Panama City Day/Night 1 – From One End to the Other

The day started far too early as I had a 9AM flight to Panama City. On the plus side though that meant I could have a full day exploring Panama City. A short 1 hour flight later, I arrived at the Tocumen airport, located about 20 miles outside of the city. I was taken somewhat aback when I did my usual routine of getting some local currency from the airport ATM after it spit out good ol’ US Dollars. So much for having to use my converter.

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After retrieving my luggage and going through a fairly simple customs process, I was suddenly surrounded by guys in lime green shirts which designated them as official taxi drivers. Once again there were no meters and I was told the fee would be $35. Slightly more expensive than my $6 airport rides in Cartagena! The route used a toll road and for some reason, the toll collector wouldn’t let our car through. This was followed by ten minutes of angry shouting back and forth. Good thing I didn’t need to be anywhere fast.

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It turned out the driver had already paid $15 for tolls and was arguing that it was impossible he had already used that up. Finally sorted, about 30 minutes later, we arrived at the Hotel Manrey, which was located within the central part of the city.

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It was only 11AM by this point and my room wouldn’t be ready for quite awhile. I wanted to go check out the city but also needed some time to relax so I went up to the very nicely appointed pool and lounge. Around noon, I hailed a cab and headed to the Causeway, which was built with the rocks that were removed to create the Panama Canal. The Causeway connects three islands to the main city. I knew all of this because it turned out my cab driver was also a tour guide on the side. He also explained how after the US took over construction of the Canal in 1906 from the French who had been wiped out by malaria and yellow fever, Panama started to use US currency.

We passed such landmarks as Viejo Casco, the old part of the city; the Smithsonian animal sanctuary and the Frank Gehry designed Biomuseo – a multi-colored geodesic dome that was quite stunning. I didn’t go into any of said places though as I was hungry and my destination was towards the end of the Causeway, the famous Mi Ranchito. Known for its traditional Panamanian seafood, the restaurant was under a large palapa and once inside, it felt like I was more on a rural beach than on a concrete road across from glistening modern city.

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One of the “new” dishes was what they called Ceviche Frito (fried ceviche) I was intrigued so along with that, I ordered a Panamanian beer my server had said was their best.

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There wasn’t much of the way of what one would call “ceviche” but the fish was lightly fried and quite tasty. The pickled red onions on top I guess represented the citrus. Even better though were the very tasty yucca fries, a favorite of mine.

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After a quick walk around the nearby dock, I was approached by a cabbie who asked if I needed a ride. My original plan with the Canal was to go there at sunset but fortunately my previous cabbie/tour guide had told me they close at 5PM. It was now 2PM so off we went. My cabbie offered to also pick me up when I was done and since I knew in the event he wasn’t there I could probably get another cab, I said sure. I told him to be back in 90 minutes.

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The Canal was located in a more remote part of the city, which except for some modern touches like the tourist center, probably is about to close to what it looked like over 100 years ago when it first opened. I saw that the admission which included the usual movie/tour was $15 but I had been told to just go to the restaurant on the 2nd floor. I tried to enter but was turned back as I didn’t have a ticket. It was as simple though as just asking for a free restaruant ticket. I got in the elevator and initially pushed 2 to go to there but I noticed everyone else was going to the 4th floor, which said observation deck. In a bit of pure luck, just as I stepped onto the deck, a PA announcement came on saying the next ship was about to go through the Canal. I had heard stories of people only getting to see small ships go through and while the process is the same regardless, it’s much cooler seeing a big ol ship like this do it.

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The ship was carried into the first lock via these electronic train engines that had cables attached to them. They were built specifically for the Canal and cost $12MM each. Once safely inside the lock, the process begins of draining 25 million gallons of fresh water, at a rate of 2.5MM per minute, to the other lock which is on the sea water side. This is done strictly by gravity and as the water goes down on one side, the ship basically disappears from view. The transfer of the water means that any poor fish swept up in the process get dumped into the other lock, which meant that as that happened, tons of sea birds swooped down to get their snack on.

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Once the water is now level on both sides, they open up the 100 year old gates and the train engines push the ship to the next lock.

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The entire process takes about 10 minutes and then send about 50 vessels a day through the Canal at a price ranging from $850 for a sailboat to $250K for a large tanker. I was in awe of the whole thing. My inner child was doing backflips.

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The final stage is to detach the engines from their cables and send the ship off to the Pacific. The crew on board waved to us and we waved back as they left the Canal.

I got luck again in that there happened to be an even bigger ship waiting its turn so I watched the whole thing again. This time though, it was on the other side of the Canal so I got a different viewpoint, including a much better shot of the ship “disappearing” in the lock.

