Cartagena de Indias, the exotic port city on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast, has been something of an in-the-know spot for the more adventurous traveler for years; Mick Jagger has been visiting since the ’90s, and Justin Bieber even bought a house here. And though the pace of new hotel, restaurant and retail openings might seem to indicate that Cartagena has moved up the trendometer, it’s still under-the-radar to be…exotic.
Certainly there was a time when the words “vacation” and “Colombia” just didn’t sit well within the same sentence. In the ‘70s and ‘80s the country pretty much invented the cocaine industry, courtesy of noted narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar; and that, combined with the fifty-plus-years civil war with the Peoples Revolutionary Army (FARC), didn’t inspire visions of romantic Latin American getaways.
These days, however, it’s a much different story. In the early aughts the Colombian government launched a major get-rid-of-the-dealers initiative, resulting in a relocation of the Americas coke trade to Mexico. And effective efforts to end the civil war over the last several years has seen the remaining members of FARC assimilating into Colombian society. Colombia’s murder rate is at it lowest since the early ‘70s.
Cartagena was always the jewel of Colombia, the place where even Escobar would come to escape the, um, stress of his job. Fortress walls dating back to the 17th Century surround the central Old City – a UNESCO World Heritage site – and the main tourist area, within which you’ll find hotels and restaurants to rival those in Paris or New York. Beyond the walls are the scruffier but equally interesting enclaves of Getsemani, Bocagrande, Manga, and the quaintly residential Castilogrande. We fell in love with Cartagena and other spots along the Colombian Riviera on our first visit, and have been going back regularly since. Our eminent guides have been Travel Colombia Direct (more on them in Part II), who have helped us to feel at home in the city.
As long as you’re prepared for the heat – the year round prevailing temperature being hot – Cartagena is an easy and affordable getaway. JetBlue now flies direct from JFK in less time than it takes to get to San Francisco; and once there, typical hotel and restaurant bills are a good 25% less than you’d find in a comparable big American city.
Starting at the top is the classically sophisticated Sofitel Santa Clara, recently voted best luxury hotel in South America (a Conde Nast Readers Poll); Jagger stayed in the royal suite, as he would. Less opulent and pricy but no less charming is the lovely Casa Quero, housed in a historic colonial mansion. Fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi’s Tcherassi Hotel + Spa adds wellness and pampering, and has a chic poolside restaurant.
Sofitel Santa Clara
While Cartagena is technically a beach town, the actual beaches in town are not on par with their Caribbean neighbors (more on the amazing beaches just off shore in Part II), leaving travelers to occupy themselves as one would in any cosmopolitan city – and that obviously includes shopping. The spider web of streets in the Old City are a walker’s paradise of bustling local boutiques, street vendors, and upscale jewelers, with security at the door and NASA-worthy air-conditioning. With trays of dazzling emeralds and sapphires, Lucy stands out for its selection and service; for fashionable local styles we love the charming St Dom, but we’re also happy to explore the outdoor markets and vendors, including Las Bovedas, where we have tried on many a Panama hat. (Yes, they sell them in Colombia.)
Time to eat, and the options are seemingly endless. Of course fresh fish is a staple, as is plenty of steak, all accompanied by platacones, salsa, and beer or fruit shakes. One of our favorites is La Mulata, a casual Caribbean joint that’s always packed, and has some of the best grilled fish. Head to La Cevicheria early as, come dinnertime, the wait is endless; it’s got the best ceviche in Cartagena. For an over the top Argentinian carnivore experience, nothing beats the kitschy Patagonia Asados del Sur. And two new hotspots on our radar include the lively (it’s more a bar/club than resto) La Movida, and the pristine Moshi, which combines Asian and Caribbean cuisines; it was the first time we saw crispy pig’s head carnitas on a menu.
Coming up in Cartagena Part II we venture outside the walls to find the city’s equivalent of Brooklyn (or Oakland), plus an offshore paradise.