A vivid melting pot of Colombian, Spanish and African influences, Cartagena is one of Latin America’s most appealing cities. Its vibrant music scene is of global renown and, as Philip Sweeney discovers, the flourishing food culture is worth making some noise about, too.
Cartagena is 660km north of Colombia’s capital Bogotá but more than 1,000km by road. Flights from the UK to Cartagena via Bogotá take around 15 hours. Currency is the Colombian peso, and the time is five hours behind GMT. In December, the average high temperature in Cartagena is 30C and the average low temperature is 24C.
Avianca operates a daily service from London Heathrow to Cartagena with a connection in Bogotá from £549rtn. http://avianca.com
Air Europa flies from Gatwick to Bogotá from £800rtn. http://aireuropa.com
ProColombia has a wealth of information and inspiration for what to do on hand for helping to plan your trip to Cartagena, as well as practical advice on exploring the whole country. http://colombia.travel.
To offset your carbon emissions, make a donation at http://climatecare.org and support environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London produce 2.32 tonnes CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £17.43.
For a man about to supply lunch for Ban Ki-moon, Raúl Castro, King Juan Carlos of Spain and 80 assorted Latin American government ministers, Pedro Nel Espino looks remarkably relaxed. I meet him as he enjoys the afternoon sun, reclining on a bench behind his fish stall in bamboozling Bazurto market.
A labyrinthine shantytown on the bank of the pelican-dotted Bay of Souls, Bazurto has been the epicentre of Cartagena’s produce since the old market was replaced by the big square stone convention centre. It is this building that brings so many visitors – including the bigwigs for lunch – to the city today.
Bazurto’s warren of alleys is heady with the aromas of frying fish, steaming cassava (a nutty-flavoured root vegetable) and pungent herbs, the thumping bass and skirling accordion of vallenato music and the cries of hawkers and frustrated porters trying to manoeuvre their battered carts around the occasional gringo (foreigner) who ventures there. All the riches of Colombia’s Caribbean coast can be sourced from Bazurto’s vendors: sea and lagoon fish, octopus, shrimp, langosta (lobster), pork, goat, beef, chicken, the omnipresent suero (sour) cream, rice, a dozen vegetables from cassava and yam to frijoles and guandules (beans and pulses), fruits including coconut, corozo (a cherry-like fruit), tamarind and sweet green lemons. Plus rolls of leaves to wrap and steam tamales (a dish of seasoned meat and maize flour), hand-whittled wooden utensils and mousetraps.
I’m accompanied by Alejandro Ramirez, a Cartagenan chef who’s cooking the VIP lunch. It’s part of the ceremony surrounding the signing of the historic peace accord with the FARC guerrillas (since rejected by Colombians in a referendum), which has made Cartagena the focus of the world’s media. Alejandro is showing me where he gets the fish for his main course, a deceptively simple but exquisite assemblage of robalo (sea bass) with a Creole-like aligot of purée potatoes and local Costeño cheese, which I’ve already tasted at his restaurant, María. We move on to consume a late breakfast of fried robalo (the market version) served in a piece of thick brown paper with a pair of disposable polythene gloves. These are to keep your hands clean while tearing off chunks of sizzling pearl-white fish and soft, waxy cassava. To ease the postprandial process, we hail a passing coffee trolley for a strong, sweet cafecito (espresso) in a paper thimble before heading back downtown.
The historic centre, a grid of 16th and 17th-century buildings, makes Cartagena one of the most beautiful Spanish colonial cities of the Caribbean. It’s smaller and less impoverished than Havana, funkier than asepticised San Juan in Puerto Rico, richer in detail than Santo Domingo. Within its massive walls and bulwarks lie ornate baroque churches, palm-shaded plazas, balconied mansions and colonnaded convents, all guarded by the great dark stone mountain of the fortress of San Felipe de Barajas, the biggest in the Americas. The paved streets contain dozens of smart hotels and more than 150 chic restaurants catering to the booming tourist trade. Despite all the souvenir shops, horse drawn carriages for hire and Afro-Caribbean Palenqueras (women selling fruit and trinkets) posing for photos in their gaudy pantomime-flounced dresses, tourism stops short of overwhelming the town.