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Satisfied by watching it twice, I left the deck and was pleasantly surprised to find my driver waiting for me. The ride to the hotel was very amusing as he kept trying to get me to stop at other parts of the city “you must see this! You want girls? You tell me, I get you girls!” All I wanted at that point though was to get into my hotel room and get in my siesta.

This turned out to be more challenging than anticipated as the first room I was given reeked of smoke. They gave me a free upgrade to a much nicer room but when I went to open my suitcase, I discovered that customs had graciously attached my zippers together with a ziptie so I couldn’t open it.  Fortunately, someone soon showed up to my room with a large pair of scissors and after a couple of minutes, my suitcase was free!

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Between all of the traveling, my room and suitcase mishaps and the heat, I finally hit the proverbial wall.  My plan to explore my ‘hood was quickly replaced with going up to the pool lounge area for a simple dinner and to watch the Rockets playoff game.  It also helped that it was a Monday and most of the bars/lounges around the area were closed and/or dead.  So, I climbed into my very comfy king bed and got some much needed sleep.  Tomorrow would be the last hurrah and the long journey home.

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Cartagena Day/Night 6 – The Last Stand

After the pure insanity of the previous night/morning, I knew I needed to downshift considerably for my final day in Cartagena.  I had yet to check out the Bocagrande area so I hopped in a cab and took the 15 minute ride past the walled city to this newer part of the city, dotted with tall buildings and casinos.

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Bocagrande is also where the main beach of Cartagena is located so I picked a small sushi spot I had been told was good, which was right across the street from the beach.  Taketai had been built from shipping containers and as soon as I approached it, this was all too obvious.

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The upstairs deck was unfortunately closed so I took a seat inside, which was thankfully had A/C as it was very hot and steamy without the sea breeze.  The view wasn’t bad either.

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To start, I ordered the crab croquettes, which arrived after a mere few minutes.  Though small, they had a generous portion of crab meat inside and were quite tasty.

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While trying to decide what to get next, I ordered a large glass of “limonada tradicional”, which was basically iced lemonade.  My thirst quenched but not wanting to have something too heavy, I opted for the fresh salmon sashimi, given how good the seafood had been in Cartagena.

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And once again, it was very fresh, delicious seafood.  The salmon was buttery smooth and was just what I needed after several large meals plus one to come later that night.

After lunch, I took a walk down the beach, avoiding various hawkers and enjoying the now steady sea breeze.

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Since it was Sunday, there were a lot of people at the beach and almost chair/umbrella combo was taken.

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After awhile, I had my fill and took a cab back to my apartment.  Along the way, I passed the large Colombian Naval Station and a soccer match right in front of the wall.

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After enjoying my last real time on my great deck, including writing the last blog post and my last siesta al fresco, it was time to head out for one last meal in Cartagena.  Carmen, inside the Anada Hotel, which was a former convent, had been recommended to me by several people, and I was intrigued by their 5 course tasting menu with wine pairings.

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That pic was after my meal but I had forgotten to get one of the restaurant beforehand.  When I arrived, it was completely full so I was lucky to get the last table since I didn’t have a reservation.  Soon after I sat down, the first amuse arrived: a traditional ceviche with sea bass and leche de tigre.  Very refreshing.

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The second amuse was a real winner.  The egg was filled with one piece each of shrimp, squid and langoustine with a squid ink sauce and topped with camembert cheese, delicious.

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The first course arrived a few minutes later along with the first wine pairing, a Chilean Chardonnay.  12 hour cooked octopus with 3 onion sauce and potatoes.

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This dish reminded me a lot of Peru, especially with the potatoes.  The octopus was wonderfully tender and the 3 onion sauce was delicious too.  A real winner.

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The second course was quite unlike anything I had tasted.  Essentially a play on a gazpacho, it was a cold soup made with a local fruit called corozo, which tasted like a sweeter cranberry.  What really made it exceptional though were the bread dipping sticks that I was encouraged to use as my eating utensil.  Very creative. It was served with a rose, which made sense.

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The third course was by far my favorite – grilled sea bass on a bed of coconut risotto (!) with lemon cream sauce.  This was outstanding.  The filet was perfectly cooked and the risotto was fantastic.  I ate every single morsel of it.  It was paired with another chardonnay but from Argentina this time.

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The last savory course was pork two ways – tenderloin and shredded with a tamarind sauce.  During this course, I had started chatting with the couple next to me from San Francisco, who had ordered this ala carte and were telling me how good it was.  Not quite the level of the last course, it was still very good, especially the tenderloin, which was perfectly cooked.  It was served with, finally!, a nice Argentine Malbec.

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The final course was a duo of homemade ice creams.  One was chocolate with mint, honey and uh, something else.  For some reason, although most everyone else at the restaurant were foreign and therefore servers were speaking to in English, every dish in my case had been presented en espanol.  So that combined with the 4 glasses of wine prior to this, made the final translation go a bit awry.  It was quite good though.

