Places and Prices: Cartagena à la Carte by Gail Horwood
The best lodging, dining and shopping in Cartagena. Within the 16th-century fortress walls of old Cartagena, it is easy to forget that just outside is one of Colombia's largest cities. The old town, Cartagena de Indias, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and quasi theme park, as well as a respite from the bustling, million-strong city around it. The narrow streets are typical of the region, lined with palm trees and sherbet-colored colonial buildings draped with bougainvillea and in conditions varying from lovingly restored, to general disrepair, to for sale. Cruise ships disgorge passengers for speedy tours, but most of the town remains hushed and feels pleasantly stopped in time. To fully appreciate that feeling, have a preprandial drink at the Café del Mar (Baluarte Santo Domingo), atop the city wall, where you'll literally straddle present and past Cartagena as the sun sets over the beach.
For a good preview of the city, which can be enjoyed thoroughly in a compact three- to four-day visit, www.cartagenatour.com covers the high-end highlights. Once you arrive, find an English-speaking guide. Ours, Dora de Zubiría, arranged an air-conditioned car for a tour (305-420-6176). She'll take you to the hilltop La Popa Monastery, which overlooks the port (one of the most important in the Americas during the Spanish colonial era); San Felipe de Barajas fortress, with its underground caverns; and a house owned by Gabriel García Márquez. Cartagena was the setting for Love in the Time of Cholera. It and his acknowledged masterpiece, 100 Years of Solitude, are essential reading for a visit to this coast. With or without a guide, find the Plaza Santo Domingo to see La Gorda, a bronze sculpture by Colombia's most famous artist, Botero. On Plaza Bolívar, the Museo del Oro, funded by the Banco de la República, has an impressive array of pre-Columbian treasures.
Lodging The finest hotel in town, the Sofitel Santa Clara is on this year's Gold List (January 2011), with an approval rating of 88.6. Built in the shell of a former convent, it has a chic bar, an open-air lobby, and several photogenic toucans. The pool is the old town's best (doubles, $542–$632).
For a Caribbean beach experience, stay at the peaceful Hotel San Pedro de Majagua, a 45-minute boat ride away in the Rosario Islands, where you can hike, dive, and snorkel (doubles, $246).
The 7-room Tcherassi Hotel & Spa, on last year's Hot List, occupies a centuries-old mansion with a gorgeously modern and artistically lit interior (doubles, $320–$580). Also in the old town are the 7-room Hotel LM (doubles, $445); the Hotel Casa Pestagua, (doubles, $339–$392); the 32-room Cartagena de Indias, (doubles, $258); and the 6-room Hotel Agua, which has a terrific little shop selling tasteful Colombian crafts updated with a modern aesthetic (doubles, $428).
DiningIt's easy to overindulge in Cartagena, but if you ride a horse-drawn carriage to dinner on your first night and then walk everywhere else, you might not gain an ounce. The best restaurants showcase fresh local foods—especially seafood. Agua fresca, a fruit smoothie made with or without milk, makes a great alternative to soda.Opposite the Sofitel Santa Clara, La Cevichería received the imprimatur of Anthony Bourdain for good reason. The langosta ceviche comes with crackers and a spoon to capture the marinade. Locals favor the mixed grill of calamari, crab, mussels, and more seafood (entrées, $18–$45).It is virtually impossible to get a table at La Vitrola—reservations are a must. Unfortunately, the atmosphere trumps the food, but the Beverly Hills salad (a Caribbean Cobb) and the coconut cake are good choices (entrées, $18–$30).We were surrounded by Cartageños during a terrific meal at the popular La Casa de Socorro, in the Getsemaní district (entrées, $10–$21). But our favorite meal was at Restaurant Don Juan—we went twice. The young chef, Juan Felipe Camacho, worked at Arzak, a temple of gastronomy in San Sebastián, Spain. He adapts classic techniques and local ingredients to create dishes that are perfectly complemented by Chilean and Argentinean wines and a superb mojito brightened with local grape juice (entrées, $25–$35). The menu at Oh! La La, run by a convivial French woman, includes a few great vegetarian options, like a tomato tart and pasta puttanesca (entrées, $10–$18). The tiny, all-white Restaurante 8-18 has a South Beach vibe and serves seafood and a terrific roasted chicken curry with couscous (entrées, $14–$27). Have a drink and stay for a meal at El Santísimo, with inventively named dishes like la Anunciación (beef) and arroz del Sidartha, which is Thai-style fried rice and seafood (entrées, $20–$32). Mila Pastelería & Café serves French breakfast goodies such as croissants and brioche as well as salads, sandwiches, dulce de leche–topped brownies, and good coffee. Gelatería Paradiso has the best ice cream.
Colombia is famed for its emeralds, although many shops in Cartagena's old town showcase mostly fashion jewelry of questionable quality. If you do want a gemological souvenir, go for something simple like stud earrings, and buy because you like them, not because they will appraise well. Try asking Dora what the best places to shop are. The Cuartel de las Bóvedas is an arcade of 20 or more artisan shops just behind the Sofitel Santa Clara. El Arcón is an antiques shop brimming with furniture, and the only place we found reproductions of the lizard-shaped hardware that adorns front doors all over town.
Finish at least one day in the Getsemaní district at Café Havana, an authentic old-world club with live Cuban music. With old posters and photos, peeling walls, and slow-turning ceiling fans, the little room welcomes a great mix of young and old, local and visitor.
Photograph by Cathrine Wessel
We are educating the children of Cartagena
USA Tel305-420-6176 Colombia Tel011-57-300-808-9525