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Calle de la Cochera del Hobo, Cartagena - Photo by Andrew Harper

Cartagena: A Spanish Colonial Treasure House

By Andrew Harper

The Hideaway Report | May 1, 2014

Cartagena Drawing by Melissa ColsonIn recent years, Colombia has received increasingly favorable publicity. At times, 
it has sounded rather too good to be true. After all, 15 years ago Marxist guerrillas controlled a swath of jungle the size of Switzerland. But the election of Alvaro Uribe in 2002 resulted in a measure of stability unknown for decades. I wanted to see for myself whether Colombia has indeed become a destination of interest to the sophisticated traveler.

Cartagena erased many doubts within a few hours of our arrival. Once, the Caribbean port served as the most important gateway to South America, as well as the storehouse for gold and precious stones on their way to Spain. The riches passing through required formidable defensive walls, and these surround the city to this day. Cartagena attained new stature in the 18th century when it became the most important city in the Viceroyalty of New Granada, a colony encompassing Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador. Wealthy residents erected grand mansions centered on shady courtyards, many of which fell into disrepair after independence came in 1821. “The great old families sank into their ruined palaces in silence,” wrote Gabriel García Márquez in “Love in the Time of Cholera,” his famous novel set in turn-of-the-century Cartagena. “Along the rough cobbled streets ... weeds hung from the balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the best-kept mansions, and the only signs of life at two o’clock in the afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of siesta.”

Shoulder bags for sale on Calle San Juan de Dios - Photo by Andrew HarperNowadays, Cartagena bursts with renewed vibrancy, and you’re far more likely to hear the infectious rhythms of salsa spilling into the street. Several universities draw youthful energy to the city, and cultural institutions host noteworthy events such as Cartagena’s first contemporary art biennale, held earlier this year with exhibitions throughout the historic center. I stumbled across a ruined palace or two, but most mansions have been restored and converted into atmospheric museums, restaurants, bars and hotels. Balconies on the brightly painted façades now sprout bougainvillea instead of weeds. The compact old quarter has been compared to Venice, but to me, it more closely resembles New Orleans. Both draw throngs of tourists but retain their identities as real cities, with music, shopping, art and restaurants of interest to locals as well as to visitors. The colorful historic center, built substantially from blocks of fossilized coral, has not yet been lost to souvenir shops and cruise-ship passengers. Even the new apartment buildings and resort hotels lining the beaches of Bocagrande have architectural integrity, forming an ensemble of gleaming white towers shimmering against the blue of the Caribbean.

Casa San Agustin

However, Americans can find better beaches closer to home, and there is little incentive to stay outside the historic city walls. The most appealing of the colonial conversions is the 30-room Casa San Agustin, comprising three whitewashed buildings trimmed with wooden balconies on a diminutive plaza across from the University of Cartagena, a former convent. A wrought-iron gate leads to the front desk and lobby lounge with terra-cotta tile floors, wrought-iron wall sconces and a wrought-iron chandelier hanging from the nearly 25-foot wood-beamed ceiling. Beyond lies the main courtyard, with a palm-shaded L-shaped swimming pool beneath a 17th-century wall. An adjacent pool bar with white daybeds and neutrally upholstered ottomans feels too formal for relaxing in a bathing suit, but two roof terraces with loungers offer both sunny and shady spaces in which to recline, along with views of the city’s ornate bell towers. A veritable labyrinth of halls and indoor/outdoor lounges laces the rest of the hotel. My favorite retreat was the tranquil air-conditioned library, where chic Spanish furnishings complement the whitewashed walls and partially exposed frescoes. As the sun set, innumerable candles began to glow from sconces, floor lanterns and candelabras.