Alejandra’s María occupies a cool, elegant colonial premises on Calle del Colegio, its high walls adorned with great colourful faux-primitive canvases. The service and Euro-Caribbean food are as elegant as befits an owner who has had stints at Gordon Ramsay in London and Pujol in Mexico City, not to mention the five-star Grove Hotel in Hertfordshire. I savour a dish of grilled octopus with bacon and olives; a stunning broth of beef and coriander; and roasted pineapple served with tamarind, corozo and coconut ice cream.
The next day, we go further upmarket to El Gobernador, the restaurant of the swish Bastión Hotel and one of Jorge Rausch’s Cartagena outlets. Its accommodating executive chef, Viviana Lievano, regales us with a menu of exquisitely re-wrought tradition: langostina with fried cassava bread and foam of aguardiente (an anise-flavoured spirit), and ceviche of lionfish (an invasive species currently the subject of a media campaign by Jorge, who is encouraging diners to eat more of them).
If the ingredients of Colombian cooking are local, the roots are often Spanish, visible in the sausages and rice dishes. You can also trace African food, from the slave population. Of this varied country, the Caribbean coast has the greatest input due to two intact, self-contained communities. The better known, a Unesco-lauded repository of unique traditional culture and language, lies inland, across an expanse of marsh and cattle land. The village of San Basilio de Palenque, usually referred to as Palenque, is one of the most prominent extant communities founded by cimarrones, or fugitive slaves. Its music, champeta, a riotous amalgam of Congolese pop and Latin swing purveyed by deafening sound systems known as picós, has travelled the world, and its cuisine, rich in tubers and heavy offal soups such as mondongo, is starting to attract international culinary academic attention. A recent recipe book, Kumina ri Palenge, won top prize in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2014. I arrive in Palenque with the book’s co-author Victor Simarra to find the main street occupied by youths racing wild-looking horses and the bus from Cartagena disgorging Palanqueras back from a day working the tourists.
Another Afro-Colombian community, La Boquilla, is a sprawling network of fishing villages situated among mangrove creeks and lagoons under the flight path of the airport. To get here, you pass several kilometres of the seafront skyscraper hotels and apartment blocks springing up on both sides of Cartagena. Then, turning off the road, you drive along a broad strip of sandy beach lined with open-sided shack cafés to reach the low adobe (clay-covered) fishermen’s houses with their tethered canoes.
Booked in by a local community organisation for a morning’s fishing followed by lunch, we hop into hollowed-out log canoes and meander through mangrove tunnels spotting birds before stopping to fish. Our guides hurl circular nets into the water and expertly scoop out wriggling silver mojarra and sábalo, then lower baited cages to catch small jaiba crabs.
Back on dry land, the wives and daughters cook lunch for everybody on roaring wood fires, swiftly boiling then sautéing the crabs al ajillo (with chopped garlic), frying whole sábalo to be served with salad, rice and patacones (fried plantain). To follow, we devour a tray of sweets from the confectionery stands under the colonnades of the Plaza de las Coches in Cartagena. As meetings of tourist and inhabitant go, it’s a pretty good deal for both parties.
On the way back to town we visit another impressive social project, based in the barrio of Rafael Nunez. Yarli Ortiz Morales, a street water-seller turned busy market gardener, welcomes us to her small, newly built bungalow and its kitchen garden, both set up with the aid of the community foundation. Like 600 other families, Yarli now supplies herbs and vegetables to the booming Cartagena restaurant market. Interesting novelties include indigenous wild spinach – highly nutritious but long regarded as a weed – and rocket, prized by the new pizzerias.
We make similar discoveries at a clandestine pop-up called Proyecto Caribe, though not so secret as to elude Food and Travel and a dozen members of the Cartagena bourgeoisie. In a magnificent historic apartment overlooking the harbour, young chef Jaime Rodriguez serves market-bought and foraged rarities including wild pipilanga tuber from Palenque with jaiba crabs, dried baby shrimps from La Guajira, and moist baked rice with home-made confit duck. In conformity with global pop-up practice, cocktails are served in jam jars and witty touches abound, such as the munequito (small) dessert, a remodelled candy bar from a street vendor, a sort of ironic Mars bar ice cream, tropical style.
Cartagena is, of course, more than just clever tasting menus in colonial mansions. There are excellent bistros such as the small Cocina de Pepina in the boho-chic barrio of Getsemani, where you queue beside the tiny serving hatch for a table and top-notch posta a la Cartagenera (slow-cooked beef in a dark sauce with sugar cane).
