A local encounter I’ll never forget

Female vendors in Cartagena

The style of the following story is a little different because it was submitted for a travel writing contest. I didn’t make the shortlist, but it was a good exercise.


My sister and I entered the walled city of Cartagena ready to begin our new adventure.  The air, a salty mix of scents, was ripe with possibility. First, we considered taking a carriage ride to view vibrantly-colored colonial homes now converted to lucrative vacation rentals. Then, we thought about looking for one of the mystical street performers who levitated in mid-air, seemingly defying gravity by supporting his entire body weight with one hand. At the very least, we knew we’d find an eatery where we could sample the region’s rich fusion cuisine that pays homage to its African, Arabic and Spanish heritage.

Walled City, Cartagena

Ultimately, we opted to play it by air, for we trusted the charismatic city to spontaneously spill her secrets.  Plus, we envisioned an expressive storytelling, similar to the non-verbal volumes spoken by the Afro-Caribbean women in bright, traditional costumes who effortlessly balanced fruit bowls atop their heads while sashaying gracefully, hips undulating in visual rhythm.Afro-Colombian women

Suddenly, there they were. A group of six, well-dressed seniors sitting on nondescript plastic chairs in a loosely clustered semi-circle amidst the cacophony of sounds produced by the never-ending square activity. Neither the clicking heels of tourists navigating the concrete sidewalks, the animated tones of vendors hawking wares of every size and shape, nor the excited holiday chatter spilling from the open doors of multiple bars, restaurants and cafés was enough to obliterate their presence. Their quiet camaraderie was a magnetic force that dragged me forcibly into their orbit. Authentci experience in Colombia

I approached the group and asked to take their picture.

“Sí, con mucho gusto,” they replied, and insisted I be in it. My sister snapped the photo enthusiastically. Then, as I murmured thank you and prepared to walk away, one gentleman with a 70 year-old twinkle in his eye invited us to sit and chat. A sure sign of a charmer still in his heyday.

We complied, lingered awhile, and proceeded to share tidbits of our respective cultures. The endearing grandfathers had been friends since high school, and they met from 7-9 p.m. on weekdays to banter about current events, sports and life in general.  As they regaled us with stories about their youth, early careers and families, I became increasingly impressed with the depth and longevity of their friendship.  In that moment, I realized we can make and maintain meaningful connections anywhere. We just need to open up ourselves to the experience.


Do you have an authentic and spontaneous local encounter you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it. Please use the comments section below.

Street food is Cartagena’s best kept secret

I can’t wait to tell you about the day I ate my way through the streets of Cartagena! But first, please give me a minute to stroke my tummy while I reminisce about the explosion of flavors I experienced during that palate-friendly walking tour.

Yum, yum. BURP.

Busy stuffing my hands and face with street goodies. See all those dressings on the side?
Busy stuffing my hands and face with street goodies. See all those dressings on the side?

Even after I booked the excursion, I couldn’t explain what had come over me. I have a very delicate stomach that doesn’t hesitate to let me know when I’ve ingested something that doesn’t go down well. So naturually, I tend to be careful about my food choices when I’m away from home. But all that caution – born of sometimes painful and/or embarrassing repercussions – flew out the window when I visited the vibrant seaport town that dots Colombia’s northern coast.  Cartagena’s fusion of Latin, Caribbean and African cuisines were inspiration enough to defy my fears and make me dive tongue first into the unknown.

The first order of business was taking my probiotic tablet. I gotta keep it teal. My digestive system needs those good bacteria to keep it working like it should!
The first order of business was taking my probiotic tablet. I gotta keep it real. My digestive system needs those small bursts of good bacteria to keep it working like it should!

There was a variety of food carts, trucks and stands scattered throughout the colorful streets of the Walled City and neighboring towns like Getsemani. At almost every corner, vendors sold a wide range of foods that ranged from deep-fried starches to fresh fruit while the locals ignored us tourists and carried on with everyday life.

A domino game in play in Getsemani.
A domino game in play in Getsemani.

