The butler did it.
When snappy white-clad Gustavo unlocked the ten-foot mahogany door to the Gabriel García Marquez Suite at our spectacular tropical hotel, we were instantly transported to Cartagena’s vivid world of “Gabo’s” magical Caribbean splendor.
How did that happen? Cartagena, Colombia. Although this enchanting, colorful and steamy seaside city (also known as ABC Modern Family star Sofia Vergara’s intriguing hometown) may be the coolest UNESCO World Heritage site in all of The Americas – with gorgeous lodgings, gracious people and sultry scenery – just two weeks before, Cartagena was only a vague blip on our global radar.
For most Americans, “Colombia” and “cartel” seem too intertwined to make it a safe or desirable destination. Yet, there we were, at the famed Sofitel Santa Clara looking up our stairway to heaven, then out the tall glass door to our spacious private terrace, the shimmering sapphire sea, and amazingly, my favorite writer’s actual home. Oh. My. G.
This is the seduction of Cartagena, I discovered, where we quickly learned that if you go with its alternatively languid and lively flows, serendipities like this are no accident at all. (It also helps to have a guide like Gustavo for reservations to special places. More on that, later.)
Yes, this eye candy-colored dream is real, and it’s everywhere. It’s the reason Cartagena has been a magnet for Botero, Marquez, Clinton (the taller one), Jagger (yes, as in Mick) and Shakira, as well as countless romantics, adventurers, and anyone who loves a great street party scene served up with their cascading bougainvillea, inventive cuisines, and an endless peekaboo backstreet vibe.
Cartagena is just as sexy, smart and cheeky like Vergara herself, who apparently walked and reveled in many of our cobblestoned and tiled steps two weeks before our visit – but in flaming five-inch Louboutins, of course.
How did we get so lucky, in this and so many other ways? To back up a couple of months, our fifth anniversary was looming. Where to go that is memorably romantic? Paris, of course. Even the thought of the sensual City of Lights had me swooning all over again.
But there was a teeny weenie problem with passionate Paree. (Actually two, but who’s counting.) “I’m sorry, love,” my groom said. “We only have a long weekend. Oh, and we have to leave from Fort Lauderdale.”
Pivot! Out of curiosity, I pulled up the JetBlue map to see destinations in the vicinity. Aruba, Cuba… Cartagena? Bingo. Something fired in my imagination when I saw that CTG is a little two-hour hop from FLL, with three handy flights a day.
Who knew? This jewel, originally called Cartagena de Indias, was built with 16th Century colonial plunder, when the Spaniards constructed the walled fortress in 1533 to protect their pirated treasures.
Yet today Cartagena is fresh, fascinating and authentically chic with little trace of Old World attitudes. Cartagena is literally being reimagined by a fresh crop of international artists and architects and eager Colombian expats returning to bring new interpretations of their singular heritage, to the delight of the rest of the world.
Many of these influential, clever Colombians are women who love to pamper, shop and entertain, such as legendary designer Sylvia Tcherassi’s Hotel + Spa; transplanted New York style curator Chrissy Crawford Corredor of ArtStar, who favors brilliant Mochila bags handmade by the remote Wayuu tribe; Moda Operandi founder Lauren Santo Domingo and her fabulous St. Dom concept shop… and, whew, if that’s not enough, Chiqui de Echavarria’s sensational housewares store named Casa Chiqui (“cheeky.”)
A Taste Of The Territory
Before discovering any boutiques, though, first we took time to quench our thirst and our curiosity. We quickly headed down the hotel’s curving blush stone staircase, to take celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain up on his recommendation to savor Cartagena’s signature seafood dish at the tiny, vibrant blue-and-white themed La Cevicheria restaurant – literally out the back door of the hotel. Wow.
Tony B sure was right on about this pit stop. We washed down the ingenious mandarin-kissed octopus and tangy limed shrimp with a couple of local cervezas, lazily enjoying the contrast of clever teen tableside rappers, clip-clopping horses and the entire paint-splashed spectrum that is a touchstone of the city and its equally colorful people.
My ringing mobile snapped us back to the world. “Hello Dee, this is Marelvy.” Oops. Our culture-straddling personal guide was cooling her jets next to the talking toucan in our lush hotel courtyard.
No worries for the brilliant and spirited Merelvy Peña-Hall, who gave us a charming look behind the curtain of the culture in the Centro Historico and beyond. As it turned out, we arrived on a thrilling day when the entire town was shutting down and setting up the pretty plazas, neighborhood joints and home TVs to watch the much-anticipated Colombia vs. USA soccer COPA América Centenario match.
