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Last summer, TPG Contributor Melanie Wynne traveled to Cartagena, Colombia for six days and spent half her stay at the Hilton Cartagena Hotel, set on El Laguito Peninsula in the Bocagrande beach district. Here’s her review of the property.
Set on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Cartagena offers a mix of beaches, history and culture, with points properties in two shoreline areas peppered with modern high-rises. Rapidly emerging amidst a poor, working fishing village, La Boquilla-Morros draws a well-heeled crowd but has few food options aside from food cart vendors near the shore. The more established Bocagrande vibes like a mini-Copacabana with lots of traffic, restaurants and shopping malls. Old Town Cartagena is about a mile between both districts, roughly a $6 US cab ride from either one.
I usually avoid congested tourist areas like these two in favor of more peace and quiet. However, the hip Getsemaní neighborhood has mostly hostels, independent two- and three-star hotels and a late-night scene that goes into the wee hours. And while gorgeously crumbling Old Town is more upscale and relatively sedate, it has one Amex FHR option, three Visa Signature properties and no traditional points hotels.
With two Visa Signature cards in my wallet — the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card — I was initially tempted to ask my traveling companion (my first cousin, Hana) to splurge with me on a couple of nights at Old Town’s Hotel Casa San Agustin, which had availability starting at a hefty $400 a night. But after another look at the Hilton Cartagena Hotel in Bocagrande, that temptation wouldn’t last long.
As soon as I saw the Hilton Cartagena Hotel’s August 2015 starting rates of $160 or 50,000 Hilton HHonors points a night (from $169 or 40,000 Hilton HHonors points a night in August 2016), a sober sense of fiscal responsibility set in — notably softened by the hotel’s location on the tip of the Bocagrande peninsula (a few blocks off the main drag), as well as its three pools and private beach. I figured the savings and perks were worth an additional $12 a day on round-trip cab fare to explore more locally focused and historic stretches of the city.
I briefly considered getting the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve in order to earn two free weekend nights at the hotel, as well as HHonors Gold status and 10 Hilton HHonors points per $1 spent on my stay, but with only three weeks before my trip, I was unconvinced that I could make the $2,500 minimum spend and clear those free-night certificates.
Fortunately, The Points Guy offered to use his HHonors Diamond status to book us into an upgraded Executive Tower room with daily buffet breakfast for two (usually a cost of $18 per day, per person), two bottles of water, free Wi-Fi and access to the Executive Lounge, all for just $137 (inclusive of tax) per night. Factoring in an additional $43 for pool-bar drinks and salon pedicures, my cousin’s and my total hotel bill for our three-night stay was about $455. When I learned that Hana didn’t yet have a points-earning credit card, I showed her the TPG Beginner’s Guide, charged the bill to my Chase Sapphire Preferred and earned 910 Ultimate Rewards for this thrifty travel spend. Chévere (“cool”), as they say in Colombia.
Arrival and Check-In
Hana and I arrived at Cartagena’s airport (CTG) on a sweaty, overcast afternoon and easily found a cab at the outside taxi queue. It turned out that the man and woman in front of us in line were also going to the Hilton, so we opted to split the 15-minute, $10 ride with them. (Nothing like starting a trip five bucks ahead!) We pulled up to the Hilton’s curved driveway, politely refused help with our rolling bags and filed into the short line at the blue-marble check-in desk.
Looking around the airy lobby’s bright leather seating and swirled, technicolor carpet, I thought it hovered between outdated and garish, but after the initial shock to my visual system, I began to relax into its splashy Latin-Caribbean vibe. That said, I never managed to find it exactly attractive.
After standing in line in blissful air-conditioning for a few minutes, our check-in was a breeze. Most of the friendly desk staff speak English, and the young guy who checked us in was quite fluent. We were soon bidding him adios and boarding an elevator to our eighth-floor room in the Executive Tower.
