CARTAGENA AND BOGOTÁ ARE NOW HOME TO TRENDY HOTELS, QUALITY EATERIES, AND RICH CULTURAL EXPERIENCES THAT ARE MAKING COLOMBIA SOUTH AMERICA’S VENERABLE COMEBACK KID. BY LISA MISCHIANTI
One pungent whiff of Aguardiente, the infamously potent anise-flavored Colombian spirit, inspires apprehension. It’s bold, unfamiliar, and, frankly, there have been some stories. But venture a taste and the local liquor offers a smoldering burn and subtle sweetness that, ultimately, make for a damn good time. Don’t always trust a first impression.
For decades, Colombia was notorious for its multibillion dollar cocaine industry led by the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. But today the country is experiencing a modern cultural renaissance. This much is evident upon entering Tcherassi Hotel and Spa, an exquisite 250-year-old refurbished colonial mansion in the port city of Cartagena. Opened in 2009 by Colombian-born fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi, the luxurious seven-room boutique lodging is an enchanting blend of old and new, seamlessly incorporating the building’s original stonework into an otherwise sleek and pristine ambience accented with artistic touches. From hand-sewn tapestries crafted in Tcherassi’s atelier to custom chandeliers in the style of her jewelry, the hotel matches the beauty of its surrounding historical district.
Old city Cartagena is best wandered aimlessly. It packs all the romance promised of a preserved Spanish settlement protected by centuries-old stone walls, and has a wonderful urban-Caribbean quality that pairs pastel buildings and lush vegetation with the vibrant cultural scene typical of a coastal metropolis. In the center of town, readers of Gabriel García Márquez will recognize the Portal de los Dulces. Here, a line of ladies set up shop under an arched passageway selling homemade sweets out of old-timey glass jars with handwritten labels, the most delicious of which is a macaroon-like coconut cluster confection, and the most peculiar of which is the “muñeca de leche,” a cream-caramel figurine of a baby. One quickly learns that sugar, fried fare, fish, and red meat comprise essentially the entire Colombian food pyramid. At the highly touted El Santísimo, the waitress brings her favorite items on the menu: a plate of carimañolas, which are cone-shaped yucca, beef, and cheese fritters served with a spiced sour cream dipping sauce, a cut of beef with a side of plantains marinated in the super-saccharine, bright red Colombian Kola Román, and a seafood stew over coconut rice. No complaints here.
Outside the old city walls is the San Felipe de Barajas Castle, a fortress dating back to the 1600s that constitutes South America’s biggest Spanish-built defensive stronghold during the country’s colonization. There is also Getsemaní, a neighborhood that comes alive at nightfall. This once-dangerous hood is now home to a number of up-and-coming spots. Salsa is the law of the land, and Café Havana is king. Attracting a diverse crowd (even Hillary Clinton famously shook her stuff there), it features live music every night. Sit back and watch the dancers—particularly the older Colombian gentlemen, who can seriously move. The second-floor balcony salsa club Quiebra Canto attracts a younger crowd and proudly showcases its collection of over 5,000 salsa CDs, all from different countries and decades. (During the day, it hosts a cinema club with screenings and lectures.) If instead you’re looking for a chill cocktail experience, check out the recently opened Demente. An easygoing environment with exposed brick, kitschy framed mirrors, chalkboard walls, rocking chairs at every table, and an adorable pet bulldog all make the visit worthwhile.
Just over an hour’s plane ride south of Cartagena, Bogotá has all of its liveliness and none of its tropicality. Nestled near the Andes, its weather is unpredictable. So much so that, while sipping sangria on the rooftop of the B.O.G. Hotel, two local college students offer that the newspapers don’t even bother printing a daily forecast. Opened just last year in the vibrant Zona T area, the B.O.G. is a smart, minimalistic, modern space conceived by famed Portuguese interior designer Nini Andrade Silva. The sophisticated setting has become a social scene for young people seeking stylish nightlife and foodies in pursuit of chef Leonor Espinosa’s decadent Colombian fusion at in-house restaurant La Leo. (Here, the steak is so tender it's served with a butter knife.)