And one of the best parts of the experience was the fact that I could relish the delicacies while learning about local culture and folklore.  As far as ambiance goes, eating mango biche while walking past refurbished, colonial-style mansions and admiring multi-hued looms springing from second-floor balcony gardens, wasn’t too bad either.

I started the tour at the Statue of Jose Fernandez by the Plaza Fernandez de Madrid. It was across from The Cocoa and Chocolate Museum.  I just had to pop inside for a little visit before the other members of the group arrived. Cocoa plant

Arepas – These are flatbreads made of white or yellow corn and stuffed with cheese and butter.

Two types of arepas brought to you courtesy pf the local street vendors
Two types of arepas brought to you courtesy of the local street vendors

arepas in the street

Patacones  – As an island girl, I grew up eating friend green plantains accompanied by different proteins for breakfast or supper, but the Colombian version had a different twist to it. They were soaked in a salty, garlic-flavored marinade first, fried to a crispy texture and devoured as the main meal.

See that liquid in the pan to the front? It has the garlic and salt seasoned marinade in it.

Mango Biche – These are thin slices of unripe mango soaked in lime juice and seasonings, prettily displayed like extra-large fries in a cup. It had an unusual flavor; equal parts tarty and savory.

There were so many different fruits for sale all around Cartagena. And they were the fresh, not supermarket-weary variety.
There were so many different fruits for sale all around Cartagena. And they were the fresh, not supermarket-weary variety.

Empanada de huevo – Empanadas are made of corn and stuffed with beef and egg, with a sudeo ( white cream sauce) on top. We learnt these snacks are the scrumptious result of Latin, African, Syrian and Lebanese culinary influences. food container

Matrimonio – once upon a time, a sweet boy named ‘Guava’ met a full-bodied girl named ‘Cheese’ and it was love at first sight.  They hung out, got married, and lived happily ever after. guava and cheese

Chicharron – O.M.G. This pork dish is pure bliss. Crispy on the outside, and flavorful and tender on the inside, it hits the G-spot with every single bite. [Don’t gape at me. I meant G as in gastric!What were YOU thinking?]. I had it with boiled yuca, also known as cassava. Three servings still left me ravenous and yearning for more. Pork belly


Café Mural – I ended the day at a small shop run by David, an engineer who decided to leave his lucrative job in Bogota to pursue his true passion – coffee. The table behind his bar counter looked like a mini science lab. It was stacked with test tubes, multiple-sized measuring cups and other equipment I couldn’t identify. inside cafe

But there was method to what appeared to be his crazy but lovable professor madness. David, whose grandfather owned a coffee farm, lives to experiment with new blends. I don’t drink coffee but the others in my tour group raved about the blends they tasted.  I had a long glass of a mellow chocolate drink that was a fitting end to my day. outside cafe


Editors notes:

In case you want to do something similar, I booked this tour with Cartagena Connections. Tours last between three to four hours and require a two person minimum. They depart at 2:30 p.m. daily. The cost was $30 when I did it.  With that price, you get to sample about eight items but you’re encouraged to take extra pesos and try anything else that catches your eye.

Hotel Review: Allure Chocolat by Karisma Hotels & Resorts

My sister and I had no clue what to expect when we hurriedly booked Allure Chocolat by Karisma Hotels & Resorts only four days before we landed in Cartagena. The pictures looked great on Expedia and we’d cross-checked them against traveler’s photos and reviews on TripAdvisor. But as you and I know, that didn’t mean the reality would be what we envisioned. Allure Cocolat by Karisma Hotels & Resorts

However, once we got there, we thanked our lucky stars that things had aligned perfectly. This 34-room boutique city hotel is a gem. Conveniently located less than a 5-minute walk to the Walled City, we began to get a sense of what made this place special from the moment we stepped off the curb and into its modern-looking lobby. (Other than its 24-hour front desk assistance and blissfully quick 15-minute drive from Rafael Nuñez Airport, that is.)

