Cartagena Cool Part II: The Lowdown on Latin America’s Most Alluring City

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Continuing our exploration of the seductive Colombian city of Cartagena de Indias (see Part I of the story), we ventured out of the walled city to see how the locals live.

A 10-minute walk directly south of the Old City, and past the Parque del Centenario, brought us to Getsemani, the town’s once very sketchy but now colorful bohemian hub. Strolling its quiet (during the day at least), narrow, tree-lined streets we came across all manor of intriguing urban life: old men playing dominoes in dusty front rooms – front doors and windows are often wide open, presumably to encourage a little circulation – which double as industrious, home-based businesses (i.e. beauty parlors), and stray cats and dogs lounging in the sun. In the evenings the bars fill up, and enthusiastic party people take over.

 

 

It was in Getsemani, and more specifically at Demente, a hip but romantic restaurant with a soaring atrium and amazing pizza, that we first met Julian Baker of Travel Colombia Direct – our insider for all things Cartagena. While Baker still sounds like the British prep schooler that he is, nine years in Colombia have infused him with a very South American cosmopolitanism, along with an excellent grasp of Spanish. His lovely Cartagenan wife Juliana, a jewelry designer, is also an advisor to the travel company.

“It’s a unique beautiful city,” Julian enthused, “with some of the most charming people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. This place has something for everyone: typical and international gastronomy, pumping nightlife, first class hotels, fantastic shopping, history, art and culture. All wrapped up in year-round sunny days, local beaches and nearby islands – a magical place, that will take your breath away if you give her the chance to.”

Dinner and drinks at Demente gave way to a midnight stroll through the hot streets; kids were still up playing football in front of the old church and portable refreshment carts supplied unnecessary yet delicious, sugary nightcaps. We stumbled back to our hotel, the bewitching Casa Pizarro, while the street scenes played out until dawn.

 

 

For the record, another great hotel choice in the neighborhood is Monterrey, on Getsemani’s northern perimeter. It has a rooftop pool and bar with a magnificent 360-degree view of the city…for just $80 a night.

While the best shopping in Cartagena is in the Old City, we discovered the marvelous Artesanias de Colombia around the corner from our hotel, which retails beautiful, handmade local housewares and clothing. Moving farther afield we headed west to Bocagrande, Cartagena’s downtown and beach area, where new chain hotels and shopping malls are bringing modern gentrification to the area. We saved our water sports for more exotic locales, but found the charmingly ramshackle beachfront restaurant Kiosco El Bony, where we dug into a lunch of fried fish and coconut rice, all washed down with a couple of bottles of Aguila beer.

 

Artesanias de Colombia

 

Cartagena is surrounded by water and we were eager to get out on it. The best way to hit the waves is to charter a small private boat and head to the Rosario Islands (a cluster of about 30), about an hour off shore, with plenty of options for swimming, beaching, eating and drinking; a few even have hotels. Travel Colombia Direct organizes day trips and more, including yoga retreats, like this one in October. For something a little less elaborate, grab a taxi and head 30 minutes northeast of the city to the dusty town of Manzanillo Del Mar, where the beach is beautiful and quiet and you can grab lunch at one of the cheap and cheerful local restaurants.

On our last night we had a wonderful tapas dinner at the cool, international Spanish/Colombian restaurant Caffé Lunatico, on one of Getsemani’s quiet side streets. Afterwards we headed back to the Old City, joined the locals at Café del Mar, an always buzzing bar/restaurant on top of the 17th Century city wall, where we watched the sun set into the ocean.

Just as we found ourselves doing, you’ll likely spend the final hours of your trip to Cartagena planning your return.

 

Rosario Islands