Hands down the most beautiful city in Colombia’s Caribbean for its architectural treasures dotting the walled old city, Cartagena de Indias is a favourite destination for a curious mix of honeymooners, bachelor parties and cruise ship passengers. Sounds unappealing? Fear not, after a day visiting a nearby island or exploring the numerous churches, there’s an exciting mix of restaurants to enjoy, from traditional Colombian-Caribbean establishments to fine dining – you can even dine in a prison.
And while fried fish with patacones (double-fried plantain) is delicious, there’s plenty more to Cartagena: check out our eating and drinking highlights below. Save the date: in January 2020, Alimentarte foundation, led by Cristina Botero Orozco, takes its Bogotá restaurant tour on the road to Cartagena. Culinary guests of honour will include Asturian chef Nacho Manzano of Casa Marcial, Uruguayan chef Matías Perdomo from Milan’s Contraste and Germán Martitegui and Pablo Rivero respectively from Tegui and Don Julio in Buenos Aires.
Contemporary Caribbean at María
For contemporary Caribbean flair in the stunning old town, book a table at María. Here, seafood-obsessed chef Alejandro Ramírez Gómez – who trained with Gordon Ramsay, worked at Mexico City’s Biko then moved to Cartagena to make use of ultra-fresh daily catches – creates a dynamic menu that sources ingredients from around the Caribbean region.
His delicate hand plays with classics such as tiradito: think catch of the day with lulo fruit pearls and avocado, or beetroot-and-aguardiente-cured sea bass. The main course must is the dreamy, creamy La Boquilla lobster in sancocho. Bonus track: Ramírez Gómez also runs Taquería Municipal in the trendy Getsemaní neighborhood. For a similar contemporary experience, book into Colette for French fare with Caribbean twists.
Traditional fare at La Mulata
The fish soup starter dressed with coriander leaves is complimentary at La Mulata in the old town, a sign of the friendly attitude to come. From the onset, it looks like a hot mess of bodies fighting for AC (and it is), but work your way to the back to the second dining room or plant-adorned patio for a more relaxed dining experience.
Beat the Caribbean heat with a refreshing tamarind water then savour hearty regional dishes such as camarones ajillo (garlic shrimp) with coconut rice served on a plantain leaf. Other restaurants serving up tasty regional classics include La cocina de Pepina in Getsemaní.
Colombian-Caribbean haute cuisine at Celele
For meticulously crafted Colombian-Caribbean haute cuisine, head to Getsemaní for lunch or dinner at Celele, helmed by culinary dream team Jaime Rodriguez Camacho and Sebastián Pinzón Giraldo. The Bogotá transplants spent four years travelling the region to rediscover traditional dishes and forgotten ingredients via their Proyecto Caribe food lab, then giving them the fine-dining treatment at a weekly pop-up; they finally opened a store front in December 2018.
Dine à la carte or sample the tasting menu: hits include pateburro sea snail with corn textures and seasonal blue crab and toasted coconut rice. Of note: Pinzón Giraldo is representing Colombia as a regional finalist in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition in Lima this September. Other fine-dining establishments in Cartagena include Harry’s Cartagena from top Bogotá chef Harry Sasson, Marea and El Gobernador by Rausch, the latter set in the stunning Bastión hotel.
Dinner behind bars at Interno
Interno - Photo Sebastien Walkowiak
At San Diego women’s prison in Cartagena’s old town, inmates are given the opportunity to learn the skill sets needed to run a restaurant. Located behind bars, Interno is the first such project in the Americas and by day the women maintain the organic garden or attend baking classes. Come evening, cooks and waitresses work at the establishment founded by actress and entrepreneur Johana Bahamón in 2016.
The three-course Caribbean menu features dishes such as fried yucca pockets stuffed with beef, ceviche or the catch of the day in roasted coconut salsa; a fresh juice is included in the price. Other sustainable projects in Cartagena include not-for-profit café Stepping Stone, which trains underprivileged young people to become waitstaff and baristas.
Due to its Caribbean location, Cartagena city’s beaches pack out and hawkers can be a nuisance so for an easy getaway, take a speedboat shuttle to the nearby islands. Closest is Tierra Bomba, home to two great escapes that can be enjoyed on an easily purchased day pass.
At Fénix Beach, a 15-minute boat ride away, take lunch on a hanging double-bed swing or in a mesh dome covered with blooming pink flowers with the city’s skyline for company. Start with octopus grilled with rosemary butter or tiradito (sashimi) before sharing fideuá, a local pasta-based paella loaded with squid, shrimp and cockles.
A 40-minute boat ride away is Blue Apple, a revered playground for those after Mediterranean-inspired food and a hip soundtrack. Cool down by the pool with 175 ml bottles of Costeñita lager (you’ll have drunk it before it has a chance to get warm because they’re so tiny) before sharing seabass carpaccio, mussels with blue cheese or paella.
Cartagena’s bar and drinks scene
While ordering cerveza is the easy way out, the drinks scene is diverse in Cartagena.
For a buzzy rooftop, head to the bar at Townhouse, a trendy hotel in the old town, for sundowner drinks; its guilt-free Green Apple Mojito donates a percentage of proceeds to a local foundation. Other fabulous rooftops include Movich hotel’s. A firm favourite for that vital Caribbean-sunset-and-lavish-cocktail selfie is Café del Mar, tucked on top of the old town’s ramparts. Celele houses an adorable bijou bar tucked away at the back of the restaurant, where you should order Margarita de mamey made with mammee apple, a Caribbean fruit.
For beers combined with live salsa bands, Café Havana is a must. As for serious drinks, Alquimico mixes up the best cocktails in the city and was chosen to represent Colombia at Tales of the Cocktail in the US. Try El Jardín, a basil and lemongrass-infused aguardiente with pineapple.
Other Cartagena tidbits
One way to cool down in the steamy Caribbean is licking up artisanal ice-cream made by Gelateria Paradiso. This parlour specialises in tropical flavours such as lulo fruit, coconut water and hibiscus.
Colombia’s most renowned author Gabriel García Márquez lived in Cartagena for many years and – as a writer’s gotta eat – Foodies organises a gastronomy tour based around the local eateries that helped inspire the Nobel prize winner’s literature. There’s street food aplenty, from tasty chicken skewers to freshly fried ripe plantains. Fruit carts are a colourful sight to behold; buy little bags of whatever takes your fancy such as acidic corozo fruit, sliced mango or coconut water.
And, to dine where Anthony Bourdain ate back in 2008, head to La Cevichería in the old town and order ceviche (of course).