Overlooking Colombia's Caribbean coastline, the brightly painted, labyrinthine streets of old-town Cartagena are perfect for leisurely wandering. A UNESCO world heritage site celebrated for its history as a Spanish colonial fortress, it's long been a popular vacation destination for Colombians. But with huge safety and security improvements in the country in recent years, it looks ready to reclaim the affections of overseas travellers too.
On my recent visit, I packed a hearty appetite and explored a smorgasbord of smashing foodie treats, from homemade candies at street markets to regional dishes at fancy restaurants and comfort food at friendly hole-in-the-wall cafés. My embarrassing lack of Spanish was never a problem with the ever-smiling locals, while prices were low enough to encourage plenty of experimentation.
Casa Pestagua Hotel After a late arrival the night before, I groggily rolled into the charming courtyard of my boutique hotel for an al fresco breakfast. Between towering palm trees and orange-painted walls studded with shuttered windows, I opted for arepa de huevo , a deep-fried egg-and-corn-dough pocket stuffed with ground beef. Served with thick slices of cheese and some bite-sized savoury carimañola balls - yuca fritters filled with meat -it made me re-consider my life-long bacon and eggs addiction. Calle de Santo Domingo 33-63; 57 (5) 664-9510; www.casapestagua.com.
Juan Valdez Café Weaving among well-preserved historic houses and handsome cobbled plazas - recalling Havana more than once - I stopped for coffee at the Colombian equivalent of Starbucks. The mustachioed, white-hatted Juan Valdez is the fictional face of coffee marketing here, used in advertising campaigns since the 1950s. In recent years, coffee shops using his name have also sprung up, including this one near the old-town university campus. Joining the students, I sipped a smooth Nevado iced coffee, reflecting that temperatures outside were nudging a steamy 30 C. Calle de la Universidad and Calle San Agustin.
Street foodWith breakfast a distant memory, I was soon salivating at the tempting hawker nosh dotting almost every corner. As with unfamiliar street grub everywhere, a few smarts are required to prevent unexpected stomach woes: Avoid anything that looks like it may have been sitting around too long, and eschew unbottled drinks. I never paid more than about 75 cents for a treat and, despite my language deficiencies, every vendor made sure I stopped to collect my change after a stumbling transaction. I tucked into empanadas crammed with ham, mashed potato patties dripping with melted cheese and a little bag of fresh mango chunks sprinkled with salt and lemon.
Loncheria Bolivar While my street-side buffet could have lasted all day, I was curious about the chatty hole-in-the-wall eateries I kept passing. Finally, I ducked into this one, finding it staffed by shyly smiling young ladies and their fatherly middle-aged boss. Heading to the little counter, I pointed out a cheesy-looking frito treat in the glass cabinet and indicated my enthusiasm for some steaming soup nearby. Both soon arrived at my white plastic patio table. Later, I learned the broth, with bobbling veggies and beef, was called sancocho and it's a national dish with many variations. I rounded it off with a fresh fruit smoothie. Many of the exotic, locally grown fruits I'd seen on the streets were completely unfamiliar and this tiny café had 22 to choose from. I picked maracuya (yellow passion fruit) and it was quickly prepared with milk like a thick shake. Calle del Landrinal and Calle Velez Danies.
Portal de los Dulces I worked off my excess with a speed walk around Cartagena's designer shops and its large Exito supermarket (perfect for picking up coffee for home). Then I stumbled on a wide plaza where a colonnaded walkway housed matronly ladies selling homemade candies at makeshift stalls. Stored in large glass jars were plum-sized balls of shredded coconut flavoured and coloured with guava, papaya or pineapple. I bought a $3 selection of chewy bolas plus some wheels of soft, sweet fudge. Plaza de la Coches.
La Esquina del Pan de Bono Animated early evening crowds made the tight thoroughfares increasingly busy as I continued nosing around the compact old town. But it also made it easy to see what the locals ate as I followed them to their favoured snack spots. Among the busiest was this open-fronted corner bakery store. The twinkle-eyed owner haltingly apologized for not speaking much English almost at the same time as I apologized for not speaking much Spanish. We had a laughing, gesture-based "conversation" about what I wanted ( pastel de carne, or meat pie); whether or not to heat it; if it was for here or to go; and how much it cost. Calle del Porvenir and Calle San Agustin.
El Santisimo Mid-evening is the main dining hour here, so after showering at the hotel I rested my weary legs at one specializing in fine regional cuisine. Popular with visitors (hence the bilingual menus), it's ideal for those who fancy a taste of Caribbean Colombia but are nervous about the street food route. I tucked into a dish called obatala : thick, velvet-soft slices of slow-roasted rump served with coin-sized slivers of sweet plantain, an avocado side-salad and a serving of excellent coconut rice - a staple of the region. I accompanied it with a creamy glass of corozo juice. It could have been the end of my night, but I wasn't done yet. Calle del Torno 39-76; www.restauranteelsantisimo.com.
Plaza de Bolivar With a party atmosphere now enlivening the nighttime thoroughfares, I strolled to this compact, tree-lined square to watch a hyper-kinetic young dance troupe busk for the crowds. Perching on a park bench to catch the action, I kept one eye on the wandering vendors circling the cobbled streets. Cheap cigarettes and cans of beer (Club Colombia is the one to go for, but I wasn't in the mood) were offered. Instead I stopped a teenage lad carrying Thermos jugs in a homemade over-the-shoulder holder. Soon sipping a little 25-cent cup of sweet hot coffee, I sat back and feasted on the al fresco show. Calle de la Inquisition and Calle del Landrinal.
Special to The Globe and Mail