In a new series, Thomas Pink offers an insider’s guide to some of the world’s most captivating and unexplored destinations: what to see, do, experience and – of course – wear, starting with Cartagena, Colombia.
There was a time, not that long ago, when if you had told your friends and family that you were packing your bags for a holiday in Colombia, they might have thought you had a death wish – or a dangerous habit. But the South American nation is cleaning up its act, shaking off its Narcos reputation and bloody heritage, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena de Indias.
With its colonial architecture, colourful facades and picture-perfect cobblestone streets, Cartagena is single-handedly creating a Colombian Riviera. As Colombia becomes more open to tourists, Cartagena is thriving, thanks to a heady proliferation of new boutiques, upmarket hotels, lively salsa clubs and epic rooftop bars, all offset by a colonial history begging to be discovered. By day, immerse yourself in the local culture by exploring the Walled City, a Unesco World Heritage Site, where bougainvillea spills over the entrances of local artisan boutiques, and by night saunter into the revitalised area of Getsemani neighbourhood, where live music, world-class restaurants and bars, and vibrant street art awaits you.
In Cartagena, the day unfolds at a leisurely pace (until you’ve had a local coffee that is, then the brakes are off), affording you the opportunity to savour the tranquillity of the morning streets. For breakfast, La Esquina del Pandebono, nestled in the heart of the Walled City, is famous for its delectable pan de bono, a Colombian cheese bread that’s a must-try. Carry a few with you as you continue your urban hike to Abaco Café, a bookshop-cum-café that serves sublime coffee and showcases one of the best spreads of Colombian literature anywhere in the world, making it a haven for book and caffeine addicts alike. For those seeking a healthier option with a Latin twist, Café de la Mañana awaits, offering a delightful array of dishes that cater to diverse tastes. It’s a little oasis in the historic centre, with a plethora of healthy dishes (although the fry-up isn’t half bad at mopping up a rum hangover).
As the light fades, Cartagena’s vibrant dining scene comes alive. Getsemani, once a humble neighbourhood (that’s a euphemism: it was a no-go zone), now pulsates with life and culinary innovation. Celele, a favourite among locals, introduces a contemporary twist to traditional flavours, with dishes such as stewed goat in coconut juice and orejero fritters with confit duck, showcasing the city’s culinary diversity. For a taste of local seafood perfection, Restaurante Donjuan on Avenue Carlos Escallon is your destination. Led by the culinary genius Juan Felipe Camacho, this establishment sources its seafood locally and transforms it into mouthwatering delights. Lastly, pay a visit to the iconic La Vitrola, where the convivial Cuban atmosphere and exquisite cuisine have made it a Cartagenan institution. Also, Harry Sasson’s Harry’s Bar in the lobby of the exquisite Santa Teresa Hotel is a great spot for a cocktail and a plate or three of local langoustines.
Sadly, Thomas Pink hasn’t yet been able to produce the iconic Cuban shirt, the guayabera, but we thoroughly recommend you pick one up while in Cartagena, slip it on with a pair of relaxed linen chinos, and then head on out in search of mambo beats! The nightlife in Cartagena has a distinctly Cuban flavour to it, and salsa fans will not be disappointed by the number of opportunities to flex their rum-lubricated hips to the sounds of son cubano, mambo, and Latin pop. One of the best places to do this is the Havana Club in Getsemani, situated right on the corner of the main drag, Media Luna. This place is a Mecca for salsa heads, and the steep door price ($50) simply reflects the quality of musicians that come and play there. Inside, it’s a dimly lit riot of Cuban flags suspended from the ceilings and pictures on the wall of salsa legends. It’s a real sweatbox when things get going, too. If you want a genuine experience, head there at the weekend when it’s packed out with locals. Doors open at 9pm, and while the band doesn’t often come on until 11pm, it’s a good idea to stake out a little space for yourself towards the back of the bar so you have room to wiggle your hips. For some upmarket swank, head over to La Movida where Cartagena’s beautiful people and high rollers come to let their hair down, eat exquisite tapas, and dance the night away on two floors playing rumba and house. It’s also home to one of the best rooftop bars in the city, with views of the San Pedro Church dome. For discerning cocktail lovers, Alquímico is a non-negotiable visit, voted in 2022 as the best bar in South America by The World’s 50 Best Bars. Housed in a former derelict mansion building, Alquímico is three very different floors of mixology magic. Virtually all of the unique ingredients such as pine extract and citrus cordials come from the bar’s own farm in the coffee town of Filandia, equidistant between Cali and Medellin. The ground floor has a cool, busy vibe, the second floor is more sedate, serving up the classics, while the third floor has a cracking rooftop bar.
Cartagena is a haven for local artisan goods, and you’ll find a wealth of them on the Calle del Estanco del Tabaco at Artesanias de Colombia. This place does an excellent job of celebrating the hugely talented artisans here, and you can discover some stunning textiles and decorative objects for your home. Just down the road is Loto del Sur, to which every guy even remotely conscious of grooming should pay a visit. They create the most amazing natural soaps, scents, creams and oils. The smell of the store alone is enough to keep you in there. St. Dom on Calle de Santo Domingo is a wonderful concept store of Colombian design only and it is beautifully curated, too.
For travellers seeking old-world charm and impeccable service, Casa San Agustin, nestled in the heart of the old town, stands as Cartagena’s premier luxury hotel. It faithfully recreates the aesthetics of 17th-century colonial life, featuring original frescoes in the library and evocative wood-beamed ceilings in its guest rooms and suites. Alternatively, the Hotel Quadrifolio offers an intimate boutique experience, with only eight deluxe suites that make you feel like a privileged guest in a private rental. The hotel also provides access to a private 38-foot boat for charters and fishing excursions. Bastion, a slightly more modern yet sophisticated choice, boasts El Gobernador, one of Cartagena’s finest restaurants, along with a rooftop terrace and swimming pool overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
With Cartagena best explored on foot, pack a comfortable pair of sneakers to enjoy the city’s historic centre. Consider embarking on a walking tour of the walled city to delve into its captivating history and architectural wonders. Cartagena’s street art in the Getsemani neighbourhood offers a colourful spectacle worth savouring, even if you simply choose to sit at a café and people-watch.
As a coastal city, Cartagena celebrates beach culture, and has a host of beautiful islands to explore just off the mainland. Eteka Beach Club on Tierra Bomba, a short boat ride from Cartagena port, offers charming rustic cottages for a day and night of relaxation. Adventurous souls can embark on a sunset kayak tour, available through numerous marina- based companies. Paddle around the island of Tierra Bomba, along the sandy beaches of Punta Arena, and out to San Fernando Fort, where you’ll find some of the most azure blue waters in the world.
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