Cartagena, Colombia is upping the ante on long weekend getaways. With direct flights under five hours from New York City, you can have a taste of Latin America even if you only have three or four days of vacation time. What you’ll discover: some of the best seafood of your life (so good Anthony Bourdain counted it amongst his tops); colorful streets that ooze Spanish-colonial charm and beg to be photographed; regionally-made, artisan keepsakes including wide-brimmed straw hats and iconic mochila bags; boutique properties so sumptuous and inviting they feel more like a stay at your friend’s historical mansion than a hotel; and day trips to remote islands for snorkeling and seafood straight from the ocean to the grill.
Our Design Expert, Meghan Black, shares why there’s never been a better time to visit, her top picks on where to stay, the local treasures to take home with you, the foods you have to taste, and the day-adventures that will complete your trip. Plus, how to incorporate a Cartagena stopover into a larger South America trip.
EASIER THAN EVER
“Cartagena has never been so appealing. Go now.”
For New Yorkers, Cartagena is closer than ever. Direct flights from New York City clock in just over four hours (faster than driving to the Hamptons on a summer Friday!). On landing, the drive from the airport to your hotel doorstep within the historical walled city is a mere twenty minutes. Meaning, you can wake up in New York and be eating ceviche, sipping mojitos, and trying on Panama hats to the sound of a samba band by lunchtime.
“When in Cartagena, a restored, 17th-century mansion is the answer.”
If you haven’t embraced your crush on courtyard pools that flow beneath colonial-era walls, Moorish-tiled bathrooms, solariums, libraries with full-service evening tea (where you’ll likely have the experience to yourself), and leaning over private balconies like you’re living in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, you will after a stay at Hotel Casa San Agustín. There’s something very warm about this place—think terracotta open-air halls, towering potted palms, original exposed beams, plenty of birds-eye-views over picturesque courtyards, and a certain evocative Caribbean charm that is special to ocean-side outposts like Cartagena and Havana.
“A strict vegetarian for over ten years, I had to try
Cartagena’s seafood. It’s just that good.”
You may not believe you’ll have the best fish of your life served off the grilled, unseasoned, paired with fried plantains and a beer, and eaten at a plastic picnic table. But, go to Cartagena and you will. Catch the boat out to the Rosario Islands, which feel worlds away from the liveliness of the city. Snorkel through whirlwind schools of fish amongst protected shallow reefs before sitting down to lunch. What you’ll get: an unpretentious fish on the bone you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
On mainland, Cartagena’s rising chefs have embraced fresh, local ingredients to offer distinct takes on regional favorites. Everyone talks about La Cevicheria thanks to Bourdain’s endorsement. Expert tip: stop by for the cache, but don’t expect the ceviche to be what it once was. Instead, try the grilled shrimp with passion fruit sauce, the green papaya salad, and the red snapper at Don Juan. Then, hit Ciocolatto Pop Bar for Cartagena’s best maracuya Popsicle (it’s tangy, sweet, and creamy like no other) or neighboring Gelateria Tramonti for hazelnut gelato perfected by the resident Italian gelato master.
“Colombia = coffee.”
If it’s Colombia’s famed coffee you’re after, hit San Alberto Coffee shop daily for an easy cup or something more experimental served from a beaker and Bunsen burner.
For a stronger drink, The New York Times put Alquimico on the map for their restored mansion interior and swanky concoctions. But we’re partial to El Coro for its live music and historic digs that date back to 1621 and were once used for choir practice by the city’s nuns. Or, Café Havana. It’s iconic.
“Snag a new warm-weather kit with Caribbean flavor on the street corner.”
It takes very little effort to score some timeless keepsakes with lots of local flavor in Cartagena. Basically, step out of your hotel and within a few paces you’ll walk directly into a stack of covetable woven hats—from traditional wide-brimmed, flat tops worn by gauchos to oversized floppy numbers made for Riviera lounging and Panama hats by the hundreds. Don’t leave without a mochila bag. Our favorites came in natural dyes, but there are electric pinks, yellows, and blues to be had as well. For a more orderly shopping experience, grab handwoven espadrilles at Casa Chiqui, large lacquered masks for your walls from Artesanias de Colombia, one-of-a-kind antiques from El Arcon Anticuario (housed in yet another colonial-era mansion), designs from St Dom concept shop which curates Colombia’s best designers, and body goods made from local ingredients from Loto Del Sur.
DESIGN & CULTURE
“There’s a reason you’re seeing Cartagena photos on repeat lately.”
The cotton-candy buildings outfitted with ornate doorknockers and balconies with waterfall ivy are infectious. The whole city takes its cues from their atmospheric quality. In the evenings the facades are lit with sunset while dance troops and live musicians rumble in the city squares and open-air parties dominate the promenades. When we asked a resident if it was a national holiday because of all the festivities, the answer was, “this is Cartagena!”
The latest talk surrounds Getsemani—a colorful neighborhood five-minute’s walk beyond the walled-city. Follow the wall murals to the central square to simply enjoy the night air with the locals and clued-in travelers.
“So easy to get to and experience, Cartagena is the perfect
before or after to a larger journey through South America.”
Meghan added a Cartagena stopover onto an active, adventure-filled journey through Ecuador and the Galápagos (see why she the Galápagos by land is not what you think here). But it’s also the perfect start or finish to a trip through greater Colombia. Colombia has so much: the Amazon rainforest, seven UNESCO World Heritage sites (Cartagena’s walled city is one), hiking through the emerald hills of Cocora Valley and lush Tayrona National Park on the coast, up-and-coming Medellín, and buzzing Bogotá. For the more adventurous, Cartagena can even be used as a sailing gateway to and from Panama.
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