Cartagena: A Shiny Jewel
Written And Photographed By Carrie Edelstein
“I need to get to Cartagena to save my sister!” I’m embarrassed to admit it, but all I knew about Colombia was from the 1984 film Romancing the Stone, when Kathleen Turner embarks on a journey to Cartagena to find her kidnapped sister. So when my mother said she wanted to celebrate her 70th birthday in Cartagena, I was a bit apprehensive. Her requirements were “a city with rich culture, history, shopping and a beach.” A friend suggested Cartagena, and despite booking our airfare and hotel months in advance, I didn’t know anything about the city until we got off the plane. It was the first time I traveled blindly, and just assumed all would go as planned.
Aboard the plane, I sat next to my sister and a gentleman from Chicago. He was traveling via Miami with a group of five married couples. They too chose Cartagena for its cultural appeal with the promise of turquoise beaches. He said they didn’t want to “do Cancún” again; they wanted somewhere different yet close to the U.S. When we deplaned, it was immediately sweltering on the tarmac for the walk inside to Customs. Yet the lines were not long, and the entry process was smooth. A driver was waiting for my mom, my sister and me just beyond the security wall.
It was a short ride on a nice air-conditioned private van along the coast into Old Town of Cartagena. Just minutes past the airport, there was an Instagram worthy “Welcome to Cartagena” colorful sign on the beach. The oceanfront views were not spectacular initially; a cement block between the road and the sand, leading to water similar in color and choppiness to any given area of the Pacific Coast. While there were umbrellas and chairs set up with dozens of beach-goers, it was clear the more picturesque areas would be a boat ride away.
After a few quick turns within the walled parameters of Old Town, we arrived at Casa San Agustin, perhaps the most beautiful and intimately luxurious boutique hotel I’ve ever visited. It’s owned by Mr. Woods Staton, a wealthy global businessman from Medellín, Colombia. Behind the armed street-front gate, we were greeted by a kind and welcoming staff. After a soothing drink of cucumber, mint and other fresh ingredients (the water is 100% fine to drink for travelers), we went up a flight of steps to our three-bedroom suite. The atrium style of the hotel with a pool and 16th century wall supporting the newer parts of the building gave a slight breeze in the hot and humid air, and the rooms were perfectly air-conditioned and cooled with fans.
After changing into cooler clothes, we took Jorge’s advice at the front desk and headed back outside and explored the endless streets of shops, restaurants, street vendors and food stands. The locals were young; no one appeared to be over the age of 40 aside from a handful of business owners. We later learned a 70-year-old in Cartagena is generally confined to a wheelchair or walker and closer to the end of life, rather than celebrating in a foreign city like my mom was. We had some appetizers at one of the many outdoor eateries which was just getting started with live music. We watched the horse-drawn carriages go past and did what you do in a new city: we stared at everyone and then hit all of the street vendors. It was difficult saying “no gracias” to those sweating to make a few pesos.
The next few days were filled with private guides, must-see itineraries and magical experiences. One of our tour guides drove us up Mount Popa for a scenic view below of Cartagena as well as a stroll through the convent at the top of the hill, which dates back to the early 1600s. We learned the skyline of Cartagena is actually not businesses, but rather apartment living. Later, we stopped at the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a large fortress in the middle of the city from the 1500s, built by the Spaniards who had invaded the area.
Lunch and dinner spots to mention included Cocina de Pepina, where we had our first taste of Colombian coconut rice and local seafood, and Lobo De Mar on Calle del Santísimo. A band there played a sultry version of a popular song from the ‘80s: “Un Monton De Estrellas,” by Polo Montañez. I sensed from the crowd reaction this would be similar to hearing an amazing local band sing Air Supply’s “All Out of Love.”
Many meals were had in the main restaurant of the hotel called Alma. The breakfast buffet featured fresh juices each day (cherry juice is a popular one), homemade breads and sweet rolls as well as delicious tropical fruits. Our favorites were the pitaya (dragon fruit in the U.S.) and granadilla. The traditional Cartagena breakfast was a must-have, featuring an egg inside an arepa with sausage and sweet corn bollo. Another nearby restaurant we enjoyed was Cande, which featured Caribbean food, colonial architecture and a live dance show.
Our third day was one I will likely remember for the rest of my life. We chartered a boat through Boats 4 U to take us to the hotel’s private island called Acasi. I was nervous to be on a boat in the middle of the ocean without my children, so when we were told at the dock our captains did not speak English, my mom took the words out of my mouth: “Can he come with us?” She pointed to a young man working the check-in area who spoke nice English. The dock manager let us “abduct” Andréas, who said he was “about to have the best day of his life.” He had never been to Acasi until that day. Once the marina was out of view and the boat increased its speed, Andréas tried to calm me down by saying in a thick accent, “Yesterday you did not have this experience and today you do and it’s going to be incredible.” He was right about not just the boat ride, but the entire trip to Cartagena.
It took about 45 minutes to get to the Islas de Rosario (Rosario Islands), which included a close look at Pablo Escobar’s abandoned secret island mansion. I loved asking the tour guides to tell stories of Escobar; they were all different, filled with animation and likely embellished details. We snorkeled in the middle of the islands before stopping at Acasi. There, we were greeted by a host who led us through a short trail to a small restaurant and beachside seats. There was only one other couple there from our hotel. The sand was soft and light, and the water was warm, calm and turquoise. After a swim, we sat down for a typical Colombian lunch with assorted seafoods, plaintains both fried and served as chips, coconut rice, exotic fruits and squid served in a coconut shell. We were told the chef stays on the island for a month at a time to prepare for guests. We headed back after a few hours because our captain accurately predicted choppy water the later we would return.
The next day, we toured the art district of Getsemani, once again “abducting” a local; we grabbed the hotel’s private driver, Roberto, and gave him a list of places to take us with our guide who had greeted us without a car. In Getsemani, there is street after street of colorful walls, flowered balconies, mural art, shops, galleries and eateries.
On what would seem like a dangerous street filled with graffiti, a local approached us with a smile saying “Bienvenidos” or welcome to the area. A famous Salsa singer, a Colombian Pocahontas and various images of social movements decorate the walls at Plaza de la Trinidad.
We stopped in a local gallery where you can see artists at work. One gallery was the scene of a music video being shot. Another gallery had most of the works displayed along the street. The famed Gertrudis statue by Botero rests back in Old Town in the Plaza de Santo, near a few smaller museums. One of our favorites in that area was a rotating exhibit inside El Claustro Hotel House.
We spent the last hours of our vacation shopping emeralds. While I’m not one to shop and tell, I highly recommend the Caribe Jewelry family for quality jewels. A set of brothers owns the business, and they can make anything you’d like during your stay as well as educate visitors on how to buy emeralds and where in the world to find the best ones (Colombia, Zambia, Pakistan and Russia).
The one suggested tourist attraction we did not see? The Totumo Mud Volcano. Google some blogger experiences though and you might leave it off your list as well. I would highly recommend exploring Cartagena. The U.S. dollar is strong, the culture is rich, the locals are extremely friendly and it’s beautiful– like a small European city with vibrant Caribbean flare. We certainly had a great time and most importantly, our safety was never in question.