cartagena, colombia: a colonial port city less than 5 hours from nyc

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By Guest Blogger Vince Catalanotto.

cartagenaIntrepid American travelers, are you tired of the usual warm weather locales of Las Vegas, the Bahamas, or Cancun? Are you looking for something a bit more exotic and less suburbanized than Aruba? Look no further than Cartagena, Colombia.

Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, is located on the Caribbean Sea, isolated from the notorious drug-fueled violence of Bogota and Medellin. Now reachable in 4 ½ hours from JFK on non-stop Jet Blue service, this colonial walled city is attracting ever-increasing numbers of American tourists.

A walk through the winding streets of Cartagena reveals colonial architecture that has been left largely intact, although hardly sanitized. A present-day visitor can easily conjure up the early 20th century settings of the novel Love in the Time of Cholera, which was set in this bustling port city. Although some streets of the city are designed to look like any other cruise ship port, there is still a very authentic Latin American experience to be had.

As South America’s toehold in the Caribbean, Cartagena has long been a melting pot of various cultures and traditions. This can be experienced in the present-day restaurant scene.

photo (1)A perfect lunch stop, Collage Charladero opened up in December 2012 to serve both locals and the tourists. Furnished with a pop-art theme of mostly recycled materials, the fare was freshly prepared and quite tasty. The menu ranges from sandwiches, wraps, smoothies, to pasta and burgers as well.

Ambling through the streets on a warm afternoon calls for a refreshing dessert.  La Paletteria is also recently opened, and serves only handmade popsicles. With a wide menu featuring cream, fruit, and water-based flavors, this popsicle shop is a new take on the typical gelato fare that has become so ubiquitous in American tourist destinations. The concept is such a success the owner is already planning to open locations in Bogota, Medellin, and Barranquilla. However, she has so far resisted offers to open in the U.S. due to the challenges of shipping ice cream internationally.

An afternoon in Colombia would not be complete without a cup of coffee. Imagine a time and place before Starbucks, and you can only imagine Juan Valdez Coffee. This retail brand was established in 2002 as a showcase for Colombia’s most notable agricultural export. The stores have had mixed success in the U.S. but are ever-present in Colombia. The menu includes the usual coffees, espressos, lattes, and iced drinks found in most U.S. chain stores.

For a fine dinner, the most obvious choice is La Vitrola. In the evenings, after the cruise ship passengers have left port, this traditional Cuban-Colombian restaurant comes alive with locals enjoying the food and live music. Featuring a long wine list, the restaurants strengths are the seafood dishes. Reservations are suggested.

*Vince is an avid traveler and native New Yorker and writes a blog about the Rockaways, his local community, called Rockawayist.

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