I staggered away from my table, said my goodbyes to the SF couple and walked through the beautiful hotel to get a cab.  En route, I saw hotel personnel knock on the door of a room to the surprise of the flustered male occupant. He was told that they needed the ID of the senorita who had just joined him in the room and that she would be an extra $100.  He distractedly said “just put it on my bill” and closed the door.  I could smell her perfume from quite a bit away once he slammed the door.

That I thought was the perfect note to go out on for the evening so I hailed a cab and went home.  I had an early flight to Panama City so sadly that was pretty much the end of my wonderful adventures in Cartagena.

Cartagena Day/Night 5 – From the Sea to the Land of the Expats

My original plan had already been scuttled as I was intending to do lunch at a popular spot called Donjuan and then dinner later somewhere casual.  However, it turned out that it wasn’t open for lunch on the weekends so I pivoted instead to trying out the new Spanish/Colombian fusion place that a couple of people at Marea had suggested.  Given how good the food was there, that was all I needed to know.  Plus, it was located in a different part of town called Los Morros that I had yet to explore.

After a somewhat circuitous cab ride past the airport and back along the water, I arrived at the gates of the Hotel Las Americas, where the restaurant was located.  The first of a couple of odd things was how fortified the gate was.  It looked more like a compound than the entrance to a hotel.  The second thing was that since I didn’t have a reservation, they had to call the restaurant to grant me entry.  After a few minutes, the guard gave my driver the OK sign and dropped me off at the lobby entrance.

The lobby and surrounding area was hardly impressive, looking more like a hotel that had gone to seed than anywhere a fancy new restaurant would plant its flag.  After confirming that I was in the right place, I was told to follow the path to the other end of the hotel.  There things finally began to change and soon I was in a different lobby that looked brand new and a sign pointing to the elevator to go up to the 10th floor.

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Erre by Ramon Freixa is the brainchild of a Spanish chef who spent time in several elite kitchens there, including Arzak and Mugaritz.  His goal is to combine Colombian ingredients (leaning heavily on seafood and vegetables) with Spanish cooking techniques.  It was a very nice room, filled with delicate touches that indicated someone had spent a boatload of money to get this up and running.

There were 3 different areas, two of which were closed since it was lunch, so only the main dining room was open.  I was ushered to a seat in the middle of the room, which had views of the water on either side.

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Since the concept was old and new techniques, I decided to try one of each for my meal.  First up was the crab salad with sorrels, jicama and potatoes with a “roasted vanilla powder.”

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It was a very beautiful looking dish and the crab was very fresh.  The jicama straws added some nice texture and while I’m usually not a fan of cold potatoes, with the powder sauce, everything worked very well together.

For my main course, I went with the “socorrat” with pork ribs and octopus.  The socorrate is the term used to the describe the best part of any paella, the crunchy rice bits that form on the edge of the pan that are normally scrapped up at the end of serving the dish.  I was expecting to get maybe a small plate of this, perhaps served table side for drama’s sake.  What I got instead was this magnificent beast.

image In a stroke of pure genius, I was presented what was basically a person paella pan along with a spoon with a jagged edge to scrape up the sides.  While it was massive (look at the glass of water and the bread in the background for size comparison), it was also thankfully very shallow so it wasn’t quite as daunting as it looked when it had arrived.

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This is what it looked like after I played around with it a bit, still huge but at least something I could mostly if not fully finish.  It was as good a paella as I’ve ever had.  The pork ribs were fork tender and the octopus was nicely charred nestling at the bottom of the pan.  But of course the real star was the rice.  It had just the right bite to it and I happily crunched along memories flooding back to paellas from my times in Spain.

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Knowing I was way too full but noticing one of my all time favorites on the dessert menu, what they called Marco’s Perfect Carrot Cake, I made the executive decision to get it BUT eat only half and have the other half later as a snack.  This turned out to be smart on my part because the piece of cake was both massive and dense.  The little side of mango sorbet helped ensure I didn’t eat the entire piece too.

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I needed to walk off my lunch so I took a leisurely stroll through my surrounding hood, which was aided at least at first by a massive winds.  This was great until I had to turn into it to head back and as their velocity increased even more, I was suddenly having quite a workout.  As I was walking back, I came across what appeared to be a birthday party for an older woman.  There were kids running around, music blasting and everyone was dancing.  Cartagena is definitely a city of haves and have-nots, with this group decidedly in the latter category.  Still, the pure joy and happiness that emanated from watching the party was universal.  I felt honored to have witnessed it, even from afar.

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I headed back to the apartment for some much needed deck time (yes, I have a rough life, I know) and to catch one of only two remaining sunsets from my magnificent view.  I will miss this for sure.

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I gave myself a bit extra time with a siesta since i knew I was in for a very long night.  I posted the previous blog entry and took off for the Walled City once again.  Donjuan was just off the Clock Tower so the cab drive pulled up in that main plaza, and I stumbled my way to it after that.