<i>Alma</i> restaurant courtyard, Casa San Agustin - Photo by Andrew HarperOur Junior Suite came with a wood-beamed ceiling and limestone floors, and exhibited the same sophisticated taste as the rest of the property. A white love seat sat atop a sisal rug, and orchids adorned the wicker coffee table and mahogany writing desk, where a plate of petits fours had greeted us on arrival. White Moroccan-style nightstands flanked an iron-framed bed, and double-glazed glass doors leading to the balcony further ensured a good night’s sleep. Colorful Spanish-style tiles clad the walls of the bath, which came with dual marble-topped vanities but an oddly dark shower stall, the light of which went unrepaired during our stay. That hiccup aside, staff at the Casa San Agustin were reliably warm, obliging and English-speaking (English is less common in Colombia than you might expect).

My main complaint about the hotel concerns its restaurant, Alma, where the focaccia and baguette were stale, as were the overabundant tortilla chip strips covering my mediocre crab cakes, inexplicably served on a plate too long to fit the placemat. My one-note main course of sesame-crusted tuna did little to improve matters, nor did the check, which listed an outrageous charge of almost $10 for a half-liter of sparkling water. Fortunately, numerous commendable restaurants are just a short walk away, and Alma’s deficiencies are no reason to avoid an otherwise delightful hotel.

AT A GLANCE

LIKE: The unfailingly friendly and obliging service; the sense of place; the shady pool; the beautiful library.

DISLIKE: The romantic but amateurish restaurant. 

GOOD TO KNOW: The hotel can arrange for guests to visit a three-room property called Agua Barú in the Islas de Rosarios archipelago, 45 minutes from Cartagena by motorboat, which will appeal to those seeking nothing more than tranquility and memorable views (there is no spa, and the nearby beach is unappealing).

Casa San Agustin 93 Colonial Room, $465; Junior Suite, $615. Calle de la Universidad 36-44, Cartagena de Indias. Tel. (57) 5-681-0000.

Tcherassi

My other recommended Cartagena property, Tcherassi, is located nearby. Initially, I was skeptical about the contemporary design of this seven-room enclave, because boutique hotels that look dazzling in photo spreads too often prove uncomfortable in practice. But Colombian-born fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi did not forget the guest as she created her hotel, which deserves the many accolades it has received. Our airy room, “Mousseline,” had vaulted wood-beamed ceilings, dark wood floors and, placed near the glass doors leading to the balcony, a deep soaking tub illuminated by a striking chandelier made from hundreds of clear plastic rings. Along a wall of exposed stone, tall lamps shrouded in white lace stood on either side of a king bed. A cascade of brass safety pins decorated the wall above the writing desk, and a skylight shone down on the bath and its eye-catching exposed brick wall. A double-sided hanging mirror divided the dual vanities from the large limestone-faced shower stall, stocked with fragrant Tcherassi bath products. Both bathrobes and towels were sumptuously soft. Of the other six rooms, “Ziberline” and the multi-level “Gazar” are the most spacious.

Rear courtyard, Tcherassi - Photo by Andrew HarperTcherassi’s fine indoor/outdoor restaurant, Vera, is set beneath a 250-year-old stone arcade and serves delicious Italian cuisine informed by local ingredients. I relished my handmade ravioli stuffed with fresh crab, and crispy-skinned pork belly topped with caramelized fennel. The Aquabar, bracketed by glass-walled waterfalls, didn’t draw a crowd during our stay, but its well-balanced Tcherassi martini, made with gin, aguardiente (a local anise-flavored spirit) and lemon foam is certainly worth trying, even if you’re not staying at the hotel. It was extremely relaxing to sip a cocktail on a sofa in a back courtyard kept cool by the nearby waterfall and thriving wall garden — one of two in the hotel, which together contain some 3,000 tropical plants. The swimming pool in the front courtyard felt too exposed to the restaurant and reception, and it likely won’t appeal to anyone lacking a fashion-model physique. Instead, Mrs. Harper and I cooled off unobserved in the plunge 
pool on the roof terrace. Tcherassi also has a one-room spa with a tempting menu of treatments.

AT A GLANCE

LIKE: Chic yet comfortable furnishings; fine Italian restaurant; personable staff; blissfully tranquil public spaces. 

