The terminal at Cartagena isn’t much. With no checked bags, I was through the tiny baggage claim hall and out in front of the airport minutes after we disembarked.
Cartagena has a reputation as a bit of a tourist trap, as it’s the most heavily visited part of Colombia by total tourists per year. That being said, we came before the heart of the season, and I think we saw less than ten non-Colombian people the whole time we were there (our group excluded).
When it came to choosing a hotel, we did it the only rational way. The debate in our e-mail chain came down to one simple question. “what hotel did those secret service agents who got in trouble for soliciting prostitutes stay at?” We figured if it was good enough for the secret service, it was good enough for us. This is how we ended up at the the Hotel El Caribe, or as we would come to refer to it “the luxurious 5-star Hotel El Caribe.”
Even though Colombia has long since shed it’s 1990’s leftover reputation as a lawless and violent place, old thought patterns die hard, and so when I hopped in a cab and told him “Hotel El Caribe,” I also punched the address into my phone and watched myself via GPS to make sure the cab was taking me the correct way and not kidnapping me. Apple can be rather nifty.
I was the first to arrive. We began referring to the hotel as “the luxurious 5-star Hotel El Caribe,” because while the hotel has classed itself as a five star, it’s really more of a 3-star kind of place. It would be the kind of hotel you’d stay at if you were going on college spring break and staying at a higher end dump.
That being said, the rooms had great air conditioning, reasonably comfortable beds, there was a pool, a bar and multiple restaurants. While it’s a bit over priced, the proximity to the beach made up for it.
I figured if the secret service stayed here, there must at least be a decent gym. I dropped my bags and walked off in search of it. The gym was not nice…there was no aircon in there, and it was left open to the outside world. As such it was about 90 degrees in the gym, a bit hotter than outside by virtue of there being no breeze. Almost all of the machines were broken, so there was nothing but a meager selection of free weights. not exactly top draw.
After my workout, I went back to the room, showered up and hung around the immediate vicinity of the hotel for a while. I had dinner on the grounds and then drank a few Club Colombia beers (excellent beer) poolside and watched a large group sing karaoke.
Even though the rest of the guys weren’t arriving until the next day, and I speak maybe 10 words of Spanish, I figured I would head out for a bit on my own and do some advanced scouting.
When the karaoke finished up, I sunk the remainder of my beer and went through the lobby to grab a cab. The internet told me Mr. Babilla was the place I wanted to be.
It took me a minute to figure out their entry system. You need to walk to a window on the right side of the entrance, buy a ticket, then return to the main line, wait, then present your ticket to the bouncer to gain entry. Those patrons who want to smoke (shockingly no smoking allowed inside in Colombia), get stamped on their way out, and can re-enter without waiting on line.While waiting out front in the humid, sweltering Cartagena night, I was dripping with sweat in a button up linen shirt and some lightweight pants. Thankfully the aircon was cranked up high inside.
The bar was absolutely jammed, which was both good and bad. Mr. Babilla is not a super place to go by yourself…especially if you don’t speak Spanish. Most of the patrons were seated at tables with their groups. There was precious little space at the bar, and most of it occupied. I posted up at a few of the different bars around the place drinking beer, then whisky, then vodka straining to overhear some English so I could find some people to talk to, but with no luck. I managed to run into some French people and hung out with them for a little while, but I knew everyone else would be arriving ready to go in the morning, and I figured since the night wasn’t going amazingly, it’d be better to retire before 3am and save some energy for the next day.
It was a good decision. Before 10am the next morning, N and Boston were chain calling me trying to wake me up. Their room wasn’t ready and they wanted to drop their stuff off in my room in the interim.
Once they swung by, I was already mostly wake, so the three of us went to breakfast. Revitalized afterwards, I got a quick workout in, then the three of us went over to the pool bar to start drinking. We ran into Indiana and Chicago who were already there having lunch.
We merged tables and five or six rounds later we figured we should go check out the old town and perhaps find a bar there.
We walked up and down the old town, which is reminiscent of a pirate port of call and a bit like what I imagine Havana was like in the early part of the 20th century, but were unable to find a good place to drink. Since N, Boston and I had not had lunch, we eventually ducked into a place for food and several more rounds of Club Colombia.
When N and Boston first arrived at the hotel, they met a local at the edge of the driveway named Jorge. He became our “guy,” who was tasked with procuring whatever we needed during our stay, he was pretty amusing.
When we left the old town, Jorge met us at the edge of the El Caribe’s driveway again and took us down to the beach. We settled in at a bar for mojito’s and more beers until the sun went down.
We all agreed to pool the mixers in our respective mini-bars and convene in N and Boston’s room since they had a large store of duty-free liquor for the pre-game.
There are several different buildings at the El Caribe and despite all the rooms being the same price, the quality is vastly different. I discovered this when I got to N’s room which had modern furnishing, flat screen TV, etc…as well as a view of the water, while my room looked early 90’s vintage with a tube TV and a view of the parking lot…oh well, we didn’t spend much time in the rooms anyway.
