Fall Travel: Why Cartegena, Colombia Should be Top of Your List

Colombia has given the world a wide range of talents from Nobel prize-winning, poetic author Gabriel García Márquez to bombshell actress Sophia Vergara, so it has been exciting in recent years to see this destination creep up on top 10 travel lists and no longer as a crime-ridden no-fly zone with a dark history.

Situated on a bay in the Caribbean Sea, one of the country’s top draws is the thriving port city of Cartagena. This World Heritage Site founded by Pedro de Heredia in 1533, is steeped in pirate lore, with colonial architecture protected by the most complete set of fortifications in South America.

Everyone from Will Smith – who we recently spotted on location making a film – to the cast of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York City, have frolicked in the irresistible and picturesque streets. This town is so hot right now that it’s almost in danger of becoming a South American Cabo San Lucas – with the recent influx of tourism. Add in the fact that it’s only a short one-hour flight on Avianca airlines from Bogota – which will take you about 6 hours from LAX, and there is only a 2-hour time difference.

Once you arrive from a 20-minute airport shuttle trip, driving around the Walled City of Cartagena de Indias, might not be the seaside town you were expecting. The perimeter looks large and imposing like they might still be trying to ward off the pirates behind those walls, but the interior structure holds a charming, Colonial masterpiece that is reminiscent of good time New Orleans and tropical Jamaica mixed with a little rough-and-tumble Cuba.  Boutique hotels blend in with 400-year-old homes sprouting tiny terraces draped in Bougainville, cafes and stunning courtyards abound filled with artists, expats, and vacationers sipping the famous coffee or rum cocktails.

It’s very easy to navigate the well-worn cobblestone streets on foot, taxi or by horse-drawn buggy, but no matter which transportation mode you choose, you’ll want to end up at Casa San Agustín – a member of Leading Hotels of the World – located in the Old City, or Downtown (Centro) area of Cartagena.

From the moment you pass the large wooden gates that lead to a courtyard reception, it feels like a grand private home. The central pool features a jaw-dropping ancient aqueduct surrounded by 20 guest rooms and 10 suites that make up the property constructed with three restored XVII century whitewashed Colonial-era homes with Romeo and Juliet balconies.

The private abode esthetic continues to the guest rooms which are all fitted with bespoke furnishings commissioned by local artisans from the chandeliers to ironwork beds that are fitted with Frette linens. For a family affair, a variety of suites offer living room areas and private patios with a Jacuzzi.

Throughout your stay, you will keep finding nods to the 17th-century history as a Spanish stronghold from the original frescoes in the Library, wood-beamed ceilings, tiles, sconces throughout the public spaces, library, rooftop bar and sundeck.

Another reason to make this your home for a visit is the acclaimed Alma Restaurant run by one of the most celebrated chefs in the country, Heberto Eljach.  Boasting another enviable indoor-outdoor leafy courtyard setting, where you can linger all day or at night while ordering traditional fare and listening to live music on the patio or a DJ in the bar area. There is a separate entrance to the restaurant from the street, so even non-guests can pop-in easily for a romantic or lively meal, depending on the night.

Chef Eljach is known for his refined classic Colombian dishes from seafood casserole, ceviche, prime aged beef, and lobster tail. Speaking of crustaceans, one item that you must order is the lobster empanadas. The flaky pastry is perfectly cooked, like a savory pie that is not too dense or chewy, and comes with guacamole and few other spicy sauces for dipping.

For breakfast, be sure to indulge in a typical Columbian feast that includes arepas (a pita looking bread made with maize dough or cooked flour) with eggs stuffed inside the pastry – almost like a hot pocket – alongside fried yucca, potatoes, sausage, cheese and salsa which are all typical side dishes for a hearty start to the day. And, you must try the famous Columbian black coffee even if you think it will be too strong. The hotel can even arrange a tasting with Café San Alberto where you will learn about the history, customs and how to taste and drink these magical beans. This coffee is so smooth you will not even need to doctor it with sugar or dairy products.

Once you’re caffeinated and fortified, time to hit the sites. Thanks to the local government the town is safe, clean and colorful teaming with preserved historic buildings, cathedrals, world-class shopping and dining.

The best way to get your bearings is by taking a three-hour walking tour of Old Town Cartagena with Galavanta Taylored Travel. The guides are all knowledgeable and charming locals, so you are in good hands.

You’ll visit the Plaza San Pedro Claver and also San Felipe de Barajas Castle. The site has a long dramatic steep entrance that leads to bunkers and a maze of tunnels and is the It is the most formidable defensive complex of Spanish military architecture.  Other notable sites include the Cathedral of Cartagena de Indias, one of the oldest Episcopal churches in the Americas. Construction began in 1577, finished in 1612, its dome a symbol of Cartagena’s skyline and resilience to this day.

You’ll pass plenty of street musicians, artists, and vendors, all speaking Palenquero which is the Spanish-based creole language spoken in Colombia, but Spanish and English are also widely used. Be sure to buy a few colorful hand-made woven bags, head scarves or wooden jewelry. For something a little more durable and impressive, this is also a fantastic place to buy emeralds and there seem to be plenty of jewelry stores in this tiny town who are willing to make you a ‘good deal.’ Guests can also book the hotel’s personal shopper, who can give an insider tour of the city’s best and most authentic boutiques for clothing, accessories, handmade crafts and souvenirs.

 

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About caroledixon

International writer and television producer Carole Dixon is most happy traveling the globe documenting her cultural and culinary adventures in major cities. More far-flung travels have led from a Maasai village in East Africa to the backwaters of Kerala, India. Her stories have appeared in Town & Country, Departures, Wallpaper, Robb Report, Elite Traveler, USA Today, The Evening Standard in London, Business Traveler, Angeleno, DineLA and Travel Age West - among others. Dixon was the Editor of The Feast for NBC LA for two years and during their merger with Daily Candy.com, and is also the author of two LA City Guidebooks for Wallpaper, published by Phaidon; and Editor-in-Chief of www.thecaratdiet.com - a luxury lifestyle site owned by the California Jewelers Association; and West Hollywood Lifestyle.

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