In Colombia, a popular saying goes— “The only risk in visiting Colombia is wanting to stay!” Supposedly this saying originates just miles from my Barranquillan home, from the colonial city of Cartagena, Colombia. So, a few weeks after marking our sixth month anniversary in Colombia, some fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I decided to take advantage of school vacation during Semana SantaHoly Week— and judge for ourselves.

Cartagena lies on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and was originally a Spanish colony—one of South America’s first ports and ,in the 1800’s, the main entry point of Colombia’s slave trade. Now, its European architecture, old stone wall and fort, and infamous coastal nightlife make it one of South America’s biggest tourist destinations.

A view of the walled city from the surrounding wall

The bus ride from Barranquilla to Cartagena down the coastal highway takes less than two hours. Industrial Barranquilla fades to shantytowns and scrubby vegetation and then, suddenly, the ridiculously teal Caribbean ocean appears just yards from the road.
Although “real” Cartagena is sprawling and urban, the historical walled city is a maze of narrow, cobbled streets. We strolled shoulder to shoulder with backpackers and luxury tourists alike, grazing on street vendors’ candied coconut patties, cheesy fried pastries, and little plastic shot glasses of tinto—the local way of serving coffee.

I could have spent the week relaxing in the forested squares under the shade of flowered trellises, but Cartagena is more than a pretty locale—it’s a jumping-off point for adventure. We trusted our hostel’s offerings since Colombia’s budding tourist industry has little to no internet utility–tours and planning are best done in person. Our first destination: Las Islas de Rosario.

The islands, about a 45 minute speedboat ride from shore, are known throughout the country for being “magical.” Our guides assured us we’d find a huge variety of beaches, sea life, and welcoming locals. Turns out, most of the islands are small and privately owned; with the exception of Playa Blanca, Cartagena’s most famous beach, many island-beaches are just large enough to accommodate a single house! We snorkeled on the surrounding reef among fish striped in incredible electric greens, yellows, and indigos, but the coral itself was gray and broken—not quite a picture of the hoped-for magic.

But a different sort of magic awaited us the next day in El Volcán de Totumo—Cartagena’s “mud volcano.” Legend has it a priest’s blessing turned this volcano’s lava to mud. In shape it resembles a giant anthill, and tourists climb up one side to get to the mud-filled top. Entering the mud, along with about fifteen other tourists is almost like descending into an anti-gravity chamber; the mud’s strange density makes it impossible to sink, even if one tries!

We climbed backwards into the mud pit and were received by local attendants, who laid us on our backs. “Float” isn’t quite the word, for what this was—the mud envelopes, but cushions, like liquid memory-foam. The attendants sloshed mud over us in free, if overly-intimate massages, then set us loose. I bobbed and turned, thrashing and clutching to complete strangers before I finally gained the unique sort of balance. My friends enjoyed this all immensely, but for me the weirdness won out slightly over the fun—who knows what lay beneath…

Cartagena's clock tower at night

Back in Cartagena proper, we nursed sunburns and splurged on restaurant food. The international variety was almost overwhelming. Pumpkin ravioli, Indian food, Mexican offerings, gelato, falafel wraps—all within a few block radius! After everything, for me this was somehow the strongest reminder that in Cartagena I was seen as, if not completely feeling like, just another North American tourist. Although it was incredibly freeing, in some ways, it was also strange to enter that role, after all the effort I’ve put into integration.

I worried I’d encounter culture shock yet again when I returned to my Barranquilla community, where gringos are oddities and entertainment revolves around family reunions. Barranquilla, with its gray streets, industrial focus, and land-locked location is no Cartagena. But I realized, greeting my open-armed host family, that Colombia’s charm lies not in Cartagena’s showcased magic. Instead, this country’s allure fills every city—because it is the Colombian people and their welcome to tourists and volunteers alike that makes Colombia home for any who wish it to be.