Lobby of Allure Chocolat, Cartagena

The staff:

As soon as we exited our cab, we were met by Alfonso, a courteous and helpful bellman who helped us with our luggage. He welcomed us warmly, with a genuine smile that lit up his entire face. Front desk check-in at Allure Chocolat by Karisma Hotels & Resorts

Our first treat was the offer of cold towels to wipe our faces and a refreshing glass of fruit-infused water to cool us down. Fruit flavored water at Hotel Chocolat

Right on clockwork, Natalie, the pretty and petite front desk agent who had the looks and vivacious personality that could easily make her a telenovela star, checked us in.

Her fluency in English and lack of a heavily-accented lilt impressed me, even more so after I later learnt she’d never – to that point – left the country. When I asked her about it, she told me she had studied English for a few years in school but had fine-tuned her communication skills by listening to Billboard songs and watching Hollywood movies. I was floored.

At different points during our stay, we also met and interacted with Giovanni and Fabian at the front desk. Daily breakfasts were made merrier by our server Jorge’s infectious personality and efficient service; a pleasant start to our mornings. Truth be told, his perkiness alone could single-handedly put the coffee industry out of business! Deanna, a waitress who was also very nice but a bit more reserved, was a soothing balm at dinner.

The amenities:

The rooms are small but contemporary and chic, and they feature either city or waterfront views. What’s more, the pillow top beds are super comfy and each room is outfitted with well-placed amenities that cater to guests’ needs. Hotel room at Allure Chocoat

One particularly delightful part of the check-in process included selecting a scent for my room.  They call it an Aromatherapy & Pillow Menu.  Guests can choose from four fragrances: Homely Forest, Fresh Countryside, Sutil Romance and I believe one called Calmness Parache. (Side note: It’s kinda hard to read my hasty scrawl notes after a week, let alone a few months. Thank goodness I don’t do this for a living because this review is way past due.) Aromatherapy choices at Allure Chocolat

The aroma you pick is used in the room each night when the housekeeper provides turn-down service, complete with chocolates on your pillow. A great way to indulge the senses!  Add free local calls; complimentary and reliable Wi-Fi; a nicely stocked mini-bar that includes Jose Cuervo rum and Absolut Vodka; iPod docking stations; robes; slippers and a rain head shower in the bathroom to that, and you’ve got a winner in my book.

Bathroom at Allure Chocolat

Mini Bar choices at Allure Chocolat

Snack tray at Allure Chocolat

There is also a great rooftop infinity pool with spectacular views of the city and waterfront. I heard great things about the mojitos served at that bar.Rooftop infinity pool at Allure Chocolat, Cartagena


Red Knife, the onsite full-service restaurant, is a dream. Guided by a farm-fresh philosophy, it offers culinary delights that are sure to meet the stringent standards of even the most discerning palates.

Red Knife restaurant, Hotel ChocolatThe décor and ambiance have an upscale-steakhouse feel that is inviting, but if you’re not a steak lover, don’t panic, poultry and seafood options are also featured on the menu. Shrimp dish at Red Kinfe Restaurant, Cartagena

And wine aficionados will love their impressive selection of Chilean, Argentine, Mexican and Californian bottles. Specialty liquors and a neat menu of cocktails also are available.

sectino of Red Knife restaurant at Allure Chocolat, Cartagena

The breakfast buffet (included in the room rate) is available from 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. Each morning we had our choice of various breads, jams, cheeses, cold cuts, cereals, coffee – and for non caffeine people like me, tea or hot chocolate. Breakfats buffet at Allure Chocolat

Fresh juices, served in mini bottles were an added touch. Egg-lovers have no fear, you can have your morning favorites done to order.  Everything I had was delicious. I especially appreciated the fact that the chef honored my request for one egg for breakfast because I hate it when I get two or three in an omelet that inevitably goes to waste.  Dinner starts at 6 p.m.  Made to order breakfast at Red Knife, Allure Chocolat

I never ate at Zas, the other dining alternative next to the rooftop pool, but it was usually packed – especially at sunset.


