Boquilla is an Afro-Caribbean beach town just 20 minutes from Cartagena, but yet is largely overlooked by tourists. Like many beachfront areas in the world, several spots become intensely popular, while others, through no physical fault, are neglected. Those are the spots we look for at Keteka, and I was lucky enough to get the tip about Boquilla from a local Peace Corps Volunteer.

Cartagena, Colombia

Through “The Tunnel of Love”

Approaching Boquilla, you wouldn’t think it neglected or overlooked at all. Upscale apartments and hotels line the beach and luxury cars pull out of their driveways on to the coastal highway. Then, abruptly, the buildings become shacks. There is literally a wall between the last apartment and the first set of houses – a clear and tangible divide between Boquilla’s privileged and underdeveloped populations. At this wall, the bus turns off the highway and drives literally on to the beach and continues its route on the sand.

My instructions for gathering information were to simply allow local solicitors to approach me and then to talk with them about their tourism efforts. Normally, when I get off a bus, I shrug off solicitors as quickly as possible, so it was strange to deliberately do the opposite. Within two minutes of getting off the bus on the beach, I was approached and offered a canoe tour – I continued the conversation and allowed five other of the man’s friends to approach as well.

The conversation was unusual in that they were pitching a boat tour through a mangrove forest and rather than negotiating, I was asking them for information and writing their answers in a notebook. Although I was upfront about my purpose – to gather information for a travel guide – they didn’t really change tact, showing me pictures, offering discounts I hadn’t asked for, and generally hustling. I eventually had to insist that I was not going to buy the tour and that their time was better spent talking to other tourists. To this, they offered me steeper discounts. Note to self: in the future, even if I’m not writing a travel guide, pretend that I am. Discounts abound.

After finally convincing them I wasn’t going to hire a boat for myself, they left and I walked the beach, unsolicited, for about 25 minutes, enjoying the Caribbean ocean to the left and the town to the right. Dressed more for work than for enjoying a beach, the sun started hitting me hard and I found a rock under a palm thatch roof to rest on before continuing my information quest. A man in his late 40s or 50s with dark black skin and a thin gristle of a beard sat behind me and I greeted him as I sat down. We passed a few minutes in silence and then he spoke up.

Antonio was difficult to understand, even though he was speaking Spanish, but he was very clearly offering me the same services as the previous solicitors. I asked the same questions as a comparison, and the price of the tour began to plummet. I have previously described my terrible bargaining skills on this blog (LINK) – it looks like my most effective strategy is to NOT bargain. Note to self: in order to effectively bargain, don’t bargain, and pretend to be writing a travel guide. Discounts abound.

Cartagena, Colombia

Antonio

Canoe tours are(understandably) not generally affordable for individuals traveling alone, but my not bargaining was so effective that we were quickly approaching an affordable price. I had set out hoping to tag along with another group, but I was yet to encounter one and I didn’t want to promote a tour I’d never actually done, so I followed Antonio to his house, to continue the conversation and to eventually drop the price a little bit more.

Visiting his house afforded me a look at the Boquilla you can’t see from the beach. The houses were what I’ve generally come to expect in an underdeveloped town – wood or cinder-block walls, with zinc or thatched roofs. The streets are muddy and children run about, entertaining themselves without much obvious stimulus; women sit on or sweep porches.

After further discussion on Antonio’s porch, I got the price one would normally pay as part of larger group and we set off for the canoe and the tour of the mangrove forest.

While the town of Boquilla is pretty hoppin’, just five minutes into the mangrove forest the atmosphere is totally tranquil. The mangrove trees lean out into the water, while flamingos, kingfishers, and other birds that I can’t name flap from perch to perch, in search of fish or sunlight. Tiny fish jump in groups, temporarily disturbing the surface calm of the brown mix of salt and fresh water.

Besides the visual aesthetic and general calm, one of the highlights of the tour was talking with Antonio. Somehow, nearly all of our conversations eventually ended up with him promising to set me up with a local girl, given that I returned the following night and danced rumba. It didn’t sound like the worst idea, although I have no idea how to dance rumba.

Cartagena, Colombia

Sunset in Boquilla

After the tour, I met another local guide, gathered some final information and then went to the beach to get the bus. Turns out, I had stayed past the last bus out (the 6PM). No one told me this, but the beach had been converted into a series of soccer pitches, stretching down as far as I could see (which was pretty far) and I correctly guessed that the bus wasn’t running anymore. I could have taken a sharp left and reached the road to Cartagena in a few minutes, but I instead walked the beach for 20 minutes back the way I came, watching about 15 seconds of each game, and enjoying 20 full minutes of gorgeous sunset as I passed.

Eventually, I turned, found the highway, and caught a bus back to Cartagena. Passing the rows of upscale apartments and arriving in the hostel populated almost entirely by European backpackers, I wondered where I feel most comfortable these days – the grungy hostel, the fancy apartment, or Antonio’s porch. I’m honestly not sure, but I’m glad I can seamlessly transition between the three.

How to do this Excursion

Mangrove Canoe Tour

This one hour tour takes you through an extensive (336 hectare) mangrove forest, which has natural tunnels (with names like “The Tunnel of Love” or “The Tunnel of Friendship”) and many species of birds, including flamingos and kingfishers.

There are tour agencies in Cartagena that run these tours, but if you want to be sure you’re employing a local, call one of the contacts below, or just go to Boquilla and let yourself get solicited.

Prices

Everything is up for negotiation, but below are some guideline prices.

Community Contacts

Edel: 313-551-9607

Antonio Perez: 313-658-7348

Jose Miguel: 318-697-4473

How to Get There

Buses to Boquilla leave from the centro, otherwise known as La India (so named for a statue of an indigenous woman across the street from the bus stops). If you are staying in the walled city, just ask your hostel how to walk to La India, otherwise, you can take a bus or cab to el centro.

There are two main spots where buses stop – if your back is to the walled city, facing La India, go to the set of buses on your left. There is a curve in the road and people waiting under trees. Many buses will pass here – look for a white and red bus with ‘Vehitrans‘ in big letters at the top of the windshield. In the bottom left corner, there will be a sign with the bus’s destinations – it should say Boquilla near the bottom of that sign.

The ride is about 20 minutes and takes you along the ocean, past some developed apartments and hotels. Those will end and the bus will turn on to the beach (literally). If you are looking for Jose Miguel, get off as soon as the bus hits the beach. If you are looking for Edel or Antonio, ride the bus until the end of its route, which is on the beach, next to the mangrove forest.