santa marta and cartagena: history and culture on the caribbean coast

Santa Marta and Cartagena - History and Culture on the Caribbean Coast

The walls of Cartagena, at the edge Caribbean Sea, served as protection for the city.

Cartagena is a city that well known, even to those who have not yet visited Colombia.  It is definitely a must-see destination, with its historic walled city, beautiful architecture, and vibrant nightlife.  Nearby, Santa Marta is impressive as well.  It boasts better beaches and fewer tourists.  It was a great place to spend Christmas among the people who live there.

Santa Marta and Cartagena - History and Culture on the Caribbean Coast

A man walks through a pedestrian street where records are being sold in Santa Marta.

After a visit with my family via Skype (which along with TripAdvisor is one of the technological gifts in the last decade for a traveler in my opinion), I had lunch on Christmas Day at a place recommended by my hostel that’s only distinguishing feature from the street was a doormat that said, “Welcome.”  Once inside I was greeted with numerous murals on the walls and ceiling, a fresh seafood dinner, and a friendly fellow patron.  Our conversation was intermittent, because he, like all the locals that entered, were engrossed with the TV.  The funeral of Diomedes Diaz, one of Colombia’s most popular musicians, was being broadcast.  While watching it I was reminded of eyes glued to TVs in the US during Princess Di’s procession. For some in the coastal areas, Diaz’s funeral overshadowed the celebration of Christ’s birth celebrated on the same day.  Later in the afternoon, I did what many locals do on Christmas Day…I went to the beach!

Santa Marta and Cartagena - History and Culture on the Caribbean Coast

Locals watch the funeral of Diomedes Diaz in a colorful restaurant (left). A young girl enjoys the beach on Christmas Day in Santa Marta (right).

Santa Marta and Cartagena - History and Culture on the Caribbean Coast

Boys jump into the Caribbean Sea on Christmas Day in Santa Marta.

The culture and history of Cartagena is evident on every street of the its historical center.  Pirate raids, the Spanish Inquisition, international trade of precious metals and slaves: these are just some of the stories that this walled city holds in its past.  Today the fortress walls also serve as a great place to watch the sunset over the Caribbean Sea. Within the historic center, the city’s architecture retains its colonial character with rich colors, flower covered balconies, and arched walkways.  Food vendors, horse-pulled carriages, and tourists meander through the streets, adding the the beauty of experiencing this special place.

Santa Marta and Cartagena - History and Culture on the Caribbean Coast

A horse-pulled carriage pauses near the Clock Gate in Cartagena.

Santa Marta and Cartagena - History and Culture on the Caribbean Coast

A couple watches the sunset from Cartagena’s wall as a soccer game is played below. The modern neighborhood of Bocagrande stands in the distance.

Santa Marta and Cartagena - History and Culture on the Caribbean Coast

The colonial architecture of Cartagena adds to the beauty of the historic city.

In the Getsemaní neighborhood, brightly colored murals cover walls between hostels, cafes, tiendas, and salsa bars.  Artist studios and small local businesses make their home in many of the historic buildings there.

Santa Marta and Cartagena - History and Culture on the Caribbean Coast

Cartagena’s Getsemaní neighborhood is home to some of the city’s workforce and artists. A tailor makes uniforms for hotel employees (left). Guillermo is a painter whose studio is housed in this neighborhood (right).

Walking through the streets here, I never knew what waited around the next corner.  The streets of Cartagena are perfect for wandering, and the romantic beauty of the place makes it easy to lose track of time.

Santa Marta and Cartagena - History and Culture on the Caribbean Coast

A quiet evening in Cartagena’s historic center.

taking in the sights…and the flavors of colombia

Fruit and fish, plantains and potatoes, corn and coconut…these are some of the treasures of Colombian cuisine.  I thoroughly enjoyed eating my way through the country and seeing different takes on staple foods in each region I visited.


A food vendor serves grilled meats at the beach in Santa Marta.

It is clear that people here are connected to and through their food.  Street vendors selling fruit, ice cream, meats and arepas were ubiquitous in every town I visited.  In the evenings, as the people congregated in plazas and parques, the air was filled with the melding of aromas from the various vendors.  During the day, fruit vendors sold multiple types of mangoes as well as other fruits, an array of juices, and coconuts.  There’s no excuse to go hungry here….fresh food is at every turn.