Known as a popular pre-nightlife spot for locals as the occasional tourist, Donjuan was owned by a famous Colombian soap opera star and featured many of his favorite dishes.  I had been told that the thing to get was the grilled octopus and since I hadn’t yet had that preparation, I was eager to try it.

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The octopus was very tender and the char was perfect.  An a new twist, it was served with potatoes and bacon, which gave it an even smokier flavor.  Delicious.

While I was waiting for my next dish, I noticed that I had been seated next to a group of four American DudeBros.  After eavesdropping about their various adventures for the day, I asked them where they were from – DC and surrounding area.  For the hell of it, I decided to ask this in a quasi Swedish accent and told them of my time here so far.  They didn’t speak any Spanish but didn’t seem to be troubled by that as they had some local fixer helping them.  One of them was bragging about their conquests from last night and that they would be there soon.  Shortly thereafter, two mildly attractive French women joined them at the table and introduced themselves to me in English.  Well, I guess options are limited for those who don’t speak Spanish here.

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Having learned my lesson on not overdoing it for dinner when going out after, I opted to stay light for my second dish and got the salmon tiradito (basically salmon treated with citrus but not quite a ceviche.)  This wasn’t quite as good as the octopus as it there was a bit too much acidity for my tastes.

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Instead of dessert, I asked my server for his favorite Colombian rum.  He excitedly pointed to La Hebichera from nearby Barranquilla.  Unfortunately, compared to mi amio Zacapa 23, this was a somewhat pale comparison.  When I told the server that, he shook his head and agreed that was the superior liquor.

My original plan post dinner was to go to a place called BarBar but in doing further research, it appeared to cater to a much younger crowd.  Wanting something a bit more upscale, I picked La Movida instead, which was located across the street from La Vitrola so it would be a nice full circle for my trip.  I had been told to be sure to get there before midnight as a large line starts after that.  I had carefully plotted my route in Google Maps but for some reason, it had disappeared when I tried to load it.  Fortunately, by this point, I was pretty familiar with the basic layout of that part of Centro so I was able to figure out where it was fairly easily.

The entrance was in the back via the patio and after getting a fairly close inspection of my worthiness, I was allowed inside after paying the $10 USD cover, by far the most expensive I had paid but oh well.  The patio was already starting to fill up but the lack of cool air made me quickly go inside the main room.  La Movida is a tapas bar until midnight when it becomes a true club so there were still a few tables of people finishing up dinner.  I immediately liked the vibe and made my way to the bar to get a mojito, this time choosing one made with Zacapa rum for only a couple of more dollars.

Almost immediately after I got my drink, I started getting a lot of people pointing at me and giving me the tall height signal.  I smiled back and raised my glass “salud.”  A few minutes later a decidedly not Colombian looking guy came up to me with the same expression.  He was pretty short so I bent down to give him the salud and that cracked him up.

He asked me where I was from and when I said the States, he replied he was from Boston along with two other guys and 3 Colombian women from Bogota they had met earlier that day.  The one he was with looked up at me with big eyes and yelled “WHY YOU SO TALL??”  The main guy, who was also named Steve, introduced me to their group and asked who I was here with.  When I said, no one ,he said “well you are with us now.”

I chatted with their group for awhile and we all danced as it was now really starting to fill up.  I noticed a taller guy motioning me over and when I approached he said “are those fuckers making you take pictures like a fuckin monkey?”  I smiled and said I didn’t mind it. His name was Forrest, an Expat from Holland now living in Bogota, here on business for the week.  He introduced me to his friend who was from Miami, and I had a nice chat with them after he graciously bought me another round.

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I bounced back and forth between those two groups, taking more pictures with “giante rubio” and forced my way back to the patio since now the main room was insanely packed.  The new DJ was playing a fantastic set of deep, funky house and there was a saxophonist along side of him – very cool.  As I walked through the patio, this boisterous and very drunk Colombian saw me and told me “you are too short for this country, go away!”  I mimed like I was leaving and he pulled me over to introduce me to his amigos.  “You need a shot” he said and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  I obliged and he said “another one!”

This time I was able to escape for at least a little bit when a few minutes later, he got on top of a chair with the shot, motioning me over.  “You’ll make history with this one!”  Well then, I guess I had no choice.  He excitedly poured the shot into my mouth with phones all around me recording the action.  Yes, it was that kind of a night.

The hours rolled by with me rotating back and forth to all of my various new friends when I noticed a guy almost as tall as me on the other side of patio.  I did the traditional tall guy nod and came over to say hello.  Turned out he was from New York and had moved to Cartagena 3 months ago to do high end property rentals.  Amazingly, he said he spoke no Spanish, which made me wonder how in the heck he did business here.  He said loved it here and gave me his contact info to hook me up on my next visit.

