Travel Guide to Cartagena

‘There’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.’ Gabriel García Marquez

To visit Cartagena, the birthplace of Colombia’s beloved Gabo is to begin to understand something of the magical realism of his books. A Unesco World Heritage site, the sixteenth century colonial Old Town of Cartagena de Indias exists as if from fiction. It’s a place where the sun beats down relentlessly on a maze of cobbled streets and squares, where colour-pop houses have balconies that heave with luscious bougainvillea; a place so beautiful it scarcely seems real. Watch the bars come alive after dark as the locals knock back fiery aguardiente and night dancers’ salsa their way through Parque Bolivar beneath the stars. Colombia seems to be the hot ticket in South America right now, and Cartagena is the place to start:

When to visit: There are no seasons in Colombia so you can visit year-round and the temperature is consistently hot (27-29°C).

Things to Do: Wander around the streets of the Old Town and soak it in. Get some shade at Parque Bolivar; sit alongside the locals taking their siestas on benches and admire the statue of Simon Bolivar, who liberated the Amsericas from the Spanish and the locals playing chess. Then drop in to the neighboring Museo de Oro; a miniature version of Bogota’s great Gold Museum. Sadly the imposing yellow Cathedral will be closed for renovation until 2019. Visit the San Pedro Claver instead on the grand piazza, and then wander around to the Old Clock Tower, stopping to try the sticky sweets in jars at street stalls along the way. The early evening, when it’s cooler but not yet dark is the time to walk around the 4km city walls. A visit to up-and-coming  Getsemani, outside the walls is also a must.

Shopping: Set within the white-washed walls of a 300 year old townhouse, St Dom is a chic boutique that wouldn’t be amiss in the Marais. Stocking only Colombian designers, find clothes, art, homewares and best of all, playful accessories from fruit-bowl jewellery to rattan clutch bags and colourful folding fans.  Sun hats are essential for strolling the streets, get yours from one of the market stalls lining the pavements; Yosuzi style in every colour and at a fraction of the price. The coolest mens beach kit I’ve ever come across is found at Soloio where everything from the trunks, T-shirts and towels down to espadrilles are adorned with popping sunshine prints.

Where to Stay: A pool is a must. If budget allows, the grand Sofitel Santa Clara with it’s leafy internal courtyard garden and vast swimming pool offers luxury and views over the city walls to the sea. Even if you’re not staying there, visit for a drink at El Coro where there’s live Cuban music at night and a glamorous old school bar. Equally lovely and perhaps more intimate, Casa San Augustin is luxurious and romantic with its charming blend of Colombian and contemporary design. There are plenty of cheaper options, but a pool and air conditioning are essentials.

Cafes and Bars: Visit Pasteleria Mila for a typical Colombian breakfast of arepas (corn pancakes) and black coffee. Cool down with an ice cream on a stick from La Paleteria in every flavour imaginable. Café del Mar on the westernmost ramparts of the Old Town may be touristy but the view is unbeatable for a sunset drink. Or grab a beer at Donde Fidel beneath the clock tower and enjoy the theatre of the street; it’s the ultimate people watching spot. Alternatively you can order rum by the bottle which arrives with a bowl of ice and limes, perfect fuel for an evening of pulsing salsa inside the tiny bar late into the night.

Lunch Restaurants: Famed La Cevicheria draws a crowd at lunchtime with its fresh ceviche and cold beers served informally at tables on the pavement (expect to queue). Perhaps even more delicious is the tiny El Boliche Cebicheria, just around the corner that serves up small plates of ceviche and hot empanadas washed down with ice-cold mint mojitos.

Evening Restaurants:Demente in Getsemani is a fun local hotspot with. €€ La Perla is famed for its tiraditos – raw fish marinated in yellow chilli. €€€ Alma, within Casa San Augustin’s courtyard garden is romantic with a sophisticated menu €€€€ Carmen is expensive for good reason with set tasting menus.

Beaches: The Rosario Islands National Park is just 45 minutes from the city. An archipelago of 30 islands, hop around by boat and swim in clear Caribbean waters.

Read: Gabriel Garcia Marquez Love in the Time of Cholera. Charles Nicholl The Fruit Palace.

— Daisy Allsup
20th March 2018