As I walked around the Old City, I watched a waitress move her hips to the beat and pump her arms up in the air for a moment as if everything else around her has disappeared.
Cartagena Colombia is a symphony of sound more than any place I’ve ever been. The constant drumbeat you experience as you walk around is the city’s heartbeat. If it stopped, I think the whole city would just fizzle out and die.
When I visit a new country, I love to dig deep into to the culture. In the 5 days I had in Cartagena, it was clear that the Cartagena culture centered around exuberance. And the exuberance that everyone possessed was typically rooted in salsa dance. I even had a chance to move my hips!
Let the Music Move You…Anywhere
Musical scenes play out on every corner of Old Town, Getsemani, and even little beach towns like Manzanillo. People moved to the beat everywhere I went. Giant speakers in public were the norm as people spilled out of establishments and into the streets of Cartagena at all hours of the day. This music was the foundation to their bubbly free-flowing personalities.
The barefoot man in Bazurto market walked among big pots of oil with furious flames lapping up beneath them, and in perfect beat to the music he’d plop a whole fish in the hot oil. As he moved on to the next big pot he shuffled his feet as if he was salsa dancing with a ghost and then plopped in another fish. All the while with a big smile on his face doing what seemed to me to be one of the hottest, hardest, and thankless jobs I had seen in the market.
I rounded the corner and found a crowd around 3 men playing music. One had an accordion, one had an old pail for a drum, and one had what resembles a cheese grater; together they made beautiful high-energy music. The crowd of locals moved to the beat and clapped along. All I could do was stop and smile at this scene of pure music joy.
Take a Salsa Lesson in Cartegena
I needed to find a way to get more involved; I was tired of being on the outside of this music looking in. I wanted to feel the music like the locals, and Eduardo, my guide, suggested I take a private salsa lesson in the Old City.
It was a hot steamy night as I walked up the stairs into the dance studio and startled the tall man lounging on a metal chair. He didn’t speak English, but that was ok, as all I had to do was follow his lead. He turned on the overhead fans, looked at me, smiled, and a barrage of Spanish started flowing. I just smiled and followed his steps living out my (insert dancing reality TV show here) fantasy in Old Town Cartagena.
I learned the Colombian and Cuban salsa versions, which seemed to me to have subtle variations, but to the locals it was very clear delineations. My hips loosened up as the music grew louder.
Finally after following his every movement in front of the class he took my hand and we danced together. I could hear the crowd outside starting to rev up for the night and I bid my instructor adios and went out to test out my newly learned dancing skills.
Go Dancing at Donde Fidel’s Salsa bar
As I rounded the corner near Plaza de la Coches you could hear the music. It was as if the Pied Piper were luring in the dancers around the Old City late into the night as the restaurants closed. I followed the music to the corner and found a lively colorful scene with women moving their hips like I never knew was possible. That certainly wasn’t covered in my beginning salsa class!
The Colombians made it look so easy and carefree, like they came out of the womb moving their hips and feet in a rhythmic salsa fashion. But with music as your cultural heartbeat, of course dancing would come as naturally as walking to them.
I found myself in Donde Fidel’s Salsa bar and found the salsa scene I was looking for; lively, loud, crowded, and everyone just drunk enough to take pity on a beginning dancer.
I sat at the bar content to watch the sites of young, old, tourist, and locals all intermix in salsa beat. There was no real dance floor, but no one cared, whatever space was available was used. People bumped into each other and no one minded, as eternal smiles seemed to be on their faces. It took exactly two songs before I was beckoned to join in. I knew the locals wouldn’t let people sit around for long and just be a salsa voyeur.
Suddenly I was hip to hip with strangers, smiling, laughing and moving to the beat produced by the giant sound system behind the bar. Instead of being on the outside, I was on the inside now, my inhibitions slipping away with each step. After the set of songs, I gave my new dancing partner a powerful, emotional hug; I loved Cartagena salsa culture! I didn’t even care that he was a stranger, it just felt right – now I really was a part of the heartbeat of Colombia.
How You can Recreate My Salsa Cartagena Experience:
Dance Lessons at Crazy Salsa in Cartagena – www.crazysalsa.net
Late Night Local Dancing – Donde Fidel’s Salsa Bar
Stay at Casa San Agustín Hotel – www.hotelcasasanagustin.com
Dine with Locals – Customized/Organized by Metropolitan Touring. Contact them directly and ask about their local dinners in Cartagena – this is a personalized experience and something that’s not offered on their website. www.metropolitan-touring.com/colombia