Two Queen Beds Panoramic Oceanview — Executive Tower
Our room was more sedately furnished than the lobby and downright pleasant. The decor was nothing exceptional — in fact, some of the furniture could stand an overhaul — but the combo of purples, blues, whites and pale wood created a little oasis of calm while the cool marble floors and non-freezing air-conditioning always welcomed us back from sightseeing and the pools.
We appreciated the comfy, semi-soft beds and good soundproofing (an especially welcome feature at a family-friendly beach resort, where mornings start early), but our favorite part of the room was the view of the pools, private beach, courtyard and faded-denim blue Caribbean Sea. (This room is labeled as having a “panoramic oceanview” rather than a more accurate “seaview,” but after a peek out the window, I don’t think you’ll mind.)
By the way, those purple armchairs — as well as the table between them and the desk chair — made great places to store and spread out my luggage, clothing and accessories. Hana had more luggage, so she took the closet and a bench on the other side of the room. We had plenty of space to ourselves and felt the layout was ideal for two travelers.
Another welcome perk? Available three-prong outlets by our bedsides and on the desk, requiring no gymnastics, unplugging of hotel electronics or even a converter. We found ourselves plugging in stuff just because we could.
The in-room Wi-Fi was a little glitchy, occasionally dropping us and requiring us to reconnect, but we were only ever sharing photos on social media, so it wasn’t a major hassle. Had I been trying to get some work done here — or paying for daily Wi-Fi, rather than receiving it as a Diamond-status perk — I would have been less than thrilled. The Wi-Fi signal in the lobby was stronger and more reliable.
The fair-sized bathroom had one sink, a long counter and a big tub/shower combo. The robes were cozy, though the bath towels were none too soft, which I find is par for the course at large, mid-range chain hotels. The best part was finding high-end, frizz-fighting Peter Thomas Roth products, which I sometimes splurge on at home.
Set on the top floor of the Executive Tower, the Executive Lounge isn’t really worth an additional expense, so unless elite status or a business trip gives you access, I wouldn’t bother. That said, you’ll sometimes have the place to yourself, with your pick of stools, armchairs, microsuede benches and leather couches.
The lounge is on the highest floor of the hotel and offers a pretty view of the sea, but the side and back views are of Bocagrande high-rise buildings and the neighboring reservoir, where you’ll see the occasional paddle boat (ask about these down in the lobby), egret or heron.
The main perk is a different view than you’re likely to have from your guest room.
If you’re hungry in the afternoon or early evening, you’ll find a small spread of fruit, store-bought snack breads and the occasional plate of sushi rolls that you’ll have to be fast to catch. An attendant will be happy to make you a tasty (if not strong) espresso drink, or if you know to ask, pour you a glass of unremarkable Chilean red or white wine kept behind the bar.
We never ate breakfast here, but we saw that it’s a modest affair with a few hot items (eggs, potatoes and sausage or bacon) and everything you’ll find on the afternoon menu, aside from the sushi rolls.
Service was mixed — the lounge’s front-desk attendant was polite, friendly and made a good cappuccino, while the afternoon/evening bartender was gruff and hard to distract from a soccer game on a big TV over the bar. We came up here each afternoon because we had access to it, but we could easily have hit a local market down the street and loaded up on cheap snacks for our room.
Pools and Beach
Behind the hotel are the real perks of the Hilton Cartagena Hotel: Three pools, a hot tub, two bars, soft breezes, avocado trees and far fewer people than you’ll encounter on Bocagrande’s main strip of shore.
You won’t see many Americans here, but you will see Colombians and other South Americans of all ages. If you want to fit in, wear a flashy swimsuit and a bit of bling, and learn how to say your room number, the word “towels” and your favorite drinks in Spanish.
If you simply want to cool off, order a frosty limonada de coco (coconut lemonade, which can be made with or without rum) at the swim-up bar in the incongruously kid-filled main pool, then take it to the lower wading pool where you can simply sit in the shallow water and occasionally splash in the wall fountain. You could almost make an entire vacation of this.
