7 Ways to Feel the Love in Cartagena, Colombia
Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” is a favorite of diehard romantics. And while the Nobel laureate never disclosed the setting of this epic love story, his onetime home of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast is widely considered the inspiration. To see why, you need only stroll the old city’s cobblestone streets on a balmy fall day — ideally, hand in hand with your amor.
And though you’ll feel like you’re traveling a few centuries back once you’re inside Cartagena de Indias’ seaside ramparts — flanked by row after row of colorful colonial facades — the actual journey there is quite fast: Delta can get you to this enchanted city on nonstop flights from Atlanta in less than five hours.*
Here’s the romantic’s guide to everything you should do upon landing.
Trot around Town
The horse-drawn carriages known here as coches trace their local origins to the 16th century. To get a sense of what life was like then (and since), hop aboard for a leisurely lesson in the UNESCO-anointed old town, where coche drivers double as guides. Most excursions depart at night, when the neighborhood’s baseline beauty — think ochre-tinted facades, bougainvillea-draped balconies and plaza after plaza — looks all the more magical in the golden light. And don’t miss the Cathedral de San Pedro Claver, a particular stunner under the stars.
Take a Beach Break
All powdery shores and profuse palms, the Rosario Islands inspire love at first sight. But below the surface of that transparent water is where the real seduction lies in wait: forests of Technicolor coral and their equally eye-popping inhabitants (more than 500 species of fish roam this protected national park). So whether you and your bae do better as dive buddies or snorkel partners, you won’t be disappointed.
To see for yourselves, you can pay about $50 each to join a scheduled departure from Cartagena — or go big and rent your own boat. Either way, you’ll reach the islands in less than an hour — and should you decide you’re never leaving (or at least not for the night), you’ll find romantic room and board along the shore.
Catch the Sunset
Sit atop the walls of the Old City and watch the sun slowly dissolve into the sea. But first, stock up at a neighborhood street vendor: Little else pairs better with this spectacle than fresh limeade or coco frio (chilled coconut milk).
And though no real romantic could tire of this ritual, you may want to change it up at least once during your stay, in which case, check out a rival sunset spectating spot: the third floor of the Plaza Bocagrande, where you’ll find panoramic views and tasty fare; or the outdoor Cafe del Mar, home to great music and drinks; or — always a classic — the deck of a sunset cruise boat in Cartagena Bay.
Dance into the Night
Turn any given corner in old Cartagena, and chances are you’ll find dancing — sometimes literally in the street. To join the crowd, simply order up an aguardiente cocktail (the best local loosener of hips and inhibitions), then hit the dance floor. Or cobblestones, as the case may be.
If you prefer a little prep, take a lesson for two at Crazy Salsa, then try out your new moves at the adjoining bar. Of course, Cartagena’s musical identity goes well beyond salsa — into such styles as vallenato (made famous by Colombian singer Carlos Vives), cumbia (there’s arguably no greater global ambassador for the dance than Shakira, who comes from nearby Barranquilla). The Afro-Latin fusion sounds of champeta, now firmly ingrained in Colombia’s mainstream, can best be enjoyed via all night dance parties at Bazurto Social Club. There are also plenty of other Latin beats that have made their way into the local clubs, from pachanga to bachata, so failure to get your groove on isn’t an option.
The most iconic dance spots to hit during your stay: Cafe Havana, where the live music is legend; and the original salsa bar Quiebra-Canto, for more late-night fun and a great mix of locals and tourists.
Start with a seemingly limitless supply of fresh seafood, tropical fruit and coconuts. Then factor in every conceivable combination of cornmeal, cheese, rice and eggs. Now throw in some garlic and onion for good measure, and you’ll start to get a sense of what’s on the menu in Cartagena, where Spanish, African and indigenous flavors blend in endlessly delicious iterations.
So if the way to the heart truly is through the stomach, consider Cartagena the ultimate express lane. A few of the best stops: Bazurto Market, where you shouldn’t miss the arepas de huevos (ground corn filled with egg); La Paletteria, home to lulo (a local, lime-like citrus) and tamarind popsicles, among many other beloved varieties; Carmen, a Colombian-global fusion hot spot (think crab cakes with plantain); and La Cevicheria, a local legend and Bourdain favorite with potentially long — but always worthwhile — waits.
For fresh fruit and a great Insta-opp, keep an eye out for the palenqueras who roam the old town — though they’re pretty hard to miss, what with their Colombian flag-colored polleras (the fun, flouncy national frock) and fruit-filled headgear.
And if either of you is the kind of sensualist for whom only amazing chocolate will do, you’re in luck: Colombia grows some of the world’s best cacao, as you’ll learn at Cartagena’s Choco Museum, as well as local sweets purveyors. At El Portal de los Dulces, you can literally buy happiness in the form of indulgent sweets called alegrias (happiness) alongside cocadas (coconut candy), tamarind candy and other fruity sweet magic.
Pop the Question or Tie the Knot
With so much romance suffused into Cartagena’s “amethyst afternoons and nights of antic breezes,” as García Márquez described them, there’s almost no bad place to propose, though the old city wall at sunset is about as dramatic as you can get. In fact, so many people are inspired to pop the question in Cartagena, you can easily find agencies to help plan and capture the moment.
Of course, Cartagena also serves as a wedding backdrop for the books, as it were. From colonial churches to luxury boutique hotels, venue options abound. You can even host your wedding at Casa Pombo, a stunning 16th-century mansion.
The bonus? Endless “weddingmoon” options close at hand.
After several laps around the old city walls, your legs will thank you for checking out the stellar couples’ treatments on offer at the local spas. So Spa at the Sofitel Santa Clara is known for especially good massages, and the Aurum Spa at Casa San Agustin, has a unique hammam ritual: You first exfoliate each other (or a therapist can do the honors) with a scrub of coffee, volcanic mud and purifying tobacco. And although a vow to return to Cartagena together isn’t officially part of the treatment, you’ll find yourselves making that promise anyway.
Ready to go? Find a Delta flight or vacation package to Cartagena and plan your romantic escape.
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