Off the Beaten Path in Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena is kinda like this—go out looking for one thing, and probably—happily—find another. Want some ceviche? You should head to La Cevicheria, but don’t be surprised if you end up being side tracked by the palliative scent of the street food (arepas are a must). Searching for some ice creme (suggested: La Paletteria) and you might wind up spending an hour or so shopping handmade textiles and leather goods, especially if you walk down Calle San Juan de Dios. Heading for a romantic stroll along the city walls, where lovers and artists both like to chill in the breeze of the sea? That could easily be postponed if you allow yourself to be beguiled by hidden balcony bars like El Balcon atop Plaza de San Diego.

I had hopped on the new-ish 4.5 hour direct flight Jet Blue offers between New York City and the coastal, Caribbean city of Cartagena to check out the old quarter’s newest independent boutique hotel—Casa San Agustin, but in the process stumbled upon Demente….which I think might be starting something.

Opened just last week, Demente is a tapas bar and restaurant found on mostly deserted Plaza la Trinidad in the Getsemaní district, (the downtown, nightlife oriented version of the adjacent, day-centric old quarter). Think…sting ray wings in brown butter, oxtail burgers, stuffed pig cheeks, outdoor seating, ice cold beer and a refurbished colonial ruin decked with sleek modern trimmings.

We found the place while ambling around the Getsemaní with some of the fine people who work for Casa San Agustin, late one afternoon on a hunt for some ceviche, and spotted a lot of activity centered around a nondescript wooded door at one of the corners of the square. It wasn’t hard to see because the only other businesses on La Trinidad are make shift food vendors and the mats of handmade jewelry travelers.

Soon seated inside, we were smoking some cuban cigars and drinking Aguila draft beer from one of the few taps in town (Cartagena is sadly void of such things) while chatting with owner Nicolas Wisner. He may have been readying the bar for its official opening, but he welcomed us to stay, along with some curious neighborhood locals who had also been poking their heads in. “Come in…it’s alright,” He’d say to every new face that dared peer past the door, and within minutes we were guests at spontaneous fiesta.

That’s just the vibe that will undoubtedly make Demente a success. “I want locals and tourists to both feel comfortable here,” says Wisner, a native of Bogota. And he means it literally—all of the chairs, save the stools at the bar, are rocking chairs. And take for instance the daily changing menu—sourced each morning from the local market and priced favorably for all, with plates ranging from 6000 to 16000 Colombian Pesos ($3.50-$10).

The place is uniquely local, decidedly modern and manages to live in the worlds of both. Beneath the open air roof (perfect for the cuban cigars on the menu), the exposed brick walls and wooden beams hint at what the original structure looked like. Now the walls are dotted with mirrored images of people like Einstein, Dali, Karl Marx, Andy Warhol, Woody Wood Pecker and Michael Jackson, “It’s random but they’re all kind of demented,” Wisner explains. More dementia? The plates themselves feature different lines from Raul Gomez Jottin—local crazy-man/celebrated poet, who used to sleep in the city’s parks before he got, uh, hit by a bus.

Having grown up in Bogota, Wisner, now aged 35, did the corporate thing, hated it, traveled to Spain where he cut his chops within the tapas restaurants in Madrid’s famed tapas-centric La Latina quarter all while getting schooled in professional cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. The name Demente is derived from his Madrileno favorite place to “tapear“—Juana la Loca. Finally, it was time to come back to Colombia and in Cartagena’s Getsemaní he came upon colonial ruin and began to build his dream.

“There’s this great neighborhood feel in the Getsemaní,” he says, “I knew when I came here that this is where I wanted to be.”  La Trinidad is quiet and set a few blocks back from the boisterous main action of the neighborhood that’s centered around must visit places like La Havana (of Hillary Clinton salsa dancing fame) and Bazurto Social Club. With the coming of Demente in Plaza La Trinidad, could La Latina be getting a little Colombian cousin? There’s still not much back here by the La Trinidad, but that’s sure to change.

Classic Caribbean, salsa and American soul tunes mingle with funk and reggae through the sound system as the still unopened restaurant fills with locals and a few passer byers. Wisner continues to welcome them all.

Night settles in and out on La Trinidad, some performers have gathered. A few backpackers, neighborhood people and intrepid tourists gather to watch. The scent of street food wafts by, a cat runs across the street, it’s humid and everything is tinted yellow by the glow of the street lights. Plaza la Trinidad undulates between it’s prime spot as the rising face of the Getsemani and a faded antique photo. They should name an Instragram filter after it.

It’s only a 15 minute or so walk back to Casa San Agustin, where I’m glad to be after the impromptu cigar and beer session. The hotel’s 24 rooms are stochastically situated throughout the refurbished colonial era structure—a series of frescos, exposed original walls and libraries. It’s almost like being inside of your own, very posh, home, except that I keep getting lost.

We head to Alma, the hotel’s restaurant and get down on chef Juan Pablo Henao’s exquisite menu of international fusion and sea food and soon I’m nestled in the luxurious expanse of the king sized bed in the quiet confines of my room.

I’m thinking of the map I have of the city—of all the restaurants, bars, hotels and attractions that are neatly, and rightfully, pointed out. Demente over in Plaza La Trinidad will be on that map soon, I note, but until then, it’s delightfully off the beaten path.

Jet Blue operates Friday morning flights to Cartagena and returns on Tuesday afternoon.

Demete opened on March 21st 2013 on Plaza La Trinidad. Daily hours are 4pm-2am. No phone or website. Tip: Ask for a seat at the bar and you’ll receive a discount on the listed menu prices.

Casa San Agustin opened in November, 2012. Rooms start at approx. $380/night and are absolutely divine.

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