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Cartagena, a Hidden Retreat

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Photo: David Nicolas

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. It’s both crumbling and majestic, and only a 2 1/2-hour flight from Miami.

Visiting Cartagena is like being let in on a secret, and this year, when I returned, I realized I was joining a cabal of travelers who could spend a week anywhere in the world—like the Pritzker Prize–winning architect who took a house for Christmas, the Vogue contributing editor who recently dropped in for a wedding, or the New York socialite who regularly appears on the Best Dressed pages of fashion magazines. They come here, as one put it, for the “old-school, conservative, Palm Beach crowd” and for a dash of jet-set flash. Bill Clinton is a fan. He stopped by in March to celebrate the 40th anniversary of One Hundred Years of Solitude with Gabriel García Márquez, the city’s most famous part-time resident.

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 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. The architecture is the lasting relic of that 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.

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