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South America has been much in the news lately due to the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s recent demise and the election of a new Pope from Argentina, so today we decided to look south to this wonderful, teeming, intriguing continent for our Destination of the Week.
A shimmering pearl on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Cartagena De Indias was founded in 1533 and quickly became an important transportation point for Spain’s trade in New World gold, pearls, silver and other treasures. Even in the Colombia’s most turbulent times, Cartagena rose above the violence. The city brings to mind the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez’s books – its history a mishmash of Spanish, African and native Indian cultures that somehow all works together in a complementary, colonial, beachy way. As Colombia has stabilized, Cartagena has emerged as a world-class tourism and resort destination. For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Kate Gammon takes us on a tour of this beachside seaside gem and all its splendors.
WHAT TO DO
Cartagena is located on Colombia’s northern coast and faces the Caribbean Sea to the west. To the south is the Cartagena Bay, which has two entrances: Bocachica (Small Mouth) in the south, and Bocagrande (Big Mouth) in the north. Cartagena’s climate is tropical, and humidity averages around 90%, with two rainy seasons – one in the late fall and one in the early summer. Throughout the year, temperatures range from highs around 90 to lows around 75. The city has a population of about 900,000 people.
Cartagena’s main attraction is its historic old town surrounded by the thick city wall, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. The walls protected the Spanish, helped ensure an empire, and even kept some of the violence out during Colombia’s long and bloody civil war. The main entrance to the walled city is the Clock Tower building. The walled city includes the neighborhoods of Centro, San Diego, Getsemaní and the modern part, La Matuna. The oldest part of Cartagena is around Plaza Trinidad in Getsemaní. The inner walled city is a treasure trove of colonial architecture with myriad churches and monasteries, sunny plazas and shady palaces.
Cartagena’s forts have held up remarkably well, considering they’re more than 500 years old. Constructed from local coral and stone, the forts and the walled city show the strength of the Spanish colonial rulers – and their architectural prowess. One fort to check out is the Castillo de San Felipe. The triangular-shaped hilltop fortress was built in 1657 by a Dutch engineer, with the goal of keeping pirates away while protecting gold and treasures en route to Europe.
Near the San Felipe fortress is the 500-foot-high La Popa hill, with expansive views over the city and the surrounding harbor. This is where the 17th-century Santa Cruz monastery is located, which has a beautifully restored courtyard and a statue of the Virgin of Candelaria – whom locals prayed to for deliverance from pirates and disease. The convent was founded by monks of the Augustine order in 1607, and the building sits on the remains of the foundations of a native temple. At first it was just a small wooden chapel, until it was replaced by a larger building along with the fort. Entrance to the monastery is COP $8,000 (about $4 US). Take a taxi up and down the hill and be sure to negotiate the rate with the driver before getting in.
The Palacio de la Inquisición is a late colonial masterpiece, now turned into a museum. Completed in 1776, it served as the seat of the Punishment Tribunal of the Holy Office – and yes, you can see devices like the skull-crusher (which squeezes the head until a torturee’s brain pops out his eyeballs) used to torture local natives. Alongside the more grisly apparatuses are pre-Columbian pottery and historical objects from colonial and later eras.
The powdery beaches of the city offer plenty of soft sand, coral reefs and mangrove stands just steps from downtown shops and hotels: to the south are the beach communities of Bocagrande, El Laguito and Castillo; to the north are La Boquilla and Marbella. For easy navigation, Bocagrande is well-equipped for tourism, with plenty of hotels, restaurants and discos, though the sand here is brown instead of white, and the beach is less scenic than elsewhere along the coast.
Las Islas de Rosario are a great option for a day trip. The beaches on these tiny spits of land are part of a national park, which explains why the water and sand is so much cleaner than city beaches. The fluffy white sand is created by coral being ground down into a fine powder; the beaches closer to the city have brown sand since they lack a coral reef. To reach the Islas, which are about 28 miles from downtown, there are several boat-tour options with varying activities, and the island of San Martin, where most of these boats dock, has an aquarium and good areas for snorkeling.
Another great beach with safe swimming is the Playa Blanca. Hotels will sell you a ticket for a day trip to the white-sand beach, which is just a 15-minute boat ride from downtown Cartagena. Many of the same boats that offer passage to the Islas de Rosario also stop at Playa Blanca.
Nightlife in Cartagena is famous. No, we’re not talking about the prostitutes and the Secret Service, but in Cartagena, you can sip cocktails in a colonial courtyard or dance the night away in a club. One way to experience the nightlife is a Night Tour aboard a chiva, a typical Colombian party bus, with a band playing local music. Chivas depart around 8pm from Bocagrande’s main strip on Avenida San Martín and make a three- to four-hour loop around the city, dropping guests off at a disco just as things start to heat up. While you’re on the bus, you’ll be serenaded by a typical coastal Colombian Vallenato band, which usually includes an accordion and drums as well as a singer, so be ready to get your groove on.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Rafael Nuñez International Airport (CTG) is located about 10 miles from the old city. It has recently expanded and is one of the largest airports in the Caribbean. Cartagena is 1,000 km north of Bogota (about an hour by air), or a 2.5-hour flight from Miami.
The airport receives international flights from Panama City on COPA (Star Alliance), Fort Lauderdale on Spirit Airlines and Miami on Avianca (Star Alliance). There are several seasonal flights from many cities in Canada. JetBlue also offers non-stop service from New York-JFK.
Connecting flights include those from Miami via Bogota on Avianca Airlines, Miami via Panama on COPA, London via Bogota on British Airways (Oneworld), Paris via Bogota on Air France (SkyTeam), Miami via Bogota on American Airlines, and New York via Bogota on Avianca.