Allure Chocolat’s location puts you within walking distance of numerous bars, restaurants, shops and cafes. It is also across the street from the convention center; a nice plus for business travelers.

The Museo de Arte Moderno is nearby and the highly cited San Felipe de Barajas Castle is a mere 20-minute walk away. Excursions and party buses will pick you up and drop you off from the Walled City, which in itself is a walkable treat. Don’t travel to Cartagena and deny yourself the pleasure of exploring those narrow, yet oh so culturally and historically expansive streets!


This property is good value for money. My sister and I paid COP1,753,053 (USD555+) for our initial three-night stay, and we returned for an additional night after our trip to Medellin. I would definitely go back – again and again,

Editor’s Note:

The only odd thing I encountered during my stay was the lack of regular-sized wash rags in the bathroom. To be clear, there was a pair on arrival but those two were not replaced after the first housekeeping visit, whereas face towels and bath towels were in adequate supply. When I asked the cleaning staff about it (in my rudimentary Spanish), I got the impression that the disconnect could have been due to a cultural difference. The wash rags that we use for bathing in the Caribbean and North America seem to be only used there as cold cloths for wiping the face.

Hotel Chocolat is part of Karisma Hotels & Resorts, an award-winning luxury hotel collection that owns and manages properties in Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe.

Cartagena’s legend of Santa Clara

T E N steps.

10 narrow yet sturdy steps protected by a barred gate that goes up to waist level and an area bordered by rectangular-shaped glass. That is all that separates a sunny and vibrant present from a mysterious and brooding past in the small coastal town of Cartagena.  The past is defined by the legend of Santa Clara and the palpable present is proliferated with stylish bar patrons sipping boozy cocktails just above an empty tomb.  

The entrance to famous crypt inside the Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara.
The entrance to famous crypt inside the Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara.

Persons acted as if this UNESCO-protected burial site was just another fixture in the very well-appointed room. For me, three words came to mind. Mind-blowing. Weird. Creepy.

The unexpected juxtaposition of a crypt under a bar made my heart race a little and my flesh break out in goosebumps as I cautiously descended the stairs to see into the vault. Given my propensity for travel mishaps, I decided then and there that  it was decidedly not the time to inadvertently trip and enter flat on my face or butt.

Lone book inside the crypt. Tell me, would you sign it?
Lone book inside the crypt. Tell me, would you sign it?

Yes, you are piecing the puzzle together correctly! There is a crypt that doubles as an exhibition piece within a high-end Sofitel luxury hotel in Colombia. I have never seen anything like it on any of my travels before. When you visit Cartagena, go have a drink in their Bar El Torro or just pop inside like I did for a quick look around. The locals or your tour guide will gladly share the fanciful story of the girl that was buried there.

There are writings on the wall from previous centuries
There are writings on the wall from previous centuries

The legend, as written by Colombian Nobel-prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, is about a 12-year-old child called Servia who had long, unbridled copper hair. Born with her umbilical cord around her neck, her entrance into the world wasn’t easy and she went through life plagued with difficulty. Servia grew up with slaves, then later contracted rabies after being bitten by a disease-filled dog. In an effort to heal her, she was sent to the convent of Santa Clara to be taken care of by nuns, who, in their well-intended but misguided efforts  at finding suitable remedies finally resorted to exorcism, which is believed led to her death. 

Uuniforms ostaff members of El Bar El Torro
Doesn’t he look like he has no arms in this shot? Even the uniforms of the staff members are a little spooky!

Before her passing, it is said that a priest befriended her and used to sneak out of a leper’s hospital regularly to see her.  When they met, legend has it that they ate and recited poetry together, although they were never sexually involved. Oddly, when Servia died Father Cayetano wasn’t around. The story ends with the incredible notion that her red hair continued to grow after her death.

All this BEFORE you even take one drink!

Exterior shot of the Hotel Sofitel near the Bar entrance
Exterior shot of the Hotel Sofitel near the Bar entrance

It’s no wonder the hotel attracts pampered guests and speculative and curious visitors from all around the globe.


Check back soon for more posts about my trip to Colombia.