Interno: the prison restaurant

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How Cartagena transformed a former women’s prison into a trendy restaurant

Interno: the prison restaurant

Cartagena is known for picturesque sights, narrow cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial architecture. In recent years, it became popular with the trendy crowd even due to its culinary success. Celebrated chefs have opened upscale establishments and a variety of creative eateries have followed. In a city that has so much to offer, it’s difficult to find a niche or create a product which response to the sensibilities of the public. But yet again Colombians surprised us, coming up with a trendy product which became an instant success. 

Leer en español: Interno: la prisión que se volvió restaurante

On one of the cobblestone streets, close to the luxurious boutique hotels and fancy designer shops, visitors will find a building that is easily noticeable. Locals know the place as San Diego- the minimum- security female prison. 

Until recently, a Colombian prison wasn’t a tourist attraction but this changed with the opening of Restaurante Interno .

Interno is a 60- seat restaurant that was inspired by a similar establishment in Milan, Italy. It's a place where inmates clean, cook and wait tables, being in charge of all the mundane tasks associated with running a restaurant. Only female detainees who are close to their release date or no longer pose a public risk get employed here.

From the get-go, you sense the magical realism made famous by the Cartagena’s wunderkind writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. While entering Interno, you’ll feel like being in a supernatural world or in a different representation of our current reality. The romanticized interpretation of Colombia and that picturesque image with colonial mansions in pastel shades where balconies are decorated with blooming flowers are left outside. Even the entrance wall is painted in bright pink, contrasting the steel bars and metal doors which keep the inmates inside. While the Cartagena known (and loved) by tourists has something magical to it, this restaurant is more of a contemporary abyss, reminding the world that Colombia is still recovering from the war on drugs, facing socio-economic inequalities and criminality. 

Also read: Gastón Acurio: the ambassador of Peruvian food 

Interno shows a more contemporary image of the country. It mirrors a realistic environment stripped of artifices. It’s a strong critic of society insisting that even the forgotten ones require “second chances” (the sign is found at the entry), and fortunately, the second opportunity came from Johana Bahamon. 

The detainees selected to participate in the program are taught valuable skills that will help them find their way back into society. Primarily, these women learn to prepare refined dishes from prominent professional cooks like Michelin star chef Koldo Miranda. By gaining sought-after skills, these female inmates get a shot at financial independence and that again moderates the rate of recidivism. Second, through their interaction with guests, detainees already begin the long process of reintegrating in society as they overcome their own demons and find the power to reinforce their personal strengths. 

n a city like Cartagena where visitors find a variety of extravagant and luxurious dining options, Interno is neither the hippest nor the most glamorous establishment in town, but that doesn’t dismantle its unique appeal.


LatinAmerican Post | Adina Achim

Copy edited by Vanesa López Romero


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