This October, Tasting Table is getting away from it all. Come away with us as we explore the world of travel.
Walking the narrow cobblestone streets of Cartagena's Old City makes you feel like you're living in a Hemingway novel. Visitors to the Cuban-inflected walled city will lose themselves in its colorful architecture, rich history, handcrafted cigars and, most importantly, spectacular food and drinks. Though the dining scene in Cartagena may be a well-kept secret in the States, travelers from the lower Americas have known for years of Cartagena's culinary scene that's modern and diverse while maintaining an eye to the past, much like the city itself.
Alongside the burgeoning dining scene is a growing cocktail culture that could rival the hippest cities in the world. Bartenders are taking local ingredients to create flavors unique to the area while maintaining a loyalty to Colombia's moneymaker: the rum drink.
Before you scoff, know that the rum drink reigns here with good reason: Sugarcane is one of the country's biggest industries, and the heat in Cartagena is beyond stifling at midday, giving a whole new understanding to the tradition of siestas and tropical rum drinks. And though everywhere you go, you can find the standard mojitos and coco locos (a Colombian specialty, typically served in a coconut), a few envelope pushers are taking the tropical drink to the next level.
Coco loco, Colombia's signature tropical cocktail
If you eat only one meal in Cartagena, have it at Carmen. A favorite among visitors from around the world, Carmen is known for its generous tasting menu and expansive drink list. When you go, order one of its twists on classic cocktails like a mojito made with hierbabuena and lulo (a native fruit) or a pepino vesper (a cucumber and cilantro martini).
Up the street is the Michelin-starred chef Ramón Freixa's restaurant, Erre, where the rooftop offers almost-360-degree views of Cartagena. If you're sitting outside on the casual terrace, try its version of a coco loco that uses house-made cream of coconut. In the more upscale bistro (long pants are required), go for creative gin cocktails like a rosemary gin fizz made with local mora fruit (a berry similar to a blackberry).
Just outside the formidable wall that wraps around the city is the hip graffitied neighborhood of Getsemaní, where an art and nightlife scene has turned the once-seedy area into an eclectic subdivision (basically, it's where all the cool kids go). You could easily spend plenty of time just sitting outside the Plaza la Trinidad with a Club Colombia beer and watch the performers and gathered crowds, but you definitely don't want to miss some key watering holes.
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To start, have a cocktail on the cozy roof of Malagana, known for its fresh-made fruit drinks, like the house-made limonada con coco, a frosty rum drink made with puréed coconut meat and fresh lemons. Afterward, stroll down the hostel-filled Calle 30, where you'll pass the famous Cafe Havana, find some of the best street food (arepas are a must) and maybe even stop by another rooftop bar at Hostel Media Luna for impromptu dancing.
You can't visit Getsemaní without going to Demente, a dark hideaway featuring rocking-chair dining and an ever-changing menu. Its cocktail list offers drinks like the green mango daiquiri, which adds a bitter edge to the classic rum drink. Don't leave without taking one of its signature shots: licorice-smacked Aguardente (Colombia's signature spirit made from sugarcane) or the Madre Sucia, which is coffee-infused rum and tequila.
Craft cocktails at El Barón
But the true gem of Cartagena's cocktail scene is the little bar El Barón, nestled on the corner of the Plaza de San Pedro Claver. Inside the cozy spot, vested bartenders craft some of the most creative cocktails in the city—and if it weren't for the Spanish-speaking patrons, you'd swear you were in your favorite stateside cocktail lounge. The friendly staff use ingredients from pink peppercorns to aloe juice, and can be seen exercising a multitude of techniques from dry-ice freezing glasses to torching various garnishes. (See the bar's recipe for a Doña Frida.)
With a direct flight that leaves from JFK and more and more Western tourists visiting the country (brushing up on your Spanish is still recommended), Cartagena is increasingly becoming a notable destination for travelers seeking culinary delights. But if your future plans don't include crossing continents anytime soon, we've adapted a cocktail from the savvy mixologists at El Barón to help give you un poquito taste of the Great Walled City.
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