Street Art Series: Cartagena, Colombia

I’m getting ready to plan a short trip in the fall and longer trip at the end of the summer, and I’ve been looking back on some of my favorite vacations for inspiration as I choose a destination. I’ve gone on some great runs during all my recent trips — and these next ones will both fall during marathon training, so I am certainly going to choose runner-friendly destinations!— but this week I’ve been thinking about my favorite non-running elements of recent trips to use as inspiration.

I like to explore new locations on foot, and Cartagena, Naples, Reykjavik, Bordeaux, San Juan and San Sebastian were all supremely walkable cities bursting with culture. Madrid and Barcelona were much larger, while Boise was practically a village in comparison. Museums and architectural landmarks, as well as parks & green space all catch my eye — but I also like to get off the beaten path, leave room for spontanaeity, and make sure I’m not only seeing the historical, tourist side of a city.

That’s where contemporary art, especially street art, comes in! From sanctioned murals to guerrilla-style displays, graffiti tags and pop-up exhibitions, I’ve come to love exploring the modern culture of a city through its art. And by walking through different areas of one city, I can get a sense of each neighborhood’s different character and learn about the issues and themes (as well as artistic styles, of course!) that its artists engage with. Street art, often looked down on as just graffiti, can be political and activist, artistic and provocative, and unique to a city, neighborhood, cultural moment, and artist — giving a visitor like me a rich, contemporary, and direct way to experience a new location that balances out the more formal cultural institutions like museums or architectural sites.

I thought I’d start a mini-series of my favorite destinations, starting with Cartagena, Colombia, which I visited in July 2016. (My neighborhood in New York has quite a bit to offer, so maybe our own art will also make an appearance...) The city was vibrant and fun to explore, the arepas were to die for, and the national park I camped in nearby was also beautiful! Like many Latin American port cities, Cartagena’s origins as a military outpost mean its oldest area was literally walled off from the sea, like a fort or medieval castle, so that it was defensible from attacks. The modern-day city stretches much further inland as well as along the coast, but the Walled City (or Old Town) and the wall itself are still a major attraction and key part of the city landscape.

Inside of Cartagena's wall, Spanish architecture and cobbled streets are the norm, where lanes of brightly colored houses whose balconies overflow with flowers lead to plazas and churches — but there’s still plenty of room for enterprising artists to leave their mark. Cartagena’s Getsemaní district has recently earned a reputation as cool, hipster neighborhood — quite a change from its days as a dangerous and crime-filled area. Just outside of the Walled City, Getsemaní’s central location and new growth of bars, clubs, restaurants, and hotels attract tourists and locals alike. Race, gentrification, identity, colonialism humor, hope and hustle all make an appearance in the art here, on surfaces from crumbling plaster to tiny doorways and massive brick walls.