Discover five sizzling reasons to see Cartagena now.
As our driver slowly makes his way through the crowd, I’m glad I’m not the one behind the wheel. There’s too much to look at all around us. The streets are teeming with throngs of men, women and children, many wearing surreal wigs of all colors: red, blue, pink, orange. Food carts with mangos and kabobs line the streets. It’s a fantastic sight, like a slightly crazy dream. Some in the crowd spray passersby with white. Is it shaving cream or whipped cream, we wonder, and just why are they doing this?
They are celebrating in Cartagena (pronounced car-ta-hay-na). I am here as part of a long-weekend trip organized by Jazz Aspen Snowmass (jazzaspensnowmass.org) for its national council, and our small group is having our first “pure Colombian” experience. We have happened upon the country’s famous beauty pageant, which is a whole new take on the American idea of such events. The pageant traces back to Cartagena’s liberation from Spanish rule in 1811 and has evolved into a social event that draws hopeful contenders and ready revelers from all over the country. They come to Cartagena to raise money for the needy and, of course, to have a damn good time.
This seaside city on Colombia’s northern coast was founded by the Spaniards in 1533, and raided and invaded by generations of pirates and privateers. The city was also a slave port—one of the largest slave markets in the New World. The Spanish used slaves to construct more than six miles of limestone and coral walls to protect their wealth and the Spanish galleons transporting gold and silver back home. A huge fortress overlooks the walled city; visitors can walk its ramparts and some of its secret tunnels. There is still only one narrow waterway into Cartagena, guarded by a fort on each side. Today, the walls of the old town—ciudad amurallada—are one of its defining physical aspects. In 1984, the port of Cartagena, as well as some of the area’s fortresses and monuments, were named as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The city abounds in churches and museums, such as San Pedro Claver, named after the Spanish monk who dedicated his life to caring for African slaves. There is even a museum devoted to the Spanish Inquisition, which shows weapons of torture that historians say were never actually used in Cartagena.
I want to take advantage of the little time we have for exploring, so even though the tropical heat is sweltering, I don a hat and comfy sandals and wander the narrow, curvy cobblestoned streets of the city’s old town. The city has a Miami-style new town, Bocagrande, but it’s the old town that charms. I pass 16th and 17th century colonial mansions painted ocher or pink or green, many with tiled rooftops and wooden balconies overflowing with flowers. Beyond front doors lie interior courtyards. Shaded squares and outdoor cafés offer some refuge from the heat. What a pretty city, I think, as I stop to buy a hot arepas (tasty cornmeal disks) from a street vendor.
Colombia’s indigenous and colonial past mixes in Cartagena. Colorfully dressed brown-skinned women, African descendants of the ethnic Palenquera group, still walk the streets selling mangos and other tropical fruit from big basins balanced on their heads. On my last day, I take a bicycle ride on top of the ancient walls, taking in views of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas and the sea beyond. There are plenty of nice shops selling white linens and light clothes to keep me cool. But I prefer poking around the Plaza de San Diego, where artisans sell jewelry made of bright beads and colorful, handmade totes called mochilas.
Cartagena may be South American in location, but it’s more Latin in temperament, and Latin and African in music, which we quickly find out when we visit the city’s famous Café Havana, a homage to those fusion sounds.
It’s past 10pm, and we’re the early arriving Americans, but the upside is that the joint fills up with both tourists and locals, and seating is tight. We get our table. I’m sitting next to JAS’ founder, President and CEO Jim Horowitz, and his wife, Nicole Giantonio. We’re marveling at the high ceilings with fans, fascinated by walls festooned with black-and-white posters and photos of yesteryear Cuban artists who had performed here. There are tourists, but, mostly, it’s a good-looking crowd of Cartagenans.
Before the witching hour, a local band takes up its instruments, and, mojitos in hand, we lose ourselves to the pulsating rhythms. “This is classic Cuban son and salsa,” nods Horowitz, pointing out how the band is fronted by a vocalist with great horns and propulsive rhythms.
The next night we are blocked from the legendary bar at the Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara: There is a private event for the bigwigs of the beauty pageant. Even though the ensuing night, a Sunday, is more subdued, it’s worth returning to this beautiful room for Afro-Cuban rhythms. But nothing compares to the vibe and the scene of Café Havana. We go back twice more on subsequent nights.
My heart happily skips a beat when we finally pull up to the Hotel Charleston (hotelescharleston.com), housed in a renovated 17th-century former Carmelite convent, right inside the walled city. A soaring, light-filled courtyard is filled with tropical plants and royal palms. For our afternoon siesta, we loll at the hotel’s rooftop pool, and what a loll it is, with expansive views of the city’s rooftops and the Bay of Cartagena. The outdoor patio of its Pizzeria Santa Lucia is a great spot for an evening piña colada while looking out on the city walls and enjoying some fascinating people-watching.
Tcherassi Hotel+Spa (tcherassihotels.com) is Cartagena’s first notable boutique hotel, owned by the city’s well-known fashion designer, Silvia Tcherassi. Here, a restored 250-year-old colonial mansion meets contemporary chic.
Casa San Agustín (hotelcasasanagustin.com), a new boutique hotel, consists of three Spanish colonial buildings that were renovated by South Carolina designer Kelley McRorie. Its 24 rooms and eight suites are filled with antique and custom-made furnishings. The pool is actually a historic aqueduct.
Cartagena’s cuisine reflects its history: a mixture of Spanish, African, Creole and Arab influences. Menus also revolve around an abundance of fresh fish: grilled grouper; red snapper; sea bass; delicious, meaty local lobsters; and Peruvian-style ceviche. I love the local dishes like patacones—deep-fried plantains—and coconut-flavored rice.
The Havana-inspired La Vitrola may be trendy, but it’s still a locals’ haunt that visitors can’t miss. The beauties sitting across from us have to be some of those contestants. Ceiling fans; walls lined with photos of the owner’s friends; wooden tables; a nuevo take on seafood and local dishes; and a live band playing salsa, merengue and Cuban sounds—it all makes for a magical evening.
Vera, the Italian-influenced restaurant at the Hotel Tcherassi, is another Cartagena adventure. Its courtyard setting next to a pool is stunning: A tall terraced brick wall features vines, flowers and a small waterfall.
It’s a pity that, for many Americans, the first reference that springs to mind for Colombia is the cocaine trade and drug wars. On our trip, we are undisturbed by any such issues. Cartagena is the unnamed setting of the heartbreaking book Love in the Time of Cholera by the Nobel Prize-winning Gabriel García Márquez, who long owned a home here. Wandering these streets is dreamy, with many elements of the magical realism in García Márquez’s novels. Images of Cartagena, full of color and life, will stay long in my memory. jazzaspensnowmass.org