36 Hours in Cartagena, Colombia
36 Hours in Cartagena, Colombia
From afar, Cartagena’s skyline is deceptive. Its white towers rise above the Caribbean from a peninsula of tan sand and concrete, making it look like a bigger, beachier metropolis than it is. But with fewer than a million people, Cartagena is a sliver of the size of Rio de Janeiro or Los Angeles. One might expect the crisp new skyscrapers in Bocagrande to be in the midst of a vital, cosmopolitan downtown. Instead, Cartagena’s character — its lush plazas, fruit vendors and street art — is contained in two small, impossibly photogenic neighborhoods: the walled Old City and the rising barrio Getsemaní. There, in the birthplace of Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism, are the city’s most refined restaurants, its museums and balconies that spill over with flowering bougainvillea. But even in its most energetic quarters, Cartagena is not so much a place to do, as a place to be.
1. Sweet Spot | 4 p.m.
On a steamy afternoon, drop into La Paletteria, where a glass case contains dozens of paletas — agua (water), crema (cream) or yogurt ice pops — in flavors like tamarind, coconut and Milo, a locally beloved chocolate-malt drink. A few doors down, Swikar sells colorful hard candy. The storefront attracts onlookers who watch caramelo makers swirl, spread and shape sugar syrup into strawberries, watermelon wedges and orange slices. Around the corner, Gelateria Paradiso looks like an English teahouse, with upholstered benches and white wicker furniture, but its gelato tastes of tropical ingredients like hibiscus flower, passion fruit and the local plum, ciruela criolla.
2. Along the Watch Tower | 5:30 p.m.
With dripping paleta in hand, climb the fortified walls and walk the periphery of the Old City, where vendors hawk Cuban cigars and icy cans of cerveza Aguila, and young couples swoon in cannon portals, looking out across the choppy Caribbean. For those who cannot resist lingering over the sunset, there are touristy, but enticing, outdoor cafes that serve pricey cocktails and wines. Then, trace the stone wall back toward Puerta del Reloj, the clock tower gate that marks the entrance to the centro histórico. On the way, stop in at NH Galería, a modern-art gallery and museum with a small, intriguing collection of works by Colombian and international artists.
3. Home-Style | 7 p.m.
From El Reloj, take the walkway that passes in front of the city’s muscular convention center and into the Getsemaní neighborhood. On a narrow, blocklong side street, La Cocina de Pepina is a pink-and-orange-walled six-table dining room run by a local food historian and her nephew, who speaks fluent English. The restaurant celebrates Colombian coastal cuisine with a chalkboard menu of dishes like ajies rellenos (roasted, stuffed chiles, 16,000 Colombian pesos, $8.50 at 1,880 pesos to the dollar), sopa Caribe (a Caribbean seafood soup; 38,400 pesos), an appetizer of cabeza de gato (balls of yucca, cassava and plantains with a roasted red pepper sauce, 13,000 pesos) and the hard-to-find Colombian craft beer Apóstol (8,000 pesos).
4. Digestif | 9 p.m.
For after-dinner people-watching, head to the heart of Getsemaní, Plaza de la Trinidad, where kids kick soccer balls, hippies strum guitars and bohemian Argentines sip mate on the church steps. Emblematic of this fast-changing, formerly working-class neighborhood, Demente is a trendy tapas bar housed in what is supposedly the area’s oldest home. Opened last year by a Spanish-trained Bogotá native, the bar has wooden rocking chairs — several of which line the sidewalk — and Pop Art on the walls, including mirrors painted with silhouettes of Gandhi, Michael Jackson and Woody Woodpecker. With one of the few beer taps in the city, an impressive selection of imported booze and a tapas menu that may include small plates like sardinas a la plancha (grilled sardines, 8,500 pesos) and the gazpacho-like cold soup salmorejo con jamón Serrano (9,000 pesos), Demente is a prime spot for passing time before Cartagena’s notoriously late-night night life gets going.
5. Shake a Tail Feather | 11:30 p.m.
In an attractive edifice overlooking the walled city, the second-floor nightclub Quiebra-Canto has terra-cotta tile floors, vintage jazz posters on the walls and no cover. If it’s quiet, sit on the child-size chairs on the narrow balcony and watch the horse-drawn carriages go by. On weekends, the tables are pulled aside and the dance party goes late into the night. On the third floor, a movie salon hosts occasional screenings of Latin American independent films. Around the corner, on Cartagena’s hostel row, it’s not uncommon for Café Havana (8,000 pesos cover) to have a line outside and snarling bartenders inside, but the retro Cubano atmosphere, a swinging live salsa band and an indulgent 4 a.m. closing time compensate for its faults.
