Cartagena de Indias is located on Colombia’s north coast and faces the Caribbean Ocean. It is one of the first Spanish colonies in the Americas and is a vibrant mix of different ethnicities, being one of the first sanctuary towns for freed slaves in Latin America. Cartagena is mainly divided into three parts: the walled old town (ciudad amuradalla), full of wonderful colonial buildings; the outer town, full of traffic and chaotically typical of South American cities; and Bocagrande, Cartagena’s very own Miami Beach, consisting of a strip of condos and luxury hotels. Cartagena is also the inspiration of one of the most imaginative writers of modern times, Gabriel García Marquez, who spent his university years and early journalistic days in Cartagena. Cartagena gave form to Marquez’s early writings and was where he maintained a house until his death in 2014.
It is not difficult to imagine why the city captured Marquez’s fancy. Cartagena is all colour and contrast, home to some of the most beautiful colonial architecture. Boutique hotels, fashion labels, and fusion restaurants have revitalised the long-abandoned old town. At night, the streets come alive with people congregating in squares dotted around the old town, to the soundtrack of swaying samba music. In the tropical heat, Cartagena is a city where getting lost amid the colonial avenues can be a pleasure. An hour or so away, untainted tropical beaches on Islas Rosario allow a refreshing dip in the azure Caribbean ocean. Much like the tropical climate, people in Cartagena are warm and welcoming. Cartagena has also become a foodie’s hidden gem, with menus peppered with bright spices and tropical fruits; the bountiful Caribbean Ocean also means that seafood is always fresh and available. While the name Colombia may, for some, conjure images of cartels and instability, the tourist haven of Cartagena remains a unique jewel in the Caribbean.
We left Lima in its morning haze, flying to Cartagena via Medellin. Reaching the city, we were immediately struck by the tropical warmth and humidity. We had spent most of our trip in relatively cool weather conditions; now, amid the light showers and fading afternoon light, we had reason to unpack our t-shirts and shorts.
Sadly, we did not bring the clear skies of Lima with us to Colombia, and we were poorly prepared for the rain. We spent the late afternoon exploring Las Murallas, the wall built around the old town designed to protect Cartagena from enemies of colonial Spain. Repeated attempts of its construction were delayed due to storms and pirate raids. Soaking in the atmosphere of the colonial old town, and looking out towards the Caribbean Sea, the sun sadly set behind thick billows of clouds. We retreated to Café San Alberto, which offers an excellent selection of single origin coffee beans prepared with a variety of brewing methods. For coffee aficionados, packets of vacuum-sealed San Alberto blend coffee beans are also available for purchase.
For dinner, we visited Salou, a dimly lit restaurant on a street running along the walls of the old town. The food and wine at Salou were reasonably priced, and like many restaurants in Cartagena, Salou largely specialises in seafood, specifically offering Latin-Asian fusion. In a quiet atmosphere, we were treated to plantain chips, grilled octopus, and three varieties of ceviche. In contrast with Peruvian ceviche, the Colombian variety is much more dependent on its sauce for flavour and sometimes uses the tropically available shrimp as the seafood of choice. It also incorporates various tropical fruits, not typically found in Peru but is widespread in Colombia, including mango, pear, and pineapple. I personally prefer the tangy and fresh Peruvian ceviche over the Colombian ceviche, but it is certainly worthwhile giving both a try.