Think Pirates of the Caribbean with a side of lux. Cartagena is a colourful, buzzy city in Colombia where you can enjoy a few days of top quality overindulgence
Short stays in any destination need a little forward thinking to make sure you see the best sites and make the most of those three lunches and three dinners. No margin for error here!
Our Cartagena jaunt just happened to coincide with New Year (see, forward planning paying off right there!) and we used our time wisely, seeing as much as possible then retiring to our gorgeous quiet oasis of a hotel to recoup before hitting the town at night to soak up the atmosphere. The city was filled to bursting as the Colombians were out in force to celebrate the new year but in this instance it just added to the vibe.
Back in the day, when the Spanish ruled the roost, they built a super fort, Castillo San Felipe, to protect Cartagena from invasion and pirates. It’s an amazing feat of engineering with tunnels running deep underneath and some awesome fortifications. So worth a visit, it’s a huge scale and offers great views of the city, from the old town to the new high rise modern side. I’d recommend a local guide as they can bring a lot of interesting history to life for you.
There are some wonderful churches in the old town too, including the magnificent St. Catherines Cathedral, which help you understand the history of the city. And whilst you are perambulating the streets, you can take in the lazy vibe, beautiful coloured buildings – from palaces used during the inquisition to stone castles overlooking the Caribbean. The old town lies within a thick stone wall which used to keep out the pirates. You can still find cannons sitting in the ramparts. Now the wall is home to some very cool bars where you can watch the sun go down over the ocean.
The beautiful clock tower, Torre del Reloj, forms the entrance to the old town. At new year this is the centre of the action. Outside on the wide boulevard lights and tables were set up and hundreds of people gathered to eat and drink in huge family groups. Inside the town, there was an equally huge crowd partying and enjoying the lights and fireworks. There were dance groups and fancy dress in abundance.
Opposite the clock tower are the 47 porticos of Las Bovedas. No longer a dungeon, it’s now houses shops and restaurants. You can also get up on to the top floor of some hotels and sip a cool cocktail whilst watching the sun go down with a view of the main gate.
The Palace of the Inquisition is an imposing Spanish colonial building with the most beautifully intricate front door and inner courtyard, belying it’s rather grizzly passed as the pace where the inquisition tortured suspected heretics. What a dark history for a colourful city.
Everywhere you go are potential instagram photo opps – the brightly coloured buildings, balconies covered in flowers, horse drawn carts. You may have to get used to other people taking a starring role in your shots though!
Eating and Drinking
Cartagena is full of cool coffee shops, bars and restaurants so you’ll not starve, but if you want to enjoy the extra special places on offer, here’s a few recommendations;
Ceviche is big news in Colombia, especially seafood, and they don’t come bigger than La Cevicherie in Cartagena. It’s a cool looking restaurant with outside space and a great buzz. The food looks lovely when it arrives at your table, and its a great mix of traditional ingredients with a twist. There’s plenty of hot food too, if raw octopus isn’t your thing. Be warned La Cevicheria is number one in all the guide books so is very popular. You may have to pop in one day to book for another day, but it’s well worth the effort.
Remember Carmen, my favourite Medellin eatery? There’s one here in Cartagena, it’s very plush with its fabulous roof terrace, perfect for a cocktail and a great bottle of wine with your sumptuous meal. Definitely book ahead.
Fancy sitting on a beautiful, romantic balcony with the buzz of the busy street wafting up as you enjoy fresh seafood and delicious flavours? Head for Montesacro Resto Bar, opposite palm filled Bolivar Park and upstairs on the first floor. Be sure to get a table on the terrace so you can enjoy the atmosphere to the most. Service felt a little slow – I’ve asked for water 4 times goddamit – then I realised they couldn’t understand my awful accent and so couldn’t fulfil my wishes! I’d rather lounge around once I’ve got my bottle of wine than be rushed in and out anyway.
We also popped in here to prop up the bar on other occasions to enjoy a delicious pre dinner cocktail, it’s lively and friendly and often has live music.
