5 Days in Cartagena
Sometimes you discover a place that makes you smile the minute you walk off the plane. For me, this place is Cartagena, Colombia. The quaint coastal city, located along the Caribbean Sea, exhibits everything one could want in a South American getaway – rich history, warm weather, friendly locals, delicious food, and a new adventure awaiting at every corner. With five full days to spend in this “walled city,” I couldn’t wait to discover everything about it.
A quick 15-minute ride from the airport took me into Cartagena’s old town, which is surrounded by Las Murallas. These thick walls, built to protect the city from enemies and pirates, are aligned with an occasional carved out window to sneak a peek out towards the ocean. La Merced Royal is one of the first hotels next to these walls and it’s located right across from the historic Teatro Heredia. Pulling up, I immediately noticed the giant wooden front doors, which were big enough to fit a ship itself. Rapping on the ornate lion knockers let the hotel staff know our group had arrived.
It didn’t take long for me to finish a welcome drink of tamarind and ice.
This refreshing cocktail was almost as nice as the idea of jumping into the small pool in the middle of the outdoor lobby. The rooms at this three-star boutique hotel were spacious, clean, and most importantly, air conditioned. In a tropical and humid climate like Cartagena, this luxury was definitely a must. One of the perks of this hotel was that it was only made up of nine rooms, making it easy to meet your neighbors and connect with the hotel staff.
Every morning, a buffet of fresh meats, cheeses, and fruit was available in the dining room, along with coffee and tea. Of course, the full breakfast menu always caught my attention – especially the simple dish of scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon that came with a lovely tomato “rose.” An assorted bread basket with rolls, chocolate croissants, and custard filled pastries didn’t hurt either.
Night one meant it was time to explore! The historic districts of El Centro and San Diego are lined with colorful doorways and buildings, reminiscent of Puerto Rico. Not one is the same, making it the perfect backdrop for a shared kiss or simple photograph. My first night in Cartagena was spent at a small outdoor café across the street from the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara. I sipped on a divine glass of fruity sangria until a hearty dish of shrimp risotto landed in front of me. I scooped up every tasty bite and enjoyed people watching as vendors and tourists bartered for goodies next to me. My next step was catching a glimpse of the amazing courtyard within the Sofitel Santa Clara. This convent-turned-hotel may sound familiar as it was used as the setting for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Of Love and Other Demons. The courtyard in the center of this 17-century building was stunning – it felt like a mini jungle thanks to all if its lush plants, trees, and occasional butterfly. My only regret was that I didn’t snag a drink at the bar.
Soon, night one came to a close and day two was filled with possibilities. I woke up early and went for a run along the beach. A high tide forced me to jog along the sidewalk but the views still made me stop every few minutes to take a picture. The juxtaposition of the old city and forts against the sprawling high rises and skyscrapers of Bocagrande was incredible and helped me get a sense of how a city can be both preserved and renovated at the same time.
After taking a quick dip in the pool back at the hotel, I decided to tag along with the rest of the WBM crew to go shopping for what we needed for the following day’s photo shoot. As soon as we walked through the doors of ST. DOM, I wanted to buy everything. This designer destination showcases Colombian brands from high-end fashion, art, and interior design. From intricate jewelry and floppy hats to fun cover ups and throw pillows, this place had everything a gal (and guy) could want! Before moving onto the next store, we took a snack break. It was easy to find a giant fruit plate from the many fruit basket ladies roaming the streets, while those looking to cool down feasted on homemade snow cones from the Raspao carts. A quick stop at Ketty Tinoco’s designer shop turned into an impromptu shopping trip thanks to a friendly local who was selling beautiful sterling silver necklaces, rings, and earrings outside. Half of us walked away with a new favorite piece.
By the late afternoon, we realized we hadn’t eaten lunch yet. We ducked into a small Peruvian restaurant called Peru Mar. Our waiter was kind enough to give us a taste of freshly made ceviche before our entrees came out. It was the best bite of citrus and seafood that I’d ever tasted. The shared plate of yucca fries definitely hit the spot, too. I was especially happy to see that one of my favorite childhood dinners was on the menu - Lomo Saltado (strips of beef with onions, tomatoes, French fries, and served with rice). I did a little happy dance and morphed into my 8 year-old self as I took my first bite.
