The Caribbean city has come a long way from its “Romancing the Stone” days. The danger is gone, but the beauty and sex appeal still remain. Here’s everywhere you’ll want to be.
Cartagena, Colombia, may never live down its associations with Romancing the Stone. Set in the turbulent 1980s, the film crystallized the image of the Caribbean seaport as crawling with narco-trafficking kidnappers and incubating syrupy romances (à la Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas).
But in recent years, with the drug cartels under control, and security and prosperity reigning, Cartagena has blossomed into a stunningly well-preserved colonial marvel (it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site) that’s an extremely safe (for all people) stop for travelers on the South American circuit. And though it is certainly a romantic city – think salt-weathered buildings in bright Caribbean colors, flowers spilling from balconies, and shady plazas for passing languid afternoons – its sizzling nightlife also makes it super sexy.
Cartagena is, in a way, three cities. There’s El Centro, the historic core surrounded by 16th century walls; Bocagrande, a peninsula filled with high-rise condos and brand-name fashion boutiques that approximates Miami Beach; and the three-million-strong sprawling modern city that surrounds the other two touristy areas. Aim to stay in El Centro, which is so clean, safe, and quaint that you’ll almost feel like you’re in Disneyland. Plus, that’s where all the action is. And many of El Centro’s colonial mansions have been restored and transformed into stylish boutique hotels – perfect for a hot weekend getaway.
You could easily spend your entire time in Cartagena getting lost in the twisting, cobbled streets. While you should definitely do your share of idle wandering, here are some must-hits along the way:
Much of Cartagena’s intrigue comes from its historic significance as the storehouse of New World gold during colonial Spanish rule. It’s actually a pretty sordid past of pirate invasions, slave trading, and Inquisition-era torture. So, if you’re a history buff, there are ample opportunities to explore museums and historical sites. It’s also a very literary city – Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez set his novels Love in the Time of Cholera and Of Love and Other Demons here. But if you just want to give your brain a rest, you can also opt to chill out on the beach.
“The Cartagena of Gabriel García Márquez” audio tour– Follow in the footsteps of the scribe of magical realism. You can pick up the tour in the Tierra Magna office in the Plaza Santo Domingo.
Plaza de los Coches/Puerta del Reloj – This historic central plaza bounded by the famous clock tower is abuzz with action. By day, candy vendors peddle their wares; at sundown, folkloric dancers strut their stuff to live drumming; and after dark, there are often free concerts and spontaneous vallenatojams.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – This Spanish fortress has stood strong since the 17th century and offers killer views of El Centro and Bocagrande.
Mercado Bazurto – A labyrinthine market brimming with everything from raw meat and fish (hold your nose) to vegetables, clothes, and cell phones.
Islas Rosarias/Playa Blanca – The beaches in Cartagena itself pretty much suck – they’ve got muddy water and dun colored sand. For the white sand beach Caribbean fantasy, hop a speed boat to Playa Blanca (about 45 min. away) or other destinations in the archipelago of islands just off the coast.
Cartagena cuisine reflects the abundance of fresh fish and tropical fruit on the Colombian coast. Arepas con queso, grilled corn cakes filled with cheese, are ubiquitous, as are fresh tropical juice stands. The legendary Colombian coffee, of course, is consumed throughout the day – you can buy a shot of the inky brew from the tinto vendors who wander the streets. Lunch is the largest meal of the day and usually consists of fried fish, rice, patacones(fried banana cakes), and salad; many restaurants catering to locals are open for lunch and not dinner. But there’s also a cosmopolitan “foodie” movement here that’s doing Colombian fusion cuisine for an international audience.
La Mulata – This hip lunchonette has delicious hot lunches on the cheap (a great place for grilled steak) and frothy coconut lemonade.
Donde Socorro – Some of the best seafood you’ll find in town with all the authentic costeño (food of the coast) trimmings.
Gato Negro – The set lunch of soup, fried fish, rice, lentils, salad, fresh banana, and agua de panela is so filling, it’s the only meal you’ll need all day.
Gelateria Paradiso – Creamy gelato in tropical fruit flavors. More addictive than the wares of narco-traffickers!
Krioyo – Huge salads and tropical juices served in a colorful, funky garden.
Juan Valdez Café – Have your latte with amaretto courtesy of Juan Valdez (yes, that Juan Valdez – the dude with the donkey).
La Vitrola – A foodie splurge with a décor that evokes Old Havana.
Eat and Drink
Music and libations both flow freely in Cartagena. You’ll hear salsa, vallenato, and cumbia spilling from almost every storefront. You can watch the sun set over the Caribbean with a cocktail at one of the alfresco bars perched atop la muralla, the historic wall that surrounds El Centro. Chivaparty buses trawl the streets nightly packed with revelers high on shots of the local liquor, Aguardiente. Plazas bustle with activity late into the night (especially Fridays and Saturdays) and often host free outdoor concerts. So, you don’t need to look to hard to find the party here. But, if you’re willing to venture a bit outside of El Centro, much of the best nightlife is to be had in Getsemaní, an edgier neighborhood just outside the walls of the historic core (the following are all in Getsemaní).
Arsenal Street – This strip is chock full of thumping clubs, perfect for a pub crawl.
Quiebra-Canto – THE place for salsa music and dancing, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.
Bazurto Social Club – A cheerful, colorful dance hall with tropical cocktails and rotating live bands and DJs.
Hostel Media Luna – On Wednesday nights, the hostel hosts the best party in town on their rooftop terrace (or upper floor bar in rainy season) with live bands and an international crowd.
Café Havana – Live salsa bands and stiff mojitos channel Havana in its heyday.