Cartagena is considered to have some of the best dining options in the Caribbean, frequently mentioned in the travel guides of Bon Appétit, New York Times, Condé Nast and others. Sometimes, though, we just need a morning coffee to wake us up, a bite to eat as we rush from one museum to another, or an ice cream to cool us down. Here are a few special places within the walled city.
For that morning coffee, step through the large arched doors of Abaco into air conditioned peace, where the walls are lined with books and art, and let the culture sink in. On the left side there’s a coffee bar, and tables arranged in the center of the café encourage people to take their time and enjoy conversation over a cup of coffee.
Here coffee is available in all its forms; cappuccino, macchiato, espresso, frappuccino. But hey, we’re in Colombia so you can be sure the fruit juices will also be fantastic. Snacks such as cakes accompany the drinks. And for those that need something a little stronger there’s a selection of whiskey, rum and wines. Much to my pleasant surprise, the café bookstore also carries Colombia’s free English language newspaper, The City Paper.
Calle de la Iglesia con Calle de la Mantilla esquina, No. 3-86 Local 3
Now, I’m going to warn you. What I’m about to recommend is not pretty. It’s in dire need of renovation. The little metal stools are incredibly uncomfortable and definitely too high for anyone’s legs. And the place is way too small.
But at this little corner spot across the street from the Plaza de los Estudiantes, people were lining up to buy pasteles, so we had to investigate why. Stepping into the snack place, we looked at the pasteles fresh out of the oven, and decided they did indeed look good. Once in my hands, I could tell by the light feel of the pastry and the buttery smell that these were going to be worth it. The first bite… all that lightness crumbling in my mouth. Warm, tasty, superb, inviting me to eat more. We went back several times during our stay in Cartagena to make sure we tried all the different kinds; cheese, chicken, meat. And yes, they were all good.
Plaza de los Estudiantes.
Given normal daytime tempera- tures, ice cream in general is bound to be popular in Cartagena. My favorite spot is Mia, which opened early March. The first thing I noticed in the small shop was the elephant. In punk rock clothes. Don’t worry, he’s not real; he’s part of an immense wall design, look- ing pleased after having gorged on Mia ice cream. This irreverent artisan ice cream shop with a love of pop art and animals (they also love goats, giraffes, and chimps) is adorable, but would the ice cream be worth it?
I nudged up to the ice cream fridge to peer into the buckets full of frozen cream concoctions. Old favorites such as amarena (creamy vanilla flavor with superb cherry taste), fragola (Italian for strawberry) and nocciola (hazelnut) are undeniably excellent. Then I got to the tropical flavors, which is what traveling to Cartagena is all about.
Lulo has good color, is refreshing and truly conserves the fruit flavor with an acidic bite. Then I was faced with a very orange sapote ice cream. Zapote? Made into ice cream? I was hesitant, but the flavor of the fruit is well captured.
The undeniable best is arequipe con brevas. Yes, figs and Latin American caramel made into ice cream. Creamy, with a complex flavor; a winner.
Calle Sra. del Carmen No. 33- 41.
And then there are those days when a tourist needs to experience something special. Alma Restaurant hides within the newly-opened Casa San Agustín boutique hotel. The hotel itself feels like a huge spa treatment, with a mesmerizing tropical cool about it. Set within centuries’ old houses renovated to perfection, palm trees sway by the pool, and an incredible sense of calm invades every last detail.
The decoration of Alma brings the romance of the Cartagena streets inside with fachadas and a wood balcony window. The rustic and elegant décor includes touches of wrought iron, fresh flowers on the deep terracotta window-sills, lazy ceiling fans, and thick wood beams.
I ordered a churrasco, it was cooked just right, with good texture and flavor, and the tangy peppers were sliced so thin they were almost spaghetti-like. The slow-cooked lamb is a highly recommended dish. A simple dessert menu in- cludes an excellent crème brûlée, while the chocolate volcano was superb.
The service is leisurely; this is not a place to rush through lunch, but to enjoy the meal and surroundings, which is what vacation is all about after all.
Calle de la Universidad No. 36-44.