca leaf. But like Sofia Vergara lookalikes, there’s no coca leaf culture in Cartagena like there is in Bolivia or the southern parts of Colombia. Two stereotypes down, several more to go.I thought I’d be an old-school journalist (or just a journalist) and come here and sniff out a story, come upon something unique and interesting that would lead me to smoky clubs, inside the cars of strangers going god knows where, or to parts of town I would have never stumbled upon. So I strolled the streets of this handsome seaside colonial town. I was unprepared for the bold sun and, as a result, my face turned a severe red by the second day, prompting locals to call out “Rojo!” as I walked by. I was a different kind of gringo here – the dumb kind – opting to wear jeans instead of shorts and a black button-down shirt instead a light T-shirt, because where I come from only the tourists wear shorts.

I went to the Convent Santa Cruz de la Popa, to the fortress, and I walked the walls around the old town. I talked to restaurant owners and chefs, all of whom reminded me how much safer it is here now, which was great but reminded me that I needed to find a fresher angle, one that didn’t involve the travel publication clichés in the headline, “The New Cartagena” or, my favorite, “Cartagena Reborn,” as if somehow an entire city was reborn and we barely knew about it.

One day I took a boat out to one of the Rosario Islands. As I was traipsing off the boat, I was immediately accosted by options: scuba diving, mountain biking, a trip to an aquarium – all potential stories. But as I scanned the tourists relaxing on the beach next to the teal-colored sea, I had a realization: maybe I just need a vacation. Travel writers need a vacation, too, and, when I thought about it, I’d pretty much been doing tourist stuff all along. I haven’t traveled anywhere without an assignment in maybe a decade and perhaps the subconscious voices in my head were telling me to relax a bit.

Instead of the options that were presented to me on the island, I put my notebook away and I planted myself under a palapa. I ordered a mojito and pulled out the Joan Didion book in my bag and began reading.

10 reasons to choose Colombia as your next vacation destination

It’s safe, it’s affordable, and it’s attracting travelers like never before. Colombia, the closest South American getaway to the United States, has seemingly appeared on just about every “hip new travel destination” list over the last few years, including the New York Times list of 31 Places to Go in 2010. So why is everyone raving about it? Here are ten reasons:

10. Medellin Named the world’s most dangerous city only two decades ago thanks largely to the exploits of Pablo Escobar, Medellin has cleaned up its act in a big way since the drug lord’s death in 1993. Nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, Medellin’s near-perfect climate, cosmopolitan atmosphere, and vibrant nightlife make it a must-visit Colombia destination.

If you can, schedule your trip so that you can witness Medellin’s one-of-a-kind Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) in early August. My fellow travelers who attended could not shut up about it. Check out Anthony Bourdain‘s thoughts on the city here.

9. Cartagena The word is out about Cartagena: it might just be the prettiest and best-preserved colonial city in South America.

Strolling the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, with its massive balconies covered in bougainvillea and church spires looming overhead, feels like something out of a fairy tale. If your significant other is overtaken by the city’s romance, take him or her to the Palace of the Inquisition to check out its vast collection of medieval torture instruments. That’ll stop all the marriage talk!

8. The food and drink
Colombia does not have much of a culinary reputation, and in many small towns it’s not hard to figure out why. Much of the cuisine, as my trusty Lonely Planet notes, is “unseasond, unspiced food, prepared simply and ungarnished.” Exciting it is not. Fortunately, despite the blandness of some Colombian food, you’ll still find many things to tempt the ol’ tastebuds, like the ubiquitous arepas (buttery corn tortillas), patacones (plantains that are pressed flat and fried), exotic fruits like the lulo, and fresh fish on the coast. As the home of Juan Valdez, Colombia also serves up an above-average cup of coffee, unlike much of South America which relies almost exclusively on the execrable instant coffee Nescafe. Fresh, exotic fruit juice, or jugo, is widely available and incredibly tasty. Colombia’s national spirit is aguardiente, an anise-flavored white liquor that almost makes up for its godawful taste with its 29% alcohol content. Almost.

7. It’s safer thank you think! If you caught Ingrid Betancourt on Oprah the other day (hey, my remote was broken!), you might get the impression that Colombia’s still-dodgy reputation is well-deserved. Betancourt, you’ll remember, was the Colombian presidential candidate kidnapped by the guerrilla group FARC back in 2002 and held until 2008 when she was dramatically rescued by the Colombian military.

Yes, Colombia has long been associated with drug trafficking, kidnapping, guerilla groups, and violence, but those days are mostly behind it. Medellin, once the most dangerous city in the world with about 380 murders per 100,000 people, is now one of the safest cities in South America. The vast majority of Colombia’s dangerous areas lie in the country’s sparsely-populated eastern half, a region well off the tourist trail. (We didn’t go there and neither should you, with the exception of the Amazonian town Leticia.) Colombia’s big cities and small towns, as well as every attraction on this list, are as safe as anywhere in Latin America.

