‘I did not get this kind of fashion rush at department stores in Paris. That fresh Caribbean flair was just something else.’
Back in 2016, I was working as a social media manager for Shop LCP, a Manila-based boutique by Pie Alvarez that carried curated fashion finds from all over the globe.
Although my previous job as a styling assistant to celebrity stylist Liz Uy introduced me to fashion’s big names, it was Shop LCP that opened a whole new world to me—true global fashion.
Shop LCP started carrying South American designers that hailed from different regions, some of which were produced by indigenous people and local artisans. I was drawn to how each piece spoke so much of its own culture and personality.
Each item felt like owning a piece of art that exhibited excellent craftsmanship. It was Colombian designers in particular that stood out the most for me. Fun, flirty, and feminine is how I would quickly describe their style.
Since then, Colombian fashion and culture have significantly influenced my style and taste. And with that, my enthusiasm and desire to travel to the colorful and historical old city of Cartagena, Colombia, was set. That was a trip that I had been dreaming of for almost five years.
Our visit to Colombia was the second half of our Central and South America trip in January 2020. My boyfriend and I just spent a week in Mexico City and Tulum before flying to Bogota, Colombia’s capital. We just spent roughly about 24-hours there before taking another quick flight to Cartagena. You can also easily get to and from Cartagena directly via Florida, USA.
Because of its historical and cultural heritage, Cartagena’s Walled City, including its fortress, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Named after Cartagena in España, the city was the main port for trade between Spain and its overseas empire during the colonial era.
Today, Cartagena has become one of South America’s most vibrant and most-visited cities that offers old-world luxury, exquisite fine-dining and local flavors, an energetic culture, and one-of- a-kind fashion finds.
We only had 48 hours here, so we decided to spend all of it taking a step back in time inside the Walled City.
We entered old-town Cartagena via a tall stoned archway through its city’s walls. It was a charming experience that suddenly transported us back to the colonial era, like a time portal. Every corner we looked was bursting with life and color that I could not wait to get down from our cab. Streets were bustling with tourists, street vendors, palenqueras, boutiques, cafés, and restaurants.
We made it to Hotel Casa La Factoría, a star boutique hotel that is strategically located in the historic center of the city, near most sights, shops, and restaurants.
This former colonial house has been restored to provide modern service while still preserving its traditional essence. The hotel features a rooftop pool, an indoor swimming pool with an additional underground Jacuzzi, a viewpoint bar, and a gourmet restaurant; all of which exhibit both Caribbean decor and colonial atmosphere.
You can expect any boutique hotel in Cartagena to be housed in a mansion that is centuries old and features crystal chandeliers, statement door knockers, exposed brick walls, and four-poster beds.
There are so many beautiful options to choose from that made it difficult to decide but as long as you are inside the walled city, it is easy to get around on foot. We never needed to be on wheels for the entire duration.
An only exception would just be in the evening when we opted to ride a horse-drawn carriage—or calesa as we call it—for the sake of sight-seeing and experiencing what it was like to be a noble in Cartagena.
Taste of the Caribbean
In recent years, Cartagena has been making its mark in the culinary world with world-class chefs creating exquisite menus that offer a traditional and modern take on coastal Caribbean flavors using mostly the freshest catch from the sea.
Our first meal was in La Cevicheria, which was made famous after a visit by Anthony Bourdain in 2008. This no- frills, street-side restaurant with outdoor tables boasts a menu of, well, ceviche! The restaurant offers a vast selection of ceviche and seafood dishes that are not overly complex but done well, making it to Cartagena’s list of must-eat places.
It’s no wonder Alma Restaurante is top of mind for restaurant recommendations; with a sophisticated ambiance and a culinary experience like no other combined.
We would have to say that we had the best ceviche of our lives and we still constantly dream about it: the Ceviche Coco Woods was made with fresh fish marinated with citrus fruits, coconut milk and foam, and coriander. The seafood risotto was also quite unforgettable. Prepared with traditional techniques perfected, Alma makes it to our best and favorites list for this entire trip.
On our last evening, we had dinner at Cande Restaurante where you can enjoy folk dancers who bring the entertainment to your table every night. You can experience the culture, rhythm, and tradition of this beautiful city through food, live music, and the warm hospitality of its staff.
When visiting Cartagena, don’t miss out on having a drink or two at the rooftop lounge of the Movich Hotel for one of the best views of the city. It is best to visit the lounge at cocktail or sunset hour.
Apart from the historic and picturesque old town, to visit boutiques and fashion labels were on my priority list of things to do. To say that I was freaking out is an understatement. I did not get this kind of fashion rush at department stores in Paris. That fresh Caribbean flair was just something else.
Colombia is incredibly rich in talent and craftsmanship: handmade touches, eclectic silhouettes, energetic bursts of color. And more importantly, most of these brands even support indigenous Colombian communities.
Here’s a quick round-up of must-visit shops: St. Dom Cartagena, a high-end boutique carrying the best Colombian and Latin designers; Casa Chiqui, a curated boutique featuring a wide range of furniture, home decor items, and fashion finds all around Latin America; Agua De Leon Heritage, a concept boutique that features youthful and one-of-a-kind finds from
Colombian designers like Mercedes Salazaar, Miss Balanta, and Mayorga; and from street shopping.
Some of the best discoveries can be found while strolling the streets of the old town. Woven Iraca palm products, Wayuu Mochila bags, and Colombian emeralds are just some of the gems you can find anywhere in abundance.
It is impossible not to fall in love with Cartagena; narrow streets made of stone, charming preserved colonial architecture, vibrant flowers hanging from colorful balconies, and bursts of history and art in every corner. Cartagena is an ideal tourist destination where heritage effortlessly blends with the ocean and creates a romantic old-world atmosphere.
This story first came out in the April-May 2020 issue of Lifestyle Asia.