A highlight of Merelvy’s plan was the special little Café San Alberto, the place to go for coffee lovers. Colombia is the epicenter of the Central American caffeine kick, and the San Alberto gets beans straight from the plantation. They have an awesome array of brewing objects d’art, and her 20-something barista friend did an amazing tasting for us with great care and pleasure, using some of the more mysterious techniques on hand. What we discovered is that it’s true…the method makes the madness.
Gustavo, Marelvy and the young barista crystallize the most compelling grace note of Cartagena. Race and class seem refreshingly irrelevant; happy hospitality is the norm from everyone we met. Cartagenans savor, share and celebrate their sunny city, and offer a sensational level of service—absent any whiff of servitude—and are unfailingly sharp, cheerful and kind.
When In Cartagena, Do As The Colombians Do
It’s easy for a visitor to join in public life in Cartagena – and cheer for the home team! – enjoying a lifestyle organized around the many festive, flowering and Botero kissed plazas ringed with restaurants, shops and bars, where spontaneous dancing, drumbeats (and, apparently) beauty pageants can break out at any moment.
What we discovered on our own is that Cartagena’s vibrant culinary scene is also completely irresistible, with phenomenal chefs and equally tantalizing interior spaces, such as chef Alejandro Ramírez’s mind-blowing Maria, the uber-romantic Vera, the hip Demente tapas joint, and the 1940s supper clubby (and absolutely must go) restaurant, La Vitrola – where a pre-arranged secret knock is the only way to get in.
While dreamy, lyrical and inventive, there is a more practical custom to honor there. Cartagena is the kind of city (like Rome) that is all about the personal touch, where you need somebody to make reservations for you and you’ll glide through the door or the head of the line. What’s unique and different is that it’s not about greasing palms, it’s about relationships. Cartagenans love to refer business to each other, and will often do it for visitors simply as a courtesy. Just ask.
Neighborhood Hopping & Beating The Heat
Wherever you choose to stay or go, the geography is easy for the weekend traveler. The cobblestone streets are clean and walkable; taxis are plentiful and cheap. For lodging, there are the safe and stunning Old City/San Diego districts inside the original walls, with lovely hotels like the Casa San Agustin and Quadrifalo, pitch perfect restaurants and the best new global cocktail bar in town, Alquímico.
Just beyond is high-energy Getsemani, the lively bohemian ‘hood (think Williamsburg in Brooklyn) that lights up when the sun goes down. No visit to Cartagena is complete without getting a ringside table around the bar and salsa dancing at the sensationally evocative Club Havana, where live bands get revved up after 11P.M. (Everyone from everywhere goes there, period.)
There are many AirBnB rentals in the Centro Histórico and Getsemani, but more in Bocagrande. We did not explore that area, but it looks like a cluster of new highrises overlooking the grainy shore and choppy sea, away from the heartbeat of the city. It’s quite popular for Colombian families, but you might as well be back in the States. Basically, if you want a great beach, you have to take a boat.
Yes, Cartagena is hot and humid, year-round, but so what. As Texans, we knew better than to resist it. We spent the toastiest hours resting up in our fabulous digs before late owling, or enjoying mojitos by the extraordinary pool at the Santa Clara, reportedly the best in all of South America. Of course, there’s always a stop at the “artisanal popsicle” shop La Paleteria, but you better eat it fast!
The quizzical juxtaposition is that Cartagena’ dwellings always seem to keep surprising secrets, in this otherwise open and free society. It’s not uncommon for a crumbling wall to hide an extraordinary internal vision right out of a design magazine. Streets are lined with seemingly untouchable balconies and studded wood doors that keep out street noise, which invariably swing open into spacious lush courtyards, incredibly designed spaces, and are often finished with dramatically lit pools and chic rooftop bars.
The kicker? While these brightly-hued walls seem crafted to shut out strangers, residential back doors are often left wide open to winding alleys, as if it were one big friendly small town.
Yet like another beautiful light-filled city, simply drifting along at any hour gave us some of our most treasured moments and memories. There is no weariness to this place; and there’s a reason so many have called it “cinematic.” Wherever we went, Cartagena was a revelation, a pleasure, a lovely magical sueño, where amazingly, we rarely bumped elbows with fellow Americans.
Were we ever wistful for Paris? Nope. Cartagena may make you sweat, but if you let it in, it will also make you swoon.