Cartagena, Colombia–Cartegena, is at first blush, the Miami of South America, with more history, substance, culture and more authentic cuisine. On one hand you have the colonial majesty of the old Spanish city, and on the other, sky scraper condominiums and a long row of beaches with cabana stripes and sweeping vistas of the Caribbean. There are a lot of historical monuments to see, like the ancient Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the Naval Museum and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ home.
Locals say Cartagena has grown a lot in recent years. It now houses top hotels like the Hyatt and the Sofitel, and has some of the best ceviche restaurants in the world, which boast a fusion of South American, Asian and European cuisine mixed with local flavours like sweet and sour maracuya, tamarindo and coconut.
Artisans, colourful embroidered goods and woven Wayuu bags abound. Enticing boutiques with contemporary resonance line the vibrant Carribean-colored streets.
Here are our top recs:
Tailored for a globalised palate, Carmen is one of the most important culinary destinations in Colombia, where gastronomic creativity and a modern and tropical ambiance mingle to make eating at this establishment as much of a cultural experience as visiting any other site in the city. Located downtown, Carmen embraces the flavors and diversity of Colombia. Try their BANH MÍ DE CERDO Vietnamese style pork belly sandwich, grilled ciabatta, Asian BBQ, spicy aioli, cilantro & carrot salad, peanut mint vinaigrette or their Pargo Patero pan seared Caribbean snapper, fermented pineapple & cachaça butter, yellow curry, Colombian coastal yam, black tempura banana, lychee chimichurri, cilantro — to really understand what we are talking about. Drinks are made with extreme care and a bit of science incorporating fresh extracts with the fundamentals of molecular gastronomy. Flavors are funnelled, shaken and infused with the vapours of dry ice. Reservations are required. Meals with drinks can run from EUR70 to EUR150 per person.
Adjacent to Carmen is Moshico, an Asian fusion, sushi restaurant that will really show you how South America is incorporating all of its Asian influence. Robust flavours, creative tempura dishes and hand sushi rolls garnished with crispy pork lardons, will provide you with a unique experience. One of Moshico’s founders, Carmen Angel, graduated from California’s UC Santa Cruz and San Francisco’s Cordon Bleu Academy.
2. Artisanal: Las Bovedas
An arcade of arches, which lies beneath the old fortress walls of Cartagena’s Old Town, Las Bovedas showcased all the artisanal talent the country has to offer. Shops selling souvenirs, traditional Colombian clothing, jewellery and paintings – are all here. In addition you can pick up a colourful Wayuu bag for about EUR80 (anything less, they say, may not be made in Colombia).
3. Shop: St. Dom
After you haggle with all of the street vendors, St. Dom will really show you how Colombian fashion has incorporated ancient traditions with contemporary design. St. Dom is an upscale concept store that serves as an incubator for the country’s top brands and emerging designers like Johanna Ortiz, Entreaguas and Michu handbags which are lined with updated Colombian textiles.
Also worth checking out is Sagara, a local jewellery shop dedicated to sourcing local artisans and designers. We loved their rosary bead bracelets and tassle earrings and gold-covered mango leaf bracelets — truly one of a kind treasures here.
4. Stay: Santa Clara Sofitel
The Sofitel which now occupies the city’s 17th century abbey, is a ticket back in time. A majestic botanical garden is the centrepiece of this warm brick coloured hotel which not only boasts some of the most comfortable rooms in the city, but it is also the best setting for a sundowner aperitif. The former dining room of the monastery is now the highly acclaimed Restaurante1621, which serves up New World fare mingled with French culinary excellence.
5. Getaway: Majagua, Rosario Islands
Located about 100 Km off the coast, the Rosario Islands are easy to get to by private or chartered boat and offer a real taste of Caribbean paradise, not too far from the bustling city center. Our favorite was Majagua, a sleepy little island with turquoise waters and decent snorkelling excursions. Your hotel will easily be able to organise the day for you.