We started the pre-game exceedingly early, perhaps 8:30pm or so, and before long we were most of the way through a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bottle of Vodka. The quote of the night was undoubtedly from Chicago who in an non-ironic manner randomly asked “is anyone here a Ke$ha fan?” before launching into a Patrick Bateman-esque monologue about the virtues of her music. Oh Colombia.
The internet had confirmed to the others that Mr. Babilla was supposed to be the place, so we all went there. We got there very early. At first this seemed lousy, since the bar was fairly empty, but it allowed us to get an excellent table. Liquor is basically free in Colombia. I think we ended up running through three or four bottles of vodka, as well as mixers and in the end the damage was maybe $30-40 USD per person. In the U.S. you would be adding zero’s to that for such a large quantity of bottle service.
It was the Friday before Halloween and the bar filled up rapidly and got completely out of control. Boston was the only Spanish speaker in our group, so in the early going we used him to liaise with our waitress, but by the third bottle he was so incoherent that our pidgin Spanish was far more understandable that whatever language he was speaking.
Likewise, there was no issue meeting local girls despite an almost complete lack of ability to converse.
The most surprising thing was their actions vis-a-vis alcohol. At home, or in most of the developed world, you get bottles at a club and girls will come out of the wood work to mooch free drinks, then many oddly vanish when there’s no more free booze.
Here we were offering these girls free alcohol since it cost nothing, but they insisted on hanging out at our table and not accepting any drinks. On top of this, since apparently many of the locals are rather poor, they couldn’t afford drinks inside, so they kept going out front to drink from bottles they had hidden in their purses and inviting us to come out front with them and drink their smuggled booze.
This made no sense, and we tried to explain that the alcohol wasn’t expensive, but it was to no avail…more vodka for us.
As I mentioned, the party got a bit out of control. If you haven’t seen a bar full of liquored up Colombian people dancing to Gangnam Style I suggest you check it out. Somewhere on the internet, there’s now a picture of me with pink bunny ears taken from the head of some girl I was dancing with. Super.
Everyone went in search of a new Colombian girlfriend and we fragmented as the night wore on towards the dawn.
The next morning. Miracle. No hangovers for anyone. N and Boston woke up to go diving, which I would say is madness, but N has done this so many times before. He went diving in Koh Tao after the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan, he made it out diving in Sharm after our compressed Cairo debacle, he always manages.
When I met up with them, N and Boston were especially chipper, they said the force fed oxygen during the dive crushed any chance of a hangover.
It was a Saturday, a college football Saturday, but there are apparently no bars in Cartagena that show American football.
We went down to the beach, and Jorge secured us some places. More Club Colombia, a little swimming and a little sun.
Then, we went back to the hotel, pulled out N’s laptop and all drank beers as we watched Ohio State throttle Penn State.
After the game, everyone was pretty worn out, so we decided to take naps and reconvene for dinner. I was completely exhausted, and just wanted to sleep all night, wake up on Sunday and go back to Bogota. I went into my room, purposely didn’t set an alarm, turned the lights off and tried to go to sleep.
I told myself if they didn’t call me and force me to meet up, I would just sleep through the night and not go out. Predictably, they continued calling my room until I woke up and demanded I come over to pre-game. I tried to fight it, but they made a compelling argument. It was Saturday and it was our last night in Cartagena. I relented, took a shower and went over to N’s.
After a few cocktails, my mood improved and we were back at it again. Everyone else had Halloween costumes, but naturally we hadn’t packed any. How were we to know Colombians take Halloween seriously? The previous day we had joked about finding a place to buy black suits, ties and white shirts as well as ear pieces, so that en masse we could go as secret service agents, but it was much easier to drink on the beach than follow through with that pipe dream.
As a result, we showed up to Mr. Babilla in our normal clothes. It was overflowing with people, and we had no chance of getting a good table. After a few drinks we left to head up and down the strip of bars near Mr. Babilla, stopping in and checking them out, then moving on. We checked out at least a half dozen bars, but none of them were as good as Mr. Babilla, so we ended up back there and managed to snag a semi-decent table. Back into the cheap bottle service.
This night was not as epic as Friday and the only good that came out of it, was that Chicago managed to land some Colombian girl, go back to her place with her AND not get robbed/stabbed/murdered.
We all convened for breakfast on Sunday, heard Chicago’s stories, chastised Boston for making out with a fat girl and vowed to spend every Halloween going forwards in Cartagena.
N, Boston, Indiana and Chicago had early flights going from BOG to PTY. From PTY they would then be splitting up to their various destinations.
Knowing I would be in bad shape on Sunday, I had scheduled a later AV flight from CTG to BOG, so when they took off for the airport, I went up to my room to nap a bit before it was time to go.
Basically, Cartagena is like college spring break without Americans. Same party atmosphere, lower prices and great weather…also, Colombian girls are both hot AND fun. Strong buy.
Hotel El Caribe Report Card
Pros: Across the street from the beach, pool, bar, decent rooms, room service, reasonably priced, lols related to the secret service hooker scandal guys staying there.
Cons: 3-star pretending to be a 5-star, sweltering gym with broken equipment.
Verdict: I would absolutely stay here again. Too many funny memories associated with the place to go elsewhere. When the new Hyatt opens I’d consider it, but the El Caribe has more character even if it isn’t a true luxury property.