There are street food stalls galore, selling tasty fried snacks familiar from the Cartagena-based novels of Gabriel García Márquez: patacones, arepa de huevo (refried egg-stuffed corn cakes) and carimañolas (stuffed cassava fritters). There are cevicherias, both static and on bicycles, selling Styrofoam cups boasting raw, sliced fish, seafood or snails marinated in green lemon, garlic and aji pepper. These are less refined than the Peruvian version but very popular.
Between the street and the restaurant there are semi-amateur institutions such as Dayra’s, the venture of a retired office worker who has made the tree-shaded patio of her modest house a part-time mesón (inn). We arrive to find Dayra cleaning fish while her 95-year-old mother, the source of her recipes, slumbers in a rocking chair. Dayra serves a lovely fish soup, made of sierra heads, coconut water, potatoes and coriander, followed by the classic Cartagena fish platter, sierra fried whole and served with green salad, boiled rice and a patacon. There’s also a novelty: another chunk of boiled plantain, lurid pink in colour and synthetically sweet of taste. It’s plátano tentación, cooked in Kola Román, says Dayra, who, amazed that we haven’t heard of the beverage, produces a king-size plastic bottle of startlingly pink liquid – Cartagena’s very own fizzy drink. Dayra’s use of Kola Román is not some populist aberration, it turns out: plátano tentación also crops up in the sumptuous surroundings of El Gobernador, courtesy of Viviana Lievano, accompanying a sophisticated 72-hour-cooked interpretation of the classic beef posta negra Cartagenera.
It’s surprising that nobody offers a rum with Kola Román, a Cartagena Libre waiting to be invented. This seems an obvious combination in view of the heavy Cuban influence (think mojitos and daiquiris) in the city’s cocktail repertoire, backed up by an assortment of tropical juices. In the case of Dictador rum, the addition of any cola would be sacrilege. Dictador is Cartagena’s top-quality rum, produced in prize-winning vintage limited-edition and sought after by international aficionados for its rich burnt caramel taste. Introduced to the company’s owner, I’m given a quick tutorial on Colombian rum and its place amongst the nation’s drinks. For a major sugar-cane nation, Colombia, it seems, is backwards when it comes to rum, partly due to an antiquated semi-government monopoly combined with opaque restrictions on sales outside a brand’s home province. Dictador sells more widely outside Colombia than within.
Even more idiosyncratic is Scotch whisky, a Colombian favourite. An entire distillery in Scotland is devoted to supplying the Colombian thirst for a brand named Old Parr. It’s particularly prized in the cowboy-and-accordion badlands of the Guajira peninsula, northwest of Cartagena, though virtually unknown in the rest of the world.
As far as Cartagenan nightlife is concerned, Old Parr by the bottle is the thing in dimly lit vallenato dancehalls such as the Rio Badillo. Meanwhile, rum or aguardiente is drunk in salsa joints such as Donde Fidel, a terrific bar for ageing devotees of 1970s New York salsa dura. Beer provides back-up in both cases. As for champeta, pretty much anything goes. And if heading out to the barrios to find a picó party seems somewhat foolhardy, it’s worth checking out the well-run Bazurto Social Club in Getsemani, where you can even join in a sort of champeta line dance, at the risk of diminishing any street cred you may have.
However, you don’t really need the disco: hanging around Bazurto market itself you’ll hear all the best music anyway, and you can eat the best fish and bump into most of the best cooks of Cartagena all under one, admittedly very ramshackle, roof.
Where to Stay
Anandá Hotel Boutique A centrally located, smart and luxurious modern conversion of a series of historic mansions complete with interior patios and excellent facilities. Doubles from £190 per night. Calle del Cuartel, Centro Histórico, Cartagena, 00 575 664 4452, http://anandacartagena.com
Bastión Luxury Hotel An elegant luxury hotel with modern rooms and one of the best restaurants in town behind a beautiful historic facade. The design is sober but attractive. Doubles from £210 per night. 6-87 Calle del Sargento Mayor, Centro Histórico, Cartagena, 00 575 642 4100, http://bastionluxuryhotel.com
Bovedas de Santa Clara Hotel Boutique A small (18 rooms) and exquisite converted convent across the road from Gabriel García Márquez’s former house, just inside city walls. Doubles from £205 per night. 39 Carrera 2, San Diego, Cartagena, 00 575 650 4460, http://bovedasdesantaclara.com
Delirio Hotel A bright, pleasant, medium-range hotel with smart white modern rooms. It is just two minutes’ walk from the cathedral. Doubles from £100 per night. 35-27 Calle de la Iglesia, Centro Histórico, Cartagena, 00 575 660 2404, http://deliriohotel.com
Hotel Don Pedro de Heredia Nice mid-range accommodation a short stroll from the cafés and shops of San Diego barrio, with antique-style furnishings and decor. Doubles from £58 per night. 35-74 Calle Primera de Badillo, Centro Histórico, Cartagena, 00 575 664 7270, http://hoteldonpedrocartagena.com
Where to Eat
Prices are for two people for three courses, including alcohol, unless otherwise stated.
