Cartagena: Colombia’s Coastal Gem
by Angela Sun for wandermelon.com
Fanciful and dangerously romantic, Cartagena will entice you with promises of cultural riches steeped in its tumultuous 500-year history and leave you breathless from its beauty. A UNESCO world heritage site, this city is one of South America’s greatest cultural treasures.
IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK–CUIDAD AMURALLADA
Cartagena’s rich colonial heritage can be found anywhere in the Old City, Cuidad Amurallada, as it is referred to locally, but to understand the sheer magnitude of this city,teeming with nearly one million denizens, one must visit the old walls. Built on the backs of slave labor, they took over 100 years to complete. It’s no wonder swash-buckling pirates in the mid-1500s sought to conquer this prosperous trading outpost, for those five miles of massive ten-foot-thick walls, thirty feet high, concealed the riches of Spanish conquests from all of Latin America.
Within the city walls, enchantingly bright bougainvillea adorns colorful historical buildings and massive churches, curling around corners to invite you into its colonial charm. There is something magical about getting lost along the maze of narrow cobblestone streets and luscious green plazas, and feeling the warm breeze from the Caribbean Sea on your skin. People watching is a must at one of the many outdoor cafes, as is browsing in the numerous boutiques and art galleries that have helped revitalize the fifth largest city of Colombia.
In more recent years, many of the wealthier Cartageneros moved to the modern area of Bocagrande. Outside of the fortifications of the Old City, large hotels and condos line the beach alongside upscale restaurants and extensive shopping, including many emerald dealers waiting to sell you a piece of Colombia to take home. (Around 80 percent of the world’s emeralds are mined in Colombia). Bocagrande also boasts one of the few city beaches, although a trip to nearby Playa Blanca is a better option. However, if solitude and isolation is what you are pining for, be aware that in most places in and around Cartagena, you are only steps away from vendors hawking cheap jewelry, fruit, massages and other trinkets and souvenirs.
Colombia may be tainted by a drug ridden past, FARC insurgency, and kidnappings, but Cartagena is relatively safe nowadays, and the young vibrant dining scene and nightlife are a reflection of it. An unassuming foodie destination, hard-to-impress palates from around the world are flocking to taste the culinary delights offered in this Caribbean jewel, infused with local flavor, such as plantains, fresh fruits and seafood. Trendy and hip restaurants that rival South Beach, Miami serve up refreshing cocktails in the tropical heat all night long to beautiful-looking clientele.
Vallenato music (traditional music of Colombia’s Caribbean coast) can be heard everywhere, and don’t be surprised to get caught up in a spontaneous dance party in one of the plazas. Cartagena’s exciting nightlife has something for everyone. Whether you want to sip cocktails at Café Del Mar (located on the western wall and great for sunset views), salsa dance Caribbean-style, or jam to ’80s rock or house music, much of the nightlife is centered on Calle del Arsenal, in the Getsemaní area, although the Old City has plenty of options as well.
WHERE TO STAY IN CARTAGENA
The Tcherassi Hotel + Spa
To really experience the heart of Cartagena, it is best to stay within the Old City. Located in the historic center, the stylish Tcherassi Hotel + Spa is a renovated 250-year-old colonial mansion featuring expansive hacienda-style suites. Fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi’s first hotel endeavor stands apart from the rest as a journey for the senses. From the moment you walk through the beautifully appointed front doors, the fragrant smell of sandalwood and jasmine wafts lightly in the air, creating a sense of calm. The artfully sophisticated decor is rugged yet soft with bold and calming textures in each individual room tailored with Tcherassi’s unique fashion sense in mind.
Located in the hotel’s lush courtyard, the glamorous indoor/outdoor restaurant VERA features delectable Italian coastal cuisine created by head chef Daniel Castano. Indulge on house specialties like Penne Melanzana, a delicious combination of eggplant, marinara, and mozzarella or the Risotto Pescatore cooked with Arborio rice, clams, mussels, shrimp, and squid.
Pamper yourself with a soothing massage or try an energizing Deluxe Colombian Coffee body wrap at the full-service spa where the treatments are based on holistic principles. Or head to the rooftop pool for mesmerizing views of the colonial skyline and hustle and bustle below. Enjoy the cityscape vistas from the Convento de La Popa, the highest point at 150m in the city, to the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the greatest and strongest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies.
With only seven guest rooms, this converted 17th-century colonial mansion feels more like a stylish home than a boutique hotel. The impeccable service, personal attention and hospitality make this unique property the ideal place to stay when visiting Cartagena. Ask for Mary at the front desk; she will take care of every detail and ensure your stay is memorable.
Rates from US$295 per night. A two-night minimum stay is required for weekends. To book visit here.