CARTAGENA DE INDIAS, COLOMBIA
"Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination," notes the nobel prize winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Cartagena people, their architecture, their music, their geography, and their food compete for attention and colorfully throw themselves at visitors begging to be noticed. Fuchsia bougainvillea tumbles from all levels of colonial balconies. Building walls painted iris blue, dandelion yellow, and flamingo pink line Italian style 16th century piazzas filled with robust conversation filling the space between the beats of musicians playing maracas, bongos, and guitars. Street vendors sell fresh arepas and popsicle shops sell frozen fruit treats to quell the heat, even if only for a moment. This tropical port city is for the senses and invites any visitor to become part of its magic.
An invitation to listen, to taste, to feel what is going on in this vivacious place comes from a feeling that Cartagena never stops moving side to side and up and down like the swaying of the ships that sailed from Spain to discover it in 1533. Cartagena reflects a melting pot of European, indigenous, and African cultures that pervades the music, food, religion, and traditions of this paradise. Reserve a few hours to wander the streets of Old City stopping at LA PALETTERIA to escape the heat. This artisanal fruit popsicle joint lured us back daily. Try the Salpicon (tropical fruit salad), Moro (black raspberry), or Maracuja (passion fruit). To die for is the coco (coconut) dipped in dark chocolate. Visit LUCY'S JEWELRY for a respectable and jaw-dropping look at the prized emeralds of Colombia.
Get up before sunrise and walk outside before the traffic, street vendors, garbage collectors, and tourists flood the streets. Just past dawn, the cobblestone streets of the old walled city of Cartagena feel as if the clock has been turned back 500 years. With any luck, a PHOTOGRAPHY CLASS booked for these wee hours of the morning will produce wall worthy art and a chance to understand the natural beauty Gabriel Garcia Marquez so eloquently describes.
Well worth the extra Colombian pesos for a private guide, a day TOUR OF THE CASTILLO SAN FELIPE DE BARAJAS provides historical perspective into the largest Spanish fortification in the Americas. During colonial times, this architectural masterpiece that took two hundred years to complete successfully protected citizens from pirate sieges and invaders. A local guide brings the military strategy and architectural details of the fort to life.
So much a part of the sea life surrounding it, Cartagena serves up fish at nearly every meal and in every restaurant. Lunch or dinner at EL BOLICHE CEVICHERIA honors the local art of fishing. Any taste bud tingling plate of tamarind, sour cream, or coconut ceviche is worth the price tag--extravagant in pesos but mid priced in dollars. Get here early--only sixteen seats and they fill up fast with patrons seeking the best tiger prawns and sea bass in the old walled city.
A trip to Cartagena must include a view from the sea. Renting a boat and a captain to take you to the breathtaking Playa Blanca Beach is worth the splurge and price bartering. From the wide open blue-green sea, the genius of the fort and walls protecting Cartagena's land may be appreciated best. Once anchored near the shore of the beach, it is easy to rent jet skis for thrill seekers. The tides will tell when it is time to head to lunch--some days a bit earlier and others a bit later. The captain can reserve a table at the beach club EL PESCADOR DE COLORES.
Before dinner, a private rum and chocolate tasting in the wine cellar of the SOFITEL SANTA CLARA explores the history and nuances of Caribbean rum and the process of turning the cacao bean into a range of delectable treats.
After a reinvigorating nap, secure reservations at CARMEN and order the fermented pineapple and cachaça crusted red snapper and grilled baby octopus. After, head to Café Havana where dancing shoes meet salsa in sync with live Cuban music.
Fifteen minutes from the Old City walls is the local Afro-Colombian fishing village of La Boquilla. Not by any means a tourist destination, it is precisely the lack of tourists that keeps this gem locked in a particular time and place. The beaches are not pretty and the water muddy colored, but everything is authentic. Where else in the world are buses allowed to drive on the beach with local fisherman chasing the bus and waving a freshly caught red snapper as they try to entice potential customers? The destination, however, is not the deserted beach, or the hut style open air fresh restaurants, but Las Manglares. Reserve a native guide and board a hand carved wooden canoe through a yet to be overrun mangrove forest and discover a still pristine ecological wonder as you journey though the panoramic natural tunnels in the calm waters of the brackish Ciénaga de Juan Polo and La Virgen.
Centro Cll 33 #2-01 Calle Baloco, Cartagena, Colombia