Two decades ago, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) controlled a swath of jungle the size of Switzerland, and the group’s brazen criminal activities were notorious around the world. But since then, Colombia has come to enjoy a measure of safety unseen in decades. Its mountain-backed capital city, Bogotá, is well worth visiting for its excellent museums and historic neighborhoods such as La Candelaria and Usaquén. But the centerpiece of any first visit to Colombia should be the exquisite colonial city of Cartagena, still surrounded by the extensive walls and fortifications that were originally constructed to repel Caribbean pirates. Its wealthy residents built elaborate mansions and palaces, many of which have now been converted into atmospheric hotels and restaurants.
Chef Jorge Escandón
Adventurous gourmets should consider spending a few hours with chef Jorge Escandón, owner of La Cevicheria, a casual seafood restaurant near the Plaza de San Diego. Escandón leads groups through Cartagena’s colorful Bazurto Market. First, we browsed the seafood stalls, where he selected fresh tuna for our lunch along with some live shrimp to accompany it. Past the gory butcher stalls — be aware that the market is not sanitized for tourists — we emerged into a sea of colorful fruit stands.
Escandón introduced us to 11 fruits rarely found outside Colombia, including the sweet potato-like níspero, aromatic guanabana, citrusy granadilla and perfumed mamey. From there, we headed to Escandón’s charming beach house to make tuna and shrimp risotto, which felt less like a lesson and more like cooking with a friend.
García Márquez’s Masterpiece
Before your visit, I recommend reading “Love in the Time of Cholera,” the famous novel by Gabriel García Márquez set in 19th-century Cartagena.
Look for cocktails using delicious and unusual fresh fruit juices, such as lulo and corozo. Ubiquitous aguardiente, the national spirit, has a pleasing anise note. El Coro Lounge Bar at the surprisingly atmospheric Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena mixes delicious cocktails. The accommodating barman offered to make a customized drink for me. He combined fresh lulo juice, aguardiente and sugar to make a cocktail of unimpeachable Colombian pedigree. It tasted perfectly balanced, with anise overtones tempered by creamy citrus notes.
The Caribbean island of Providencia remains remarkably unspoiled, likely because it’s difficult to reach. Those who make the effort to go will discover uncrowded beaches and brightly painted clapboard houses hugging the steep, rocky coastline. We lunched at El Divino Niño, relaxing at a table on the sands of Southwest Bay beach in the shade of an almond tree. Although we sat at a simple plastic table and chairs, it was bliss to dine on such fresh seafood mere feet from the water’s edge.
To phone hotels in Colombia, dial 011 (international access) + 57 (Colombia code) + city code and local numbers.
Same as New York (EST).
Although Bogotá is close to the equator, its high altitude results in pleasantly cool weather throughout the year. Cartagena has a tropical climate, with a dry season between mid-November and early April.
Bogotá, Tel. (57) 1-275-2000. Consular Agent: Barranquilla, Tel. (57) 5-353-2001.
Colombian peso (COP). Fluctuating rate valued at COP4,049 = US$1.00 as of April 2020. Note: Our suggested hotels quote rates in US$.