Escapism and Realism
Cartagena is pretty much the ultimate travellers town.
The old city is surrounded by 11km of walls containing cobbled streets, leafy plazas and colourful buildings with overhanging balconies. Loved by backpackers and luxury travellers alike, this coastal, colonial Caribbean city delivers the perfect blend of escapism and realism: the streets may be picture perfect but they are buzzing with vendors, locals and tourists alike. Luckily, it has not become a ‘museum town’.
There are plenty of places to stay. The seven-room boutique hotel, Tcherassi, is perfect if you’re looking for something intimate. The owner is Colombian fashion designer, Silvia Tcherassi, so – as you can imagine - the hotel is very chic. If you don’t stay, try and fit in a meal at the Italian restaurant, Vera, which serves unusual salads – think spinach, almonds, strawberries and goats cheese – as well as great fish and pasta dishes.
But if Cartagena were to have a signature hotel it would have to be Sofitel Legend Santa Clara. A convent of colonial style and dimensions, it was built in 1621 by a wealthy lady from Cartagena. In 1995 it became a hotel, and just this year it became the world’s fourth Sofitel Legend. The location couldn’t be better (not least because it’s next to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s house) because it sits on the edge of the old town with views of both the cobbled streets and coast. Inside, there’s a central courtyard - home to the resident toucan and a large Botero sculpture - a huge swimming pool, a So Spa, two restaurants and a bar in the former choir section of the chapel - the chapel remains and hosts weddings most weekends.
As for things to do, a half-day tour is a great way of getting to grips with some of the history. Also, it’s by far the easiest way of seeing the rest of the city. After describing how Cartagena was discovered by the Spanish in the 16th century (they thought they had arrived in India and thus the city is called Cartagena de Indias) my tour guide, Nico, took us to the highest point of Cartagena, the Convent of La Popa. Built at the turn of the 17th century, this whitewashed building provides an unbeatable panorama. Next we stopped at the Felipe Fort, an impressive fortification with a network of underground tunnels. Returning to the old part of town, we nipped into Las Bóvedas to gawk at the incredible emeralds, before finishing by exploring the plazas, churches and streets of the old town.