Colombians are very proud and protective of their culture, and I think there’s nowhere that is more apparent than in Cartagena, the coastal city where all the country’s beauty, culture and character have been retained. When I started coming here 18 years ago there was an element of a narco-terrorist state about the place, and for me that fear only added to the intrigue and excitement. But Cartagena is now much safer; it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site and it’s full of beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, stylish cafés and design-led boutique hotels – with plenty of relaxed, tropical flavour.
The best time to visit is between December and April, and the weather at Christmas and New Year is just perfect. I also like the city in mid-November, because it is a time of local celebrations; beauty pageants, regattas and school holidays all make it feel festive. I like to manage expectations, though: Cartagena is not a beach resort à la Phuket or St Barths. It feels more like old San Juan in Puerto Rico – you won’t find P Diddy hobnobbing with the jet set, or flowing champagne, or any chic stores or familiar brands. It’s all very local and authentic, which makes it a pleasure to wander the picturesque plazas and streets. They’re lined with terracotta mansions and palaces, all in shades of pink and turquoise, their balconies dripping bright-pink bougainvillea. There is a touch of magical realism to the whole place.
Whenever I direct friends to places to stay, Casa Pestagua – an intimate 11-suite former home furnished with 19th-century antiques – and the Hotel Sofitel Legend Santa Clara both top my list. The latter is located in a converted 17th-century monastery with many traditional design elements that have been combined with modern twists. Both have sleek rooftop or courtyard pools. These pools are key in Cartagena, because midday temperatures soar and the beach in town isn’t great for swimming. Most guesthouses and boutique hotels come with their own boat, chef and porter, so you can be whisked away to a local beach club, such as El Pescador de Colores, for lunch and a swim.
Cholon, a little island about a 45-minute boat ride away, is also a beautiful escape with pristine white-sand beaches, crystal-clear waters and thick mangroves. It’s relaxing just to watch sailboats pass by on their way to the Caribbean. There are small cafés in the bay that are accessible by boat, and they make ceviche and grilled lobster – and catch sea urchins – right before your eyes. You can drink from freshly split coconuts to get the full escapist experience.
The Hotel Agua is another excellent choice. It’s a colonial-era-turned-mod villa rental with six rooms. The 250-year-old, perfectly renovated Tcherassi Hotel, overseen by the incredibly stylish Silvia Tcherassi, is the most couture boutique hotel in town, the one that draws the international fashion crowd. Also lovely is Casa San Agustín – a rustic-chic 30-room hotel with historic frescoes, wooden balconies and old-world furnishings alongside more contemporary colours and other touches. The terrace offers sweeping views of the city, as well as the 300-year-old aqueduct that cuts right through the property. It’s a great spot for cocktails; I sent Poppy Delevingne here recently.
The perfect start to any day in Cartagena is a Colombian breakfast – preferably at El Centro, in the 16th-century old town, with its fortified walls. The local fruits – papaya, grenadilla, pink grapefruit, and fresh mandarin and watermelon juices – are unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. Arepas – eggs in corn tortillas – are another local speciality. Strong coffee is part of the culture, and it’s served from street carts throughout the day – along with abundant food, including delicious empanadas stuffed with spicy meat.
Food is a major focus here, but shopping for artisanal things is another favourite pastime. I always tell friends to look for woven hammocks and mochilas, the traditional cross-body bags that are now so in fashion. Artesanías de Colombia is a wonderful resource, because all of the goods – textiles, pottery, furniture – are sustainable, with most made by Colombian women who support families living in areas ravaged by drug trafficking.
For more contemporary finds, head to Casa Chiqui, a souk-like store full of fun beachy things and unique hostess gifts overseen by the incredibly fashionable Chiqui de Echavarría, who I like to call the tropical Daphne Guinness. She has a huge assortment of products from all over the world, and it’s always exciting to see her latest finds. The expertly curated concept store St Dom is another favourite; there’s a striking selection of clothes and homewares by Colombian designers and it’s a lovely minimalist space. OndaDeMar has the best range of bikinis and stylish cover-ups in town. And for a night out, you’ll need a pair of the lavish costume earrings from Mercedes Salazar.
The streets of Cartagena’s old town are primarily cobblestone, so heels are out – as are sequins or anything else too flashy. The vibe is a bit bohemian – always bright and playful – and quite relaxed, no matter where you eat or drink. One of my favourite restaurants is Juan del Mar, where everyone sits outside; there is live music and the crowd is always fun. It’s a very popular spot with the locals – don’t expect to have a quiet, candlelit meal here. But its pizzas are excellent; at the end of an evening, you may end up ordering one and starting your night all over again. La Mulata is a great spot for a casual lunch, with a mix of locals and tourists, and the daily set menu with a coconut lemonade on the side is outstanding.
The afternoon sun can be very strong, so the window from 4pm to 7pm is ideal for culture and sightseeing. I always tell people to start at the Zenú Gold Museum to see pre-Colombian jewellery and pottery. There are also many churches to explore – all situated along the city’s main plazas, prime examples of the Spanish colonial, baroque and republican architectural styles. One of the most beautiful – and the oldest in Cartagena – is the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, where my husband, Andrés, and I were married in 2008. It was built in the mid-16th century and has soaring ceilings. I matched my bridesmaids’ dresses to the rich salmon and pinky-beige colours of the stone walls. A brief stop here offers a cool break from the busy streets outside, which are almost always filled with musicians and performers of all kinds.
Then there’s the Catedral de Cartagena, one of the oldest episcopal sees in the Americas, as well as the Naval Museum, which is, appropriately, right by the sea. After a hefty dose of culture, you’ll want a snack from La Cevichería – an unassuming little shop situated on an alleyway that serves the freshest ceviche in little paper cups.
Because the days start so much later here – breakfast is never before 10am and dinners start at 10pm – I always advise a siesta before heading out. La Vitrola, for Cuban food and live music, is a must. This is the gathering spot for the crème de la crème of society, who come for both the air-conditioned bar and excellent dishes such as ropa vieja and camarones. This place is quite swanky by Cartagena standards, and there is a definite hierarchy to the tables: the closer you are to the bar and the band, the better. From there, it’s on to Café Havana around 1am, where everyone – regardless of class or age – mixes for fabulous mojitos and salsa dancing into the wee hours.
While there is so much to do in El Centro, there are also all kinds of incredible excursions. One is to hike up to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – the old fortress – for stunning views of the city below. A day trip by boat to the rustic Rosario Islands – Navega Colombia is an excellent charter service – is another highlight; and Playa Blanca, on Isla Baru, is the perfect place to do some deep-sea fishing or just disappear for a day.
Cartagena is an exotic city, and visiting here is an immersive experience – much like seeing Tokyo for the first time. Because it’s quite close to Jamaica, you’ll find a Caribbean flair mixed in with the Spanish elements, and an underlying African influence too. It all combines to create a city that’s historically remarkably rich – literally multilayered, like all the buildings that were originally painted in bright, tropical Caribbean colours and then whitewashed by the Spanish. And the incredible acoustics of the walled city, and the bustling plazas, and the unique sights and smells… the ambience here is like no other place on earth.