The Colombian Coast: Land of the Hustlers

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Plaza de la Aduana, Cartagena

I arrived in Colombia with a completely different view of what I thought Colombia was going to be. My first impressions weren’t negative I just expected to see a little cocaine on the street, gorgeous women walking around, and the occasional AK-47 here and there. I didn’t see any cocaine on the surprisingly clean streets, my mouth watered from the pretty girls, and the closest I got to a gun was the one I was holding in this post (click here). The people of Colombia, which I now group as the insanely awesome super cool people of Medellin, were extremely proper, nice, and all around awesome.

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The clock tower in Cartagena

When I arrived in Cartagena I got a completely different vibe. Cartagena if you didn’t know was a major Spanish colony outpost along with Havana, Cuba to name a few. Cartagena is a major tourist attraction in Colombia due to the prime location for cruise ships. While Medellin does receive a ton of tourists and expats the attitude was completely different.

In Medellin the attitude is more respectful its more along the lines of may I please have your money? In Cartagena the premise is more towards hey give me your money now.  No one has tried to hustle me until I got to Cartagena. I find it wildly peculiar that I was asked nicely if I wanted to try cocaine and panuni. Punani being the Jamaican Patois word for women and well, prostitution.

You just received a lesson in Patois now say it three times fast! Hurry! Not 5 minutes after I walked out of my hotel I walked past an awkward dark street corner after cocaine dealer after a group of prostitutes after a very nice cocaine dealer after another awkward street corner.

This was the first night. No one touched me or blocked my way I simply was asked “Hello there welcome to Cartagena would you like some cocaine?” My immediate response was of course where I proceeded directly to the prostitutes and then awkward corner. Okay maybe not, my first response was to just say not and continue walking.

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Church in Cartagena

The second cocaine dealer wanted to be my buddy. He asked me my favorite color (which he thought was white) and asked if I wanted sea food for dinner. How could you possibly say no to that? I said why yes of course… to the dinner. There was a third cocaine dealer but he was boring, deal with it. It was such a respectful hustle, a well mannered tourist trap. I loved it and will incorporate it into my Colombian pick up lines! Oops said that out loud.

So I am feeling pretty good about the city now and the new city jitters are beginning to drift away. I failed to mention that being the responsible traveler that I am I had to stop at a random hotel to use their internet to find the address to my hotel.

The hotel was much obliged and again I received the respectful hustle (RH for short pronounced Ruh), “well if you have any problems let us know we would be happy to have you stay here”. I said thank you but thought no way in hell since they didn’t have air conditioning. Insert Asian accent: thank you come again.

The next day is when I saw the real side of the city. Taxi drivers in Cartagena conveniently don’t have a taximeter so you get to “calmly and confidently” negotiate your fare. I was trying to go from the popular clock tower to the Castillo de San Felipe. In Medellin, taxis starting far is 2,400 pesos with the current exchange rate being roughly 1,800 pesos to 1 dollar. That’s about $1.30 to get into cab. The drive to the Castillo would have been 5 minutes or so, give or take half hour to account for a stupid taxi driver that doesn’t know where he is going.

He wanted to charge me 20,000 pesos to take me across the street, that over $10. I of course resisted where he did not respectfully hustle me nor try to find out my favorite color. He did what any hustler would do, start to raise his voice and say that’s the going rate. I told him to fly a kite, there are pretty kites in Cartagena, and eventually worked down the fair to a reasonable level. Karma took care of him since he didn’t understand the bright black star I circled on the map and he took me 20 minutes away from the Castillo. I win stupid taxi driver, I win.

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One of the many balconies in Cartagena

The following day I walked into the old city and boy is it impressive. There are bright colors covering every unique architectural building and great things to see along every corridor of the old city. Here I was greeted with the fruit mafia, jewelry store mafia, sugar cane mafia, mafia mafia, and I think I will say mafia one more time so you get the hint. I had “come take my money” written on my forehead. Even the man that was trying to sell my Sponge Bob Square Pants back to me came up with his Spongue Bob mafia. I did what any tourist would do, I kissed them all on the cheek and continued on my way. My mom did teach me manners.

