Tuesday, June 18, 2013


When we told friends and family that we planned to visit Cartagena, Columbia in mid-June the common response was "that's interesting." I needed to travel to do training for our South American sales team, and I asked Lynne to come along so we could spend a weekend together in a city and country we would likely not visit under any other circumstances. I think Colombia's reputation for drug cartels, violence, and internal political strife had people thinking we were crazy. Only the word they used was "interesting."

Read on for the details of our visit! And, be sure to check out Lynne's posts on our trip here.

Center courtyard at hotel, typical of colonial-style architecture.

Getting There

It turns out that getting from New Jersey to Cartagena is not easy. Most of the flights I explored on our preferred carrier (United/Continental) were two-day affairs. It was possible to get to Panama City, Panama or Bogota, Colombia easily enough. But, once there we had to stay overnight and then fly to Cartagena the next day. I finally found a more-or-less direct path that was not suggested by the airline web site: Newark to Miami and then on to Cartagena direct after a short layover. That worked for us both ways, taking United between EWR and MIA and Avianca between MIA and CTG.

All went well until it was time to land in Cartagena. There was a huge thunderstorm over the city and we could not land. The pilot suggested we circle for 20 minutes to see if the storm cleared. After that, we'd be low on fuel and need to land elsewhere.

Luckily, the storm did clear and we landed to wet, hot, humid conditions. And, an airport without electricity.

Mid-way through our long stand in the customs and immigration line the electricity came back on. That sped our process and we were soon met by a driver from the hotel and swooped away. There was a small mishap with a sideswipe of our car along the way, but within 20 minutes or so we were in the center of the old colonial city of Cartagena at the Casa del Arzobiscado hotel--an old colonial mansion repurposed as a boutique hotel.

Open area at hotel.

The Weather

Other than the downpour that occurred prior to our landing, the weather was very nice. We had a few sprinkles on a couple of days. But, frankly, we welcomed them as they provided some temporary relief to the heat and humidity. Temperatures were in the high 80s and low 90s, but with the humidity near 100%, the heat index was always well above 100 degrees. When there was a thin layer of clouds and only indirect sun, we could tolerate walking along the narrow one-way streets. But, when the sun was out and shining directly on us, we quickly made our way to shade. A walk through the town was strategically planned to always have us on the shady side of the street.

Our hotel room was airconditioned and very comfortable. But, the bathroom was not. In fact, it was open to the outside air (probably necessary in a damp climate) and usually felt a bit like a sauna.

Sunset with cannon in the foreground.

The City

Cartagena is a mix of old and new. There is the new part of the city with high rise buildings, shopping malls and wide streets. And, there is the old walled colonial city with narrow one-way cobblestone streets, colorful colonial style buildings, with churches and cathedrals. It is a United Nations World Heritage site, and as such is free of above-ground power and telephone wires.

Modern Cartagena.

The building are colorful. And, very deceptive--at least from the outside. All you see is a wide door in a stucco wall with a smaller door cut into it and a metal door knocker that looks like an iguana, or a bird, a lion or a fish. But, walk through that door and you typically enter a large, multi-story rectangular building that is open to the outside in the middle. Enclosed rooms line the sides of the rectangle on all levels while the ends are often outdoor living spaces.

Colorful colonial-style buildings on a narrow street.

Cartagena is clean. We saw very little litter. Every morning, early, we'd see people out washing the sidewalk in front of their residence or shop. Street sweepers wore bright green outfits and regularly swept up trash that accumulated in the gutters.

Cartagena is quiet. I was surprised how quiet. Sure, sometimes you'd hear music from an outdoor concert or from a nightime bar. But, no horns (well, not often), no sirens, no beep-beep-beep of a truck backing up.

The wall around the old city.

And, despite Colombia's reputation, and cautions--even from the locals--to "be careful", we never felt unsafe in Cartagena. We are seasoned travelers, so we know what to watch for. But, we are also quite obviously tourists and therefore targets for pickpockets, con artists, etc. I think you can get in trouble, but only if you venture where you should not be or engage in activity you should not do. Lynne went out by herself one day and never felt uncomfortable.

You never know what is behind a door.

There were street hawkers selling hats, jewelry, cigars, and all sorts of other things and they'd follow us for a block or two persistently trying to get our interest. But, we told them we were from France and spoke neither Spanish nor English and that discouraged most of them after a while. There were a few beggars, mostly elderly men who were missing one or both legs. But, they were not bothersome (partly because they could not easily follow us.)

Famous Botero sculpture "La Gordita" in a city plaza.

The People

The people of Cartagena were friendly and accommodating. Not much English is spoken, except by people in hotels or at the airport, but we were able to communicate via our seven-and-a-half words of Spanish and plenty of hand gestures. (The street hawkers did not seem to understand "No!" in any language we tried.)

Being on the Caribbean, the people are also a mix of colors. There are a few fair-skinned people, but likely not long-timers in Cartagena. Then, there is a wonderful spectrum from light-brown to black skin. The women of Cartagena are reported to be the most beautiful in South America. And while I have not been elsewhere in South America and cannot independently verify this, I can attest to their beauty.

Typical plaza scene in Cartagena.

The Food

Okay, we are finally to the most important topic--food. One cannot go hungry in Cartagena. There is street food everywhere. Ranging from carts selling freshly peeled and sliced mangos in a cup to "arepas" (corn cakes filled with cheese). If you are thirsty, there is always someone sitting on a street corner selling iced bottled water, Cokes and beer. There are food carts that specialize in serving "jugos" from fresh fruit, perhaps one of the many types of citrus I have never seen before. They squeeze the juice on-the-spot with a press attached to their cart. And, there are vendors with ice shavers from which they make a snow-cone and flavor it with your choice of syrups.

We ate at several excellent restaurants. The "higher-end" tourist restaurants we tended to patronize served dishes that were a fusion of South American dishes, including Peruvian food which has a heavy Japanese influence. Think fish, squid, octopus, shrimps, prawns and lobsters that were fried, grilled or sauteéd with sauces that ranged from simple flavored oil to complex curries.

Gourmet food!

And wine! The restaurants where we ate had all tapped into the South American wine producers, mostly of Chile and Argentina. Whites that were crisp, flavorful and nicely acidic. Reds that were deep and complex and wonderfully smooth.

The food in these restaurants (unlike the street food) was not cheap. But, we ate well and will likely never forget some of the wonderful dishes we sampled.

Colorful colonial-style building.

What To Do?

Centro: If you don't stay in the old walled city, be sure to visit it!

Shopping: Shopping ranges from street vendors to artisan markets to modern malls. Be sure to visit the artisan market. There is great shopping along many of the streets in centro. Colombian emeralds are popular as are other locally made goods.

Food: Try San Pedro, Peru Fusion, La Perla for sure. We heard good things about Alma and the restaurant in the  Sofitel.

Fortress: Castillo San Felipe de Barajas http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castillo_San_Felipe_de_Barajas

Museums: There are a number of museums worth visiting including Gold, Naval, and Torture. There is also a modern art gallery.

Out and about: While we did not partake, there are local islands you can visit by boat where there is diving and snorkeling. And, there are some nice beaches close-by.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Lynne at Cafe del Mar taking in the sunset.

Tags:  foodtravelgalleryactivities
Posted under: Food and CookingTravel • by Rick on 06/18/2013 at 02:13 PM
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