(Video Get Up and Go Films)
With this weekend's Summit of the Americas taking place in Cartagena, Colombia - a series of international summit meetings bringing together the leaders of countries in North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean, though no representative from Cuba has participated and this year, due to the situation with the Communist island nation, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has said he will not attend in protest - a look at the city where the summit is taking place was tempting.
A declared UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984, Cartagena de Indias is South America's best preserved walled city, now a large Caribbean beach resort city on the northern coast of Colombia in the Caribbean Coast Region and capital of Bolívar Department. The city had a population of 892,545 as of the 2005 census, making it the fifth-largest city in Colombia. Activity and development of the Cartagena region is dated back to 4000 B.C. around Cartagena Bay by varying cultures of indigenous peoples.
The Spanish colonial city was founded on June 1, 1533 and named after Cartagena, Spain. Cartagena served a key role in the development of the region during the Spanish eras; and was a center of political and economic activity due to the presence of royalty and wealthy viceroys.
The Walled City
The walls aren’t just a photogenic artifact—they’re the reason Cartagena de Indias is still standing. Founded in 1533, the town was sacked repeatedly during its first 100 years, including a 1585 raid by Sir Francis Drake, known in these parts as `El Pirata Drake'. But then the cartageneros built the walls and finished the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, one of the largest fortresses in the Spanish empire (which I explored one tranquil, sultry afternoon, amazed that it was constructed with coral mined from the reefs).
By the early 1700’s Cartagena was impregnable: in 1741 it held off 186 British warships, the biggest fleet assembled prior to World War II, and in 1811 the city earned the nickname `La Heróica', when Simón Bolívar made it the headquarters for his campaign to liberate Colombia and Venezuela from Spain. It was also excessively wealthy, thanks to a combustive economy of gold, sugar, and slavery.
TRAVELLING IN CARTAGENA - A HIDDEN RETREAT
Take a dash of faded colonial grandeur, then add a dose of sultry nightlife and an influx of cosmopolitan travelers seeking the next great Caribbean hot spot.
The first time I went to Cartagena, back in 2003, I was taken straight from the airport to Restaurante la Vitrola, a convivial spot with potted palms and a dapper six-man Cuban band stationed by the door. It’s the Caribbean city’s unofficial clubhouse, a place where dignitaries and journalists trade off-the-record jokes and women in expensive sandals pick at complicated salads.
This was a few years ago, and it was one of those times when the host has already taken care of the ordering: there was carpaccio de mero—grouper sliced paper-thin and dressed with lime and olive oil; and then there were grilled langostinos. At some point, after the band had struck up a rumba and waiters had brought us coconut flan and a bottle of aged rum with a wine bucket stuffed with chilled bottles of Coca-Cola, I thought about my friends in New York, the ones who thought traveling in Colombia meant bouncing around in armored SUV’s, and that this was a country best summed up by Pablo Escobar and Romancing the Stone.
Not that they knew anything about Cartagena de Indias, a walled city of 18th-century mansions and suffocatingly hot afternoons. It’s one of the most important ports in the history of the New World, and one of the prettiest cities anywhere: Imagine Havana with a fraction of the population, or San Juan unmolested by modernity, or New Orleans without the sophomores on spring break.
Every season the crowd grows a little bigger and a little more glamorous, and from December to March finding a table at of-the-moment restaurants like 8-18, Palma, or La Vitrola can be tricky. But the busiest time is New Year’s Eve, when rooms are booked months in advance and a famous Colombian pop star holds a concert on the city walls next to the Hotel Charleston Cartagena, a 300-year-old convent turned luxe hotel also known as the Santa Teresa. On that night, everyone drags their tables into the streets, transforming the entire city into a sinuous all-night dinner party.
The architecture of Cartagena is the lasting relic of historic colonial prosperity, and if you stay in one of the chic smaller hotels, such as the stylish but private Hotel Agua or the exquisite Casa Pestagua, you’ll sleep under a frescoed ceiling and eat your breakfast in a lush, columned courtyard.
If there’s a turning point in the story of modern Cartagena, it’s 1995, when Sofitel opened the Santa Clara, a 121-room luxury hotel in the shell of a 17th-century convent. To my mind, the hotel is uneven: the older part is grand enough to host a head of state, but most rooms are undistinguished (if comfortable), as if they’d been plucked from a Florida resort. Building the Sofitel in the old city was a bold move for a town whose colonial center had been largely abandoned for crisp apartment towers in the nearby Bocagrande neighborhood, a curling finger of land with a skyline comparable to that of Panama City. Residents are still moving to Bocagrande, but over the past 15 years a cadre of taste-making Colombians has returned to the city inside the walls.
