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Cartagena, a Hidden Retreat

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Photo: David Nicolas

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. There’s lively 8-18, where the best tables are upstairs and the mero comes with crema agria, something like a spicy crème fraîche. Or there’s loftlike Palma, a nominally Italian restaurant (there’s foccacia in the breadbasket), with refined South American dishes like a ceviche of corvina—a white-fleshed fish similar to sea bass—prepared with lime, hot peppers, and corn. Then there’s La Vitrola, the site of my first meal in Cartagena. When I returned this time, I was forced to dodge an overeager doorman, but once inside I didn’t want to leave. It’s the ideal example of a certain kind of restaurant: slowly spinning ceiling fans, a tiled floor, waiters in crisp white uniforms, diners in creamy off-white linen. By my third meal I began to act like a regular, waving away the menu and ordering the grilled fish of the day.

But if you want something more affordable, there’s Restaurante Casa de Socorro, a cheerful place in the working-class quarter of Getsemaní. It’s so popular that a half-dozen other restaurants put “Socorro” in their names, so I made sure to tell the taxi driver that I wanted to go to Casa de Socorro on Calle Larga. The portions are heroic: a starter like the picada de tortuga—stewed turtle meat—is a meal in itself, and a party of four could fill up on the cazuela de marisco, an intensely flavorful seafood stew that’s something like a spicy seafood gumbo studded with fish, shrimp, sea snails, and octopus.

Casa de Socorro 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, and when I was there the crowd was momentarily hushed by the appearance of a woman so stunning even the music seemed to lose its place. But then the room regained its rhythm. It was just the latest beautiful moment in the history of this heartbreaking city.


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