Colombia: Never Say Narcos

When my two best friends planned a 17 day trip to Colombia, I came down with serious FOMO. Born to parents from South America, I'd still never been to the continent. I'd also recently finished enjoying "Narcos," so my interest in the the country's history and culture was especially heightened.

El Marques Boutique Hotel in Cartagena

Despite a longing to laze in San Francisco between a family cruise along Mexico's Pacific Coast and starting my winter quarter, I decided I'd be remiss to forgo the chance to meet the besties. I joined them in Cartagena. Upon landing, I wasn't sure whether to play ignorant gringo or employ my Spanish with the locals. Getting through customs was a wee bit intimidating, as I witnessed an immigration officer sternly instruct a tourist to fix the line formation ribbon he disconnected when taking a short-cut through a non-existent line. However, upon hopping into a taxi to head to town, I was instantly immersed in sheer Colombian warmth.

(BTW: my girlfriends, who came from Medellín, learned that it's taboo to ask about or mention "Narcos," despite the series's recent celebrity. "Paisas" do not dismiss Escobar's influence on the Aburrá Valley-set city but also hold tremendous pride due to its recent progression.)

Around El Marques Boutique Hotel

Our hotel was located within Old Town's walls. El Marqués is a converted seventeenth century colonial mansion set in the heart of the walled city. The staff are incredibly welcoming and helpful, and rooms are set around a stunning courtyard housing patio bar seating of the hotel's Bohemia Restaurant.

Patio @ El Marques

Above: breakfast on the patio, obligatory limonada de coco with side shot of rum.

Cartagena's Evening Sparkle

Cartagena's bustle intensifies into the evening. The narrow cobblestone streets become increasingly warm and filled with conversation, laughter, and music as people walk to dinners and explore shops filled with beautiful local crafts. Above, clockwise from top left: re-entering the walled city after walking from dinner on the outskirts; the view from Marea's bayside seating; along Cartagena's streets; in an open plaza illuminated by a delicate canopy of lights.

Cafe Havana life music, dancing along each available square foot of floorspace, and generous rum selection instantly transport you to Cuba. The music was actually Colombian, performed by Colombian musicians, but we were in Cuba that night.

Cartagena by Day

Cartagena's hot & stick days are best managed by escaping to shade or AC while shopping or dining. Above, clockwise from top left: the entrance to El Marques; the entrance to Estancia de la Mantilla (I loved the doorway); brick-laid grounds outside stunning Casa San Agustín (home to Alma Restaurant); Cartagena streets.

Cartagena by Boat

We spent one of our last full days exploring Cartagena's islands by boat. For about $150 per person, we (3) rented a 12-person boat with both driver and guide. We stopped along the Islas del Rosario and then in Cholón, where we had one of the best meals of our trip at Hotel Sport Barú.

Our boat

Boating through the Bay of Cartagena.

Approach to Cartagena

Stunning approach to Cartagena.

We relished dinner at Hotel Casa San Agustin's Alma, which was part culinary experience, part architectural marveling.

Before heading back to the States, I stopped in Bogotá; I packed the morning of my only full day in Colombia's capital with obligatory sites. First stop: Monserrate, the mountain towering more than ten thousand feet above sea level in the center of the city. The fifteen minute gondola or cable car ride steeply transports you atop Bogotá with views to boast.

La Candelaria

Next up was the historical neighborhood La Candelaria. The overcast skies were both perfect for walking city streets and a reprieve from Cartagena's heat! Do not miss Museo Botero for the artist's famously exaggerated figures (above, bottom right).

Fulanitos

When hunger peaked, Fulanitos called. The Candelaria-set restaurant set in a former colonial home serves casual and delicious traditional dishes in a quaint yet beautiful setting.

Bogotá streets

Walking along Bogotá's streets...

Usaquén

I stayed in Bogotá's W Hotel, situated in the city's Usaquén neighborhood. I bid the country adieu with a solo dinner at Amarti. An early flight and immediate start to the next academic quarter precluded me from taking my night beyond a scrumptious dinner. Leaving this beautiful country was more bitter than sweet; the Colombian people's warmth outshines even the brightest local fashions, from the islands to the big city.

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#TheScoop

Stay. Cartagena: I recommend staying in the walled city. El MarquésHotel Casa San Agustin, and Tcherassi Hotel + Spa, based on my exposure among the grounds, top my list. That said, it's a navigable town. Bogotá: I enjoyed staying in Usaquén and would also entertain staying in posh shopping district El Retiro (see Hotel bh El Retiro).

Shop. Ladies, swimwear and lingerie are the names of the game. OndadeMar for swim and lounge wear. St. DOM for the Colombian Scoop-like experience. Make your way to one of Silvia Tcherassi's boutiques for Colombia elegance. Indulge in window shopping for local emeralds, but beware of purchases and ensure the vendor is legit. I heard good things about Emerald Trade Center and did walk away with a souvenir. Finally, stock up on Loto del Sur botanical lotions and dry oil spray.

Savor. Cartagena: El Kilo for a variety of cocktails and food that appeared scrumptious (we stopped in pre-dinner). Via Apia for an afternoon glass of wine and excellent shrimp ceviche. CuzcoMarea, and Alma were among those highly and most consistently recommended to us. Bogotá: my meals were limited to Fulanitos and Amarti, as I am saving my trip to Andrés Carne de Res for my return with family and/or friends.