Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be a speaker at the Love Colombia conference in Cartagena, Colombia. Though this Central American city had long been high on my must-visit list, I had never made it there before. After spending five days exploring Cartagena’s romantic hotels and meeting with the city’s top tourism and event pros, I know firsthand what I’ve been missing, and I’m certain I’ll be back again!
Located on the southern edge of the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena was founded in the 16th century, and today the historic Old City is a designated UNESCO Heritage Site. The historic stone walls (originally built to repel invaders) enclose a maze of narrow cobblestone streets lined with colorfully painted row houses and stately stone mansions, now housing hip restaurants, shops and bars. It reminded me at times of Old San Juan, New Orleans and Panama City, Panama — not surprising when you consider that these port cities were all founded during the same Age of Exploration, and came of age blending Spanish, French, English and Creole cultures.
Cartagena is very affordable, from lodging to dining, but it also offers unique style and architecture worth a splurge on the luxury end. Our advice: Skip the modern beach resorts located outside the walls, and instead choose a romantic hotel in the Old City. There are loads of charming options — too many to mention in one place — but here are three I loved.
Luxe: EL MARQUES HOTEL BOUTIQUE
Set in a 17th-century colonial mansion, El Marques has a storied history; in the 1970s it was owned by a NYC art collector who threw lavish parties for the likes of John Lennon, Robert De Niro and others. It still feels more house than hotel, with only eight guestrooms. Public areas are atmospheric, with massive wooden doors, beamed ceilings and original stone archways and walls, along with mod-cons like wifi and a courtyard swimming pool.
The eight bedrooms are pared down, with neutral tones and minimal details. The overall impression showcases history and sense of place without leaving you feeling like you’re in a museum — a key distinction of Cartagena style.
The sub-level Cava Bar offers a great wine list and a selection of cigars, heavy on Cubans. With crystal chandeliers and pirate murals, it offers atmosphere aplenty for a private dinner.
For larger events like weddings, the open-air courtyard is a natural.
Luxer: BASTION LUXURY HOTEL
Bastion won us over with their rooftop pool deck, the best in the city. By day, it’s a great place to retreat from the city’s afternoon heat (and be warned — it is hot here, pretty much all year round!!). At sunset the vibe transforms, offering a sexy spot for cocktails before you head out to explore the city’s dining and nightlife scene.
But it’s not just the pool. El Gorbernador by Raucsh is one of the top restaurants in the city, offering elegantly presented local cuisine heavy on local seafood. We loved the tasting menu, but note: This isn’t the kind of meal you rush through, but rather slow down and enjoy at a relaxed pace. Remember, you’re on Cartagena time.
The 51 rooms are all uniquely appointed, with amenities such as California king beds, flat-screen TVs and jetted soaking tubs. As with many historic hotels, the rooms can be small; our advice, splurge on the Bastion Suite, with double the space along with French doors open to a private terrace.
Luxest: SOFITEL LEGEND SANTA CLARA
Cartagena’s preeminent luxury hotel, Sofitel Santa Clara has 122 rooms and suites set inside a circa-1621 former convent just a block from the sea. Dramatic interiors are a riot of color and detail, with hammered ceilings, antique furnishings and artwork by some of Colombia’s top artists, including paintings by Fernando Botero and gold-leaf tapestry by Olga de Ameral.
The hotel is centered around a stunning cloister lined with open-air galleries. Copious seating makes it a great spot to sip a drink while escaping the heat of the day. Or change into your suit and grab a pair of chaise loungers by the swimming pool, which is the largest in the Old City.
Guest rooms are pretty and understated, though you can amp up the drama and space by opting for a suite instead.
We love the El Coro bar, which features live music and tasty craft cocktails (and a dress code — no flip-flops, please!). As for events, the sky’s the limit. The hotel is a preferred venue for the city’s top vendors as well as international events planners drawn by the property’s unique beauty.