As I discovered a couple of years ago, you cannot walk down any street in El Centro in Cartagena with native Cartagenero and stellar tour guide Brayan Muñoz Crizon without running into someone he knows - an old teacher, a vendor, an emerald salesman, an old classmate, his mother's friend, another tour guide - every few steps.
"Vale mia!" he greets everyone. A hug, a high five, or an inside joke will follow. It's baffling to think this is the network he's grown within the city walls in just two years; what happens in 20?! He's one of Cartagena's youngest - and most energetic, knowledgeable, and passionate - tour guides. He is Cartagena's proudest native son; its forever champion! He knows everything from local baseball stats to the military terminology behind an otherwise romantic 'selfie spot' along the city walls!
Brayan is the founder of Cartagena Explore and has been working with both big and boutique travel agencies for several years. He likes baseball, the English language, bagels with cream cheese and lox, and goes hard all day everyday.
Scarlet Macaw Trips: Before you studied tourism, what did you know about the world, about travel and tourism in Cartagena?
Brayan: I didn’t know anything! I just thought anybody speaking another language was a gringo! When I was younger, I didn’t know many people from other cultures. Not a lot of people in my family have traveled, so what I knew I knew from soap operas.
SMT: Do you remember your first tour? How have you improved?
Brayan: My first tour was in 2014 here in Cartagena. I was very excited. I misspoke about a lot of facts and dates...but kept the energy. Since then I’ve improved my English a lot in conversation with different tourists every week. I’ve learned more about my own culture and city’s history, and I’m more confident. Every single tour you do you’re able to share and show more about yourself. I sprinkle each tour with a little bit of “Brayan…” I’m proud to be one of the youngest tour guides in Cartagena and I bring my own style to each tour I give.
SMT: You give a lot of energy to every tour (just ask The Black Tomato!). What characteristics do you think make a tour guide successful?
Brayan: My suggestion to all new tour guides is to only do one big tour a day so that you can give your all, your best, to the experience. I realize how lucky I am when companies come to me and trust me with their travelers, or if travelers (couples, families) come to me directly because of word-of-mouth referrals - I have to give it my all! When we’re together in Cartagena - I’m all yours. I’m very present and energetic. And, of course, you have to be humble, confident, and charming!
SMT: Would you say you possess those traits?
SMT: Do you have a crazy story from your early days as a guide you’d like to share?
Brayan: In late 2015 I was responsible for taking a family to Playa Blanca and Islas Rosarios (where SMT is taking you!). We went by boat. The ocean was very rough that day. And I didn’t know the boat captain or folks on the island too well. Because of the weather I thought it would be good to head back to El Centro but they were hungry and wanted to eat ahead of schedule. They wanted to go to a certain restaurant but I couldn’t get them a reservation! The boat captain said ‘no problem’ and that he would 'help me out' and that he knew a good restaurant nearby that didn’t charge too much and that was available for the family. Before getting all the details the family agreed. The food came, lunch was fine, and then, at the end when we were trying to leave, they tried to charge us an insane amount of money because we hadn’t settled on a price before we ate! I had to spend some minutes negotiating the price way down without alarming the tourists! I was so nervous.
Sometimes, I swear, I have nightmares about being the middleman!
SMT: Oh no! But to your point - travelers should know to always settle on the price before any exchange of services or purchases of goods have gone down, right?! You bring up an important issue, though, about traveling around Cartagena and knowing how important it is to work with someone you trust in new environments, especially when an exchange of goods and services are involved.
SMT: So, what about you? Where do you want to go?
Brayan: Everywhere! Obviously the West Indies because, well...I’m a Caribeño Guy! I would love to go anywhere. Everywhere, explore around. San Andres and Salento in Colombia. New York and Miami.
*Adjusts Brooklyn Nets hat over Skype*
SMT: Well, that makes sense! So, what can you share with people who might not know anything about Cartagena?
Brayan: Cartagena is hundreds of square miles. The touristy spots take up about 25-30% of the city and when they visit they mostly only see that much during their whole trip. I’d like to invite people to the ‘real’ side of Cartagena to see what people do for a living, what people do for fun, how they bring the bacon home, what music we listen to! What sports we play…Have you heard of Bate de Tapita?
Brayan: Bate de Tapita is like casual baseball played with a bat and a bottle cap. I would love to show people how we play that!
SMT: How do you work on your tour guide practice everyday? How are you improving?
Brayan: When I’m not on the job I’m researching, learning about other tours I could give (currently: birds!), learning more about the history of Cartagena and Colombia. I’m always trying to find new or unique things I can bring to my tours. Even though I’m from here I have to keep learning about my culture and how I can share things about it.
SMT: Anything else you want to share?
Brayan: I want to thank all the tourists who believed in me from the beginning. And the teachers too (you know who you are…). I’m also excited about a new trip I’m working on which has to do with the African Diaspora here in the culture on the coast. Colombia is really diverse, really rich in culture.
Cartagena is the most important city to visit as a traveler to Colombia, I’d say! Here there is a mix of everything from people to food to culture - whatever it is you’re looking for, you can find it here…