Away from the cities, it was not uncommon to see people working the land and livestock to provide food for those in town.  During a hike, I crossed paths with a man bringing milk into town in large stainless steel containers mounted on donkeys.  This was the first of many similar scenes I saw, particularly in the Cafetera area, where many of the coffee farms and dairies are located.  While visiting a small cafe near Villa de Leyva, some friends and I encountered a woman skinning a pig.  It was such a beautiful scene, as light filtered into the room and she methodically processed this animal that would provide nourishment for many.


A man makes the journey from his finca with milk to sale in town, near Salento.


A woman processes a pig near Villa de Leyva (left). Mangoes for sale are a common sight on the streets of Cartagena (right).

Fresh fish was plentiful in the coastal towns of Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Cabo de la Vela.  In Cartagena, La Cevicheria served some incredible ceviche with shrimp, fish, conch, and octopus. Even though it was one of the higher priced meals during my time in Colombia, I could not help but return to eat there again my last night in town.  Fried fish served with arroz con coco (coconut rice) and patacones (fried plantains) is a typical meal in coastal areas.  In the Guajira area, we had several of these meals, where the only thing that varied was the type of fish. It was all incredibly tasty.


Fried fish with arroz con coco near Cabo del la Vela is a meal typical of the area (left). Mixed ceviche in Cartagena was a special treat at La Cevicheria (right).

Arepas and patacones are two foods present throughout the country.  Patacones are fried thinly flattened plantain patties.  While in the coast they are small and served as an accompaniment to a meal, in La Cafetera, they are the size of a large plate and served as vehicles for any number of combinations of meats, cheeses and salsas.  Corn based arepas vary greatly between regions.  In La Cafetera, they resemble thick grilled corn tortillas, covered with meats, cheese, vegetables, or just butter.  On the coast and in the regions around Bogotá, instead of piling food on top of the arepas, they are stuffed with meats, cheeses, eggs, or sweet creamy cheese.  Many of these are grilled as well, but others are deep-fried.  I made it my personal mission to try as many combinations as I could…within reason, of course!


Arepas near Manizales in La Cafetera are served with butter alongside eggs for breakfast (left). In Santa Marta, a street food vender sells grilled arepas filled with chicken or eggs to hungry beach goers (right).


Patacones with chicken, cheese, and salsa serves as a filling dinner at the cafe-lined plaza in Salento.

a colorful colombian christmas

The Christmas light displays in Colombia are a sight to behold.  While I did not make it to Medellin during this trip, which is considered to have the most extravagant displays in the country, the festive lights I did see where very impressive.  Each place I visited during the holiday season expressed the character of the town through their unique displays.  Everyday I felt a childlike excitement well up in me as the sun went down, the lights turned on, and the people came out to congregate in the public areas adorned with sparkles of color and light.

JDavidsonBlog131217-01The trees of Bogotá’s Independence Park are dripping with lights as locals and vendors stroll underneath.

JDavidsonBlog131217-02A giant Christmas tree towers over other larger than life displays along one of Bogotá’s busy streets.

The elegance of Cartagena’s historic center shines through the white lights covering the clock tower at the city’s entrance.

A long promenade alongside the Caribbean Sea in Santa Marta contains a multitude of festive sea creatures and palm trees, with exuberant children interspersed among the marine themed lightscape.

Ice cream vendors stay very busy in this seaside park where many families come to enjoy the displays and the warm Caribbean nights.

A young man stands quietly reminding those visiting the park in Santa Marta to be respectful of the city’s holiday display.

Two Young Girls Villa de Leyva ColombiaIn the small village of Villa de Leyva, novenas took place in different parts of the town each night.  Here two young friends who sang at the evening’s service, pause in front of a street-side nativity.

Police officers in Villa de Leyva ColombiaLocal police officers join in the holiday spirit during the novenas in Villa de Leyva.

Plaza in Villa de Leyva at Christmastime
Beauty through simplicity characterizes the light-outlined plaza in Villa de Leyva. This display compliments the town’s all-white architecture perfectly.