Travel Blog: Cartagena, Colombia
I was lucky enough to escape the lousy NYC “smarch” weather a couple weeks ago in the beautiful Cartagena, Colombia. I was there for one week with my travel- and everyday-adventure-buddy, Johnny. A few people have asked me for recommendations, since it seems to be a popular travel destination this year, so here’s what I experienced in terms of food, hotels and the city itself.
Have you heard of buñelos? Boy, because after this trip, they’re all I can talk about. These are basically fish and fresh herb-filled fritters (sort of like if hush puppies had any other add-ins). I had never had them before, and now I’m obsessed with them.
As soon as Johnny and I had one bite of coconut rice (arroz con coco), we knew we had to learn how to make it for ourselves. At once savory and sweet, any other kind of rice completely pales in comparison.
Cartagena is certainly known for its seafood since it’s a beautiful ocean town. You must try ceviche at some point during your stay. It’s everywhere in the city, but El Boliche Cebichería is where I had a really tasty ceviche dish while watching the nightlife unfold outside.
I think fruit is just different in South America; it’s so much more fresh and more delicious than what we end up importing here in the U.S. Highlights for me included guava, papaya, pineapple, mango — basically, every fruit I guess? If you can, get a fresh fruit juice — no add-ins or extra anything.
Where to Stay
We were in Cartagena for about a week and stayed at two different locations while we were there: one hotel on the mainland and one hotel on a nearby island (Tierra Bomba).
Mainland: Because this trip was also a bit of a work excursion, we first stayed at the Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa. It was essentially right on the water (behind the old city walls, of course) and had a gorgeous rooftop pool and lounge deck. The inner courtyard is full of beautiful hanging vines and other tropical plants all surrounding the main dining room. Our room had a small balcony that even came with a hammock — I spent as much of my time reading on it as I could.
The staff there was super accommodating and helped us book a tour of the city and anything else we needed assistance with.
The food here was delicious. This was where we first had the aforementioned famous coconut rice, and an incredible crab salad/ceviche, almost immediately after we landed in the city.
Tierra Bomba: After work was done, we ended our vacation at the Blue Apple Beach House on Tierra Bomba. The island is only accessible by boat, so be sure to let the staff know that you’ll need to reserve seats before you head to the marina. The hotel is a collection of large rooms plus three or four separate small buildings that act as private suites.
Because there is no phone service on the island, only wifi, all room service and activities are booked through WhatsApp. A totally fascinating and very 2019-ish way of doing things.
Guests here can book cabanas that sit right on the beach or surround one of the two pools; snorkeling excursions; paddleboarding; massages; horseback rides — just about everything you’d want to do during a stay at a somewhat remote island hotel.
We were only there for about three days, and we didn’t even do half of the available activities. This was a great place to unwind and unplug and read a couple of books. Also, the island has so many adorable cats and dogs who definitely know where to set up camp in order to get some tasty snacks — my table.
Here is where I got to experience the beauty that are buñelos, as well as some of the most delicious fresh guava juice. All of the food here was fantastic, even though previous guests had mentioned that the menu felt limited — be sure to order the seafood paella, and get the arepa with fried eggs in the morning.
Overall, I thought Cartagena was a beautiful city that also happened to be very in-your-face about things. The streets were always filled with people, mostly tourists or people trying to sell things to tourists, and at first I found that to be a little hard to swallow.
Through our hotel, we booked a city tour where we’d get to see some of the sites, like a former castle/fort and a convent that sat at the top of a precarious hill. Our guide explained that about 60% of Cartagena’s economy is fueled by tourism — there is even a specific police force dedicated to making sure any/all businesses relating to tourism are on the up and up plus looking out for the well-being of tourists. Even the horses who pull carriages through the streets at night have their own set of labor laws (they can only work between 5-11pm, due to the heat in the daytime; one horse and only work one hour at a time; when a horse is off its shift, they get food and water).
The city is completely vibrant from head to toe, much like the sunburn I got from being a little too hubristic when it came to my suncreen-to-sun ration one day. Everyone is helpful and happy, the food is delicious, and the atmosphere is buoyant.
Have you been to Cartagena recently? Are you planning to go soon? Let me know in the comments below!