The city that played muse to one of Nobel-prize winner Gabriel García Márquez’s most memorable and fantastical novels is having a moment in the fiery Caribbean sun. Top ranks on must-visit lists, nonstop service from the U.S. to Rafael Núñez International airport and an impressive dining scene have fanned the flames of the Colombian jewel’s rise from local holiday spot to global destination darling.
Recently, we ranked Cartagena as a top destination to visit in 2017. The tropical locale has long been a coveted getaway for Colombians. Now, the rest of the world seems to be catching on. Last winter, Delta Airlines began operating nonstop service to the colorful port city, via Atlanta. Its top chefs look to the Caribbean and regional ingredients for culinary inspiration, like at Alma restaurant, where Chef Heberto Eljach serves his version of Merengon de Guanabana, a meringue dessert and local favorite.
Many visitors to Cartagena will be drawn to the historical charms of the Old City, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. As South America’s most fortified city, step through the preserved walls from the canary yellow La Puerta and Torre de Reloj, the gateway and clock tower from which exploration begins. Meander its narrow cobblestoned streets, Spanish Colonial architecture and wooden balconies dressed in tumbling bougainvillea.
The best time to visit is mid-January to April, during the dry season. It’s also off-peak season and may mean a leaner crowd.
Within the walls that the Spanish built to protect the city from waves of pirates attacks, Cartagena is best experienced on foot. However, you don’t have to wander far for a delicious taste of the city.
To eat and drink
At La Cevichería, an Anthony Bourdain favorite, ask for a table in the dining room for intimate conversation. Or, for a full view of the bustling kitchen, snag the cozy booth at the front of the restaurant. As the name implies, people flock to this establishment for ceviches “cooked” in mandarin and lime juices and hearty seafood dishes to share, like their buttery and comforting Lobster Rice. Order a mojito while you wait and take in the nautical touches of the space, which is aptly washed in blue and turquoise.
Those looking for something a little more eclectic should head to María. The menu reflects Chef Juan Felipe Camacho and Chef Alejandro Ramirez’s cosmopolitan travels through Tokyo, London and New York. Fresh, local ingredients and simple yet elevated preparation (they’re alums of Gordon Ramsay and Martin Berasategui) provide a dining experience as colorful as Cartagena’s palenqueras are – the brightly dressed ladies who sell tropical fruits from a bowl balanced atop their heads. Think a shrimp and chorizo risotto with a squeeze of citrus, or a juicy ribeye paired with plantain mash.
For a sampling of local culture with a bohemian flair, Getsemaní is the place to be. At the moment, it is Cartagena’s trendiest neighborhood outside of the walled city.
Case in point: Demente, a tapas bar in Getsemaní with local Aguila beer on tap, is smartly outfitted with a retractable roof, dim lighting and exposed brick. It is located on the perimeter of Plaza de la Trinidad–a languid area by day that transitions into a hub of social activity when the sun goes down, making it a prime spot for people watching.
The folks at Cartagena Connections, a local company that offers curated food tours around the city recommends the whole fried sweet chili peppers. “They are salty, addictive and delicious and will go perfectly with whatever you are drinking,” explains Kristy Ellis, founder of Cartagena Connections. Also, the oxtail sliders. “They’re small, but pack plenty of flavor.” In an interview with Forbes, Demente owner and Bogotá native Nicolas Wiesner commented that “there must be something demented about moving to Cartagena to open a Spanish-tapas-style restaurant.” Crazy or not, the entire setup works.
Equally as trendy is Malagana’s tiny third-floor rooftop, though seating is also available inside. Owned and run by a family of women, Malagana has options for carnivores and vegetarians alike. The menu is small but full of flavor and includes burgers, salads and fish tacos. For refreshment, sample the Corozo Margarita. The deep red color comes from the corozo palm fruit and is unique to the Caribbean regions of Colombia. Make a light snack of their ceviche with coconut milk, lime and banana chip for some crunch.
The mobile street vendors are also not to be missed. They sell traditional snacks like the arepa, a fried doughy handheld pocket made from cornmeal and stuffed with melted cheese. Other options are also usually fried but make for a nice nibble during a stroll. Wash it down with a cup of coffee that comes in a little styrofoam cup that the vendors pour from a thermos.
Cartagena offers a number of accommodations to rest your head beneath historic, wooden high-beamed ceilings and other beautifully preserved 17th century touches without sacrificing modern comforts. Three restored Colonial-era homes set the tone at Hotel Casa San Agustin, where the city’s former aqueduct cuts across the swimming pool, the library showcases original frescoes and furnishings by local artisans add a sense of place.
Hotel Casa San Agustin also houses the celebrated restaurant Alma. Chef Heberto Eljach returned home to Cartagena to lead Alma after a number of years cooking and traveling around the world. On the menu, find coastal Colombian cuisine and an extensive list of fine wines in an indoor-outdoor setting.
The Tcherrassi Hotel and Spa is decadence personified. With only seven rooms, the restored colonial mansion by Colombian fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi feature restored original stone walls, high ceilings and private balconies. It also houses upscale Italian restaurant Vera that, per the standard in Cartagena, features local seafood in a 50-seat dining room. Colombian-born Chef Daniel Castaño, who worked under Mario Batali for nearly a decade launched Vera four years ago.
At the 123-room Sofitel Legend Santa Clara in the barrio San Diego, what was once a 17th century convent has been transformed into a luxurious home away from home. Works by Colombian artist Fernando Botero grace the property, while his daughter, Lina has lent her decorative efforts to the Presidential suite. El Coro, the hotel’s lounge bar is the place to enjoy live salsa and rhythmic cuban sounds, and splurge on cocktails and cigars.
Cartagena is a vibrant treasure of a city that embraces its history and wants to be shared. The gracious thing to do is to accept all that it has to offer with open arms and a walk back in time.
By: Ligaya Malones