Eating and Relaxing in Cartagena
Story & photos by Josephine Parr
Legend has it that the colorful buildings of Cartagena used to be white until an ophthalmologist, who owned a paint store, convinced the town leaders that white buildings in the bright sun were bad for citizens’ eyes, resulting in everyone having to repaint their homes. Whether true or not, the mix of multicolored buildings with bougainvillea and cobble stone streets create a fairytale town. Everywhere you turn is a view more beautiful than the last.
Exploring the winding streets and festive plazas tends to work up an appetite. And, Cartagena is an eating destination. Whether a meat, fish or vegetable connoisseur, you will find your happy place, probably several times a day. Restaurants are abundant in this town. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Carmen – There are restaurants that just make you breathe in peace the minute you walk in. Carmen is that place. Tables are casually placed throughout a tree filled courtyard. Orchids grow from the trees, adding to the ambiance. As pleasant as the surroundings, it is the food and flavors you will remember long after you leave. With an emphasis on seafood, the menu celebrates local flavors to create modern dishes artfully prepared and beautifully presented. Make time for the tasting menu, you won’t regret it.
Moshi – Sharing the same building as Carmen, this Japanese restaurant manages to create the same sense of calm through simple elegance. Every detail, from the place settings to the clean lines of the sushi bar have been carefully curated. The food mirrors the setting. The spicy crab tacos, which are a creative fusion of Japanese and Mexican flavors, do wonders to wake up your taste buds.
El Boliche (no website) – Around the corner from La Cevicheria, the restaurant rightly made famous by Anthony Bourdain, is El Boliche. With only a few tables, it is small and unassuming, but don’t miss it. Fresh ceviches with tamarind, coconut or green mango are the draw, but the crab empanadas are stellar.
Donjuán – This restaurant, known for its inventive seafood dishes, looks like it would fit anywhere in the world, from New York to Cuba to Paris. The beautiful space with high ceilings, classic details and charming staff is a wonderful respite from the busy streets. The restaurant emphasizes local and fresh ingredients. Try the grilled octopus or the crab claws in a white wine and butter sauce.
Interno – In the midst of the walled city is a women’s prison with a public restaurant. Designed to provide job training, the waitresses and cooks are all inmates. The menu is a set price and provides rustic, flavorful food in a narrow, brick walled space. It’s a charming neighborhood joint, despite the steel bars and armed guard out front. Don’t be deterred, the food is great and you’ll be helping women earn a fresh start.
Stepping Stone – At some point, you’ll need caffeine. Search out Café Stepping Stone in the Getsemani neighborhood. It’s an easy-going place to relax and recharge. The café is also a training ground for local youth to learn skills and build confidence. Good coffee and a good cause.
After exploring Cartagena in the strong Colombian sun, you’ll appreciate returning to your hotel to experience the wonders of a siesta, a nap after lunch during the heat of the day. Cartagena is full of places to stay, from hostels to luxury hotels.
Volunteer Hostel – This budget-friendly, lively hostel in the San Diego is like staying in your activist sister’s house. You’ll receive a warm welcome and a comfortable and clean place to stay. At any given time, there may be a meeting of graduate students or international travelers enjoying a beer, and your nightly rate helps to support protecting the rights and culture of Afro-Caribbean cultures.
Tcherassi Hotel – Old world design meets modern comfort in this old colonial building inside the walled city. The hotel celebrates its history through the design inspired rooms and decor. Be sure to take a dip in the rooftop pool and enjoy the view.
Capellan de Getsemani – This stylishly renovated colonial building sits just inside the up and coming neighborhood of Getsemani. It is close to the convention center, an easy walk from the walled city and across the street from the Parque del Centenario, where you may be lucky enough to see a sloth lounging in a tree.
InterContinental Cartagena de Indias – Sometimes, you need modern luxury away from the hustle and bustle. The InterContinental is in Bocagrande, the most modern of neighborhoods of Cartagena and a few dollars cab ride away from old town. Sleek design, modern amenities and air conditioning await, but it is the friendly staff and unparalleled view of the sunset from the infinity pool that make this hotel stand out. It’s also across from the beach, which never hurt anyone.
Josephine Parr is a freelance writer who is passionate about adventure travel, ethnic food, and a good glass of red wine. She has been published in The New York Times, AFAR magazine, Travel Age West, Town & Country, Runner’s World and other publications. She lives in New York City.