Note that the Hilton’s private beach has pale sand, calm surf and a few cabanas (including some for massages), but it isn’t off-limits to peddlers. Hana went out for a brief and refreshing swim, but after a couple of scruffy women approached her to buy trinkets and snacks, she didn’t feel inclined to stick around.
That being said, a sunset stroll here shouldn’t be missed — the sky and the sea are simply spectacular.
We had breakfast each day at the hotel’s huge buffet, and it was amazing. Truly, you can have just about anything you want here, from Colombian arepas (small corn cakes) to a full omelette bar. The spread of tropical fruit was especially exciting, including bowls full of passion fruit and guava. There were always at least 10 hot dishes, a wide array of Colombian postres (pastries and sweets), several fruit juices and endless refills of strong Colombian coffee.
Amidst the hot, humid weather in Cartagena, we weren’t much interested in the meat-heavy dinner menu at the on-site restaurant, Las Chivas. Instead, we took our favorite front desk guy’s suggestion of a casual, local place for dinner and headed to Riquisimo BBQ. Just a few blocks down Carrera 1 from the hotel and featuring a big outdoor grill and full bar, this spot largely attracts Americans and Colombians staying in the surrounding hotels and rental condos. The menu is translated into English, but it’s still helpful to know a little Spanish to get the best and friendliest service.
Two people could easily split a single croqueta (skewer) of shrimp, chicken and/or beef, but my cousin and I don’t mess around when it comes to food and each had our own. The fries here are nothing exciting, but the delicious coconut rice with cilantro more than makes up for them. Be sure to give the patacones a shot, too — twice-fried green plantains with sour cream are a Colombian favorite and make a great appetizer.
Other Hotel Amenities
Hana and I loved the stores in the Hilton’s lobby, especially the jewelry shop. (And, trust me if you like something here, you should buy it; it’s actually unlikely that you’ll find a better selection or prices like this somewhere else. Be warned: The shop was rarely open during our stay.) Be prepared to channel your inner Shakira before visiting the women’s bathing suit boutique, but know that the saleswomen there — and at every other shop — will be kind, friendly and willing to meet you halfway if your Spanish isn’t up to snuff. Little English is spoken in the salon, but no worries — if you have cash (there’s an ATM in the lobby) and can pick out a polish color, you’re in business. There’s only one person who does nails, but she gives a great pedicure for about $12.
You can keep in shape here by playing tennis beside the pool, visiting the small gym (where you’ll rarely be alone), or strolling down to the main shore on Bocagrande, where you’ll find a bike/walking trail on the beach.
As a magnet for conference groups and glitzy weddings, the Hilton Cartagena Hotel is rarely empty, and is best suited to travelers with HHonors elite status, multi-generational families or simply those who value lots of time at the beach or a pool.
Lobby staff were always happy to help us hail a cab, find a place to eat or book excursions, and the on-site ATM made it easy to have pesos on hand for tips. As two women traveling together, we always felt safe at the Hilton and in its surrounding neighborhood, but it bears mentioning that we felt the exact same way everywhere we went in Cartagena, even in scruffier parts of town.
I wasn’t impressed by the Hilton Cartagena Hotel’s ho-hum Executive Lounge and late 1980s/early ’90s decor, but for all you do get here — from the sprawling pool complex to big, clean, comfortable rooms, shopping opportunities, full-service salon and tasty breakfast — I feel it’s a good value, even at the usual price range of $150-$200 or 50,000 Hilton HHonors points per night.
However, if you’re looking to save more Hilton HHonors points and/or cash, note that a few minutes away, rates at the Hampton by Hilton Cartagena start at $93 or 30,000 Hilton HHonors points per night in February. Set one block off the Bocagrande strip, the Hampton’s pool is on the 17th floor roof terrace, the decor is relatively new and you’ll find wood rather than marble tile on the guest-room floors. If you’re looking for romance or a Spanish-Colonial vibe, your best bet will be one of the boutique hotels in Old Town, swallowing the hard pill of a more costly room rate but taking solace in the strong value of the dollar against the Colombian peso.
Have you ever stayed at the Hilton Cartagena Hotel? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
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