Cartagena is like the tale of two cities – the old city that is surrounded by the 16-century fortress wall and filled with small, cobblestone streets and historic buildings, and the new city with huge skyscrapers lining the water.
With colorful architecture, clean water and good food, it’s easy to see why Cartagena has become a hip tourist destination.
The contrast of the old and new cities is not just evident in the views but also the prices. Inside the walled city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, prices of hotels and restaurants double. It is full of charm and extremely safe with a hefty police presence – travelers were walking the quiet streets after dark with limited concerns. However, like any touristy area, the street vendors abound, trying to sell you everything from bottled water to fedora hats at all hours, and the budget is a bit harder to maintain. While standing next to the clock tower gate to enter the wall, it oddly felt a bit reminiscent of Disneyland.
Instead of splurging on the hotel, we elected to stay in the new city of Bocagrande. Not nearly as cute and mostly chain hotels, it is safe, clean and easy to get into the walled city either by a 20-minute walk along the water or easy 5-minute cab ride.
With those savings, we indulged with a couple fancy meals out. (And still saved, given how even the fanciest of dinners in Cartagena are a good price!)
Mangata de tierra y agua: With a heavy focus on seafood in a gorgeous setting, this is often listed as the top restaurant in Bocagrande and one of the best in Cartagena. The space is beautiful and artsy, the dishes unique and delicious, and the service wonderful. Everything from the amuse bouche to the dessert was really well executed. My entrée was a spectacular grilled bass and shrimp in a coconut curry sauce atop a creamy yuca puree – and it was only $9! Colombia for the win.
Restaurante Donjuan: Opened by the talented young chef, Juan Felipe Camacho, who worked at top restaurants in San Sebastian, Spain, this is an incredible date night out. We didn’t have a reservation so they set us up at the bar first, where we had a fun chat about wines with Chef Juan himself and enjoyed a great bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. With a mix of European flavors and techniques, our dishes – Beef Wellington for Brice and lobster risotto for me – were both impeccable.
The main thing left out of those perfect looking Instagram photos? The weather.
Damn, it is hot and humid in Cartagena. It is almost always around 85 degrees and 80% humidity year-round.
We quickly learned that afternoons there are the hottest time of day so it is the time for a short nap in the AC. But when we were trying to brave it, we would only make it about 45 minutes of wandering the streets before needing a break for something cold.
Our three favorites stops:
La Esquina del Pandebono: Right next to the Plaza de los Estudiantes in the old city, there is this nondescript bakery. If it hadn’t been recommended to me by my friend Meg, I probably would have kept walking, thinking it was just mass-produced, mediocre baked goods. Fortunately not the case!
As it was so cheap (only 50 cents for a pastry), of course we had to try several. The Bocadillo y Queso is a typical Colombian croissant filled with guava jam and cheese. It sounds like a weird combination but somehow it works. Brice was a huge fan of their savory Salcuiqueso with sausage and cheese. Don’t pass up their namesake Pan de Bono, a light fluffy roll made with corn flour, cheese and eggs. Despite the ingredient is tastes somewhat sweet. It may look simple, but it is fully delicious.
Café Stepping Stone: In the more rundown, backpacker part of town Getsemani was an awesome stopping point to cool down and catch up on emails (ok, fine, catch up on Instagram). Opened by two Australians, this spot definitely has a gringo vibe with a “social enterprise” mission, a serious avocado toast, great WiFi and the signature Watermelon Blitz made with blended watermelon, mint and crushed ice.
La Paletteria: You can’t really go wrong with a gourmet popsicle when it is a 9 million degrees outside. This cute shop in the heart of the walled city features artisanal paletas with flavors like Strawberry Mint and Cheesecake Oreo. The Lemonade with Coconut was especially refreshing.
While the heat in Cartagena certainly was too much for this Oregonian, the stunning sites and fantastic yet reasonably priced food made it a great few days.