You know that Mazatlán bills itself as a “colonial city on the beach.” It was never a colonial city in the historical meaning of that term—major European settlement came with the gold rush in the 1800s—but it does have gorgeous architecture and an interesting history, so we’ll give Tourism some leeway.
The other major Latin American “colonial city on the beach” that I know of is Cartagena. I’ve long wondered how it compares to my beloved Mazatlán. A few years ago, when I first traveled to Bogotá for work, I’d hoped to make it to the Caribbean city. Well, it’s taken me till now, but Greg and I made it. So, here’s the down-low on the comparison.
There are so many similarities between these two cities it’s eerie. The people are warm and friendly. Hot water with a steady flow is very difficult to find. There is a malecón/oceanside promenade, lots of great seafood, fishing boats, strolling vendors of every sort, panzones/big bellies, beautiful women, litter, beautiful historic architecture and beaches in both places. Whether in the Pacific coast port or the Caribbean port, you’d better watch where you walk: sidewalks, when they exist, are broken, have sink holes, pot holes and uncovered man holes. Both cities have skyscrapers that house condominiums owned by wealthy foreigners who only live in them some weeks of the year. Both are open-air cities: restaurants, bars, cafes. Both have nearby islands, mangoes, pineapple, coconut.
What are the differences? Cartagena has a decidedly more European (narrow winding streets, the al fresco dining in the plazas, architecture) and Caribbean (Afro-Colombians, colorful dress, music, plantains) feel. The WIND that we’ve experienced here is absolutely unbelievable, and makes dining or drinking seaside an irritating endeavor, in our opinion. Supposedly the wind will stop once the rains come, but we’re told it’s been windy like this since January—that’s four months! Mazatlán has more beggars and vagrants in the tourist zone. Cartagena generally includes a 10% tip on all food and beverage served; by law, consumers can add or reduce on that base. The food is generally not spicy in Cartagena, and we didn’t find any hangouts that were primarily for foreigners; the city seems more integrated. In Cartagena we were told that “gringo” means any foreigner. Mazatlán is noisier, thanks to the pulmonías, ahorigas and wandering street musicians.
And, drum roll please… Mazatlán is overall cleaner than Cartagena! Hard to believe? We are so eager to educate Mazatlecos and visitors to our port about putting litter in its place, about getting people to use permanent water bottles rather than plastic, and to never again serve something on styrofoam. Our son spent five years of his life repeatedly cleaning out Estero del Infiernillo, getting so discouraged at how one week later the locals again had it filled with their garbage. But, honestly, Greg and I have seen more litter here in Cartagena in the past four days than I thought was humanly possible. Having said that, the walled city itself is cleaner and tidier than our Centro Histórico.
We’ve worked up a table to show you our ratings. Obviously this is completely subjective, and it’s not fair, either. We’ve lived in Mazatlán for eight years and have traveled there for 35; we’ve just spent four days in Cartagena. So, we welcome input from those more experienced with the Colombian city.
Colombianos, you have a gorgeous city in Cartagena, it’s true. And, I urge you to come visit us in Mazatlán! I think you will be surprised! And, municipal governments of Mazatlán and Cartagena, I would urge you to initiate a special task force, so that you can learn from one another! Your situations are incredibly similar, and your strengths and weaknesses are complimentary—lots to learn from one another!