El Boliche This popular informal place in a bustling barrio serves reliable traditional dishes including seafood and ceviche. Try the octopus stewed with aubergine. From £35. 38-17 Calle Cochera del Hobo, San Diego, Cartagena, 00 575 660 0074
Carmen An intimate modern restaurant with inventive cuisine strong on fish and complex cocktails. Try the duo de cangrejo (pan-seared crab cake). From £50. Anandá Hotel Boutique, 36-77 Calle del Cuartel, 00 575 660 6795, http://carmenrestaurante.com.co
La Cocina de Pepina A Cartagena institution founded by the late Pepina, a student of traditional gastronomy. It’s a small, cheery bistro with queues at peak hours, excellent classic cuisine and friendly service. Best is the beef posta negra a la Cartagenera. From £32. Callejon Vargas, Getsemani, http://lacocinadepepina.blogspot.com
El Gobernador One of the city’s best restaurants has elegant decor in tones of dark wood and wrought steel, a conservative clientele and top-notch cuisine marrying a traditional repertoire with state-of-the-art technique. Try the langostina with aguardiente foam, fried cassava bread and salad of green mango. From £100. Bastión Luxury Hotel, 6-87 Calle del Sargento Mayor, Centro Histórico, 00 575 642 4100, http://bastionluxuryhotel.com
El Kilo A smart new restaurant specialising in seafood, ceviche, fish a la parrillada (grilled on the barbecue), arroces (rice) and paellas. It’s the place to go to taste good Caribbean ceviches in cool and comfortable surroundings. From £35. 36-51 Calle Segunda del Badillo, Centro Histórico, Cartagena, 00 575 664 1779
María Boasting a pretty, colourful, animated interior, expect excellent service and delicious dishes combining local ingredients with European touches. Go for the grilled octopus, potatoes, bacon and black olives. From £40. Calle del Colegio, 34-60 Local 2, Centro Histórico, Cartagena, 00 575 660 5380, http://mariacartagena.com
Mila The Cartagena branch of a pasteleria/café operation run by Mila Vargas. The pretty design recalls the aesthetic of Kensington transplanted to the Caribbean. It offers local and European sandwiches and cakes, plus traditional snacks such as carimanolas and patacones. From £15 for light dish and coffee. 35-76 Calle de la Iglesia, Centro Histórico, Cartagena, 00 575 664 4607, http://mila.com.co
Proyecto Caribe An itinerant pop-up restaurant aiming to rediscover and evolve innovative versions of Colombia’s coastal food heritage. Places, dates and prices vary.
- Aji: Small sweet but piquant pepper
- Arepa: Flat disc of maize or corn flour, usually fried, often filled with ground meat, or hollowed then filled with an egg and refried, in which case it becomes a typical Colombian arepa de huevo
- Carimañolas: Cassava fritters, stuffed with cheese or meat
- Corozo: Small dark-coloured cherry-like palm fruit used in sauces
- Fish: Sierra (saw fish, a sort of mackerel), robalo (sea bass from islands off the Caribbean coast), sabalo (tarpon) and mojarra (like tilapia) are common
- Frijoles/guandules: Common pulses, black beans and pigeon peas
- Jaiba: Small mangrove crab
- Platanos: Plantains, similar to bananas, steamed or boiled
- Tubers: Starchy root vegetables are staples, usually boiled or steamed and served with garlic sauce as an accompaniment to main course.
Philip Sweeney and Sarah Coghill travelled courtesy of ProColombia and Avianca. Visit http://colombia.travel and http://avianca.com for information.
This article was published on 30th November 2016 so certain details may not be up to date.