There are domestic non-stop flights from Medellín, Cali, San Andrés, Bogotá, Montería (ADA airlines), Barrancabermeja, Bucaramanga and Cúcuta. The new low-cost airline VivaVolombia also serves the city.
To take a taxi to your destination in the old city, pick up a taxi voucher from the official stand in the baggage area, which will have the price printed on it depending on where you’re headed, before getting into a cab. The price to get to the old city or anywhere in the “Centro” area Zone 1 including hotels in Getsemani is COP $9,500 (about $5.25 USD).
WHERE TO STAY
Radisson Cartagena Ocean Pavilion Hotel: Soon opening its doors in Cartagena de Indias, this hotel is located on La Boquilla beach on the road from Cartagena to Barranquilla, just 5 minutes from the airport. The new resort says it is designed with local folklore in mind, integrating a strong sense of a Colombian Caribbean experience into a luxury property. The hotel will offer 233 rooms with views of the Caribbean. Junior suites and master suites are offered, as well as a business center, restaurant, café, bar, endless swimming pool overlooking the sea, gym, spa and beachside water sports. The hotel says it will open its doors first quarter of 2013, and no more specific date was mentioned. Room rates are not available at this time.
Hilton Cartagena: About 10 minutes’ drive from the old city, all of this hotel’s 341 guest rooms and suites have ocean views, and guests in the executive tower get sweeping panoramas of the city. Three hotel pools keep guests cooled off despite the heat and humidity, and one of them has a pool bar. There are also three restaurants and a bar, as well as a full gym and spa. Rates in March start at $209. A category 5 Hilton HHonors property, 35,000 points are required for one free night.
Opening in late March, the Hampton by Hilton Cartagena, located in Bocatande, will join the group. It will be a category 4 Hilton HHonors property.
*Points figures are quoted in Hilton pre-change category requirements. These are available before March 28, 2013.
Expected to open in 2015, Hyatt Regency Cartagena will be located in Bocagrande district and will offer 250 rooms, including 29 suites. The hotel will feature an all-day dining restaurant, cocktail lounge and bar, a 7,500 square-foot ballroom, a spa, fitness center, outdoor pool, and business center. The hotel will be the first Hyatt-branded property in Colombia.
There is a Marriott coming to Cartagena next year. The 278-room Cartagena Marriott Hotel will be located in the Bocagrande neighborhood, overlooking the Caribbean Sea and approximately one and a half miles from the historic city center.
Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros: A wavy glass block, right on the beach, this hotel is located about 10 minutes from the old city and close to the airport. The 140 modern rooms, newly renovated in 2011, feature earth tones, leather finishes and marble bathrooms. The hotel also has an outdoor pool, a restaurant and a bar. Rates in March begin at $174 or 25,000 priority club points per night.
Sheraton has announced a new Sheraton Cartagena hotel, scheduled to open January 2014. We don’t have many details yet.
Visa Signature Hotels
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards,Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
The Tcherassi Hotel and Spa is a tiny 7-room boutique hotel, designed by Silvia Tcherassi, and located in a four-story colonial mansion in the walled old city. The rooms, which range from 400-1,200 square feet, offer either views of the city or the distinctive vertical garden with more than 3,000 local plants. They feature restored original stone walls, high ceilings and private balconies meant to evoke an airy Caribbean ambiance. The largest room, a tri-level penthouse suite, has a private pool and a 250 square-foot bathroom with an indoor-outdoor shower. All of the rooms were designed by Silvia Tcherassi and bear the names of fabrics used in her fashion collections, blending fashion and interior design. All the rooms have access to four pools and a roof deck with 360-degree views of both the historic city and the sea. The hotel also has a 30-seat chic Italian restaurant. Prices start at $398 per night in March.
The Sofitel Cartagena Santa Clara occupies a unique space: the building was originally constructed as a convent in 1621. Its walls, which acted as a defensive fortification in the past, now contain colonial-style balconies. The hotel’s 122 rooms, including 19 suites, surround a pool and interior courtyard. Some rooms include butler service and high-end Hermes toiletries, and all are decorated in a French-colonial style. The hotel spa has 8 treatment rooms, a gym, tea area and solarium. Rooms start at $422 in March.
Casa Pestagua is a small boutique hotel opened in 2007 that has been lauded as one of the most charming on the globe. The building originally belonged to the Count of Pestagua, an 18th-century aristocrat, and now bears his name. It has just 11 rooms with frescoed ceilings and dotted with antiques. Guests can take their leisurely breakfast in the lush courtyard garden. The central pool is temperature-controlled and surrounded by native plants. Rooms start at $380 per night in March.
El Marques Hotel Boutique is located deep in the walled old city. To get in, you’ll have to employ the huge metal knocker on its giant wooden doors. Inside the building, ornate wooden balconies hang its over shady courtyards and terraces, while wooden beams and polished stone floors complement, whitewashed walls and low-slung canvas chairs all create a snoozy colonial feel. The hotel’s restaurant serves guests local specialties like snapper and avocado muse in the hotel’s courtyard while the atmospheric 17th-century underground cistern is now the wine cellar. Rooms start at $245 per night in March.
The Hotel Spa Karmairi is a 14-room beach resort about 15 minutes north of the old city in the fishing village of Manzanillo del Mar. More like a tropical beach lodge, the resort’s buildings include thatched roofs, stone walls and floors and chairs made from driftwood chairs. New Age devotees should enjoy the fact that the mattresses contain specially distributed magnets to align the body’s magnetic field, while beachgoers can enjoy the peace and quiet out here as opposed to the more crowded city beaches. Rooms start at $174 in March.