When Spain plundered Colombia's gold, it left behind a treasure that continues to draw seekers and sybarites from around the world: Cartagena.
It's easy to see why Unesco has designated the colonial-era walled city of this Caribbean port a World Heritage site. Bougainvillea and hibiscus drip from the verandas of restored architectural gems. Banyans and palms shade plazas where men in guayaberas lounge in the tropical heat as pigeons perch on statues of horseback generals. Friends, lovers, families and newlyweds gather on the ancient city wall to watch the sunset.
Cartagena positively oozes romance -- and money. There are as many fine jewelry stores selling emeralds as there are restaurants, bars, boutiques and shops selling ceramic souvenirs. For those concerned about Colombia's, uh, somewhat sketchy reputation, fear not -- a sturdy though not overbearing police presence ensures a pleasant time is had by all. Everyone understands the tourist geese lay the golden eggs and no one wants to scare them away.
Cartagena was the muse for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who has a home here, and is now one of the hottest travel destinations in the world. These are a few must-do's on your visit.
Cartagena is a food lover's dream. Sea and countryside provide an inexhaustible cornucopia for talented chefs trained in the finest kitchens of the world who add their own twist to a native cuisine which itself combines Caribbean, Latin, Asian and Mediterranean influences.
Addictive ceviche, coconut rice and coconut lemonade are staples to be found on every menu, and just about every street corner as well.
La Vitrola Ceiling fans spin as the combo plays a Cuban beat at this bar and restaurant with an ambiance of Havana in the forties. Gregorio, the manager impeccable in tropical whites with a smile as bright as a searchlight, runs the hottest place in town like Bogart in Rick's Café. This is the "it" place for Colombia's elite - I met Gabriel Garcia Marquez over dinner. The food's as good as the company. Grouper filet in a tamarind sauce with chile was superb, as were the camarones en hamaca, garlic spiked shrimp perched on fried green plantains and topped with crema de queso. Do what you must to land a reservation. Even if you have one, you may still have to talk your way past the guard at the door. No web site, call 575-660-07-11.
Casa de Socorro packs in the local lunch crowd with huge servings of traditional Colombian fare such as cazuela, a seafood stew in a coconut milk base that comes with fried plantains and the ever-present coconut rice. It's on Calle 25 (aka Calle Larga) in the Getsemani neighborhood near the convention center and definitely worth visiting.
Alma Sip a cocktail in the buzzing bar before you sample the creative international cuisine at the very hip and sceney Alma restaurant in the Casa San Agustin hotel, a 17th century colonial mansion updated with modern amenities and courtyard pool.
1621 Hotel Santa Clara's gourmet Restaurant 1621 specializes in sophisticated dishes reflecting vibrant Caribbean cuisine prepared with a French flair. The hotel used to be a convent and the nun's ate in what is now the restaurant dining room. I chose to dine al fresco under the full moon and the watchful eye of the toucan who lives in the courtyard. Recommended: chicken soup with yucca, sea bass ceviche with mango, seafood cazuela, scallops with vanilla bean parmesan risotto and crustacean emulsion.
El Santisimo French trained chefs prepare classic Colombian dishes with a special je ne sais quoi. The restaurant is housed in another former convent, hence the icons, angels and statues of hooded monks lording over the dining rooms - and the menu, with entrées including Sacred Beef, The Holy Trinity and The Annunciation, and desserts named for the seven deadly sins. Blessedly, the gimmicks are confined to the menu - the San Martin Pescador, a fish fillet in a coconut milk sauce studded with squid and shrimps, was first rate.
Don Juan Chef Juan Felipe Camacho trained in San Sebastian, where modern Spanish cuisine was invented, and the vibrant flavor of tapas informs his creations. Grilled shrimp suffused with passion fruit sauce and topped pico de gallo sprang off the plate, and the grilled grouper resting on a pillow of lemon and parmesan risotto looked as lovely as it tasted.
Vera Colombia's leading fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi has a stylish boutique hotel, como no?, and her restaurant features Italian fare in high style and lush gardens.