Now fully satisfied, I split off from the group to explore my surroundings the rest of the evening. I could hear a faint drumming sound coming from the center of the city so I made my way over to Plaza Bolivar Centro. I was thrilled to discover that a group of young cumbia dancers had taken over the plaza. The art of cumbia, a traditional dance practiced among the African population on the Caribbean coasts, was something I had hoped to see for myself and this group of dedicated men and women didn’t disappoint. Girls twirled and showed off their gigantic dresses and skirts while the men raised their hands and hats into the air, mirroring each other in dance. The colorful garments of their orange, yellow, white, and red costumes made it almost hard to notice that each dancer was performing barefoot. The beats coming from the drums and the smiles on the faces of the dancers made me want to kick off my shoes and join in. The best part? This wasn’t a 5-minute performance – this festive group changed outfits a few times and gave the audience more than a half hour show.
As the sun set, I followed the last remaining shadows along the cobblestoned streets. Suddenly, I realized that I was near the city walls but this time there was a ramp that led to a bridge. As I crossed it, I noticed an alcove with Colombian flags waving, people dancing, and an overhang with chairs and a majestic view of the ocean. I had stumbled upon Café del Mar, a place that came highly recommended by friends as a lovely place to end an evening. I caught the last glimpse of the sun as a rum cocktail arrived at my solo table. Although I was sitting alone, it didn’t feel like it, thanks to the many patrons chatting and observing the last part of the day with me. Right before darkness set in, a group of young hip hop dancers took over the space outside the café, spinning on their heads and flailing their bodies into the air like there was a mattress underneath them. It was mesmerizing to watch. I’d only been out for about an hour and a half but I already felt like I could understand the beauty of Cartagena.
Day three was met with another plate of scrambled eggs, cheese, and bacon (okay, and bread basket) before the energetic Joyce, came to meet me and my friend Memsor for a guided tour of the city. Her energy was electric and I couldn’t wait to hit the town with her. Our first stop was the San Felipe de Barajas Castle, one of the most popular monuments in Cartagena. It was hard to miss the vendors who are busy selling hats and jewelry at the bottom – I definitely recommend a hat for this shade-free hike up the fort. It was originally built to protect the city of Cartagena as well as the harbor from foreign troops back in the 17th century. The architectural history of the fort is also interesting – it was constructed from the top downwards starting in 1656 and was completed in 1769. The views from the first level alone will allow you to see the bay, the mountains, and almost all of Cartagena. If you want to escape the sun, travel through one of the many tunnels to the top - a bit of cooler breeze escapes the windows for a refreshing break. Memsor and I couldn’t resist snagging a jumping photo off the turret before grabbing a glass of homemade lemonade from the gift shop. We ran into an adorable trumpet player who was eager to play his favorite American songs to us as we made our way back down.
Next, we were off to the highest point of Cartagena: Convento de la Popa. Seventy percent of the Colombian population is Catholic, making this convent one of the most popular and important attractions in Cartagena. It turned out to be a windy road trip up as this landmark stands atop a 150m-high hill. It’s nicknamed the Convent of the Stern because the hill resembles the back of a boat but I was too busy taking in the 360-degree views of Cartagena and the outer islands to notice. My favorite spots here included the charming courtyard and patio filled with flowers as well as the magnificent image of La Virgen de la Candelaria (the patroness of the city). A litter of adorable kittens decided to walk us out of the chapel, which of course made me fall in love with this place even more.
