Whenever I arrive to Cartagena, Colombia, after the hot, sticky cab ride from the airport, all I can think about is that I need something cold and refreshing to drink. In many cases a limonada de coco is waiting for me at check in at whatever hotel I’m checking into. It’s the unofficial welcome drink of Cartagena.
At La Perla, Peruvian chef Carlos Accinelli who learned his trade in the kitchens of Lima and Spain at the Michelin-starred Basque restaurant, Arzak, works closely with owner and manager Roberto Carrascal to ensure the menu gets a facelift as regularly as the petite diner’s stylish interiors. There’s no shifting the stars of the show though. Neither the classic Ceviche Corvina (sea bass ceviche) or the Lomo La Perla, a sirloin steak served with a Roquefort-laced sauce served on a bed of creamy mushroom rice, are showing signs of going out of fashion any time soon.
At Bazurto Social Club in Cartagena, Colombia’s once down and out Getsemani quarter, a new scene is emerging in the Caribbean enclave. There’s not the cookie cutter cruise ship emerald shops and Hard Rock Cafes, but rather the atmosphere is fueled by the faded stone walls, graffiti, loud music, and strong drink. In this day glow painted bar, owned by Jorge Escandón of La Cevicheria fame, that particular strong drink would be the Machaca’o, a newly invented cocktail that is aiming to become Cartagena’s official.
I imagine that wherever someone like Gabriel Garcia Marquez lives, the neighborhood gets better. Sitting down at a table at La Cevicheria in Cartagena’s old walled center, just beside the famed Santa Clara monastery (now a Sofitel), a clown comes by making squeaking noises. He squeaks when a van drives by as he acts like he is keying the side of it. He squeaks wedding music to a couple dining at the table next to mine, then sprays a string of fake ketchup from a red bottle on the girlfriend as she screams…then laughs. Soon three kids, no more than ten years old, rap for two minutes about Colombia. Then a neatly dressed maid walks by with a Dalmatian. She smiles. So does the dog it seems.
Cartagena’s dining scene has improved drastically in the past year, rivaling Bogota and other much larger metro areas in South America, with several much-hyped openings outside of Daniel Castaño’s Vera. Write ups in the New York Times, Vogue, and elsewhere have proven that the city’s restaurants deserve the attention. In fact Cartagena has always bee great food destination, even before it became the darling of the jetset. It has long benefitted from Colombia’s distinct range of ingredients and the rather diverse population. It was my first ever stop in South America and it will forever remain in my culinary consciousness for that reason.
A fascinating voyage by sea from Colombia to Panama is one of the best ways to leave (or enter) the South American continent.
Cartagena, Colombia has transformed over the past decade to a faded colonial port visited mostly by Colombian vacationers to a chic hangout for the beautiful and wealthy (and occasional cruise ship). While Getsemani and other neighboring districts are looking better and better, the old walled city built by the Spanish, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the place to be. It is somewhat reminiscent of Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, though it lacks the American chains and tacky cruise ship shops that have diluted the scene there. With the addition the addition of Colombian fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi’s new hotel and spa in late 2009, Cartagena seems to have entered a new phase in its evolution. Old world charm and jetset style have merged.
Cartagena’s dining scene is more impressive than Bogotá’s, if not more so. The atmosphere is definitely better. Vera is one of the most anticipated restaurants to open in the walled city in a long, long time. Part of the reason is the setting. Vera sits on the ground level, partly poolside, of the most anticipated boutique hotel to open in Cartagena ever, fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi’s seven suite Tcherassi Hotel + Spa. The breezy open air dining area is all white, like much of the hotel, and fronts the courtyard, pool, and an amazing vertical garden that features 3,000 plants native to Colombia. Mirrors line one wall. A second, air-conditioned dining room is equally as sleek.