For anyone coveting an eternal summer, I suggest you start packing your bags for southern skies. It’s just a short flight from the U.S. (direct flights from JFK, Miami and Fort Lauderdale), and I don’t know anyone who’d choose a polar vortex over a tropical breeze and warm sands in the Caribbean. I’m not talking St. Lucia or the Dominican, either. I’m talking about the romantic setting of Cartagena, Colombia, that’s straight out of a storybook. Sure, the country of Colombia has seen its fair share of turmoil throughout the years, but gone are the days of Pablo Escobar, and nowadays people can’t stop talking about how Colombia got its groove back. The seaport of Cartagena has emerged as the country’s belle of the ball and thus, has become not only a safe LatAm city to visit, but a South American must-see.
1. Luxurious Lunch | 2 p.m.
The seafood is fresh and the ambience is tropical at Carmen, a restaurant situated inside the Anandá Boutique Hotel and currently rated the #1 restaurant in Cartagena on TripAdvisor. From grilled octopus to the catch of the day, this daddy-daughter team will have you wanting to come back daily – but you can’t. There’s just too much to do and see in 48 hours!
2. Walk the Walk or Bike the Town | 3:30 p.m.
It’s time to work off those lunch calories. With an exorbitant about of history in Cartagena, you can log some miles with your own two feet or even on a bike. Cartagena has seen a recent explosion of bike rental companies, making it easier to get around the city without needing to bargain with cab drivers. Walk around the cobble-stone streets of Old Town and take in the balcony-filled bougainvilleas, head inside a museum or climb the fortified walls (don’t be alarmed by the excessive amount of PDA going on in the portals) and walk the periphery of the Old City. Vendors tend to push Cuban cigars and ice cold cervezas on the many people overlooking the choppy Caribbean, but it’s a sight to see – and I’ll never turn down an ice cold beer on a hot day.
3. Soak Up the Sun | 5:30 p.m.
Like a cold beer on a hot day, I just can’t resist a gorgeous sun setting over the ocean. I’m not one for tourist traps, but Cafe del Mar is the place to be once the day begins to fade. As the sun goes down, so do many delectable cocktails into my belly. The bar, located on the corner of the seafront wall, provides a beautiful view of the expensive high rises of Bocagrande, the winding narrow streets of the Centro and the sparkling Caribbean. The popular scene can get crowded, so head early to grab a table with drink in hand.
4. What’s For Dinner | 9 p.m.
The only appropriate way to soak up happy hour beverages is with equally as delicious Peruvian cuisine…and more cocktails. La Perla serves amazing ceviche, octopus and ravioli – just to name a few dishes. The atmosphere will match your tipsy, outgoing mood just perfectly. Tip – sip on the Mojito Mango and order the tres leches cake for dessert!
5. Music & Mojitos | 11:00 p.m.
If you’re stomach can handle more drinks whilst dancing the night away, head to Cafe Havana where the live music and mojitos don’t dry up until the wee hours of the morning. Even Hillary Clinton sipped on a cocktail or two here during the Summit of the Americas in 2012. If it’s good enough for the Clintons, it’s good enough for me.
6. Under the Sea | 7 a.m.
Uhh…sorry about it. If you went out dancing the night before, you may be in for a long day. In fact, if you did venture out and took down too many drinks, this excursion may not be for you. Scuba diving is one of my favorite new-found activities. My boyfriend and I got certified to scuba dive in Cartagena with a company called Diving Planet. We took a 1 hour boat ride to the well known Islas del Rosario and took our final dives with professional guides to get PADI certified. It took three countries to complete our certification, but it was well worth the effort. We started in the classroom in Buenos Aires, took our first test dive in Mexico, and rounded it out in Cartagena.
If being under water for longer than 10 seconds doesn’t float or boat (or sink your ship rather?) then I suggest nixing Bocagrande’s mediocre beach and taking a day trip to Isla Barú instead. A motorboat will take you to Playa Blanca where you can bask in the Colombian sun and indulge in cheap luxuries from women selling homemade crafts to fresh seafood. At the entrance to the docks, agents representing the half-dozen or so tour companies compete for passengers and prices usually run around 35,000 pesos. Boats leave around 9 a.m. and return around 4 p.m., similar to when the scuba parties return.
7. Sweet Spot | 5:00 p.m.
Scuba diving and lounging on the beach in the blazing sun will work up an appetite. The ultimate refresher can be found in the streets of Old Town in a white-wickered, floral-patterned ice-cream parlor. Gelataria Paradiso will transport you to a tropical paradise (hence the name) if the islands don’t quite satisfy your craving as the 100% natural ingredients combine to top off the afternoon just perfectly. President Obama prefers the Limonada de Coco. My recommendation: Go for the Sorpresa Siciliana. What can I say…this hasn’t been the first thing we’ve disagreed on.
8. Funky Fresh | 8:30 p.m.
The small seafood restaurant of El Boliche Cevicheria serves inventive ceviches, and you won’t go home hungry or disappointed. If you’re in the mood for live music round dos, hit up bistro-jazz club La Vitrola for a romantic dinner, complete with live musical accompaniment from a Cuban band. After-dinner drinks at Sibaris Wine Bar is a nice complement for a glass (or three) of quality vino, and a few tapas – that is, if you saved any room in your stomach.
9. Hangover Cure | 10 a.m.
After a night of music and cocktails, few things are as satisfying as Colombian arepas – disks of fried corn masa, slit open and fried again with various toppings often found sold via street vendors. For a more leisurely meal, spoil your tastebuds at Mila, a bakery that will have you thinking you’ve gone to France for the morning. Bogotá native Camila (Mila) Vargas runs the restaurant serving sandwiches on fresh baked breads and decadent brownies, my go-to. Go ahead, have a slice of pie for breakfast. I definitely won’t judge you.
10. Shop Til You Drop | 12 p.m.
Hats, jewelry and artwork are on offer along the city streets, or step inside the unique boutiques along the way selling high-end emeralds, clothing and handicrafts. My personal favorites were the Colombian bathing suit shops that boasted colorful prints in their windows. Lured into a store called Agua Bendita, I bought a bright cut-out one-piece that I still haven’t had the courage to wear due to its lack of material. Oh well, maybe one day I’ll do as the Colombians do. Don’t be alarmed to see the ultra stacked mannequins peering back at you as you window shop down the cobble stone streets. They’re just mimicking how most Colombian women appear. I immediately knew I didn’t fit in, but it was fun to try for a short 48 hours.