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Cartagena Independent Activity Fail


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I want to tell you what happened regarding our activity arrangements in Cartagena, Colombia on 30 November 2021. Perhaps this story will help others to make a better decision.


I booked an activity independently online for my husband and me. Neither of us speak Spanish. The activity was a coffee tasting. Transportation was not provided. The instructions said we should plan to arrive at the restaurant at 10:00 am. The tour was reserved, but payment was not made until after the cancelation deadline 24 hours prior. This activity was not booked as a shore excursion for cruisers, it was simply an activity that anyone could purchase.


I checked a map for the restaurant address compared to the cruise port and it did not seem too far. It seemed likely that a shuttle bus would be provided as there looked like a lot of industrial port activity in the area. It looked like a shuttle bus would get us even closer and I wondered if it would be within walking distance.

I did not have Colombian pesos. A Google search indicated that UBER now operates in Cartagena after a period of time when they were not permitted. Using UBER, I wouldn’t need COPs. The UBER instructions on payment exceptions were only given in Spanish, but the ship’s loyalty club hostess translated that page to say that we may have to transfer USD into COP on the app, then apply the COP towards paying UBER. Since it would be done on the UBER app it didn’t seem like a big problem. Upon ship’s arrival, the UBER app said the travel price from our location to the restaurant was 9,300 COPs, about 2.50 USD according to my currency-conversion app.


There was a shuttle bus from the ship to the cruise terminal. The cruise terminal is an activity event unto itself. There is a very large gift store, a zoo of sorts, and an aviary. There was no Tourist Info booth. You must traverse the entire facility before you reach the taxi stand. We kept following signs that said “Exit” and/or “Taxi.” The clear goal is to keep you engaged in the terminal complex.


At the taxi location we were rushed with offers to take a tour to Old Town for 20 USD. We tried to communicate that we simply needed a ride to the restaurant 2.5 miles away. I had written the name and address on a piece of paper. We stepped past the taxi stand into a parking lot/turnaround, but there was nothing there, just the parking lot. We could not see the street to determine if there were other taxis or a sidewalk leading away. A security guard shooed us back to the taxis. We tried again to speak with the taxi guy, “How much to take us to this place?” The answer: 20 USD. One way. Then, “15 USD.” Then, “How much will you pay?” I said, “10 USD because I can get an UBER for under 3 USD.” No, he wasn’t interested in 10 USD.


We went into the gift store to talk with one of the personnel whose shirt said, “Port of Cartagena.” She kept saying that I would need the UBER app to use UBER. Finally, I communicated that I had the app, but I did not know how to get out of the terminal area into Cartagena to be picked up. I asked for directions. She and her coworkers pointed us to the taxi stand. My husband tried stepping through some bushes into the street or driveway behind, just to see what it looked like out there, but he got a finger-wagging by security. The only way out of there was in a taxi.


By this time, we were already late for the coffee tasting. We decided that, even were we to get a taxi ride to the restaurant, we were in danger of not easily getting back to the ship. I’m sure that the activity operator would help us navigate it, but we had also been sure we could simply catch an UBER. Our assumptions had been wrong, so we abandoned the trip and lost the 140 USD paid for the activity.


I realized the risk when I booked the activity. I left a little too much undecided. I accept that. It was far too warm and humid for us to walk. On the first leg of our cruise, most ports required the purchase of a ship’s shore excursion if a guest wanted to get off the ship. This Cartagena stop was on the second leg and we had been informed that all port stops were “open” for independent travel.


I leave you to your own conclusions as to what happened. It could have simply been miscommunication, mostly with our lack of language skills. It could have been that independent travel was not permitted without using a Cartagena taxi. That was the case in St. Kitts the week prior. The guests’ choice of excursion was a ship-provided tour or walking to the taxi operators at the end of the pier and using them. There were no other choices. But we were advised of that by the cruiseline prior to our arrival in St. Kitts. We were not informed of this rule regarding Cartagena.


A cruiseline cannot pivot quickly. I get that. Contracts with vendors and governments should not be subject to such last-minute changes, but this is the Covid world now and things are pretty topsy-turvy. Plans for port stops can change suddenly and it’s completely out of the cruiseline’s control. Our back-to-back cruises spanned three weeks, so I feel lucky that this didn’t happen to us more than the one time at Cartagena.

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