“It was enough for me to take a step inside the wall to see it in all its grandeur in the mauve light of six in the evening, and I could not repress the feeling of having been born again.” —Gabriel García Márquez
This passage from Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez’s autobiography Living to Tell the Tale shares the author’s love of Cartagena de Indias. It is one of the many testimonies that he found tremendous inspiration there.
Cartagena’s mystique lives on
After my brief visit to this evocative walled city, I now share this love and can attest to its powerful allure. Although our experiences may come from very different times, even today there remains a mystique and energy about Cartagena that is contagious.
Here are some of the highlights from my 72 hours; suggestions for anyone looking to capture some of Cartagena’s magic.
Calling all foodies—head to the streets with a cultural food tour
My taste buds have not been the same since visiting this culinary melting pot. From street food to Michelin-star restaurants, the city’s gastronomy is both unexpected and delightful. So it’s no surprise that a highlight of my whirlwind visit was a food tour.
But not just any food tour. This one came with a literary twist. The experience not only highlighted some of the city’s best bites, but offered insight into the Cartagena loved by Gabriel García Márquez, famous author and one of Colombia’s most renowned personalities.
Our food concierge, Will, was an engaging host who shared knowledge of both “Gabo’s” literary works and the origins of Colombia’s culinary traditions. He led us on a food journey that touched on several literary references from Gabo’s novels, as well as important landmarks of Cartagena’s historic centre.
While tasting iconic streetfood—from artisan tropical icecream to traditional Colombian sweets—we were entertained by tales of Gabo and audio excerpts from some of his greatest novels. Every bite and sip was memorable. But one of my favourites included arepas de huevo, cornmeal dough filled with eggs and twice fried. A tender and delicious treat.
Upscale eateries serving authentic local flavours
To get a more upscale and contemporary take on Colombian cuisine, check out these great eateries:
Club de Pesca
Club de Pesca is set amongst the grounds of Sebastian del Pastelillo Fort with spectacular views of the bay. It’s no wonder this restaurant is one of the most iconic and distinguished in Cartagena.
The menu offers primarily fresh fish and seafood, but there are a few other options available. The scenic setting right on the water makes this spot worth a visit even if you aren’t a seafood lover. If you go on the weekend, live jazz music completes the experience.
Celele was uniquely born out of a research project that studied the gastronomic culture and biodiversity of the Colombian Caribbean. Chefs Jaime Rodríguez and Sebastián Pinzón weave the findings of their travels from indigenous and rural communities into their contemporary and ever-changing menu.
Misia by Leo
A spinoff of renowned Colombian chef Leo Espinosa’s fine-dining Bogotá location, this more relaxed version dishes up her take on Creole recipes from Colombian Caribbean kitchens. Interestingly located in the upscale food court of El Serrezuela Shopping Center (once the city’s bullfighting ring), you can scout boutiques for unique Colombian finds and enjoy some amazing cuisine all in a truly unique venue.
For a taste of chef Leo Espinosa’s Colombia at home, check out this recipe for Ground Beef Carimañola, immensely satisfying fried treats that are one of the country’s favourite comfort foods.
Colombian executive chef Vivian Lievano is at the helm of this restaurant under the direction of the award-winning Rausch brothers. Housed in a 16th-century building now home to boutique hotel El Bastion, the avant-garde menu offers a fresh fusion of French and Colombian cuisine prepared with local ingredients.
Our dinner here was decadent and the stately ambiance combined with unobtrusive live Spanish music in the background transported us to the colonial era. A number of fresh seafood options are available and the beef tenderloin accompanied by smoky mushroom orzo is divine.
Where to catch the most epic sunset views
Cartagena is known for its stunning sunsets and there are many vantage points in the city for catching one. Enjoy a cocktail or even a meal at one of the restaurants converted out of the stone bastions along the iconic city walls. Or pause at the top of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas (San Felipe de Barajas Castle) at the end of an afternoon touring the formidable fortress. You could even create a whole itinerary for your visit simply based on the quest for the perfect sunset viewing locations.
We opted for a lively sunset cruise on the bay with Sibarita del Mar. The rum drinks flowed abundantly and the 360-degree views of the skyline and historic centre were fantastic. Many operators offer different versions of a bay cruise. Some include drinks, some a formal dinner, but our express version was just perfect at approximately 90 minutes.
Find your rhythm with an evening of dancing
Pro Colombia, the country’s promotional tourism entity, has had many engaging tourism campaigns over the years. But I believe the most recent, “Feel the Rhythm of Colombia,” evokes the essence of this destination in so many ways. Music is at the heart of everything in this country and is an integral part of Colombia’s identity.
In 2017, nine of Colombia’s rhythms were declared as a Cultural Heritage of the Americas, a testament to the importance of the musical culture of Colombia. Although nine made this list, officially the country has a whopping 1,025 rhythms grouped by 157 genres amongst five regions.
