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Spend the night behind bars at the world’s first restaurant inside a women’s prison

This cafe with a conscience in the Colombian city of Cartagena is well worth your time, says Clare Vooght

Clare Vooght
Friday 14 June 2019 14:39 BST
Interno is run by prison inmates
Interno is run by prison inmates

From the outside, Interno looks like a tropical speakeasy. Under a pink candy-stripe awning, a strip of light glows through bars at the top of heavy, hot pink-painted steel doors. Step into the restaurant, and you’ll find cheese plant and palm-print murals punctuated with tropical flowers and plenty of potted foliage between the wooden tables.

The only hints that this isn’t just another hip, tourist-orientated restaurant in the Colombian city of Cartagena are the two barred gates at either end of the dining area. The one by the entrance is open, decorated with cord tassels; the other is locked, except for a hatch through which kitchen staff pass plates of food.

Almost all the staff at Interno are inmates at Cartagena’s San Diego prison. The restaurant – the first in the world to be located inside a women’s prison – provides them with valuable skills to help find work when they are released. And it’s one of a wave of businesses in and around Cartagena where tourist dollars go towards making positive social change.

Other such businesses include Cafe Stepping Stone, which provides training programmes for disadvantaged indigenous and afro-Colombian young people while serving a mean brunch, and hip island hotel Blue Apple Beach. The latter operates the first glass recycling machine on the entire Colombian coast and provides training on how to use it to make sustainable building materials, via the Green Apple Foundation.

This trend for responsible, socially-conscious tourism is arguably all the more significant in a country where its surge in popularity as a travel hotspot coincided with the popular Netflix show Narcos, which charted the growth of the cocaine trade, giving rise to problematic Pablo Escobar tours and dark “narcotourism” pilgrimages.

Right now feels like a turning point: places like Interno, which translates as inmate, are providing a more positive, constructive experience. “It’s a good reference for tourists in Colombia,” says the restaurant’s founder Johana Bahamon, an actress and entrepreneur born in the southwest city of Cali.

“Interno is partly a restaurant and it’s also an experience that tourists can live. They can be with the inmates and talk with them, then can see that they are human beings who have made a mistake, that they deserve a second chance like everyone else,” she adds.

You'd never know Interno wasn't just another hip restaurant

On any given night, you’ll spot diners posing for pictures with the internas – who’ll be dressed in a uniform of jeans, black tees, trainers and aprons bearing the restaurant’s key logo, with bandanas in the signature, napkin-matching shade of bright pink.

Bahamon chose the Cartagena prison for Interno because of its location in the heart of the city – close to the civilian population – and for the area’s established tourism industry.

The restaurant serves an upscale Caribbean menu

Although crimes people serve time for at San Diego prison range from drug offences to murder, the internas working in the restaurant tend to be lower risk and are chosen based on good behaviour. For every year an interna works in the restaurant, she will receive six months off her sentence.

And the success rates are impressive. Of the 25 to 30 inmates who have been released since the restaurant opened in 2016, only one has so far reoffended. “Almost all the girls are now working in the best restaurants of Cartagena, or they own a food business,” says Bahamon.

Equally impressive are Interno’s credentials in the food world: for the menu, Bahamon enlisted the help of Spanish Michelin-starred chef Koldo Miranda. The result is an upscale Caribbean menu, including coconut milk-steeped ceviche artfully topped with slivers of crisped plantain, carpaccio of locally caught fish with a slick of tamarind sauce, and yuca parcels stuffed with beef and mint salsa.

Most former inmates are ‘now working in the best restaurants of Cartagena’

A starter, main course, dessert and juice costs a very reasonable 90,000 Colombian pesos (around £22), with wine and whisky costing extra. Your money goes straight back into the parent foundation Accion Interna, also set up by Bahamon, which works with prisons across the country to improve notoriously bad conditions. The cash is spent on training and rehabilitation schemes and to buy essential items for inmates such as beds and mattresses, as well as computers.

The atmosphere at Interno is relaxed and friendly. Stumbling on it for the first time, you’d never guess it wasn’t just another trendy restaurant. Given its inspiring ethos, tropical vibes and excellent ceviche, it’s definitely worth reserving your night behind bars.

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Travel essentials

Getting there

Air France flies to Bogota via Paris Charles de Gaulle from nine airports across the UK from £720 return.

Staying there

Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena offers French chic in a 17th-century former monastery building in the Old Town, with a jungle-inspired courtyard and palm-fringed swimming pool as focal points. Doubles from £245, room only.

At Townhouse, Blue Apple Beach’s hip sister hotel, each of the eight contemporary rooms are individually painted by local artists. The rooftop – and party spot – has two plunge pools, a great view over Cartagena Old Town and a fun, Caribbean-meets-NYC cocktail menu. Doubles from £120, room only.

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