A Taste of Latin Caribbean in Cartagena, Colombia

Last week I spent a bit of time (sadly too little) in the lovely town of Cartagena de Indias on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. I have been several times (you can read about one of my previous visits: Marisol, Aracari’s Owner Rings in 2008 from Cartagena, Colombia) and go relatively often as I am lucky enough to have friends who have a home there, so I visit them whenever I can.

I thought I was kind of over Cartagena and only went this time to spend time with my friends on the occasion of the inaugural party of the Hay Festival Cartagena, which they host at their beautiful house every year. In addition to the party, we went to spend a couple of days at a lovely seaside resort in the Baru Peninsula, a 45-minute boat ride away, and that was blissful.  During one early morning I went for a run along the city wall and later that afternoon, I ventured out to explore around town and fell in love with Cartagena all over again. What I find particularly captivating is that it is beautiful and atmospheric while not being excessively manicured. It is still authentic despite all the visitors it receives.

For around ten years Cartagena has been quite a hip destination for those international travellers who are “in the know”. Of course for Colombians it has always been very cool among other things for being the residence of Nobel Prize winner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The main reason why international visitors flock here? Its fantastic location on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, the tropical climate, wonderful music and dancing and its proximity to the Northern Hemisphere (a painless four hour direct flight from New York on Jetblue).  Colombia has, as many know, had a terrible reputation relating to drug trafficking and cartels until very recently. As Colombia has gradually become a viable tourist destination, its bad reputation has started to wane, and the first place to benefit has been Cartagena. With its rich history, beautiful and well-preserved architecture, it has become the holiday destination for North Americans and Europeans escaping the freezing winter. Now in Cartagena there is a growing cosmopolitan community residing here during winter months, consisting of wealthy retirees mainly from North America,   Europeans setting up tourism-related businesses and long term guests made up of a combination of these two profiles. And there is the more transient lot, composed of general visitors, particularly honeymooners, flocking to the lovely boutique hotels and festival goers (specifically for the Hay Literary festival and Classical Music festival that take place every January) and general tourists.

While strolling around town, I visited three boutique hotels I didn’t know, which have opened over the last four years. Since Cartagena is a very atmospheric town, where you essentially go to gather the beat and the feeling of the Latin Caribbean (there is some interesting sightseeing to be done but it is not the focus of the visit), the atmosphere of the place you stay at is very important. This is probably why Cartagena is teeming with charming boutique hotels.

I visited the Hotel Casa San Agustin, which opened eighteen months ago, has twenty four rooms, ten of which have outside views—not terribly common in all hotels where rooms often look into a courtyard. What struck me was how stylishly decorated the reception, restaurant, bar and pool areas were. The downside, the roof terrace (a fantastic feature in some properties in Cartagena) was small, essentially a solarium. As a side note, always check in when you book in Cartagena whether the pool is at the top or on the ground floor, if you like pools with a view!

The Ananda Hotel nearby didn´t impress me much on arrival but then grew on me, as I found the twenty three rooms to be nicely decorated and spacious (despite not having a view) and the roof terrace and pool were to die for.

The last hotel I visited—the most expensive and exclusive—was the Tcherassi, whose seven rooms I did not visit but whose ultra modern and minimalist common areas are quite striking. The reception area was a bit flimsy, I have to say, and that was a disappointment but the lounge, bar, pool and restaurant were very impressive. The rooms, as viewed online, are ultra-spacious and the reviews I heard from friends and online are mostly excellent, so a thumbs up for Tcherassi (if you can afford it).

My advice is to visit Cartagena for sure, but avoid the winter holiday period. I have been there for the New Year a couple of times, and it is too busy, overpriced and service is poor as a result. In the end of January, during the Classical Music Festival or the Hay Festival it is a delight, so I can only highly recommend it.

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