6. Hangover Cure | 9 a.m.
After a night of mojitos and music, few things are as satisfying as Cartagena’s fritos, or fried street snacks, like arepas de huevo (a disk of fried corn masa, slit open and fried again with an egg inside), carimañola de queso (cheese-filled yucca) and papas rellenas (potato balls stuffed with farmer’s cheese), often sold straight from a sidewalk vat of hot oil. For a more leisurely morning meal, Mila Vargas’s flagship, Pastelería Mila, has pistachio muffins, banana split cupcakes and savory offerings like a Caprese quiche with mozzarella, spinach and tomato. Try the coconut lemonade (6,500 pesos), or the brain-freezing mango smoothie (7,500 pesos).
7. Skip the Siesta | 11:30 a.m.
The sidewalks of the walled city are blanketed with generic handicrafts. For better quality souvenirs, spend the sweltering midday hour dipping into air-conditioned boutiques. You can find, for example, the city’s unofficial uniform — white, head-to-toe — at Ketty Tinoco, which sells classic guayaberas, linen slacks and lacy dresses, as well as colorful children’s clothes.
8. Ready, Set, Lunch | 1:30 p.m.
A couple of blocks east of Plaza Fernandez de Madrid, La Mulata is a stylish take on the traditional Latin American set lunch, serving a rotating menu of four entrees, six days a week (closed Sundays). Saturday’s quartet includes cazuela de mariscos, a stew of coconut milk, octopus, shrimp, calamari and fish, served with patacones (twice-fried plantains) and coconut rice (20,000 pesos), and camarones al ajillo — a generous serving of shrimp, cooked in white wine, garlic and olive oil and served with fried plantains and seafood chowder (13,000 pesos).
9. On the High | 3 p.m.
For an adrenaline pick-me-up, schedule a two-hour introductory class with Cartagena Kitesurf School (180,000 pesos). For a street-level view of the city, register for a Tierra Magna audio tour of Cartagena that evokes the work of the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, known here as Gabo.
10. Get Fresh | 8 p.m.
The small seafood restaurant El Boliche Cebicheria serves inventive ceviches. Start with a boliguaro de corozo cocktail, an artful mix of aguardiente — Colombia’s potent anise liquor — and local cherry juice (17,000 pesos), and an order of the white fish, calamari, shrimp, octopus or sea snail ceviches, served in a base of tamarind (28,000 pesos), coconut (26,000) or sweet local peppers (24,000). For a more traditional interpretation, try the restaurant attached to the Mister Babilla nightclub. Ignore the theme décor, and focus on El Mesón de María y Mulata’s good ceviches, including cebiche Islas del Rosario (grouper and snook in lime and orange juice, with avocado, onion, green olives, cilantro and olive oil) for 16,000 pesos.
11. Day Trip | 9 a.m.
Instead of making do with Bocagrande’s mediocre beach, hop a lancha — a long, fast motorboat — to Isla Barú and go to Playa Blanca, a stretch of white sand backed by mangroves and lined with palapas. At the entrance to the docks, agents representing each of the half-dozen or so tour companies compete for passengers. Prices typically run around 35,000 pesos, not including lunch. Boats tend to leave when full, beginning around 9 a.m. To ensure that you’re not among the last to launch, ask to see the passenger list and choose the boat with the most names. The ride takes 45 minutes and goes by fishing villages, the eerie statue of La Virgen del Carmen at the entrance to Cartagena’s busy port and the 18th-century fort of San José de Bocachica.
12. Take It Easy | 11 a.m.
Indulgences come cheap on Playa Blanca, where women walk the beach offering back massages, oyster vendors squeeze lime over shucked ostras and beachfront restaurants serve just-caught pargo (snapper), langoustines or lobster, starting at about 15,000 pesos. Many tour boats to Isla Barú continue on, for the same price, to the Islas del Rosario — an archipelago of coral islands, some topped by the ruins of what were once Pablo Escobar’s ostentatious vacation homes. Boats arrive back in Cartagena by around 4 p.m.