If you are wandering around in the day and are in need of refreshments, you could join the queue at Epoca Espresso Bar, a great friendly, quirky hangout which has the most OTT coffee menu with 6 different filtering methods. The food is good and fresh and extremely tasty. They also do great cocktails and nibbles so you can sit at the bar and watch the instagramers photographer their food. So how fortuitous that it is right next door to my beautiful boutique hotel!
La Perla is another cosy, good looking restaurant in the lanes of Cartagena serving Caribbean and Peruvian dishes, with a seafood bent; grilled octopus, shrimp ceviche, quinoa crusted tuna – well worth one of your three evening meals whilst in town.
Outside of the walled city is the more authentic, local area of Getsemani which is now considered pretty hip. Here are hostels, musicians, street food and murals in this laid back area and cool bars and restaurants where you can hang out the wee hours enjoying the relaxed and mulitcultural atmosphere as travellers meet to enjoy the vibe in Plaza de la Trinidad. There are more traditional, less touristy restaurants and, this being Travel Like a Local, I should tell you about two of our favourites.
Las Indias Boutique Gourmet is a really delightful and different eatery in the historic Getsemani area. The style and decor take you to India with the tiled floors and beautiful palm filled courtyard. The welcome is warm and service friendly, a great wine list and a really unusual, delicious meal, so glad we tried something a bit different and its great to get away from the crowds.
Also in Getsemani is another traditional restaurant the locals will recommend. La Cocina de Socorro was full of local families gathering together for Sunday lunch and enjoying the warm welcome and great Colombian food; grouper, sea bass, coconut rice and delicious seafood stew. This being Colombia, each dish came with three accompanying dishes so you won’t go hungry – or skinny!
And this brings us to New Year’s Eve. I had done a little pre planning (fancy that) and found a great restaurant which I booked for the big night to ensure we had somewhere to enjoy the festivities, eat and drink and dance. Mistura is a very popular restaurant in the heart of the walled town. It’s terribly cool, all pale wood and with a glamorous inner courtyard with a giant tree growing through it. It was crowded with locals all dressed in white and ready to party and there was a great queue on the door so we were really pleased to have secured a spot.
We ordered several rounds of tapas style delights during the evening – fish tacos, seafood ceviche, grilled octopus. Even with crowds to feed the food and service were great. The staff were so friendly and so up for a great night. They danced to the live band and way before midnight the whole place was dancing. What a great night. The rest of the town was out until the wee hours – every restaurant in the place set up tables in the narrow streets and held street parties with live music, dancers and fireworks. At the ramparts overlooking the sea, the locals gathered in huge crowds and set up their own tables and chairs, bought food and partied the night away in a great atmosphere.
Cartagena then. TC would say it’s a bit Disneyworld by which he means very touristy and a bit open air museum, not terribly authentic – he says the same about Bruge. But I still loved it, perfect for a bit of New Year partying. I love a vibrant city and if you visit the churches, museums and forts and get out to explore, it is possible to get a real feel for the ancient history and long heritage of its people.
It also pays to stay in a good hotel so you can return after your exploration you can go back to a nice environment and get your breath back before the evening madness. Casa Del Arzobispado is a lovely relaxed, stylish hotel with an old colonial vibe which is right in the heart of the noisy old town but is a complete oasis. The rooms, of which there are only ten, are beautifully designed and comfortable, and you can imagine how lovely it is lying round that pool with your cocktail, we mostly had the place to ourselves in the day.
Cartagena then. TC would say it’s a bit Disneyworld by which he means very touristy and a bit open air museum, not terribly authentic – he says the same about Bruge and, well, Disneyland. But I still loved it, perfect for a bit of New Year partying. I love a vibrant city, you may have noticed I like a bit of lounging with a cocktail somewhere exotic and this is a great place for a bit of that. It’s colourful and pretty. And, if you visit the churches, museums and forts and get out to explore, it is possible to get a real feel for the ancient history and long heritage of its people. If you have time in Colombia, come and roam around it and spend some time.