Like author Gabriel García Márquez, the city's most famous resident. He set Love in the Time of Cholera in a fictionalized Cartagena (the movie version, starring Javier Bardem, was filmed on location here), and his house, Casa del Escritor, is the work of Rogelio Salmona, Colombia’s greatest architect. It’s all cubes and arches, Louis Kahn with palm trees and a view to the sea. There’s a guard posted by the house, but like a character from one of Gabo’s books, he’s too skinny for his pants, and while tourists snap pictures in front of the rust-colored walls he rocks on his feet and daydreams.
Casa del Escritor is in San Diego, the quietest of the old city’s four quarters. It’s also where I found the best arepas in town: on the advice of a friend in Bogotá, I went to the Plaza de San Diego after dark, where a family-run stand with a cult following sets up on the corner closest to the Escuela de Bellas Artes, yet another converted convent.
Most visitors tour the neighborhood in one of the horse-drawn carriages that clop-clop past the bright-colored walls and overgrown balconies. But I prefer to explore the narrow streets on foot at dusk, after the day’s heat has faded. This offers a surprisingly intimate view of domestic life: the clatter of families eating dinner, children on a threadbare antique settee watching TV with the volume on too high. Then there are the houses that have been tastefully renovated and give glimpses of exposed beams and wall-size art through ornate window grates.
This is the private Cartagena of houseguests and weeklong parties, and my entrée to that world came courtesy of Chiqui de Echavarria, a legendary hostess whose home is a jasmine-scented pile by way of World of Interiors: instead of doing the expected thing and revamping a colonial mansion, she joined seven houses into a leafy labyrinth of landscaped terraces and half-ruined walls. It took three tours for me to get my bearings. There’s a dance floor on the roof, and the former cistern is a swimming pool. We spent the evening outside in the almost-too-humid night air, sitting under a brick vault 30 feet tall, enjoying a meal of lobsters bought off the boat that morning.
The busy Centro district revolves around the Plaza de Bolívar, an overgrown public square where teenage couples kiss and palenqueras - women who sell fruit from enameled tubs balanced on their heads - amble past old men playing chess on rickety card tables.
Cartagena was a stronghold of the Inquisition, and one side of the square is dominated by the imposing Baroque façade of the Palacio de la Inquisición. It’s now a museum, with historical dioramas and crude 18th-century portraits of governors and generals upstairs; the first floor displays torture devices that illustrate how a little wrought iron might shape one’s faith.
In recent years, the streets around the Plaza de Bolívar have seen a handful of exquisite 400-year-old houses turned into intimate hotels.
They call themselves bed-and-breakfasts, but there’s nothing frumpy about the 20-foot-high ceilings and tastefully minimal furnishings. At the newest, Casa Pestagua, the stately upstairs rooms are furnished with 19th-century antiques that smell like beeswax. Then there’s the quiet and understated La Merced Hotel Boutique, across from the Teatro Heredia Adolfo Mejía, one of the city’s architectural gems, which has recently been restored to its original off-white. But a clear favorite is Agua, whose rooms are filled with dark antiques and soft white bedding. Here, you spend most of your time outdoors, either in sitting rooms that open onto the courtyard, or on the rooftop terrace, where the pool has a view of the cathedral tower. Each of the six bedrooms is decorated with art and Colombian furnishings from the collection of the owners; one has a painting by Botero. Like the others, Agua hides behind a heavy wooden door marked with a sign discreet enough to miss amid the crush of university students and fruit carts.
Of all the city’s grand hotels, my preference is the Santa Teresa, the more diminutive rival of the Santa Clara. Every afternoon, the plaza in front of the persimmon-colored building is colonized by chairs, and a makeshift bar serves drinks with the languid pace of an Italian café - a friend took me to a table and proudly said, “This is where I had a conversation with Carlos Fuentes that lasted all day.”
Dinner starts late in Cartagena, and after a morning spent exploring and napping I fell into the habit of taking a dip in the Santa Teresa’s rooftop pool, then nursing a glass of limonada de coco (lime juice and coconut milk whipped up in a blender) while watching the sun set over the unmatched vista of the colonial skyline of church domes and bell towers.
The city’s stylish restaurants have a few things in common: good tropical-weather cocktails (white sangrias, caipirinhas), sophisticated Caribbean cuisine (fish grilled to a perfect rare, crowned by crispy plantains), and full reservation lists. If you want something more affordable, there’s Restaurante Casa de Socorro, a cheerful place in the working-class quarter of Getsemaní is on the friendly edge of the Getsemaní district, an area that’s barely been touched by Cartagena’s renaissance, where the streets are empty and forbidding at night. So, of course, it’s where you find the best bars and clubs.
At Quiebra Canto, dancing couples spill out onto the balcony and salsa music lasts late into the night. A half-bottle of a Colombian rum like Tres Esquinas costs around $15 (though you might splurge on a superior Cuban label), and you’ll get looked at funny if you order anything less.
Farther along the unwelcoming Calle de la Media Luna is Café Havana, a bright and friendly place where the walls are covered with black-and-white photos of the greats of Cuban music, like Celia Cruz and Ibrahim Ferrer, and the bar is the size of a bowling lane bent into a U. On the weekends, when it fills to a critical mass, Café Havana turns from a tavern into a dance hall.
