If Paris is the city of lights and romance, then Cartagena is her sultry South American sister.
From the explosive color palette of well-preserved colonial architecture to the rhythmic sounds of cumbia music echoing into the streets, and to the air steeped in sea salt and bougainvillea, Cartagena knows how to bring the heat in style.
My visit was arranged by OUT in Colombia (outincolombia.com), which specializes in providing safe and sophisticated experiences for LGBTQ+ travelers, and mine provided me with a lifetime of memories. We began with a tour of the Walls of Cartagena. Constructed in the 16th century, these defensive walls surround the city’s historic center and were declared a World Cultural Heritage Site as the most preserved fortifications in South America.
Within the walls I took a step back into history, walking along narrow cobblestone streets, surrounded by beautifully preserved colonial architecture and technicolor houses (opening photo). A statue of Simón Bolívar overlooks Bolívar Park Plaza (as do embossed photos of all the Ms. Colombias who’ve vied for the Ms. Universe Crown—a more modern cultural lesson).
Women who served as Ms. Colombia are honored in Bolivar Park Plaza
The mammoth colonial doors at the Parroquia San Pedro Claver date back to 1603. The church was once home to Jesuit priest Peter Claver, who was later canonized as the patron saint of slaves due to his lifelong dedication to their cause. You may encounter some Palenqueras, direct descendants of the continent’s first community of free, formerly-enslaved Africans, original resistance fighters who remain a living example of Afro-Caribbean resilience.
Palenqueras are descended from the continent's Black resistance fighters
From the Walled City, we took a treacherous (if thankfully short) drive to the Convento de la Popa, a religious complex and the highest point in Cartagena affording the most spectacular 360-degree view of the city. It’s possible to hike to the top, but the road and surrounding neighborhood can be a bit sketchy.
Convento de la Popa
The climb to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas; the Guardian of Cartagena built on the San Lazaro hill, may be a bit arduous but is worth the effort. You’ll be rewarded with yet another magnificent view, a labyrinth of tunnels, and authentic prison cells. Pro tip: If you aren’t blessed with melanin like me, bring a hat or buy one at the base. You won’t hate yourself afterward.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Casa Lola (casalola.com/en) is a sanctuary disguised as a beautifully appointed, chic, boutique luxury hotel. Located in Getsemani just blocks from the Walled City, it is a bastion of revitalization and cool. The rooftop pools are a dreamy respite from the city below.
The rooftop pool at the Casa Lola Hotel
Later we headed to the waterfront for dinner at Fuerte San Sebastian del Pastelillo (restaurantefuertedelpastelillo.com) where the fish was delicious, the wine delectable, and the ambiance conducive to conversation.
The front door of the Casa Lola Hotel hides a small urban oasis
On the way back from dinner, I encountered a small group of young men with a boombox rapping for sport. When they learned I was from Chicago, they launched into an explosive freestyle of just about everything they knew of the Windy City including Michael Jordan and Al Capone, and which they ended with a stirring chorus of “Viva, Chicago. Viva, Chicago.” If you come across them, give them a few bucks and turn on your video. It’s a memory that will last longer than any trinket you could buy.
We ended our first evening with a little stroll that led to the plaza of the Church of the Holy Trinity, where locals gathered and tourists mingled together in the tropical heat singing and dancing under the stars. We then took an impromptu graffiti tour walking toward The Torre de Reloj in the Plaza de los Coches.
Palenquera murals in Barrio Getsemani
Casa Lola’s breakfast selection of various fruits, breads, and more the following morning was delicious and served (of course) with plenty of hot, freshly brewed authentic Colombian coffee.
I’ve always been a water person, who loves being in, on, or even near water, so the forty-five-minute speedboat ride jetting across the water to Las Islas (lasislas.com.co) was a blast. The eco-friendly yet luxurious resort features white sand beaches and a sparkling pool. Nestled next to the Parque Nacional Natural Corales del Rosario y de San Bernard, the hotel is perfectly situated for those who want to explore the mangrove forests. In addition to offering activities like kayaking and snorkeling, the resort has a wide range of wellness therapies whether you want a massage or something more exotic. I’m a firm believer in chakra sound therapy and was over-the-moon excited when the singing bowls were played.
The natural beauty of the Hotel Las Islas on Isla Barú
Dinner that evening was at Celele (celelerestaurante.com), frequently named one of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. Chefs Jaime Rodríguez Camacho and Sebastián Pinzón Giraldo research, document, and share regional techniques and traditional recipes in danger of being lost. They do their part to improve the lives of farmers, peasant families, artisans, and micro-producers as they source local ingredients.
Celele chef and owner Jaime Rodríguez Camacho in the kitchen
Celele has 30 tables and an open kitchen in a transformed colonial home. Watching the chefs create was pure theater: the preparation of our five-course tasting menu was graceful choreography. Each dish was such a delightful surprise from the pickled cashews to the tongue pastrami and the reimagined Cartagena-style Braised Beef.
Traveling with OUT in Colombia (author pictured far left on middle row
Cartagena seduced me with its history, culture, people, and natural elements. From its religious roots to its place in history as a welcoming refuge for formerly enslaved Africans, Cartagena had me torn between planning my next visit and never wanting to leave.
This piece originally ran in Out Traveler print magazine, which is now available on newsstands.