Nowadays, 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.
Our 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.