CARTAGENA, Colombia – If you are of my generation, it is only natural to think of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone when someone brings up the topic of Cartagena. Having just returned from this jewel of the Caribbean, let’s just say that a lot has changed since 1985. Pablo Escobar is dead. The drug cartels no longer have Colombians running scared. And Cartagena has emerged as a lovely, energetic, and welcoming city. With excellent boutique hotels, lovely beaches, abundant fresh seafood, and predictably beautiful weather, Cartagena has suddenly become a South American destination that everyone wants to visit. This spring I led a group of 10-adventurous women to the Caribbean shores of Colombia. For seven days we explored the colorful, colonial streets of Cartagena, swam in the emerald waters of the Rosario Islands, ate incredible Caribbean ceviche, and drank the country dry of its cache of rose. Needless to say, it was an amazing trip that was marked by wonderful accommodations and the unparalleled hospitality of the Colombian (and Venezuelan) people. I think it is fair to say that we would all go back in a heartbeat, after all, there are many jewels to be explored in Colombia, and we only got to experience a few of them. Here are a few of the highlights…
LAY OF THE LAND
Cartagena’s historic, fortified center is home to many luxury hotels, restaurants, high-end boutiques, and historic sites of touristic interest. It is a great place to base yourself if you are only in Cartagena for a few days and want to be surrounded by some of the best that the city has to offer. However, a visit to Cartagena is all about exploring on foot, and going beyond the walled city is a must. If you are looking for a little more authentic experience, the adjacent neighborhood of Getsemani feels a little gritty, cutting edge, and simultaneously authentic. Getsemani is home to casual cafes, bars, hostels, and incredible street art. However, Getsemani’s rebirth is on the horizon, Colombian pop-start Shakira recently opened a high-end hotel here, and it is rumored that other luxury brand hotels are investing in the neighborhood.
Hotel Casa San Agustin is a classic, colonial hotel located in the heart of the walled city. With 20 guest rooms, and 11 suites, Casa San Agustin is a small, luxurious, boutique hotel compromised of three lovingly restored colonial-era homes. Centered around a pool and courtyard, each of the stylish guest rooms feature a blend of antique and contemporary furnishings, expansive bathrooms with colorful ceramic tiles, and high, wood-beamed ceilings. Most important, the beds are comfortable and the rooms are quiet! Just off the lobby is the acclaimed Alma Restaurant, which serves a menu rich in Colombian flavors and locally sourced ingredients. The coconut ceviche was some of the best I have tasted! Dine inside or outside on the patio shaded by porticos and umbrellas. Either way, a meal at Alma does not disappoint and is a great way to begin your stay in Cartagena.
If you are looking to unwind after a long flight, be sure to book a treatment at the hotel’s spa. With three treatment rooms and a hamman, the spa at Casa San Agustin is the perfect place to relax before exploring the city. Treat yourself to a hamman,, which will surely scrub the jet lag out of your body, or book a detox massage with Arelis and have the aches rubbed away. One of the best hotel massages I have every had! You’ll thank me later!
Breakfast at Casa San Agustin is a languid affair of fruits, juices, pastries and more. Take your time and get started slow with coffee under the shade of umbrellas in the courtyard. It’s Colombia after all, so the coffee is delicious! If the buffet isn’t hearty enough, a full menu is also available with a variety of delicious egg and protein dishes to get your energy up for the day.
Casa San Agustin is the perfect place to base yourself while exploring the walled city. While peaceful and serene on the inside, all you have to do is walk outside the hotel’s doors to feel the energy that pulses through Cartagena. While I curated the details of our trip, the hotel concierge could not have been more helpful and enthusiastic about making arrangements for guests. You can feel very confident about setting up walking tours through the concierge and other last minute details.
There is no shortage of wonderful places to eat in Cartagena. Here are a few of my favorite restaurants.
El Boliche Cebicheria: This tiny restaurant cranks out amazing food from a kitchen the size of a closet. Chef Oscar, who has honed his skills in Michelin-Star restaurants abroad, opened his lovely 16-seat restaurant in the walled city in 2011. Thanks to the abundance of fresh seafood coming out of the Caribbean Sea, there are lots of places to eat amazing ceviche in Cartagena, but El Boliche is my favorite. Portions are large, so order a few dishes to share. All the seafood served at El Boliche is sustainably caught and fresh from the sea. Each ceviche is chopped and blended with exotic fruits, vegetables, and flavors native to Colombia. Though they technically don’t take reservations, if you call ahead, they will do their best to accommodate you.