The two students suggest walking along Carrera 7 near the intersection of Calle 55 for an afternoon of shopping, in an area where a cluster of forward-thinking boutiques is cropping up amidst a largely mall-oriented retail culture. One store, Resistencia, peddles everything from records and knickknacks to clothing from Colombian labels, while John Bandera and 2do Acto cover streetwear, and an awesome menswear brand, JUAN, offers sweaters apt for borrowing from the boys. For items with a bit more backstory, check out Calle de los Anticuarios, a street populated by antique shops carrying everything from furniture to vintage books and prints.
Unlike the walkable Cartagena, Bogotá’s sprawl often calls for transportation by taxi. In the city’s more tourist-friendly Central and Northern regions, you’ll find a number of great cultural sights. One such is the Fernando Botero museum, showcasing the work of Colombia’s most notable fine artist, who possesses a propensity for painting plus-sized people (and equally corpulent fruits and musical instruments). On the other end of the artistic spectrum is the Bogotá Graffiti Tour. Run by Christian Petersen (a.k.a. CRISP), it examines the city’s robust urban art scene.
Bogotá’s culinary offerings are equally impressive. An area called La Macarena is packed with hip eateries and Zona Gis full of fine dining establishments, one of which is Emilia Romagna, the five-year-old restaurant of Mario Batali pupil Daniel Castaño (who also oversees Vera in Cartagena). The staff grows its own basil and tomatoes, raises its own chickens, and cures its own meat on the premises, resulting in truly spectacular Italian food that rivals anything I ate on a recent trip to Sicily. Offering a more atypical experience is Andrés D.C., an enormous multistory fever dream of a place where high-quality Colombian fare meets performance art meets an all-night dance club. Waiters are dressed in costumes and patrons are given sashes and tiaras; partiers pack in around the big wooden dining tables; eccentric objects hang from the walls and ceilings, balloons and confetti fly; there’s even a cotton candy machine. Despite the chaos, the traditional dishes served up are some of the finest in the city—try the Bandeja Paisa, a platter with a multiplicity of meats, beans, rice, plantains, and avocado, topped with a fried egg.
On a Saturday night, the streets outside of Andrés D.C. are full of people laughing and reveling. I see two twentysomethings vacate a taxi curbside. Wary travelers are warned of the potential perils of hailing a street cab. I pause for a moment and consider—then I open the door, and just get in.
LAN Colombia Airlines: With fully reclining seats, personal entertainment sets, and top-of-the-line meal service, LAN's business class option is worth a splurge.
Cerro de Monserrate: This mountaintop attraction offers the most beautiful panoramic view of the city. You will also find a row of vendors selling coca leaf tea for altitude sickness and salted, baked "big-butted ants" for snacking.
Museo del Oro: Dedicated to Colombia's other national treasure, gold (emeralds are the first), this museum houses an enormous and incredible collection of pre-colonial native jewelry.
El Bandido Bistro: An adorable cafe at the end of Calle de los Anticuarios, this bar-restaurant has an almost European vibe with vintage furniture and a grand piano for live performances.
Armando Records: A rooftop dance spot that serves crazy cocktails (think a green apple Hpnotiq concoction with an herbal teabag steeping in it), it also has a downstairs bar area with mirrored ceilings and forestlike decor.
Convento de la Popa: Situated on a mountaintop, this site boasts the finest view of the city from above.
La Cevicheria: This tiny spot's take on the tangy, citrusy seafood dish ceviche comes highly recommended, and rightfully so.
Café del Mar: Located atop the old city walls, this is the perfect spot for an outdoor drink at sunset.
La Casa de Socorro: This place was packed with big groups of locals on their lunch breaks. Get the classic seafood stew, served with coconut rice and fried plantain pancakes.
Vera: The Tcherassi's in-house restaurant serves up Italian-inspired fare that is nothing short of magnificent. Try the honey-glazed pork with caramelized fennel.