While the cuisine in some parts of Columbia is less than inspiring, most of the great chefs that aren't in Bogota are making their mark here in Cartagena, mixing the earthly bounty of the Andes with the seafood of the coast, tossing in coffee and cacao from the center. The hot spots of the moment come and go, but signature restaurants in the best luxury hotels have the hiring resources and marketing muscle to make a splash and keep innovating.
Restaurant 1621 in the Sofitel Santa Clara is where I have my most impressive meal of the tour, despite being seated at a table for twelve. Both the food and service come with a flourish, making it a place I want to return to later for a more intimate meal. Lunch at Hotel Casa San Augustin is a delight as well, moving from shrimp ceviche through several dishes to coconut pie — a meal with a sense of place. Las Americas hotel on the beach channels Spain in its Erre restaurant though, serving well–thought–out tapas in the bar area with wine and Spanish cuisine on artistic custom plates in the dining area. Executive chef Ramon Freixa earned two Michelin stars at his restaurant in Madrid, so despite the long taxi ride from the historic center, this is the current cachet spot in town.
Getting a great cup of coffee in Colombia is not as easy as it should be: the country produces great beans, but most of the best ones get exported. Seek out a serious coffee shop or luxury hotel serving “export quality” to taste how good it can really be here.
A Taste of the Caribbean Outside the Big City
My group spends its last full day in this post city moving from the cloudy water lapping the sand by the city out to the Rosario Islands. We’ve gone from a city to the Caribbean islands with just a short boat ride, the water so clear by the islands that from the boat we can see the coral on the bottom 10 meters below.
The ride out is both educational and fun. After passing rows of high–rise condos, our guide points out the fortifications that used to protect the bay from invaders by sea, providing a first round of attack that would hit entering ships with cannon fire from both sides. We pass mansions on their own small islands, a few yachts worth even more than those mansions (one with a helicopter on top), and a house used by the Colombian president—looking downright dowdy in comparison. A shell of a failed hotel is further down the same island ("They started building without getting the proper permits," our guide explains.)
When we arrive at our destination and the boat docks, we've got a beach, lounge chairs, and beers. Until it's time to eat, what else do you need? We chat, get too much sun, and down a few beers, enjoying the warm sea water and the views. I look out and think about how this view is what inspires thousands of people to endure the pain of modern air travel and get away from home somewhere cold. It looks like a postcard, like something out of a travel fantasy, yet we're not far from a mainland international airport, one that's just a few hours from many U.S. gateways. South America yes, but not very south in the Americas.
Back in Medellin, we went on a Pablo Escobar tour, where we visited the haunts of the drug lord who tyrannized, terrorized and controlled much of the city. He had officials, police, a soccer team and almost everyone else in his deep pockets. We stared at the rooftop where he was finally cornered and gunned down in 1993. According to our guide Jhon, it took Escobar's life and death to shock officials into a recognition of what had happened to their city, and start in earnest to institute reforms that would turn it around.
After ample swimming and sunning, we are called to a palapa–covered, open–air dining area a few steps away where an afternoon meal awaits. Salad, rice, vegetables, and the star of the day: fresh lobsters just like the ones we saw boatmen trying to sell us on the way out. Plucked from the water and grilled, they inspire one in our party to remark that they've been overcooked. Yes, they have, but in this atmosphere, with this view, they're all devoured in short order.
Riding back on the boat, a few doze off before the wind picks up and the whitecap waves start pummeling the boat. "We should have left earlier," remarks the guide. Too late for that now, so we bounce up and down, occasionally dropping a couple meters with a bang, but amazingly nobody loses their lunch. The water evens out as we ease back into the city, the stone walls and church domes from the 1600s reminding me that this was a major center of power back when the USA had only a few thousand starving European settlers.
Like that fledgling new nation though, Colombia eventually declared its independence: on 11/11/11 — 1811 that is, and ten years later they got it for good.
If you go
Avianca has the most flights to Cartagena from the United States and Canada, with connections via Bogota from Toronto, New York, Washington, Houston, and three cities in Florida, with competitive fares.