You may want to head to Colombia just for the food. During my five-day stay in the coastal town of Cartagena, my taste buds danced with happiness. From a simple breakfast of freshly cut meats and cheese to a paella lunch, then ending with a seafood dinner, there was always something delicious to look forward to. When it was time for a snack, plenty of arepa carts (a traditional corn or flour cake filled with cheese and butter) patrolled the popular streets of the walled city. It was easy to cool off from the staggering heat with an icy snow cone churned from a manual ice machine, or recharge with a heaping plate of juicy fruit from the colorful basket ladies that roamed the streets of the old city. The mamoncillo fruit was definitely my favorite find – a small grape-sized acidic fruit filled with fleshy pulp that you squeezed out with your teeth. Just watch out for the pit! If you want to know the absolute best thing to order for dinner, simply ask for the Pescado Frito (or Colombian-Style Fried Fish). It’s traditionally served with coconut rice, plantains, salad, and garnished with a wedge of lime. Don’t be afraid of the word “fried,” this crispy fish is anything but greasy. And the ceviche? GET IT. That’s all I’m going to say. If you need something to wash it all down with, try the refreshing Colombian beer, Aquila, or opt for a traditional drink called aguapanela (sugar cane drink).
Have you ever run down the cobble-stoned streets of Cartagena carrying a coconut, a can of bubbles, a fan, and a sack of beans? I have. This is what happens when you crash a Colombian wedding. On the day our team checked into the La Merced Hotel, we met Juanita, a blushing bride-to-be who just happened to be getting hitched a few doors down from us. She insisted that we attend not only her reception but the beautiful ceremony taking place at Santo Toribio. One day later, we threw on our best outfit and headed to the church. The hour-long mass was traditional, ornate, and breathtaking – each guest was given a packet of beans and bubbles and freshly cut coconut to shower the newly married couple. As the newlyweds exited as man and wife, traditional Colombian dancers called palenqueras escorted the wedding guests down to the reception at La Casa de la Maria Luisa. The men led the way, beating their drums while the female cumbia dancers proudly showed off their moves with their large skirts. The energy along the streets was electric and the immediate offering of an ice cold mojito from the bartender at the reception venue made it easy to get in party mode. The bride and groom made sure to stop by every table to say hello while the waiters kept the champagne and rum flowing. A live band lured everyone onto the dance floor – complete with fog machine and sparklers – while a full buffet and assorted table of desserts kept guests full. You could feel the love, not only between the bride and groom, but between the families and guests lucky enough to take part in such a momentous occasion. I felt honored to be a part of it.
It’s hard to talk about Colombia without mentioning color. It was the first thing I noticed about Cartagena. From the ten-foot ornate doorways and brightly painted buildings to the breathtaking sunsets and flowers that seemed to be in bloom everywhere, there was always something to grab your attention. Half of my camera was filled with images of the lovely doorways that lined the streets of the “walled city.” Each one possessed its own character thanks to the old metal hinges that were accented with unique knockers. We were told by our tour guide, Joyce, that each knocker represented the family’s social status during colonial times. Families were eager to show off their wealth using these decorative motifs. Royalty associated with lizards and iguanas while those in the merchant class featured fish or mermaids.
In the mood to spend some pesos? Then Cartagena is the place to splurge. The American dollar goes a long way and vendors love bargaining with tourists, so come ready to make a deal. The classic Panama hat can be seen stacked high on practically every street corner and can be bought for less than $20, as vendors walk around selling hammocks and handmade jewelry. I definitely wasn’t leaving Colombia without a Wayuu Mochila bag – a traditional circular purse that is used to carry food and water. These intricately decorated bags take up to 20 days to make because each one is hand woven using thick cotton threads. Even the straps are woven with a variety of colors to create a unique pattern.
If you’re looking for a tropical destination with warm and welcoming people, delicious food, and plenty of culture, then Colombia is your next stop. As a New Yorker, the short four and half hour flight opened up my eyes to the Latin world that I can’t wait to explore further.