10 Cartagena Highlights-Colombia
Ah Cartagena, you have seduced me with your charm and warm hospitality. Rising from a shady and dangerous past, rebuilding your reputation and shining for all the world to see. I envy the secrets you learned for embracing your old lines and preserving your historic character, all the while mixing in the new. My Cartagena highlights mix an intoxicating cocktail that tastes at once familiar and oh so different.
Reminiscent a bit of Cuba or Myanmar? That familiar refrain”get there now” seems to be on so many lips. A Nobel Peace Prize has raised your stature, and the beautiful countryside once deemed unsafe is calling out to travelers loud and clear. What you lack in historic monuments and famous sites, you more then make up for with your people, the most handsome and genuine as any I’ve met in my travels. After a short visit I am hardly and expert, however I can share some of the Cartagena highlights enveloping me completely and insuring my return.
10 Highlights in Cartagena
EAT: With a mouthwatering blend of Caribbean, African and European influences, Cartagena offers sweet and savory flavors for all taste buds. You’ll find the ubiquitous yucca and plantains accompanying almost every dish. Allow the focus to shift towards fresh seafood, an option the city has in abundance.
♥ If you have time, sign up for a food tour. This is a great way to get an overview of Colombian tastes from a resident with insider information on the city. De la Mesa and Cartagena Connections have interesting options to connect you with locals in one of the most beautiful urban landscapes, bringing together tastes from the sea, jungle and tropics.
♥ If you’re an ice cream fan like me, one way to try the many unusual fruit flavors available is the paleterías. Oh my, dreamy! Mixed with either milk (paletas de leche) or water (paletas de aqua), they are an intense concentration of Caribbean flavor in a popsicle, so refreshing in the warm temperatures. La Paleteria is one of Cartagena’s favorites.Fruits that might be new to you are guanábana, arequipe or lulo. Give them a try. Coco (coconut) was my favorite!
♥ Pines Verde (think green). Pezetarian has formulated a concept that would be at home in any city of the world. Their sustainable restaurant has a simple, straightforward menu highlighting fresh, local ingredients with a focus on fish. Offering sushi, ceviche, rice bowls and salad, I could have eaten every item on the menu. Extra points to the handsome owner chatting us up and sharing his food philosophy.
♥ Pretty food that tastes as good as it looks-sign me up! For the special meal of the trip, head to Carmen, dishing out some of the best food Cartagena has to offer. Make sure to begin with what I named best cocktail in Cartagena: La Vie en Rose. A heady combination of vodka, rose & cucumber syrup, rosemary liqueur, lime, grapefruit and cardamom bitters. I had to stop myself at two!
There is a tasting menu and a la carte specialities. Start with “LA PLAYA” a fun play on the beach: octopus, shrimp & white fish ceviche, citrus tiger’s milk, edible sand, coconut rice and green sea foam. Pez Negro is the fish of the day sautéed in black olive oil, suero costeño, house ricotta & preserved mango raviolis, sweet chile & ginger romesco. The descriptions alone will give you some mouth watering mental images.
♥ You’ll find street food on every corner and if you’re stomach can handle it, taste one of life’s great pleasures. The arepas from Elaine Lozano in the old city did not disappoint. Find her near the corner of Carrera 11 + Calle 38. While these were only my highlights, make sure to try some of the best restaurants in Cartagena.
Learn about the history of colonial Cartagena from inside the walls of the Candelaria Convent. The hill of La Popa is a great place to take in the contrasts of all it has to offer. A beautiful view of the city and it’s modern high-rises contrast the ancient walls of the historic district.
♥ How can you go wrong with a museum focused on gold. Historically it played such a large part in Colombia’s history. Scratch beneath the surface to understand where culture meets the environment.
The Zenú inhabited the Caribbean plains over 2,000 years ago and gold came from the headwaters of the Sinú and San Jorge rivers. The jewelry on exhibit at the Gold Museum reflects the symbols of animals and the environment the artisans incorporated into their imagery. Don’t miss the living culture preserved at the Museo del Oro.
♥ The up and coming neighborhood of Getsamani is a street art lover’s dream. Shaking off it’s previous gritty reputation, the street art has helped turn the neighborhood into an area of cafes, bars and lower priced, on the edge accommodations. Bougainvillea and candy colored colonial houses already line many streets. Add in the murals of this area and photographers will find instagram worthy photo ops around every corner. Flora, fauna, portraits and a few political statements cover the neighborhood in bright colors. For additional neighborhood highlights as well as tips to cities outside Cartagena, this Colombia Guide is a great reference.
Local folklore was incorporated into the mural by artist Yurika, who tells the story of Maria mulata the official bird of Cartagena de Indias. The exotic, multi hued birds with a melodic song came to the rescue of the residents of Cartagena when the city was burning, carrying the population to safety. Each trip singed a few more of the birds feathers, until the color was gone and she was forever turned the color of soot and ash. The villagers can still recognize the brilliant plumage of the grackle in days of bright sunshine.
♥ Just walking the streets of the historic district is a wonderful experience. At the magic hour when the sun starts to fade, the city glows from all the colorful surroundings. Make sure to walk along the malecon and enjoy the waves and crashing surf. Enjoy a cocktail from Café del Mar and watch the sun set into the Caribbean.
♥ Artesanias de Colombia features the best crafts the country has to offer. Stop in for an overview, learn what to look for from the knowledgable staff (and a purchase or two) then go into the marketplace armed with information to shop ’till you drop.
♥ Las Bovedas-great strip of shops featuring the best and worst of Colombia’s craft scene. Everything from t-shirts and shot glasses to high end jewelry, hammocks and unusual shoes. If it’s souvenirs you’re looking for, you won’t come away empty handed. Insider Tip: Find our what time the cruise ship’s dock, you’ll want to avoid this area when buses drop-off hoarded of tourists!!
Street finds. There are vendors throughout the city, be prepared to bargain and know ahead of time what you are willing to pay.
When have you ever seen plastic looking so good in this Cartagena highlight? Apparently there was a “clean up”contest in this area of the city, and it’s residents took all the plastic trash and strung it into banners across the balconies. Quite genius I’d say! There’s nothing I like more than historical colonial cities and I would highly recommend staying in the historic district of Cartagena. There is so much to see. If you do nothing more than walk around the neighborhoods you’ll go away happy.
Stay: Hotel Bantu was the perfect base of operations: excellent location, rooftop pool, central courtyard and that seduction I spoke of earlier; well the staff surpassed any hotel encounter I’ve ever had before. They could not do enough, including looking in on me and cooking up a vegetable broth when I took to my bed with a bit of the infamous travel crud. Cartagena highlights were many, but the hospitality, warmth and friendliness of Columbians will be the takeaway that remains with me long after I have returned to a frosty reception back home in Boston.