How I fell under the spell of the Colombia’s finest colonial city
The historic old town of Cartagena, a melting pot of myths, legends and cultures offers a luxurious Caribbean weekend escape that not only has quintessential white sandy beaches and coral atolls but also embraces history, culture and gastronomy.
The fortified, historic quarter of this coastal city maintains an exotic, romantic atmosphere, whilst also being home to stylish boutique and luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants and upscale retail stores.
It’s a far cry from the outdated view of a country struggling with narcotic-fuelled organized crime. Now Colombia has reclaimed its position on the global tourism stage, with a culturally-rich offering for visitors, including the outstanding city of Cartagena de Indias.
In colonial times it was a strategic port for the Spanish, exporting gold, silver and emerald wealth to Andalucía. Constantly under threat from competitive European navies and sponsored pirates, this wealthy trading city adopted fortress-like architecture with tightly-packed merchants’ houses with heavy studded doors, protected behind thick city walls that remain today.
Within the ancient city walls, is the genuine heart of Cartagena, a place Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia’s most celebrated author, called home for a few years when he was a young journalist on a local paper. The city’s intoxicating streets left an indelible mark on his psyche, shaping and defining the flavor and atmosphere of his fictional locations in works including ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’.
Step out into the cobbled streets in the early morning and one captures an essence of the romantic city that inspired García Márquez. Baroque towers and elaborate arches surround tranquil squares where residents sit and play cards; flowering bougainvillea and geraniums spill out from the terraces of pastel-painted buildings; street vendors offer a warming cup of ‘café con leche’ from colorful flasks packed together on a small wheel barrow; whilst food vendors cut and prepare a sweet tropical fruit treat, or offer piping hot fritters. Dilapidated, vintage trucks compete for space on the narrow lanes with horse drawn carriages, whilst youngsters flirt in shaded doorways on their way to the university. The city compels you to photograph it, almost to excess. At every turn there is something fascinating, beautiful or surprising, moments worth capturing.
Beyond the authentic street food, are gourmet restaurants and buzzing bars, perfect for relaxing meals and refreshing cocktails. Latin and creole flavors collide with those from Europe and the Americas, creating exciting dishes and memorable feasts.
With a fusion of European, Latin American and Caribbean flavours, eating out in Cartagena is more than just gastronomy; it’s a cultural experience. Capture a flavour of the city with some street food; a fresh coconut lemonade, or a cooling slice of watermelon from one of the ‘palenquera’ vendors.
Cocktails are a huge part of life here too; whether a daiquiri at ‘Café del Mar’ watching the sunset; a caipiriña on a hotel rooftop terrace; or an authentic mojito at the legendary ‘Café Havana’.
For a gourmet experience, head to the ‘Restaurante 1621’, at the Santa Clara, where the sommelier offers weekly wine tastings from one of the finest cellars in the Americas. The menu offers classic French dishes, made with local ingredients.
Also, ‘Alma’, the signature restaurant at Casa San Agustin, offers some of the best fresh Caribbean seafood and classic meat dishes created and served in a creative and innovative way.
Colombia’s emerald legacy remains and along the narrow streets, such as Calle Santo Domingo, one can find jewellery boutiques such as ‘Lucy Jewelry’ that offer breathtakingly crafted pieces hand laid with locally sourced emeralds.
The upscale retail is not just dedicated to jewels; there are a myriad of designer clothes stores too, as well as artisan boutiques and fine art galleries. It is a pleasure to spend a day browsing and shopping; and so easy to have all your purchases delivered to your hotel.
Many of old town’s iconic buildings have been converted into upscale hotels. Casa San Agustin, recently voted amongst the top new hotels in the world, is a trio of colonial era white-washed buildings that have been impeccably renovated, maintaining the warmth, charm and elegance of a magnificent private residence, whilst now incorporating luxury appointed guest suites. Artisan Colombian crafted furniture and fittings, hard wood colonial shutters, antiques and art combine to create a magical ambiance. This is the intimate choice for luxury breaks in Cartagena; a place to seek peace, tranquility and elegance within this tropical, Caribbean city.
A few blocks across town, within a stunning, historic convent is Sofitel’s luxury Legend resort, the Hotel Santa Clara. Its arched cloisters surround a verdant patio, complete with historic trickling fountain, and is home to the resort’s mascot, a Toucan called ‘Mateo’. A stay here is to experience the city as portrayed by Gabriel García Márquez, since this extraordinary building is said to be the location inspiration for ‘Of Love and Other Demons’. Guest suites are within both the ancient convent and the adjacent modern classical wing, which also includes a spa, gym and a stunning outdoor pool.
The nearby bohemian quarter of Getsemaní is now one of the city’s most authentic, vibrant neighborhoods. It is home to salsa bars that fill the streets with Caribbean and Cuban sounds, and offer the best mojitos cocktails. A night out here will be one of the many lasting memories of this tropical, spell-binding Caribbean city.
Cartagena de Indias – Travel Tips:
Casa San Agustin
There is nothing more captivating than staying in a hotel that truly reflects its provenance; one that allows guests to immerse themselves in the magic of a destination. Casa San Agustin, the award-winning 5 star exclusive boutique hotel is one such property. These evocative, 17th century colonial buildings have been reimagined as a luxury hotel, offering 24 exquisite guest rooms and 6 stunning suites. Each features modern services and innovations such as an iPad offered to guests whilst at the hotel, through which they can order room service, reserve tours and more. Whilst the warm interiors combine custom furniture, Frette linens, Ortigia amenities and original antiques; and all with a contemporary Caribbean flair.
In fact such has been the success of Casa Agustin´s privileged service and style that they have just renovated an island escape, ‘Agua Hotel’ on Cartagena´s neighbouring island of Baru, offering barefoot Caribbean luxury.
Impeccably restored historic mansion; fusing luxurious, Caribbean style with centuries old charm. Choose a 1,600 sq. ft. duplex Prestige suite, with colonial details and sumptuous Frette linens, robes and slippers, as well as exclusive Ortigia bath amenities.
Hotel Santa Clara
Stunning resort housed in an ancient Franciscan convent within the walled old town. Stay in a superior suite with city views, and enjoy Hermes toiletries, butler service and a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ luxury experience.
A former 17th century convent, said to be a setting for one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez´s novels, is the iconic Santa Clara Hotel. It’s the largest and finest 5 star hotel in Cartagena de Indias and is a global destination for world-class weddings and events. Shakira as well as many other international A-listers, have been guests. Follow in their footsteps and stay in the stunning Botero Imperial Suite, named after Colombia´s exceptional artist.
Hotel Santa Clara combines the romance of colonial architecture with contemporary comfort designed to meet the desires of elite travellers. There are a variety of places to eat and drink within the city resort, including the Caribbean style ‘El Coro’ bar, famous for its mojitos.
The Santa Clara is also one of the few Über-luxe properties in Cartagena to boast a spa; an 800 square metre sanctuary dedicated to relaxation and wellbeing.
Café del Mar
Sip a daiquiri or mojito as the suns sets over the Caribbean, relaxing to subtle Latin beats in Cartagena’s most cosmopolitan environment.
Street food treats are everywhere, but for something special, experience some genuine Cartagena cuisine at the restaurant that celebrates the local gastronomy.
Feel the tropical heat at the best dance and music club in town, pulsating with sultry Cuban passion.