It was strange after almost 5 days of speaking almost no English, at La Movida that’s basically all I did.  I both wished I had discovered this place sooner but at the same time glad I didn’t as it forced me to be a lot more like a local, always my goal when traveling.  I could see the hermetically sealed environment of the earlier DudeBros (who not surprisingly also ended up at La Movida), hitting on fellow tourists versus interacting with real locals, and made me realize I want no part of that.

Trying to stick to my usual goal of getting home before sunrise, I said my various goodbyes and headed back to the apartment, enjoying the now cool sea breeze from my cab and smiling about all of the insanity I had just endured.  There was one more day/night to go and with an early departure Monday, I knew that this would be pretty much my final taste of the great Cartagena nightlife so it was a nice way to go out in style.

Cartagena Day/Night 3 – Going Local

Still trying to get the bitter tourist taste out of my mouth from yesterday, I was determined not to let that happen again but going to only local suggestions.  First up was the restaurant my server at La Vitrola had said has the best seafood in Cartagena.  Works for me.

At first I was a tad bit hesitant when I saw the restaurant was located inside the Convention Centre.  Typically that means mediocre food and high prices but both her recommendation plus other rave reviews convinced me enough to at least give it a shot.  That turned out to be a very, very wise move.

While Marea by Rausch (a famous Colombian chef) was indeed at the Convention Centre, it faced out towards the water and was its own entity.  The interior was gorgeous, all sea blues and whites in keeping with the theme.  I first thought about sitting outside but it was still pretty hot so opted for the cool confines and plush seating indoors.

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The menu wasn’t that extensive but what was on it all looked fantastic.  Sticking to seafood winnowed the choices a bit further but still plenty of tasty options.  I asked my server what his favorite appetizer was and he excitedly told me the octopus carpaccio.  Sold.

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I’m usually not one to go nuts over presentation but when the dish arrived, I audibly gasped as it was stunning to look at it.  It was also a giant plate but my server assured me that’s only because the carpaccio was paper-thin.  And indeed it was, melted practically in my mouth.  Playing off the color of the octopus was a duo of olive sauces – purple and white. I was at first worried they were aioli but no, in fact were made of just olives – delicious.  Dotted around the edges were pieces of artichoke and asparagus tips, which added a nice crunchy element along with the mache salad on top, simply dresses in olive oil.  A fantastic dish.

For the main course, while I love salmon, especially with mustard sauce, I decided to be a bit more adventurous and get the lion fish filet.  My last somewhat risk had paid off handsomely so when in, uh, Cartagena…

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Another stone-cold stunner of a dish, perhaps the most interesting fish presentation I’ve ever encountered.  The lion fish filet was on top of a bed of Lyonnaise potatoes (always a favorite) but what took it over the top was the incredible porcini mushroom sauce that surrounded the filet as well as some dots of sweet pea puree.  I would take a piece of the fish, swirl it around the sauce and revel in that amazing combination of flavors, the delicate white fish with the rich, deep porcini sauce.  Here’s a closer look to show how much had gone into this incredible dish.

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After that more than generous portion of food, I was getting to be quite full.  Yet, I couldn’t help what wonder the desserts were like given how good the food at been so far.  I thought well I might as well take a look, for research purposes natch, and if something was just too good to pass up, well then…

The dessert list was impressively varied but my eyes were immediately drawn to the coconut creme caramel.  Dammit, I guess I had no choice then but to get it.  The things I do for my (vast?) readership on here.

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Yep, I made the right choice.  This was another home run.  The coconut flavor was ever present but not cloyingly so and the caramel sauce was wonderfully light.  Seriously one of the best I had ever had.  In a particular deft touch, it was server with a bracingly fresh pineapple sorbet where the serving spoon was actually a piece of waffle cone so you could pick it up and it eat that way.  Amazing.

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It had cooled down a bit so I had chosen to eat that magnificent dessert a fuera.  Not a bad view.  The storm clouds seemed to indicate it was time to leave and after being dumbfounded a final time with the bill – only $42 USD for all of that plus a glass of white wine – I set off.

I took a stroll down the edge of the water looking at the various vessels slowly moving in and out of the channel while others appears to be stationed for good, like this ol Jolly Roger.

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Since the Convention Centre is just on the other side of the Clock Tower, I walked back towards the plaza, admiring this cool bridge along the way.

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With the storm clouds looming, I headed back home for some recovery time.  After a few light showers and some more siesta time on my deck, I made my way back to the Walled City but this time at a newer portion (well at least in terms of being identified as such) called Gestemani.  This barrio had previously been a no go zone for tourists but over the past few years had been gentrifying into a hot spot with art galleries, boutique hotels and bars.

