Colombia’s most famous writer, the inimitable Gabriel García Márquez, once said in a press interview that he could never have written his books if he had not been a journalist – because all of his material was extracted from reality. Wandering between the pastel-coloured colonial structures of Cartagena’s labyrinthine cobbled streets, one could be forgiven for thinking that they had indeed stepped into Márquez’s magical realist universe of fantasy and wonder. A city of effortless and timeless charm, exploring the old walled city in the sultry Caribbean heat is a multi-sensory experience: absorb the rhythms of the music here, enjoy the melody of the Caribbean’s heavily accented Spanish and sample the region’s colourful and exotic cuisine.
Luxury hotels in the city’s historic centre tend to be tucked away in exquisitely restored colonial buildings of varying sizes. Offering all the necessary mod-cons with all the opulence of imperial Spanish architecture, here are some of our favourite properties in Cartagena:
Casa San Agustín
Without doubt the finest boutique hotel in the city, and perhaps the best hotel in the entire country, the charming Casa San Agustín occupies the shell of three former colonial homes which have been lovingly restored to showcase their original period features. The hotel’s spacious outdoor pool, for example, is offered a pocket of shade by the exposed brick remains of a Spanish water collection system with elegant arches reminiscent of an ancient Roman aqueduct. Seamlessly blending the heritage building with a fresh, airy and contemporary interior design inspired by the delicate blue and white tones of the Caribbean sky and sea; each exquisite room provides guests with a calming and homely hideaway in an ambience that very much still feels like a private residence. Located just steps away from the Cathedral and various other points of historical interest in the old city, this hotel enjoys a prime location.
For guests enthusiastic to sample some of Cartagena’s best Caribbean cuisine, Casa San Agustín is home to one of the walled city’s most well-regarded restaurants: Alma. Guests can expect an astounding meal in the restaurant’s grand salons that uses organic local ingredients in a range of innovative dishes that blend cutting-edge culinary techniques with age-old Caribbean recipes and traditions. A particular recommendation would be to try the cazuela; a delicious seafood stew made with fresh lobster, shrimp, mussels, octopus, squid and sea-fish stewed in a sweet and spicy coconut sauce. Guests searching for the ultimate relaxation during their luxury trip will also be very happy here. The stunning Aurum Spa offers an extensive menu of indulgent treatments, whilst for those looking to get out of the hotel, the hotel organises exclusive day trips out to their own secluded private beach on nearby Barú Island.
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara
During the extensive restoration work carried out on the crumbling Santa Clara convent and hospital in Cartagena’s old city, construction workers stumbled upon an ancient crypt where the skeletons of nuns and a young girl with extraordinarily long copper hair were discovered. Covering this event for a local newspaper inspired the then-journalist Gabriel García Márquez to include a fantastical take on the story as an episode in his best-selling novel, Of Love and Other Demons. This piece of colonial and literary history can be explored by guests through a glass gate in the Sofitel’s stylish El Coro bar, an elegant space in the hotel’s main colonial courtyard.
World-famous, and for good reason, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is one of Cartagena’s most iconic accommodations. Spread across an original colonial building and the more modern annexe which houses the modern gym and spa facilities along with several floors of plush guest rooms, the hotel is the perfect option for luxury travellers who prefer the comforts of a larger property with more extensive facilities. This chic property boasts the largest outdoor pool in the walled city and also offers splendid views of the old city walls and ocean from the sun-soaked terraces overlooking the pool area. Guests can enjoy fine Caribbean cuisine in one of the hotel’s two restaurants, as well as access to the well-stocked wine cellar. Architecturally, the hotel is a precious historical jewel, and the excellent service here transports visitors to an opulent era of imperial decadence.
Known as one of the most beautiful houses in Cartagena, Casa Pestagua once belonged to the incredibly powerful Count of Pestagua, an 18th-century aristocrat who was key to the Spanish colonial administration of the city. Built in the traditional Spanish style, this hotel centres around a sunny courtyard, peppered with tropical plants where the swimming pool is now located. Offering just eleven exclusive suites, the neutral rooms have a distinctly regal feel to them, incorporating intricate antique pieces that evoke the life of luxury enjoyed by the house’s previous occupants.
This tasteful Relais & Chateaux property offers a sumptuous breakfast each morning and the table in the on-site dining room is something worthy of the castles and palaces of the golden age of Cartagena. Accommodating up to twenty-five diners, the lavish French-inspired dishes here recreate the indulgent atmosphere and charm of great aristocratic banquets. Elegant communal spaces like the stylish bar and rooftop terrace with a Jacuzzi complete this luxury haven in the walled city, where the attention to detail in the boutique’s excellent service makes each guest feel as aristocratic as the original owner was.
Bastión Luxury Hotel
Blessed with one of the most expansive outdoor pool areas in the old city, guests can enjoy panoramic views from Bastión spacious rooftop terrace, complete with an abundance of sun loungers and quirky private dining spaces for those celebrating special occasions at the property. Located just minutes away from the Cathedral and plenty of other historic buildings, Bastión is a mid-size hotel (51 rooms) offering the convenient facilities of a much larger property alongside the personalised service of a boutique hotel. A nice-family friendly option in the city, the pool area has shallow areas perfect for children. For couples travelling on a romantic city break, the hotel offers a small spa with a massage room and an outdoor hot tub for cosy nights in relaxing together.
The El Gobernador by Rausch Restaurant is one of the top high-end dining options inside the walled city. The venue is known for serving traditional local cuisine with European flair and for using locally sourced sustainable produce, such as the exotic lionfish. A delicious a la carte breakfast is included every morning in the hotel’s sunshine-soaked courtyard, typical of period houses in the region, and the eggs benedict is the perfect way to start the day here. For guests taking a time out from exploring the colonial streets of Cartagena in favour of a relaxed day at the hotel, you can enjoy a dizzying array of fruity cocktails and flavoursome snacks by the rooftop pool all day long.
Charleston Santa Teresa
Occupying a bright-coloured historic building mere steps away from Plaza San Pedro Claver, the Charleston Santa Teresa brings the glamour of an exclusive big-city hotel to the charming streets of Cartagena’s old town. Supplying everything one would expect from a modern luxury hotel alongside all the charm of a historic home, the Charleston’s eclectic design captures the soul of Cartagena: both old and new. In a similar manner to the Sofitel (the hotel’s closest competitor), spacious guest rooms are divided between the quaint colonial cloisters that form the backbone of the old building, and a later Republican-era construction built in a manner imitating the older style. The hotel’s bright interiors incorporate the vibrant hues of the old city streets with clean, modern lines and all the necessary mod-cons.
In our opinion, the Charleston Santa Teresa boasts the finest view in the old city. From the hotel’s chic rooftop pool and dining area, guests can see the domes and spires of all the churches in the old city walls, as well as enjoy sweeping views of the ocean and the new city in the distance. Charleston offers guests three distinct dining options, one of which is brought to you by chef Harry Sasson and is internationally recognised on the list of the best restaurants in Latin America. Uniquely, the Charleston offers the old city’s only private plaza. As the tones of the Caribbean sunset begin to creep across the sky, the plaza comes to life with live music. Offering a wide variety of food combined with the fresh Caribbean breeze and a view of the magnificent walls and the San Francisco Javier Bastion, this is a magical place to unwind in the evenings.
Whatever kind of luxury traveller you are, Cartagena’s charming boutiques and effervescent energy will not fail to enchant you. There really is something for everyone in this city known as ‘The Jewel of the Caribbean’.
Simon Williams is Director of Humboldt Travel. Humboldt Travel is a luxury travel company specialising in tailor made holidays to Latin America.