DISLIKE: The exposed and slightly murky main pool.

GOOD TO KNOW: This hotel will become known as Mansión Tcherassi when the 50-room Tcherassi Hotel & Spa opens nearby next year.

Tcherassi 92 "Mousseline,"$500; "Gazar," $735. Calle del Sargento Mayor 6-21, Cartagena de Indias. Tel. (57) 5-664-4445.

Casa Pombo

Courtyard, Casa Pombo - Photo by Andrew HarperAmong the many expensive small hotels in Cartagena, I could not find any others that met my standards. The extraordinarily atmospheric Casa Pombo came closest, and this grand 16th-century palace opposite the cathedral might work well for a family or a group of friends traveling together. It consists of five immense apartments, most with three bedrooms. We stayed in #102, which had a heroically proportioned great room with a full kitchen, two bedrooms on the first floor, each with an en suite bath, and, up 26 steps, a huge master bedroom with its own full bath. The property radiated historic character, but I can’t recommend it unreservedly. The two ground-level bedrooms in our apartment suffered from street noise; the water in the shower ranged from cool to cold; and the housekeeping was less than perfect. For example, a cake of soap had been squashed into the floor of the guest bath and I couldn’t find a light switch or electrical socket free of dirt. Easygoing sorts traveling with a group might consider the Casa Pombo, but individual travelers should stay elsewhere.

AT A GLANCE

LIKE: Rich historic character; soaring lounges and guest rooms; breathtaking courtyard of fountains, pools, walkways and planters.

DISLIKE: The poor housekeeping; the street noise affecting some bedrooms. 

GOOD TO KNOW: Although unsuitable for demanding individuals, this property could appeal to those traveling in a large family group.

Casa Pombo 89 Suite 102, $675; Suite 201, $1,300. Calle del Arzobispado 34-14, Cartagena de Indias. Tel. (57) 5-664-6286.

Charleston Santa Teresa

Sunrise from the roof of the Charleston Santa Teresa - Photo by Andrew HarperI also had high hopes for the Charleston Santa Teresa, the 90-room sister hotel of my favorite property in Bogotá, which is divided between colonial- and republican-era buildings. Our high-ceilinged Deluxe Room in the Colonial wing was comfortable, and the broad rooftop pool had magnificent views of the city, but the service did not live up to the $500-per-night price tag. Shortly after we checked in, a maid knocked on our door. Before we had a chance to open it or even speak to respond, she burst in, waved, and placed a bottle of juice in our minibar. Worse, the front desk seemed incapable of assisting with the most basic requests. I overheard one guest ask for an iron and ironing board to take care of a shirt before a rapidly approaching dinner reservation. None was available. I later brought down some postcards and requested assistance with mailing them. The front desk instructed me to buy stamps at a shop some five blocks away. When I protested, the sympathetic staffer agreed that posting mail was a basic service, and went on to say that “though we can’t provide these services now, we are organizing.” How much organization, I wondered, is required to stock 
a roll of stamps?

AT A GLANCE

LIKE: The broad rooftop terrace and pool with sweeping city views; the lively patio bar/restaurant in the square fronting the hotel. 

DISLIKE: The inability of the staff to perform basic services. 

GOOD TO KNOW: 
Some accommodations have attractive sea views.

Charleston Santa Teresa 85 Deluxe Room, $470; Junior Suite, $540. Carrera 3 31-23, Plaza de Santa Teresa, Cartagena de Indias. Tel. (57) 5-664-9494.

 Sneak Peek

This article appeared in The Hideaway Report, a monthly newsletters exclusively for members.

Learn About Membership
Andrew Harper Photo Andrew Harper is the editor of The Hideaway Report, a luxury travel newsletter that first appeared in 1979. He travels anonymously and pays his own expenses in pursuit of unique properties that offer unusually high levels of personal service. Hotels have no idea who he is, so he is treated exactly as you might be.

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