Since i had gone so big for lunch, I wanted something simple for dinner so per another local recommendation went to a small cafe called Cafe Malagana right in the heart of the barrio.  I had been told the main attraction was their rooftop deck and since the weather had turned into a very pleasant warm tropical night, I asked if I could sit up there.  2 flights of very small, steep stairs later, I arrived at the deck.

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There were two other couples on either side enjoying some romantic times, and well me.  Still, the weather was so nice and I was enjoying the view, I didn’t mind and put my order in for a requisite mojito, which was served in a jar.  The menu was small but I had been guided to get the fish tacos, which seemed perfect for my current frame of mind.  I chatted briefly with the couples, both of whom were very friendly as everyone has been here.  Soon my fish tacos arrived.

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The fish was very fresh and nicely battered with a local beer but the real star were the local pickled sweet peppers, which had a very nice tangy bite against the mild white fish.  Sure they were no Marea by Rausch quality but very tasty and perfect for the setting.  They also went great with this microbrew porter (one of Colombia’s firsts)

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One of the amusing things about the setup was there appeared to be only one server for the small place so there would be large stretches of time where he would be nowhere to be found.  This became even more noticeable when both couples left and now it was just oh solo mio.  The bitter chocolate notes of the porter were aching for something sweet to be paired with it and I saw that their only dessert was a brownie ala mode.  Unfortunately, since no one was checking on me, I had no idea how to order one since the thought of going up the tiny, steep stairs again felt like tempting fate.

I noticed though that there appeared to be some of sort intercom on the far wall and tried that route – success!  I ate my lovely brownie/ice cream/porter beer combo (no pic since it was just a standard brownie with ice cream) and headed back down the steep stairs.  I asked the server if it was safe enough to walk the 10-15 minutes or so to my next destination and he said no problem.  There was a more direct route that looked a bit sketchy so thanks to Google Maps, I chose one that went along more major roads.

My destination was a club called Mister Barbilla, which I had found out about when I had asked people where they go to have fun and dance.  I had also been told to get there before midnight to watch the place transform into a true party zone.  Still, I have enough experience with Latin American clubs to know that meant getting there at 11:30.

I didn’t see any signs but Google Maps indicated I was there and soon I was ushered inside after paying a $5.00 cover.  The room was small, dead and looked nothing like the pictures I had seen online. Had I finally been scammed?  No, as it turned out as I just need to basically prove my worth – maybe the Spanish combined with my gringo looks? – and eventually I was led through another series of small rooms to the main one I had seen on line.

I knew going in that most people would be at tables at that time of night and sure enough that was the case.  Since I was solo, a table didn’t make much sense so I took a seat at one of the main bars that looked out over the club.  A mix of traditional salsa music and more modern electronic tinged tracks boomed over the massive sound system, and as if like clockwork, at midnight people indeed did start to get up to dance.

It was too dark to take any decent pictures plus I was having too good a time to care.  “Rubio Gigante!” they called me and I had fun dancing with various women, including some of the staff, sipping my way too sweet mojito.  I’ve always thought that show me a culture that loves to dance and I’ll show you a happy culture.  The energy in the room was off the charts and while some of the music was godawful, I didn’t care.

At about 2AM, I decided to call it a night, made my way through the phalanx of street hawkers to a waiting cab and cruised on home.  Saturday would be my latest night yet so I needed to catch a few Zs before the fun and frivolity began again.

Cartagena Day/Night 2 – Into the Walled City

After another somewhat slow start (hey I’m on vacation, sue me!), I headed back behind the walls of the old city to go have some ceviche.  I had remembered Anthony Bourdain on one of his travel shows had gone to a specific place for it and thanks to the magic of Google, I was soon en route to La Cevicheria.  This proved to be a bit more challenging than anticipated as the taxi driver had no idea where it was and had to resort to the old fashioned way of waving over random people for help.  No GPS for this hombre!

After a couple of false starts, I walked down a small alleyway to get to the restaurant, which was teeming with people.  Unfortunately, most of those people turned out to be speaking anything but Spanish.  Yes, I had stumbled into a dreaded tourist trap.  Still, if it was good enough for Tony , had to be good enough for me right?

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It was a bit hot to sit outside but I had no other choice.  Fortunately, there was just enough of a breeze along with the table umbrella to make it tolerable.  A cold dish of ceviche would hit the spot so I decided on their “especial ceviche” which was a combination of conch, squid and the catch of the day (red fish in this case)

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It both looked and tasted very different than a more typical ceviche and unfortunately, not nearly as good.  Unlike a Peruvian style ceviche, there was no counterpoint with corn or sweet potatoes to cut through the acid.  This was just acid on top of acid, and after about halfway through, I couldn’t take it anymore.  My first real miss on this trip.  Oh well, it happens.

It seemed appropriate too that a clearly for tourists “Colombian woman with fruit on her head” was near-by.

