Cartagena, Colombia: Crown Jewel of the Caribbean

Posted by on April 11th, 2023

This beguiling city has a way of getting under your skin and beckoning you to return again and again. Cartagena has cast such a spell on me that even as I am just now unpacking my bags from my second visit, I am left yearning to return. Like a book you want to re-read with your cherished parts highlighted, a pair of sandals worn in just right, or a dish that you crave in the middle of the night— this enchanting gateway to Colombia is inviting and intoxicating yet feels somehow familiar.

Years ago, I was immediately mesmerized wandering around Cartagena’s old walled city. The city walls were built to protect the heaps of emeralds and gold that Spanish royalty had started to amass back in the 16th and 17th centuries. Of course, these natural treasures became a magnet for pirates clambering to claim the wealth for their own. Cartagena’s weighted history is steeped in colonial times, from conquistadors to the slave trade. There is a direct line from African heritage palpable in the rhythms of salsa, cumbia, bachata, and merengue. Cartagena’s unique Caribbean fashion also harkens back to Africa. Mixes of patterns stitched together, combined over time with indigenous designs with bold, brightly colored prints that seem to dance on their own in the hot, humid wind. The culinary melting pot of Cartagena includes a vast variety of endemic fruits, vegetables, and seafood. It has heavy notes of Spanish and African influence and is also seasoned with hints of Middle Eastern flavors that came by way of merchants trading at this important port.

Meandering down the historic streets I felt like I was in a fever dream. Music spilled out onto the cobblestones from inside magnificent patios that peeked out from giant arched doorways. Bulky wooden doors were adorned with massive brass knockers in the shape of lions, lizards, and mermaids. Vines twisted gracefully up the facades of elegant dining establishments and beautiful boutique hotels where balconies heaved with cascading flowers. Taking it all in was dizzying. I felt as if the existence of this town—and I, too, at that moment—had been conjured and brought to life by the magical realism found in the writings of celebrated Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

DINING IN CARTAGENA

My first time in Colombia was back in 2015 when I was on an extended backpacking trip. My tight budget had me searching for cheap sustenance. My go-tos were street food staples like arepas and empanadas, which are delicious and a must for any adventurous appetite. This time, I was happy to partake in some of the abundant higher-priced indulgences. My husband and I wanted a rooftop sunset dinner and drinks experience for his birthday and chose Mirador Gastro Bar overlooking the main square Plaza del Reloj. The food and drinks were really good, yet nothing spectacular; they were also nothing akin to a tourist trap. But really, the star of the show was the view! Watching the colors change as the sun sank over this spectacular skyline is something I will never forget. Condors circled in the distance as cumulonimbus clouds turned to cotton candy pink. The lights of the sun-bleached yellow clock tower flickered on in a sparkle of gold against the darkening sky. You really couldn’t imagine a better setting in which to wish a loved one happy birthday in style.

SHOPPING IN CARTAGENA

Opulence abounds in Cartagena. The options for shopping alone require at least one dedicated afternoon, if one wishes to thoroughly peruse the boutique shops around the old town. Colombia is quite affordable and luxury items can be acquired at a fraction of the prices found for similar purchases in the USA. I was ecstatic to take advantage of the deals. A Colombian designer bikini? Si, por favor! Emerald earrings? Yes, please! One-of-a-kind artisanal bags of the highest quality that will last a lifetime, handwoven by local Wayuu tribeswomen who will benefit directly from the sale? Las quiero, si o si!

To best understand the going rates for goods locally, I always prefer to have a look around the shops in addition to talking to several street vendors before finally circling back to buy whatever originally caught my eye. Like anywhere without fixed prices, vendors will take advantage of tourists willing to pay significantly more than the usual asking price.

NEARBY BEACHES

Apart from the entrancing city, some world-class Caribbean beaches are not found too far off. Playa Blanca is the most accessible, at just a 45 min boat ride or 1.5-hour drive away. My husband and I chose to hire a driver for the day. That way we would be able to leave whenever we wanted in the morning and stay for sunset and not worry about the tide for our departure times. Playa Blanca boasts warm turquoise waters and long stretches of soft white sand. There are numerous ramshackle locales with sun chairs and umbrellas to rent, with menus offering tropical drinks and fresh fish cooked as you, please. As price gouging is commonplace here, we were advised to agree on the cost before sitting down to spend a day relaxing and enjoying this slice of true paradise.

Cartagena offers a remarkably romantic and seriously seductive introduction to Colombia and is the perfect place to dip your toes in and prepare yourself for all this magnificent country has in store. Not only is this magical country home to tremendous natural beauty and wild biodiversity (Colombia is the top-ranking country on Earth for variety in bird and orchid species!), there is much to be discovered: spectacular national parks, a fascinating pre-Columbian history, charming coffee farms, and a vibrant, colorful culture celebrated through music, dance, art, contemporary innovation, and more. If you plan on traveling to Colombia, Cartagena should be at the top of your list of destinations. There are countless reasons this special city deserves the moniker “The Crown Jewel of the Caribbean,” and if you’re like me, once you’ve been, you will be coaxed back for more. Maybe I’ll see you there for sunset cheers, be it on a rooftop in Cartagena’s raucous and historic city center, or along a shimmering emerald shoreline in a village nearby.

TIPS FOR VISITING CARTAGENA

  • If you are spending any time in the interior, away from the coastal winds, tiny mosquitos or midges (in Georgia, we called them no-see-ums) can eat you alive. Be sure to apply ample amounts of the repellent of your choice.
  • Bring cash with you when going to the beaches or islands. Every shop and restaurant we went to in the city accepted cards but having cash for buying goods from street vendors or on the isolated beaches is needed.
  • Playa Blanca can get a bit crowded due to its accessibility. For a more serene and pristine beach experience, book a private boat/catamaran tour. Due to the lack of infrastructure on the remote beaches, being aware of your waste and taking it with you when you leave is paramount for preservation.
  • Cartagena is heavily policed, so is generally safe for tourists. But look out for pickpockets. It is not recommended to wear expensive jewelry or watches, and it is advised to avoid poorly lit streets while going out for walks at night.
  • If you want to be mindful of supporting local artists and makers and you wish to know where the proceeds of a sale go, just ask. ¨Cartageneros¨ are generally super friendly and more than happy to tell you the stories behind the artisanal goods on sale.

RECOMMENDED RESTAURANTS

All are located outside of the Old City wall in the bohemian and trendy Gestemani neighborhood.

Celele: Ranked number 19 on the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America in 2022. Don´t miss out on this innovative gastronomic gem that will delight your tastebuds in a cozy environment. Make reservations in advance!

https://www.celelerestaurante.com)

Doña Lola: Lush indoor décor, excellent service, and scrumptious dishes including succulent cuts of meat cooked with a Caribbean flair.

https://xn--doalolacartagena-7tb.com/?lang=en

Don Silvio Trattoria: Upscale Italian served in a hauntingly gorgeous ambiance. Get the gnocchi made from ñame (white yam) instead of the traditional potato, so yummy! *Many vegetarian options are available.

https://www.disilviotrattoria.com/

Pascal: If brunch is on your mind, this hip, intimate café will certainly fit the bill. Breakfast tacos, hashbrowns, mimosas, and coffee drinks are all prepared with care and quality ingredients.

https://www.instagram.com/quienespascal/

 

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