It was finally time for a little almuerzo. Memsor and I dined at El Santisimo, a modern restaurant located in the outer area of the Old Town. It felt like a place you might find in Napa or wine country thanks to its hanging chandeliers made of wine bottles and a merlot-colored backdrop. The menu offered a fusion of French techniques along with Caribbean ingredients, which made my taste buds very happy. I started out the meal with The Angel’s Song – fresh fish ceviche with coconut and pineapple “leche de tigre”, red onion, mango, and kiwi. I happily scooped it up with a side of plantains. Next up, I had Langostino Vishnu, which was wrapped in a pillow of banana leaves. Inside the pouch was marinated prawns with lemongrass, ginger, cilantro, lemons, tomatoes, and olives. I didn’t leave one bite on the plate. Finally, I ended lunch with La Gula (Glutony). This mocha brownie with passion fruit crème, corozo coulis, and toulie certainly satisfied my sweet tooth although my Jugo de Corozo cocktail was quite tasty too.
DID YOU KNOW THAT COLOMBIA IS THE BIGGEST PRODUCER OF EMERALDS IN THE WORLD?
We were lucky enough to get a personal tour of the Caribe Emerald Museum & Factory, started by the Diaz Alfaro Brothers back in 1983. Here, we watched a small group of jewelers create and repair bracelets, necklaces, and pendants at their stations. The museum also has replicated mines as well as examples of polished and unpolished emeralds at the facility. I was tempted to buy a gemstone on our way out through the shop but I politely declined.
We thanked Joyce and said our goodbyes before heading back to our hotel. After resting a bit and taking a quick rinse, I mentioned to Memsor how wonderful it was to see the sun set at Casa del Mar. We headed back to my favorite spot in Cartagena and watched yet another beautiful sunset. The fact that we were newfound friends discovering this wonderful city did not go lost on us.
Day four started out the same (yes, another scrambled eggs, cheese, and bacon breakfast) but this time I dragged my friend Myrdith to the neighborhood of Getsamani.
This area seemed less touristy and I couldn’t wait to take pictures of locals as well as the amazing architecture of the city. It’s funny how happy I was just walking down the streets with my camera, discovering the sounds and sights. We walked passed dozens of funky hostels, a music school where young children were carrying instruments way too big for their bodies, and plenty of colorful murals that took over an entire block. I sat and watched a young girl fly her kite into the air with her sister, a simple yet perfect moment that reminded me how little it takes to make a child happy. On our way back into the old town, Myrdith and I stopped for gelato (okay, this may have been my second trip in less than 12 hours). After exploring the city a bit more, I realized that I forgot my camera at the ice cream shop. I rushed back to find that not only did they have my camera but they kept it behind the counter for safe keeping. This gesture made me see just how wonderful the people of Cartagena truly are.
THEN MYRDITH REMINDED ME THAT WE WERE CRASHING A WEDDING.
Yep, a wedding. The bride-to-be just happened to be staying at our hotel and she invited us to not only the ceremony but the reception, too. That evening, I threw on my best dress and attempted to curl my hair (thanks humidity) and ran towards the church. Thankfully it was only a few blocks away so our five-minute tardiness went unnoticed. We were handed a bag of beans and a small bottle of bubbles on our way in to celebrate the newly married couple. The ceremony itself was a traditional Catholic mass and it felt very special to be a part of it. All of the men looked crisp and clean, wearing traditional Guayabera suits made entirely of white cotton. The bride looked beautiful with her hair swept up and a long veil that complimented her floor length beaded dress. The blush-colored bouquet of roses she held matched the billowing bottom of her gown.
As the ceremony came to a close, the festive reception began right outside the church doors. As the newlyweds walked back down the aisle, the beating of drums could be heard from outside. Guests made their way out, blowing bubbles and throwing beans at the happy couple, while cumbia dancers encompassed the church walkway.
A horse and carriage made its way through the street to pick up the bride and groom as the rest of the guests followed the cumbia dancers to the reception. There I was, walking at the front of the line with a coconut, a sack of beans, a bottle of bubbles, my camera, and my purse. It felt like it was 100 degrees outside but I was having a wonderful time. I danced my way the few short blocks to La Casa de la Maria Luisa, where tables were dimly lit and gorgeous tall floral centerpieces anchored them down.