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The ceviche at least had achieved one goal of cooling me down so I left my disappointments behind and began to explore the old city.  It soon became clear why it has become a popular tourist destination as it really felt like stepping back in time.

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After a couple of hours of wandering, I was beat and retreated back to the A/C controlled environment of my apartment.  A nice siesta on my deck followed by a shower and soon I was recharged and ready to get back into the fray.

Since lunch had basically been a bust, I wanted to get Colombian food another shot and had been told Casa de Socorro would be a good spot to do so.  Located just outside of the walled city by the Convention Center, there are actually two Socorros – Casa and Restaurante.  However, the consensus seemed to be that Casa was the better option.

Casa de Socorro focuses on ancient Colombian food (as in pre-Colonial) with a particular focus on cazuelas – basically a large stew cooked in a clay pot.  I had become a fan of cazuelas during my stay in Buenos Aires so I was excited to try their version.

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Unlike La Cevicheria, I was once more the only gringo there.  The seating was also designed to emulate an ancient table setting which in my case meant a very low and uncomfortable seat.  I felt like I was back in Japan struggling to fit under something clearly not intended for my size.

A drink on the menu caught my attention – limon granizado con coco – basically iced lemonade with coconut.  That seemed tropical enough so I ordered one.  I had assumed it would be kind of like a virgin pina colada and that was basically true if not a tad more bitter.

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It was very tasty and soon after was followed by my cazuela of choice – langostinos and shrimp.

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Along with the cazuela were two mashed/friend plantain cakes and my increasingly new obsession, coconut rice.  This version was the best I had yet and the plantains were great vehicles to dip into the rich, shellfish heavy broth of the cazuela.  It was a full langostino along with 10 nice sized shrimp.  Very, very tasty and very, very rich, which made me realize any notion of dancing the night away were probably not going to come to fruition.

After saying my goodbyes, I walked down the street to the huge plaza that separated the walled city from the other barrios.

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Since it was now Thursday, there was considerable more life than the previous sleepy night, with vendors hawking their wares everywhere and large groups of people wandering around having fun.  Still, it wasn’t quite the mood I was seeking so I opted to hop in a cab to the next destination, Cafe del Mar.

I had read that Cafe del Mar had some great views of the city from their rooftop bar but for some reason didn’t realize exactly what that meant until I pulled up to large set of stairs leading up to the venue.  Cafe del Mar is actually located on top of fortress that surrounded the walled city, complete with turret mounts and cannons still there.  Unfortunately, the low lighting made any shots not really possible to capture how big and impressive it was but here are a couple of views.

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It was now about midnight and while there were people everywhere, it was by no means packed.  This though turned out to be a good thing for me as I had my choice of any number of spots to sit.  I first selected a chair that was in the center of the action but soon abandoned that for a much more prime location.

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Yes, that’s a bed, in the shape of a ship no less.  The combination of the setting, the cool breeze and mojito in hand made me a very happy camper.  The DJ was actually surprisingly good too as was the sound system so I hunkered down for a couple of hours to take it all in before finally heading home to get at least a few winks before it was time to start over again tomorrow.

Cartagena – Day/Night 1

After a somewhat fitful night’s sleep, I awoke to the sound of the sea crashing against the beach and sunlight streaming through what I had assumed were blackout curtains – apparently not.

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In the light of day, I could now fully see my surroundings, and it became clear my choices for lunch within walking distance were limited at best.  My host had suggested a place around the corner that was supposedly very cheap but good.  This was necessary as I only had about $12 USD left in cash and nary a bank nor ATM anywhere close.  The breeze I had so welcomed the night before was basically gone and in its place was hot, humid air.  I found the restaurant but it was so hot plus the fact that the only thing was a seafood stew, not exactly what I wanted in such heat, so I decided to try elsewhere.  Fortunately, further down the block was a Ibis Hotel, a mid-tier chain geared towards budget conscious travelers.  My general distaste for hotel food was quickly abated by the fact that they had a) A/C and b) took credit cards so I could save what little cash I had left.

As it turned out, I had stumbled into the midst of some sort of promo event for a new resort and spa that was to be opened soon further down the coast.  This included the requisite “booth babes” who there were to look pretty and take pictures with various prospective investors/clients.

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Since I wasn’t sure as to the quality of the food, I decided to play it safe with a simple filet of beef along with some grilled vegetables and coconut rice.  This turned out be quite tasty, especially the coconut rice.

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After lunch, I took a quick walk through the rest of my surrounding area to get the lay of the land.  I found a small bodega where I picked up some basic goods and headed back to the apartment.  Since Colombia doesn’t have daylight savings time, it was dark by 6:30PM.  I decided to take advantage of the slightly cooler weather by taking my siesta on my deck.