The very last event occurred in Santa Marta. I’ll save you my next 700 word post on Santa Marta by telling you that this place resembled the cities that were devastated by the earthquake in Japan. No? Too early for that one? Santa Marta is a complete dump. I had bit of a “no I’m not sweating until I dehydrate” moment with the hostel since they accidentally booked me a room with no A/C. They kicked the British kid out and put the Latin kid in, I’m VIP in this place. I left the next day to a nice hotel on the beach because the bed was worse than sleeping on rocks.

While I was driving around the hotel there was the apartment rental mafia. It was like a girl scout club except with boys, much older boys, trying to sell you the stale cookies you don’t ever want to eat because you are trying to lose weight. There are gorgeous resorts in the area and apartment rentals are big business. Especially when the apartment rental mafia makes all cars come to a stop so they can paste their “for rent” signs on your windshield. I couldn’t ever get those smudges out.

When traveling to the coast keep your guard up because you will be tested. Your stomach will be tested along with your wallet. If you have a sensitive or strong stomach it’s strongly recommended that you only drink bottled water and watch what you eat at restaurants.


  1. I’m working on my post about the Caribbean Coast today and this caught my eye on Twitter. While my first impressions of Cartagena were sheer hatred because of all the people constantly bothering you, I’ve warmed to it a tiny bit. Mostly because we are in an amazing hotel. Seriously though, this is the only place I’ve felt uncomfortable in during our time in Colombia. We had a better experience with the rest of the coast, but we stayed in a private resort near Tayrona. Everyone here is trying to extract money from you and everything is so overpriced. I’ve been researching the slums around Cartagena – apparently the largest in Colombia and the unemployment rate here is very high. It explains a lot and makes me feel sad for the people. For me, Cartagena as a nice holiday place is way overhyped. Until they get these problems sorted, people will continue to hassle visitors.  ~Andrea.

    1. Very good point!! I think it also has to do that with the cruise trade that brings in thousands of tourists in (compared to other cities). I spoke to some ppl in the city and they said that most prostitutes come to Cartagena as well!! Let me know when you have that post up would love to read it

  2. If you are in a very touristy area they will speak english but most people dont speak english. The party area is la candelario.. I would like to warn you that Bogota is more dangerous and you have to be careful at night. You guys are rolling deep so you will have less of of a problem but still.. just bring id’s and enough cash for the night. No cell phones or jewelry. Cartagena isn’t too rainy but its super hott!! Bogota is very rainy and cold for most people, for me its nice but for most people its cold.

    Cartagena has very good night life and Bogota as well, just take extra precaution in Bogota. For Cartagena you can try these places: Cafe del Mar on the wall for drinks at sunset. Mister Babilla is popular crossover club. Cafe Havana for salsa

  3. Any thoughts on a planned colombian trip this August? I am travelling with my 2 teenage sons who should be able to take care of hassles but should we try to avoid Cartegena and the cruise ship masses?

    1. Cartagena is only popular because of the cruises. It is a great city but the culture of the people there I didn’t like. It isn’t the Colombia that I first was acquainted with where they bend over backwards to be gracious and kind. In Cartagena culture is to make money and try to take as much money from tourists as possible. It is still a beautiful city, a bit in disrepair but still a great historical city

  4. I hate negotiating with taxi drivers. If they don’t have a meter I often see them as illegal and a dangerous ride.

    Good on you though for sticking to your guns and getting a more reasonable fare.

    That is an interesting perspective of Colombia. I think you went in with the perceptions (those of us who have never been) have.

  5. I have just been to Medellin and Cartagena. I am Irish and my friend is Filippino. We loved Medellin and it’s people and had no problems at al. We also loved Cartagena (put up with the hustlers) nothing too extreme though. We loved the place, sites ,food, culture, old world feeling. Nothing bad to say really. We are off to Bogota tomorrow. Be good.

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