Celele by Proyecto Caribe: This brand new restaurant in Getsemani neighborhood was my favorite meal of our stay in Cartagena. Considered one of the most exciting restaurant openings in Latin America in the last year, Celele started as an experimental pop up restaurant, but opened in a beautiful permanent space earlier this year. The interior design of the restaurant has a lovely mix of colonial and Caribbean design, rich in vibrant color and texture. But let’s talk about the food! Each dish sings with contemporary Colombian flavors, ingredients, and presentation. The ceviche was delicate and tangy, while the pork shoulder was mouth watering, tender, and rich with hints of cacao. How about dessert? Dreamy, delicious, beautiful, and sweet - as it should be! Photos of the banana dish are all over instagram, as they should be – it’s insanely delicious. Bottom line, if you are a foodie, Celele is not to be missed, as its chefs are turning out some of the most beautiful and inventive Colombian dishes in the city. Don’t make any plans after a long lunch at Celele, a nap in the sun should be the only thing on the agenda.
Restaurant Interno: Interno is a unique restaurant concept inside the San Diego Prison in Cartagena. Opened in 2016 as an initiative to educate and train female prisoners, Interno has become an excellent model for prisoner reconciliation and resocialization. Serving a prix fix, three-course menu, Interno is a destination for diners seeking a unique culinary experience – albeit behind bars. Aside from the interesting ambience, the food is excellent! Skip the beef and order the catch of the day, it was some of the best fish we ate on our trip to Colombia. As for drinks, there were three things on the menu – bottle of red wine, bottle of whiskey, and fresh juice of the day. Needless to say, nothing gets a dinner party started like whiskey and juice!
Be sure to stop into a bakery or order a Columbian pastry during your stay. But definitely don’t leave Cartagena without cooling off with a paletta - an ice cold popsicle! La Paletteria is a hole in the wall located in the heart of the old city and sells handcrafted palettas in a rainbow of traditional and exotic flavors
There is no shortage of bars and watering holes in Cartagena - the city literally comes alive at night and stays open until the wee hours of the morning. You can’t go wrong grabbing a seat outside at one of the bars on the square or simply just following the music….
If you are looking for something a little more organized and near Hotel Casa San Agustin, check out Alquimico, a large space, set over several floors, including a roof-top terrace. It’s hard not to be adventurous in a place like this where many of the cocktail ingredients are unfamiliar and indigenous to Colombia. Reservations can be made in advance, otherwise be prepared to make friends with the girl at the door.
Casa Chiqui: Just across the street from Casa San Agustin is Casa Chiqui, a large shop opened years ago by Colombian socialite Chiqui de Echavarria. Showcasing imported goods from around the world, Casa Chiqui houses an eclectic mix of home goods, linens, jewelry, and clothing sourced from far away places such as Thailand and Morocco. While you can fetch things from afar at Casa Chiqui, this is a great spot to pick up a beautiful Colombian mochilla (woven handbag) or Chiqui’s exquisite and vibrant raffia earnings.
St. Dom: When I walked into St. Dom, I thought I had died and gone to fashion heaven. This luxury boutique right in the heart of Old Town has an expertly curated collection of clothing from both well known and rising South American fashion designers such as Johanna Ortiz, Adrianna Degreas, and . The colors, textures and designers sourced by St. Dom were so refreshing, I wanted to bring everything home! Don’t leave Cartagena without a visit.
Cartagena has a rich history going back 500 years, with beautiful gardens and courtyards behind every door and portico. I always believe the best way to become acquainted with a new place is to start out on foot. During our stay, Casa San Agustin arranged two walking tours, first of the walled city (the oldest fortified city in the Americas), and later of the adjacent neighborhood of Getsemani, known for its vibrant street art. Getsemani is an authentic barrio where the same families have occupied homes for several generations. Known for it’s quieter streets, and incredible street art, a morning stroll through Getsemani should not be skipped (make a lunch reservation at Celele to coincide with the end of your walk).
Cartagena is just three hours from Miami International Airport, and is serviced by several flights daily. International flights arrive at Cartagena’s airport, which is a brief 10 minutes from Old Town. Casa San Agustin will happily send someone to the airport to collect you. No need to rent a car, as the city is easily navigable on foot or by taxi.
Money Matters: VISA is widely accepted, and cash is really only necessary if you are purchasing from street vendors or small shops. If you have time, make your way to the ATM at the airport. Otherwise, be prepared to stand in line at one of the bank machines just outside the Old Town.
Talk the Talk: Spanish is the language of Colombia, but English is widely spoken. If you speak Spanish, don’t be afraid to use it, the locals find these attempts to communicate endearing.
Whats to Come:
Seattle, Washington ★ 7.2019
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