Founded almost 500-years ago as a Spanish bastion in the New World, Cartagena preserves a sense of timelessness. With many graceful colonial buildings renovated as boutique hotels, cafes and restaurants, visitors relish in exploring a city where the old and new can be separated by a courtyard.
For the frequent traveler to Colombia’s most lauded destination, Cartagena surreptitiously changes beneath the surface faster than one can imagine. Such is the case with the city’s eateries, where from one moment to next, out go the plastic tables and beer bottles to be replaced with a sake bar.
On a recent walk through this UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, I began to identify places that have stood the test of time, while discovering some new establishments. The walk begins in the Plaza Fernández Madrid, a small square facing the picturesque Santo Toribio church in the San Diego quarter, which earned a reputation among locals as one of the more shady places within the ramparts; not because of its big-leaf trees, but the characters that headed there for late night company. But a face-lift last year by the mayoralty of the central statue of the Neogranadine statesman, as well the installation of good lighting has returned this plaza from neglect. Among the newcomers to Fernández Madrid are two high-end restaurants, Moshi and Lobo del Mar.
With their take on international flavors while using Colombian ingredients, Moshi looks to Japan for its culinary inventiveness, while Lobo del Mar to the Mediterranean. As part of Carmen, the acclaimed Medelllín-based restaurant founded by the Cordon Bleu-trained chef Carmen Ángel, Moshi includes a 7-course tasting menu that can be paired with wine ($271,000). As an alternative try a selection of cold plates such as the seared salmon Tataki ($34,000) and Spicy Crab roll ($25,000). Other house specialties include the Cá Kho in which fresh catch, lobster and tiger shrimp are braised in a clay pot ($66,000 pesos); or the Chazuke of duck breast glazed with a reduction of the coastal fruit corozo. Also on Calle del Santisimo is Lobo del Mar, the brainchild of Spanish chef Mar Alonso, where guests can choose between indoor or outdoor seating. An imposing bar with a large selection of gin sets the mood for an eclectic dining experience inspired by the sea.
On the Carrera 8, also known as Calle Cochera Del Hobo, between the bustling plazas San Diego and Fernández Madrid is Pescadito Cevichería, noticeable from the street for its colorful wood-paneled interior. In this small venue with a handful of tables, clients are attended to by one waiter and restaurateur Faud Akel, whose most recent venture is to deliver authentic coastal ceviche at affordable prices. Served in glass gelato cups and with a cone of French fries, my coctél de camarón had just enough piquant to accompany a house bottle of Pinot Bianco. Pescadito’s informal setting, friendly service makes it a gem on the “What’s new in Cartagena” list.
The gastronomic offering in the Old City is as layered as Cartagena society, beginning with arepa de huevo sold from dawn to dusk on every street. But, while top-tier restaurants compete for international clientele, finding a meal under $25,000 pesos is no easy task, unless you go where locals go. The search takes me to La Estrella de la India, a cafeteria that has been serving fried fish with coconut rice for more than three decades, and where for a set price of $15,000 pesos a bowl of soup and lemonade are included. This popular lunch-time restaurant overlooking the corner of Carrera 6 with Calle 38 (one block west of Fernández Madrid) delivers on freshness as the turn-over is so fast that even if you have to wait several minutes, you are guaranteed a generous platter of carbs and protein.
Getsemaní is a working-class neighborhood outside the ramparts that for much of its existence was considered the edgy side-kick of Cartagena. After following narrow, winding streets that lead from the Convention Center to Getsemaní’s main landmark, the Santísima Trinidad church, visitors are charmed by splashy street art and small workshops where artisans can be seen plying their trades. Facing the plaza are gastronomic opposites, from the authentic costeño lunch venue Café de la Trinidad to tapas bar Demente where under a retractable roof a cultured crowd sip on signature cocktails.
Cartagena is a destination where food is part of the travel experience, and a walk through the Old City is an encounter with gastronomic diversity. Whether in the mood for a refined meal under the Caribbean sky, or a pizza in the plaza, there’s no shortage of options. And one of the drawbacks of spending a couple days in a timeless city is having to decide on what is cool and, of course, classic.