I recently took a trip to Cartagena, one of Colombia’s most notable cities and home to a spectacular historic district, similar to what many predict Casco Viejo may look like in a number of years. Besides being a great vacation with stellar weather (and only a 45 minute flight from Panama City), Cartagena offered me something of a model by which to consider Casco Viejo: a lens or gold standard through which we can learn from and improve the neighborhood we are evolving today.
Restaurants: Cartagena’s restaurants are innovative, ethnically diverse, and sharp on service. There are no novelty items as imposture establishments quickly burn out in this competitive food scene. The majority of its restaurants are remodeled in historic buildings, featuring the old stuff (original archways, tiles, and floorplans) combined with touches of the modern era (things like radio headsets for waiters, ultra-high-tech kitchens, and strikingly progressive cuisine). Service was one obvious strong point as all waiters were sharp on their toes and happy to accommodate any request. Tips were built into the bill almost always (10%) and while the overall experience wasn’t world-class, they were head and heels ahead of our Casco Viejo options.
Hotels: Perhaps the most hit-you-in-the-face obvious traits of old-town Cartagena was its abundance of accommodations options. From the two larger-than-life historic hotels to the slew of smaller boutiques, from the apartment and villa rentals to the bevy of cheap hostels, this variety was something to really admire. Options for all budgets, the most impressive of which, far and away, were the boutique hotels: around 15-20 remodeled old homes with no more than eighteen or so rooms (most with under 10), with the utmost focus on detail, design, and décor. Hotel LM (if you look it up online) and Hotel Agua were two of my favorites: the most perfect and serene vacation options that evoked not the feeling of tourism but rather of royalty. For the outstanding villa rentals, check out where we stayed via http://www.laheroica.com
Tours: I was amazed by the number of tour options available to a visitor. From walking tours to audio tours, Cartagena impressed me with its diversity in things to do and ways to learn about the historic flare. My favorite (and probably cheesiest) tour was the simple horse-drawn-carriage which takes tourists (or romantics) around the cobblestone streets for something like $20. The clippty-clop of the buggies was enough to transport you back to Europe and several of the drivers even spoke English: a super simple business idea for Casco Viejo.
Street food: There were tons of tropical fruits for sale in large plastic cups for around $0.50 as well as the traditional fried empanadas (and the entire fried empanada family). But literally every other corner had something delicious to eat: fresh orange juice, hunks of wild watermelon, nuts, seeds, arrepas (tortillas stuffed with stewed beef). These were not culinarily imaginative items, but eaten on a street corner in the midst of all Cartagena’s wonderful foot traffic, they tasted delicious.
Architecture: The architecture I saw in Cartagena was very reminiscent to Casco Viejo, albeit a number of years advanced in terms of its renovation. One surprising thing: not all the buildings were particularly brand new and restored, but rather touched up with a lingering essence of rustic, unkempt old-time Colombia. In Casco Viejo, it gave credence to the potential of areas all the way up through Chorillo which have goregeous facades, maybe in the future just in need of a little attention. Prices of real estate in Cartagena were more than double what they are here in Casco Viejo.
There were many more similarities I drew from my visit to Cartagena, Colombia, but the strongest point was that I returned to Casco Viejo with a new look on things. The promise of Casco Viejo (after seeing what a “semi-revitalized” district looks like) is astounding and I accepted a new view on where we are in the process. Things like crime and limited amenities are sacrifices you make in exploring this place. It’s a special time to be in Casco Viejo and, for your intent, a special time to vacation here. There’s still a really vibrant feeling of evolution, almost like a canvas of ideas and strategies on the board. Getting in before the crowds, as I saw in Cartagena with its several-a-day cruise ship groups, is a feeling that only sweetens with time.