After a bit of confusion as to where we were sitting, we finally took our places…at the kids table. We still sipped on champagne and opted to skip the chicken nuggets and French fry plate. We took our places in line at the incredible buffet and tried everything from beef and chicken to ceviche and paella. There was no shortage of dancing thanks to the live band that never seemed to run out of breath. The groom’s father even whisked me up there for a song or three (see picture to the left). Watching this newly married couple dance as sparklers surrounded them was a memory I will never forget - that, and the fact that nobody knew what these random Americans were doing at this wedding! It was such a beautiful wedding! Here are a few more pictures from the reception.
Day five was spent exploring Isla Grande, a secluded island located about an hour boat ride away from Cartagena. The Hotel San Pedro de Majagua can be found here, with small huts sprawled out along the water. There isn’t much to do there other than swimming, snorkeling, drinking, and eating, making it the ultimate sanctuary for newlyweds and couples. Memsor and I decided to hop on a few bikes to explore the island with a local from the island. We biked passed rural areas, private homes, tiny tiendas, and even an entire palm tree farm. The whole trip took less than hour, which left us plenty of time to jump into the warm Caribbean waters.
Before heading back into town, we all sat down for a nice lunch at the hotel’s outdoor dining area. I was very happy to notice that Pargo Rojo (whole red snapper) was on the menu. This fried fish (with the head intact) was served with coconut rice, fried plantains, and salad. It was beyond tasty. It was filled with flavor and every bite was crunch but not greasy. By the time it was time to flip over the fish, I was already full. I had grown accustom to ordering Cerveza Aguila, Colombia’s go-to beer, and this glass tasted especially nice paired with this meal. In fact, here's Memsor, the unofficial spokesman for Cerveza Aguila:
This tasty welcome drink also went down well.
We hopped back onto the boat and headed back to Cartagena. Unfortunately, we noticed the dark, gray clouds heading our way about halfway through the trip. In the middle of the ocean, it began to pour as thunder and lightning accompanied the rain. Luckily, attendants handed us tarps to share with our seat mate. I’ll never forget sharing a moment with an older Colombian man who spoke no English.
Back at the hotel, it was time to pack up. It was then that I realized that I didn’t actually have any souvenirs to bring home. I went to bed that night vowing to get up early to go shopping before my flight left later that afternoon. The morning of my last day started like any other (yes, more eggs) while Memsor and I strolled through the streets one last time, taking in the beautiful architecture and scenery. We took one more look at the garden inside the Sofitel Santa Clara, where I was thankfully able to exchange money for some last minute gifts. Before hitting the shops, I found some fresh lemonade from a street vendor that to this day was one of the best drinks I’ve ever tasted. We bargained our way through Plaza de la Aduana, one of the most popular shopping areas in Cartagena. I did manage to find a mochila bag in hot pink with a colorful embroidered strap that I had my name all over it. I also couldn’t leave without a traditional Panama hat, which I bought from a local on the way back to my hotel. Of course, there’s still an amazing hammock that I regret not buying. I’ll just have to go back one day.
Before we took off for the airport, we grabbed lunch at La Cevicheria next to the Sofitel Santa Clara. I ordered a variety of ceviche and was most impressed by the amount of flavor in the fish and octopus varieties. My seafood paella was enormous and big enough for four people – I wish I could have taken it with me on the plane. My mojito hit the spot as I tried to take in all that Cartagena had given me – a new respect for color, the arts, architecture, and people. I walked back to the hotel feeling like a bit of a local, knowing that major landmarks like the Plaza Santo Domingo was surrounded by a bright yellow church and that my favorite gelatoria was just one block from there. I checked out of La Merced Royal with my bag (and stomach) slightly bigger. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A FEW THANK YOU'S
Thank you for being my side kick on this trip! Your infectious personality (and smile) always put me in a happy mood. You taught me how to look on the bright side of everything and always see the best in people.
(AKA THE PANAMA HAT)
You got me through the heat and sun in Cartagena as well as one international flight, two cross-country flights, and countless summer days in NYC. Best purchase I ever made.