As a lover of Latin music, it was obligatory for me to search out local haunts and hit the dance floor to do some research of my own. Here are just a few that were well worth a visit to find your own rhythm:
Bazurto Social Club
This electric night spot is a magnet for locals and tourists looking to get their groove on. Group dance lessons are available nightly at certain times and included in the cover price so there’s no excuse for those lacking experience.
While other Latin and African beats are played, Bazurto is known as a place to learn and dance Champeta, a Carib-Afro-inspired dance born in the barrios of Cartagena. I had never seen this dance before my visit but the wildly energized instructors engaged everyone in the club. Be sure to try the machacoa, Bazurto’s signature cocktail blended with rum, mashed tropical fruit, honey and peppermint.
By far one of the most frequented clubs by locals of all ages, this authentic salsa bar is a great place to people watch. I couldn’t resist admiring multi-generational families dancing around their tables, grandparents as adept as their offspring.
I loved the simplicity of this place, with infectious energy flowing out onto the street. Be sure to check out the collection of photographs adorning the walls, a tribute to owner Fidel Leottau and the many salsa legends who have passed through the doors.
I’ve always said that the key to Latin dancing is all in the partner. Crazy Salsa provided a perfectly suave instructor for my one-hour private lesson. He made me feel like I had finally mastered enough swagger to up my ante on the dance floor.
This one-of-a-kind dance school offers a variety of lessons including Salsa, Merengue, Vallenato, Champeta and Bachata. They also offer a cultural immersion program that includes dance, Spanish lessons and cooking. The dance school doubles as a nightclub where students and locals alike show off their hip-swivelling moves.
Sun and sand are close at hand
There are several options for getting your sun and sand fix close to the city. Perched on the Caribbean Sea. the beach areas of Boca Grande and La Boquilla are a quick 10 minutes from downtown. The area boasts many modern hotels, a lively atmosphere and plenty of watersports opportunities.
Alternatively, you can opt for an island escape. The closest island is Tierra Bomba, a mere 10 minutes from the city and easily accessible by frequent boat. If you’re looking to venture a little further, you can choose from Barú Island or one of the Rosario Islands. You can reach both in about 50 minutes from Cartagena. They feature white sand beaches and crystal clear water with all of the amenities.
A city made for walking
Despite inexpensive transportation in the city, Cartagena was made for exploring on foot. A great place to start is the main entrance to downtown. It’s where the Puerta del Reloj (Clock Tower) opens to Plaza de los Coches (Plaza of the Carriages).
The streets are easy to navigate and offer endless photo opportunities. From colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, to vendors wearing colourful headpieces adorned with tropical fruit. From antique wooden doors to stunning cathedrals and plazas—the city’s beauty is on full display with every step. I was entranced. I would have loved to spend weeks exploring every nook instead of a few short days.
Aside from the city streets, there are plenty of museums and churches to offer respite from the Caribbean heat. The Museum of Modern Art is a great stop and there are plenty of fine emerald shops if you’re in the market for this sought-after gem. Shaded park benches are abundant and cute outdoor cafes line the streets should you need to take a load off and contemplate the day’s adventures.
Discover urban art in Getsemani
Although the grid of beautiful streets within the walls of the old city should be a focal point, be sure to visit the nearby and equally walkable Getsemani neighborhood. Once a predominantly residential area, visitors are beginning to discover its authentic charm. Despite the newfound interest, Getsemani has maintained its local roots. It has transformed into a colourful testament to the city’s colonial past. Complete with the most captivating displays of urban art you can find in Cartagena.
Every corner and alleyway tells a story through vibrant images in the form of eclectic graffiti. People once perceived this area as the seedy side of town, but you’d never know it. It’s full of trendy restaurants, colourful buildings, boutique hotels and charming locals.
Walk the wall
Walking anywhere in the streets of downtown provides great immersion into the culture and history of the city. But don’t forget to get off the streets and onto the infamous wall. Sprawling 11 kilometres surrounding the port and old city, it’s a great alternative pathway to enjoy the city’s highlights from a unique angle.
Go unique and boutique
There is no shortage of American and European chain hotels in the city. But to truly experience the authentic vibe of Cartagena, I would suggest opting for one of the many boutique hotels. You can find many great options within the city’s walls or in neighbouring Getsemani.
We were fortunate to stay at Hotel Capellan de Getsemani, a 30-room hotel within a five minute walk of the clock tower and the city walls.
Warm Colombian hospitality and lavish sophistication welcomed us. Through large iron doors, indoor landscaping and water features evoke solace and relaxation during our stay.
On-site Clero Restaurant offers guests complimentary à la carte breakfast with both Colombian and North American options. It’s a great place to start the day, but you should savour the classic Colombian menu for dinner as well. A spectacular rooftop terrace provides poolside relaxation during the day with cocktails and light snacks. The views are unbelievable both day and night.
Treat yourself to a massage or facial at the intimate on-site spa to revive after a day of exploring. Endless walking, dancing and eating left me exhausted but exhilarated. I felt that I had only scratched the surface of the magic that lies inside Cartagena’s walls.
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