It was just the latest beautiful moment in the history of this heartbreaking city.
Guide to Cartagena
When to Go - The city is at its best from December through April, when daily temperatures range from the mid 70’s to the high 80’s and the humid days give way to breezy nights. Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter are especially busy, and hotels book up months in advance.
Where to stay - Top among the city’s many new downtown properties is the 24-suite Anandá Hotel Boutique (doubles from $395), a quiet retreat in a restored Spanish-colonial building with carved-wood balconies and three breezy roof terraces. Tcherassi Hotel & Spa (doubles from $355), owned by Colombian fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi. Each of the seven rooms reflects her uniquely modern sensibility.” Casa Pestagua, this intimate and luxurious hotel opened in 2007; some upstairs rooms have antiques original to the building. doubles from $356. El Marqués Hotel Boutique, the most reasonably priced of the small hotels. doubles from $205.
Hotel Agua, great value. A favorite of the fashion set. doubles from $388. Hotel Charleston Cartagena, known as the Santa Teresa, this former convent has more character than its larger competitor across town. doubles from $350. La Heróica, an agency offering Cartagena’s best rental options, including stately mansions and one-bedroom apartments. houses from $700, apartments from $400. La Merced Hotel Boutique, on a quiet corner by the city walls. doubles from $323. Sofitel Cartagena Santa Clara, Cartagena’s first luxury hotel is in a peaceful part of town with a view of the sea, but most of the rooms are boxy and bland. doubles from $350.
Venture off the coast to the Islas de Rosario - a chain of 27 mostly uninhabited islands that are home to the country's largest coral reef. With their mangrove-dotted white-sand beaches, they're also known as paradise for in-the-know Colombians. Stay at the tropical-chic San Pedro de Majagua Hotel (57-5/664-6070; doubles from $290), on Isla Grande. There, you'll find 17 white-on-white rooms with nautical accents (wooden oars, stripped lamps) and panoramic Caribbean views, and a restaurant that serves regional dishes such as fresh-caught snapper, grilled whole and served with coconut rice. Of note: the hotel organizes snorkeling and diving excursions in 45 different locations where you can spot butterfly fish, stone bass, sea turtles, and about 1,300 other tropical species.
Where to Eat - Restaurante DonJuan (dinner for two $100), chef Juan Felipe Camacho—who apprenticed at Spain’s Michelin-starred Arzak—dishes up Spanish-inflected Caribbean fare (think grilled shrimp with pico de gallo). 8-18, the sophisticated Caribbean fare draws a chic crowd. dinner for two $75. Palma, as urbane as 8-18 but more subdued. dinner for two $60. Restaurante Casa de Socorro, traditional Caribbean cazuelas—spicy seafood stews—are served without fuss at a restaurant that deserves its reputation for having the most authentic food in town. dinner for two $25. Restaurante La Vitrola, Cartagena’s see-and-be-seen power spot; the atmospheric setting makes up for less-than-dazzling food. dinner for two $81. Vera, (57-5/664-4445; dinner for two $100), does an excellent penne arrabbiata with fresh mozzarella.
Where to Go Out - The bars by the Portal de los Dulces are always rowdy, and most nights out include a drink at one of the sidewalk tables set up at the Baluarte Santo Domingo fortress by Café del Mar, but skip the tourist traps on the Plaza de Santo Domingo. Housed in a 17th-century monastery, El Coro bar (cocktails for two $24), at Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara, lures locals and guests alike with pitch-perfect mojitos and the prospect of glimpsing writer and occasional barfly Gabriel García Márquez. Quiebra Canto - A lively bar with music on Fridays, a short taxi ride from the central city. Parque Centenario; 57-5/664-1372; drinks for two $7.
What to Do - Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas - this 300-year-old man-made mountain of coral and brick is one of the most formidable Spanish forts in the Americas. Bring a penlight to navigate the dimly lit passageways. 17 Pie del Cerro; 57-5/666-4790. Catedral de Cartagena - the tropical-fruit–colored façade hides a marble interior that offers a cooling respite from the hot city streets. Plaza de Bolívar; no phone. Iglesia de San Pedro - claver moldering but imposing, the church contains the relics of the 17th-century Jesuit who baptized thousands of slaves. Plaza San Pedro Claver; 57-5/664-7256. Isla Barú, off Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and stay at the eco-friendly Hotel Agua (doubles from $560).
Shop - Bill Gates and Spanish King Juan Carlos I are devotees of Ego, the pint-size workshop where tailor Edgar Gómez Estévez has been creating his white linen guayabera shirts for 35 years. Galería Cano, “For inspiration I head to this jewelry and art boutique, where they reproduce gold and emerald pre-Columbian pieces.” Teatro Adolfo Mejía “The theater was built in 1911 to celebrate 100 years of Colombian independence. It’s an architectural treasure.”
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