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The plan for the evening was to go to the famous La Vitrola restaurant inside the old walled city.  Normally almost impossible to get a reservation, I had my host contact them and say I would be willing to sit at the bar, which seemed to do the trick.  After a pretty short cab ride down the shore and through a small porthole which was one of the entrances to the walled city, La Vitrola beckoned.

Known for being a favorite of celebs, athletes and even the president of Colombia, LaVitrola was like stepping into another world and era.  Inspired by pre-Castro Cuba, including an Afro Cuban band at the front of the restaurant, it felt like I was stepping into some sort of private club, all the more given that I was clearly the only gringo there.

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I took my seat at the handsomely appointed bar and opted for, what else? a mojito.  Their version was a bit different in that the bartender finished it off with a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters.

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Other signal La Vitrola catered to a VIP crowd was the casual placement of Johnnie Walker Blue amongst other various liquors.

I sipped on my mojito as the band started another set, perfectly content staying there but as it turned out, a table had opened up for me since I was going to eat dinner.  I was escorted to the other end of the restaurant and given their one server who sort of spoke English.  Perhaps because I was still answering everything in Spanish, she gave up that pretense quickly and I was able to get my order in, at least I hoped.

The only word I didn’t really know was what turned out to be grouper.  As I love that fish, I decided to get their grouper carpaccio.  A few minutes later, another server told me that wasn’t available now but they had a smoked version instead.

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The fish was beautifully smoked and tender, with the accompanying sliced avocado, olives and diced pineapple providing a nice contrast.  After finishing it, I opted for a glass of Carmenere from Chile to go with my main course.

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As soon as I located it on the menu, I knew my main course had to be the lobster ravioli with a lobster bisque sauce.  This was a ridiculously indulgent dish but oh so tasty!

After that, I knew there was no way I could possibly have a dessert so instead I thought a nice apertif would do the trick.  I was curious about their rum collection and asked who turned out to be the general manager which he preferred.  He suggested the Zapaca 23 year old rum from Guatemala.  It was indeed an excellent choice.

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Since I had apparently pleased the GM with my selection of beverage, he escorted me back into the main room and got a seat right next to the band.

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At the end of their set, I got up to leave and asked one of the servers where I could find the nearest bank or ATM.  As it turned out, another server was heading that way and offered to lead me there.  She was a tiny little thing and the fellow servers laughed when they saw our height disparity.  We parted ways once she got to a plaza where there was indeed a bank, at last!  After getting some much needed pesos and enjoying my rum buzz, I strolled around the plaza and the surrounding area.

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After about 30 minutes of wandering, I came across a much larger square and a massive clock tower, which I had read is used a central meeting spot for the old city.

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Finally my feet had enough and headed back to the apartment, full of great food, drink and general happiness, excited for whatever was to come over the next few days.

 

Up in the air again

After what turned out to be a much longer than expected sideline in terra firma due to a nightmare of a sinus infection, it was finally time for me to start seeing the world again.  My desire to continue exploring South America along with a truly amazing United rewards travel deal led me to give Cartagena, Colombia a shot along with a quick sojourn in Panama City.  And away we go!

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Part of the great deal I had found was that most of the trip would be in business class.  Copa Airlines’ version is closer to a domestic business class vs. international but beggars can’t be choosy.  This would do just fine.

A mere 6 hours later, I arrived at the Panama City, where I would take a quick puddle jumper (well, sea jumper in this case) to Cartagena.  I decided against partaking in the local cuisine though.

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The second leg of the trip had a slightly downgraded version of business class.

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After a quick hour flight, I exited the stairs to the plane to get my first taste of the hot, humid Cartagena weather, quite the change from my previous trip to say the least!  While my business class seat was hardly great, the fact I was one of the first out of the plane turned out to be a huge advantage as I approached a very welcome sight.

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Suffice it to say, getting through immigration/customs was a breeze.

My luggage was also there waiting for me along with a slightly shady guy with a cart, offering to take me to a cab.  Normally I wouldn’t agree to anything like that but because it was a late Tuesday evening in a basically empty terminal, I didn’t really have a choice.  Fortunately, I had a bit of USD with me as there was no ATM in sight and my “guide” assured me it was a cheap taxi ride.  As it turned out, he wasn’t even the driver, just trying get a few shekels on the DL.  I gave him about a buck in USD and he seemed fine with that.  I had been told my place was close to the airport and sure enough, about 10 minutes later, I had arrived.

The building loomed large over the relatively empty stretch of land across from the Caribbean so it was pretty easy to spot.  Took the elevator to the 14th floor and noticed a welcome change in the weather, a nice steady warm breeze.  Oh how I had missed that wonderful feeling!

Despite the fact that it was 2 hours earlier on my body clock, I decided it would probably be a good idea to get some rest as I wanted to be as refreshed as possible to begin my exploration of Cartagena.