Cartagena – I was there 10 years ago so my advice is a bit dated, and my family (they live in Bogota) made the travel arrangements so I’m not sure how much this will help you, but for what it’s worth – some thoughts below in no particular order. Since you are friends with Lavinia I’m assuming you are well traveled, well read and know your way around different cultures – so forgive me if some of my notes seem basic 😉
My brother was there last year (keep in mind I was there before smart phones) and he said he recalls wifi at a lot of places, cell service being widely available, and you can use credit cards in many places (can’t remember if they took Amex tho) – smaller shops likely won’t take credit.
People (at least they used to) live and die by the phone cards they buy to top off their minutes on their cell phones, beware of scams of people selling cards or wanting to use your card, or use your phone, or any combination thereof. Lots of hustling.
If you take a photo of someone they may expect money or a tip – there are people who dress in traditional garb and stand in main squares for this purpose
Beggars and vendors are RELENTLESS – from the moment you step out of a cab or into a touristy area, they will swarm you and are fairly aggressive – just be firm and keep moving, a polite ‘no, lo siento’ should suffice
There will be lots of vendors on the beach too. As a developing country there is a lot of poverty which can be hard to deal with though you’re largely insulated from it in the resort and old town areas
Definitely check out the historic walled part of the city which has gracious squares like Plaza Bolivar. Seemed there were always people out strolling, shopping, dancing, dining – Colombians are late night people. Lots of restaurants, bars, cigar shops. I usually stay away from horse drawn carriage rides but they seem to be popular. All prices are negotiable.
I also usually avoid the “take a photo with a parrot on your shoulder” for a few pesos type of activity but it was worth it to hold a sloth for a photo 😉
Colombia is rife with pickpockets and purse snatchers – definitely be careful with what jewelry you wear and what you carry. you’re better off not attracting attention with expensive bags, watches.
As I recall there were a fair amount of Europeans that went there on vacay, I steered clear of the restaurants catering to them (Italians and Germans in particular I remember)
Shouldn’t be hard to find Latin dancing and/or “folclorico” or folklore traditional dancing. Colombians are lively, hospitable, sociable. Love to talk. They love Carlos Vives (and Shakira) but the traditional songs are always alive and well – they put out a ‘top Colombian hits’ album each year that can be a good souvenir.
As for shopping, some ideas – Cuban cigars shops are popular. Beautiful shawls with fringe made with woven ribbon. Lovely handmade embroidered blouses, linens, handkerchiefs … the country is known for cotton goods and leather (shoes, handbags). Colombian women tend to dress sexy regardless of body type – we celebrate femininity – it’s the only place I’ve seen tummy control thong underwear for sale!
Which brings us to food and my stomach is grumbling as I type this –
You will see in restaurants a bandeja tipica (typical platter) that will feature a steak, white rice, beans, fried sweet plantains, chicharones (fried pork rinds, sounds bad but tastes good) and for some reason a fried egg over the top of everything. They love beef (carne asada), pork, lamb. You will sometimes see at restaurants for lunch an offer called the “ejecutivo” or ‘executive’ which is basically a fixed price meal that would include entrée, drink and sald or dessert – can be a good deal. The culture is for a small breakfast, a big lunch, and a light dinner but with a ‘tea’ in between
Some other things to try –
Fried plaintains (platanos – are sweet)
Patacones – green banana (not sweet) fritters
Fresh fruit and juices (usually lots of stands and mobile vendors around) – maracuya (passion fruit), mamoncillo, papaya, Cherimoya, guanabana, granadilla, guava, lulo
Avocados the size of your head – delicious corn with huge kernels – papas criollas, little Andean potatoes served roasted with salt or steamed with melted cheese and peppers
Lots of seafood and fresh fish – whole red snapper, fried (pargo rojo)
Ajiaco (a soul satisfying potato and chicken soup)
Hot dogs are a late night snack delicacy (at least in Bogota) and are served with pineapple and potato sticks – odd but somehow tasty – order it with everything on it
Do not pass up a bakery – Pan de bono (cheese rolls), arepas (corn cakes, often sold by street vendors, with melted cheese inside)
Empanadas – a must. They are fried, not baked like in some countries. bite a little hole at the top and then squeeze in a little lime and if you like spicy, a tiny spoonful of aji, a finely diced salsa made with a hot pepper
A popular drink (at least in cooler temps) is aqua de panela which is basically like a tea made with brown sugar/molasses, usually served with a white cheese melted in it – again, sounds odd but actually quite good
You’ll also see Hot chocolate – is not as sweet as in the US (also good with cheese in it )
Arequipe is kind of like a caramel spread – Obleas are cookie sandwiches of wafers with arequipe spread in between
Aguardiente is the national liqeuer, anise flavored – usually served in small shots
Club Colombia is the national beer, a light lager
For restaurants, there is one place that stands out in my mind, the Club de Pesca. Fancier place, on the water, great view. I think it’s by the fort.
For a drink, I’d love to get back to the Bar El Baluarte – it’s on the top of one of the old ramparts of the walls of the old city – I can’t speak for the food but it was a fantastic setting and a great place to have a drink, especially around sunset and at night
You have to go to the old Spanish Fort – Castillo San Felipe – it’s huge and you can pretty much wander around in any part of it. There will be tour guides outside the fort jockeying for business, the authorized ones will be wearing little name badges – if you’re lucky you can find one that speaks English (tho their English may not be great) and you can negotiate the price – if I were by myself I might get nervous about being alone with a male tour guide in some of the dark nooks and crannies of the fort but you might be able to tack on with another group – it really is a large, labyrinthine kind of place
You can take photos of anything at the fort but if you are elsewhere and watching anything military in nature (like a changing of the guard) it’s best to be careful about taking photos, you should look for signs or ask before using a camera, as I have had one confiscated from me before (in Bogota at the presidential palace)
Generally I’ve found that hotel staff (concierge, front desk) are happy to help make arrangements for tourist outings, drivers etc and they will expect/appreciate a small tip. At restaurants service charge may be included but not always so you have to check. Rule of thumb is 10% tip, maybe more if a really nice place.
Even in nice places, toilet paper is sometimes lacking in public restrooms, I suggest you carry tissues with you. 😉 Sometimes, the toilet paper dispenser is OUTSIDE the stall and you have to grab a few sheets on your way in, so make sure and check before you go in the stall.