As an award-winning Canadian food photographer, Maya Visnyei lives and breathes food. Known for her sharp eye and vibrant aesthetic, her photos invigorate all of the senses, as if a dish is actually in front of you, not just on the page. It’s a passion that follows her and her husband, Yhony Eduardo Munoz, to his hometown of Medellín, Colombia, where they spend about half the year exploring the local flavours and managing their own organic cacao farm just outside the city. And while there, they, without fail, always try to make the approximately 15-hour (by car) trip to Cartagena, the cobblestoned city that dates back to the 16th century and sits on the Caribbean coast. Its colonial history remains on full display in the lively streets, through the unique architecture and walled-off Old Town, which is just one of the many things that sets it apart. “It’s so beautiful and it’s a city that you can continually revisit because it’s always changing – there are always new restaurants and new shops,” says Visnyei.
Because of its coastal location, Cartagena was a significant port town and strategic site under colonial Spanish rule. Let that history guide your exploring, Visnyei and Munoz recommend. Military architecture resulted in a wall being built around the city, as well as the historic Castillo San Felipe de Barajas fortress (it was once involved in various battles and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Today, both the wall and fortress remain important parts of the city’s design and must be seen in person to be believed. “There’s so much going on that [you can find] just walking around,” says Visnyei. “There are many different town squares and churches with tons of significance, and you can hire a guide to walk around with you and point out all the really interesting facts.”
After that dose of rich history, head to Mercado de Bazurto – but prepare yourself, Munoz and Visnyei warn. You’ll need a robust sense of adventure to wander the crowded aisles of the labyrinthine market. Located a few kilometres outside the city’s walls, it’s the place for street vendors to sell fresh produce, food, local delicacies and anything else you can think of. You can wander “for hours and hours” and find countless treasures, so Visnyei and Munoz recommend hiring a guide, who can make navigating the market easier.
Cap off your tour with a visit to Getsemaní, a trendy neighbourhood also located just beyond the old city walls that is rife with cafés, live street music and gorgeous outdoor murals. “It’s a place for local artisans to show their craft,” says Munoz.
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, it’s time to discover the city’s many culinary treasures. Read on for just a few of the couple’s favourite places to eat in Cartagena.
Cozy seafood eatery La Cevichería was featured in late chef Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations TV series, which means it’s basically always busy, but it’s more than worth the wait, both Visnyei and Munoz agree. “Everybody goes there – tourists and locals,” says Visnyei, adding that she and Munoz try to return whenever they’re in the region. “It’s just really good, unfussy seafood.” The restaurant is tiny and doesn’t usually take reservations, so show up early and get ready to be blown away by the quality of the food (standouts include a giant dish of paella that takes 35 minutes to prepare) and a welcoming atmosphere.
Café del Mar
Visnyei and Munoz are very upfront about Café del Mar, a laid-back alfresco spot sitting atop the Baluarte de Santo Domingo: This isn’t the place to go for food that you’ll never forget. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, to be clear, but what you’re eating almost doesn’t matter when you’re overlooking the ocean and watching the sunset. That is what will stick with you long past your return trip home. “It is so pictur- esque. With the breeze coming off the ocean, it’s vacation vibes,” says Visnyei. “You feel peaceful and really happy there. And, at sunset, the light is stunning; it’s just the perfect moment.”
Hotel Casa San Agustín
Visnyei and Munoz love to stay at boutique hotels, and Hotel Casa San Agustín checks off all their boxes. Relaxed and chic, the hotel was constructed by connecting three colonial, white-washed heritage houses and has just 31 guestrooms. “It’s beautifully restored, the location is excellent and the service is impeccable,” says Visnyei.
For a lovely, intimate date night, head to Alma, the fine-dining restaurant located in the hotel. Helmed by acclaimed chef Heberto Eljach, the vibrant spot serves up high-end takes on ceviches, seafood and aged meats, while combining traditional techniques with innovative thinking. Visnyei and Munoz spend most of their time in Cartagena eating seafood (it’s always fresh, always flavourful), and Alma doesn’t disappoint in this regard.
Many restaurants in Cartagena are located in buildings originally designed as houses, according to Visnyei and Munoz, and Carmen – a contemporary spot dedicated to highlighting Colombia’s diversity through its dishes – uses that to its advantage. It has a beautiful courtyard, a warm and homey ambiance, nights for live music and all the makings for an excellent time. Visnyei still finds herself thinking about the strawberry shortcake with fresh jam, cream and a mango and passion fruit purée.
Celele Restaurante was founded by local chefs Jaime Rodríguez Camacho and Sebastián Pinzón Giraldo, who spent years on the Caribbean coast getting to know the area’s Indigenous people. With Celele, they meld Colombian-Caribbean flavours, and it’s since made the list of “Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants” three years in a row.