6. San Gil Far and away the adventure sports capital of Colombia, San Gil attracts travelers seeking cheap (and we mean cheap) thrills, whether it’s white-water rafting, paragliding, horseback riding, caving, or rappelling down a waterfall. The town itself, though admittedly short on culinary delights, is home to a pleasant tree-lined square which lies an easy walk from Parque El Gallineral, a beautiful ten-acre park perfect for an afternoon stroll.

5. Barichara For those travelers who are more Betty White than Bear Grylls, avoid the white-knuckle adventure (“these kids and their paragliding!”) and take a 45-minute bus ride from San Gil to the picturesque town of Barichara. This beautiful pueblo, with its cobblestone streets, colonial churches, and quaint cafés, makes a wonderful day-trip destination.

Its culinary scene is also surprisingly developed for a town of 10,000, with several restaurants offering regional dishes like cabro con pepitoria (goat with blood and organs) and the (in)famous hormigas culonas, giant ants that have been fried or roasted. Surprisingly tolerable!

4. Taganga Looking for a bargain-basement PADI course so you can finally learn what all the scuba diving fuss is about? Make your way to the fishing village of Taganga, where several operators offer four-day open water courses for about US$250. Taganga also makes a great base for trips to Tayrona National Park and Ciudad Perdida (see below), and as such, the town attracts gringo backpackers like moths to a flame. This means, among other things, that there are plenty of inexpensive and occasionally rowdy hostels in town, as well as some pretty good restaurants and coffee shops. Embrace your gringo-ness at the Swedish-owned Café Bonsai just a half-block from the waterfront. Cool music, tasty food, hot drinks, cocktail specials… Is there more to life?

3. Tayrona National Park
Located on a small stretch of Caribbean coastline, this 93-square-mile national park offers an abundance of attractions for hikers, nature lovers and beach bums alike. Easily accessible from the towns of Santa Marta by bus or Taganga by boat, the park’s dense jungle leads to pristine white-sand beaches, some of the best in Colombia.

Spend lazy days bronzing on the beach and swimming in the warm Caribbean waters, or take advantage of extensive trails to see some of the park’s 300 species of birds and 770 species of plants. Swing yourself to sleep in a hammock at one of the many campgrounds in the park– just don’t forget the bug spray!

2. Bogotá More than just another noisy, crowded Latin American capital, Bogotá might just be the most pleasant surprise of your trip. Progressive and cosmopolitan, Bogotá was recently named the world’s third-most bike-friendly city after Amsterdam and Copenhagen. The original home of the now much-copied ciclovía concept, Bogotá closes 122 kilometers of roads to cars every Sunday for hundreds of thousands of cyclists to enjoy. Its walkable colonial neighborhood La Candelaria, home to the Plaza de Bolivar (pictured), boasts the world-class Gold Museum and the worthwhile Donación Botero, a museum with works by Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, as well as unknown dabblers like Picasso, Renoir, and Monet. La Candelaria is also a food-lover’s paradise, with top-notch international cuisine, tasty and inexpensive local fare, and scores of street vendors selling aromatica, a wonderfully addictive spiced hot tea.

1. Ciudad Perdida Accessible by a challenging five-day trek through the jungle, Ciudad Perdida (“Lost City”) is, for me, Colombia’s top attraction. Dating from the 9th Century, Ciudad Perdida’s ruins were hidden for centuries beneath thick vegetation until grave-robbers discovered the site in 1973. But Ciudad Perdida is special not because of the ruins themselves, but because of the spectacular five-day hike required to get there. For more on this great hike, check out my recent should-have-been-award-winning Gadling piece on Ciudad Perdida.


For more wanderlust-inspiring articles about Colombia, check out a couple favorites from the Gadling vault: The rebirth of Medellin? and Coming attractions: Colombia. The New York Times has also been all over Colombia recently; check out their coverage here.

[All photos belong to the Colombia Board of Tourism or your humble correspondent]

Hilton’s Valentine’s Day deal for Latin America: Do not disturb

Sometimes, the best service is none at all. With the “Do Not Disturb” getaways for Valentine’s Day, you’ll check into any number of hotels in the Caribbean or Latin America, and there will be plenty of people who will be happy to leave you alone. Check in early, if you like, and disappear for a while, and you can arrange for late checkout, too.

Don’t get me wrong — the “Do Not Disturb” package includes all kinds of amenities that are sure to turn you on. You’ll sip sparkling wine or cider in your room and occasionally head down to the health club, pool or whirlpool spa to stretch out and move your body … when you’re not moving your body in your room. You’ll also pick up breakfast every day in the hotel’s restaurant, and on extra nights, you’ll enjoy a free entrée with each meal you buy (as long as the second is of equal or lesser value).

There are plenty of hotels available, including the completely renovated Colonial Hilton Nassau in the Bahamas, the Hilton Cartagena in Colombia and the Hilton Mexico City Reforma. Just be sure to use booking code RP.

Gadlinks for Tuesday, 1.26.2010

Happy Tuesday, Gadling fans! Here are a few more travel tidbits to help you through the week.

More Gadlinks HERE.