Club de Pesca Situated in the ancient San Sebastian fort with an outdoor deck virtually adjoining the marina and its huge yachts, Club de Pesca has delicious seafood, ceviches and cazuelas along with dazzling views of the harbor.
Cartagena has more cathedrals and convents than New York has pizza parlors. One might suppose the conquistadors knew their deeds required several battalions of nuns and priests praying for forgiveness. Convents have since been converted to restaurants and hotels, but the cathedrals continue in all their power and glory, providing solace for the faithful and navigation landmarks for everyone trying to find their way around.
Its romantic charms and stunningly beautiful colonial cathedrals make Cartagena a destination-wedding capital of Latin America and beyond. Everywhere I encountered various stages of matrimonial celebration. An American couple in a guayabera shop asked if I was part of 'The Wedding Party.' Young professionals packed restaurants for pre-wedding fetes. Newlyweds clad in white posed for photos on the street with the palenqueras, the fruit basket ladies dressed in traditional African style. "Sunrise, Sunset" wafted from a New York couple's (Jewish) wedding into the courtyard of the Santa Clara Hotel (which seems to do more matrimony business than a Las Vegas drive through chapel). Flying home, the woman seated next to me said she was a member of "the wedding of the year," in which TV stars, business leaders and the president of Colombia celebrated her cousin's marriage to an international oil tycoon. Romance is in the air everywhere.
Culturally, Cartagena is closer to Havana than to other places in Colombia and that means - dancing! The chic set salsas to a most extraordinary Cuban combo at La Vitrola. I danced to a live orchestra till the small hours of the morning at Cafe Havana, where Hillary Clinton partied while the Secret Service pursued other diversions. A young crowd flocks to the Bazurto Social Club with more diverse flavors of Latin music. Salsa is the perennial favorite at Donde Fidel, a tiny, dive-y bar packed with terpsichoreans. It's on Plaza de los Coches so if you can't fit in the bar you can dance on the street - you won't be alone.
Stroll & Loll
The best way to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site is on foot. Meander the streets past churches, monasteries and pink, blue and yellow colonial homes. The official entrance is Clock Gate, which opens onto the Plaza de los Coches. Along with the picturesque Plaza de Bolivar, it's ideal for people watching. If your feet get tired, ride one of the many horse drawn carriages plying the streets.
And don't miss the stunning Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, the 17th century convent lovingly restored and transformed into a luxurious hotel, one of the finest in Colombia. Have a drink in the courtyard with the Botero and toucan living there, a massage at the spa, dine at the 1621 restaurant or dance to the Son Cubano band at bar El Coro. This is one of the architectural gems of Cartagena.
Café del Mar atop the ancient city walls is the place to be at sunset. Kick back with a mojito while taking in a view of the illuminated city and the Caribbean against a backdrop of gold, mauve and azure.
Sun worshippers will love a day excursion to Rosario Islands, an archipelago with white sandy beaches, towering palms, crystal-clear water and a reef ideal for snorkeling and scuba. A fifty-minute boat ride takes you to Isla Majagua where the hotel offers massages and a tasty lunch of fresh fish.
For more history, take a tour of the San Felipe fort, Spain's greatest garrison in the New World. It was built to defend the treasure port against French, Dutch, British and pirate marauders including Henry Morgan and Francis Drake. Tunnels honeycomb this massive stone fortress overlooking the city and bay.
After a day of walking the old city in tropical heat I was ready to relax on the beach and luckily it was right outside my hotel. Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros is located on the beach in upscale Morros. It's comparable to a chic South Beach hotel, with smartly decorated suites, generous bathrooms, oceanfront terraces, a pool and the Blue Restaurant & Lounge. (FYI, in South America, Holiday Inn belongs to an entirely different category than its counterparts in the US.)
The recent launch of Jet Blue's direct flights from JFK to Cartegena is great news for New Yorkers who can now travel seamlessly to this favorite haunt of well-heeled Latin Americans in just over four hours.