The flight from San Francisco to Colombia is surprisingly long, particularly when you are relegated to a middle seat. Fortunately, my neighbor was afraid of flying and took her mind off it by telling me everything about the secret menu at In N’ Out Burger, where she worked during the summer (noteworthy items include chopped onions, diced chillies, and a four-patty burger). But experiencing the seaside city of Cartagena, the little towns in the Efe Cafetero (“Coffee Axis”), and the truly wild restaurant, Andres Carne de Res, outside Bogota made the eight-hour flight worth it.
My friend, Ashaya, and I planned the skeleton of the trip a month before we left, booking flights and hotels, but leaving out any specifics. Our philosophy – on this trip and one to Oaxaca, Mexico – has been to put ourselves in the right place with a roof over our heads, and let inspiration guide the day-to-day. We took a red-eye to Cartagena via Panama City and a taxi to the Old City, where the boutique hotel we’d booked, Casa La Fe, overlooked the Plaza Fernandez de Madrid, a beautiful square with artisans, sidewalk cafes, and hawkers selling Panama hats and woven bracelets (I bought both). Centrally-located with a rooftop pool and a bar, Casa La Fe is right up my alley, offering “a calm and relaxed atmosphere in the heart of the city.” We checked in and set out to find breakfast and explore the city.
Cartagena is the fifth-largest city in Colombia, but it is best-known for the walled Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was founded by the Spanish in 1533. With its cobblestone streets, brightly-colored Spanish colonial-style buildings, and a breezy vibe, the Old Town makes for a pleasant stroll. After breakfast, we wandered into the Universidad de Cartagena, to check out an art gallery and performance space, where we sat and watched a string trio who we’d see busking around the city at least three more times, before slowly making our way to the waterfront.
A tropical city on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena has the sort of history you’d expect from a Spanish colonial port. After the city was sacked by naval officer turned pirate Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and ransomed for $200 million in today’s currency (only after the destruction of a quarter of it), the Spanish built walls around the town to protect against future calamities. As the seat of the Spanish slave trade and a key port for the export of Peruvian silver, Cartagena was an attractive target for pirates. Fortunately for us, the walls these days make for a delightful place to watch the sunset and enjoy a pisco sour.
On our way to the waterfront, we passed a dive shop, where I booked two dives the following day off the Rosario Islands, a beautiful string of beaches an hour off the coast of Cartagena. I wouldn’t recommend diving here for a few reasons. Part of the enjoyment I get from diving comes from the slow ride out to the reefs in a dive boat, where you chat with your fellow divers. But this experience felt a little assembly line-esque, with a speedboat taking us to the island and a little boat taking us to the reefs from there. And sadly, the once-beautiful coral reef of Varadero is a shell of its former self, having been destroyed by deteriorating water quality and the dredging of a new shipping line. It was nice to get a few dives in, but seeing the handful of fish left in the reef made the fact that a fifth of all of the coral in the world has died in the past three years a lot more visceral for me.
When we first arrived, Ashaya made the dubious, unsubstantiated, and highly-specific claim that Cartagena is the bachelorette party capital of Latin America. But after a few days, I began to see why. Apart of the dive-ersion on day two, we spent the better part of three days wandering the city, eating ceviche, drinking wine, and playing Uno. We ate dinner at El Boliche, a low-key family-owned cevicheria with 25 seats and a great mojito, and Cuzco, a modern Peruvian restaurant in an old colonial house, and had lunch at La Cevicheria. It is worth getting a reservation at the popular spots, but the food scene in Cartagena is solid, and you can’t go wrong with any of these choices. I’d also recommend having a sundowner on one of the outdoor bars on the wall around the city, and a nightcap at El Baron, a hip cocktail bar in the Plaza de San Pedro Claver run by a German mixologist.
By the time our three days and nights in Cartagena were over, we really didn’t want to leave. The city is charming and beautiful. From the street art murals of Getsemani to the plazas around the Old Town, the scene in Cartagena is chill, and the people reflect it. But, alas, we had to begin the second leg of our trip, and headed to the airport for an two-hour flight to a small city called Armenia, where we’d drive an hour to Salento, a little town in the heart of the Eje Cafetero, otherwise known as the Colombian coffee region.
Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation
Long-time DE readers know that every post comes with a music recommendation, and this one is no exception. If you haven’t heard Khruangbin, do yourself a favor and listen to them immediately. Here is one to get you started: