Full of colorful colonial buildings and Spanish charm, Cartagena is a beautiful place! See it in style by staying in one of its historic mansions, the LM Boutique Hotel.
Cartagena is one of those magical places that has to be seen to be believed. It’s old walled center is impossibly beautiful, and it’s position on the Caribbean coast of Colombia gives it a relaxed atmosphere which differs from that found in the rest of the country. Having spent part of my childhood living in Bogota, I sometimes find it hard to believe how different the two cities are in appearance, vibe, attitude, and even weather. The pace of life is slower here, and the people more open and loud than those of the highlands.
The city definitely looks out to sea rather than up into the mountains of the interior, and in some ways it feels closer to Caribbean islands like Jamaica or Barbados than it does to the rest of its own nation. Unlike those places however, it has an undeniable Spanish legacy which can be seen in its buildings and the faces of its inhabitants. The atmosphere is as colorful as the buildings, and the streets are full of food vendors selling arepas and patacones, while salsa drifts out of nearby bars. This is Gabriel Garcia Marquez country, and there is something fantastical about Cartagena which makes it easy to see where his style of magic realism came from. All this makes Cartagena unique, and one of the most interesting places I have been.
In recent years as Colombia’s civil conflict has died down and crime rates have fallen, people have started to discover Cartagena, and so there are now plenty of places to stay in the city. While you might be tempted by the Miami-like new city, or the picture perfect beaches, in my mind there is only one place to stay – inside the old walled town.
There are a multitude of hotels there, most housed in beautifully restored historic colonial buildings. We went for the LM Boutique Hotel which sits in a converted mansion close to the Plaza de Bolivar. Of course, because this is Cartagena, there is a semi-mythical love story involved in the history of the building. The story goes that in 1658 the city’s governor asked for a woman’s hand in marriage. The wedding was postponed and postponed until eventually the governor was sent away to work in Puerto Rico. Full of sorrow, the woman strangled herself – creating a tale worthy of a Marquez book.
While the hotel has made good use of its historic facade, it is surprisingly modern inside and it has some really nice design features. The furniture is elegant, and the courtyard with its lanterns and water feature is like a peaceful oasis. There is lots of space to sit and relax inside the hotel, but bare in mind that there is only air conditioning inside the rooms so brace yourself for the tropical heat. The service is uniformly excellent, and the staff really go that extra mile.
We stayed in one of the standard rooms, and it came with a king size bed, a TV, and a dock for charging iPhones. It was nice and quiet (being located away from the street) and decorated in a clean, simple way. The ensuite bathroom was fairly spacious and was covered in attractive mock-stone tiles.
One of LM’s best features is that it operates a bit like a private villa when it comes to food. There is no menu, instead all you have to do is talk to the kitchen staff and they will prepare you anything you want. One night we stayed in and asked for something healthy and light (we had been gorging on steaks and arepas – a heavy local dish which is a bit like a pancake stuffed with cheese). They cooked us a delicious chicken salad and it was just what we needed!
They also offer cooking classes where you can prepare your meal with the guidance of their professional chefs – although make sure you arrange this with them in advance. It’s a great twist on the normal hotel dining experience, and one which means you will never end up eating something you don’t like. Once your food is ready, you can eat in the dining room, which is a really nice space with interesting lights and some fun pop-art on the walls.
Another great feature is the roof terrace, from which you can look out over the surrounding rooftops - particularly scenic is the yellow church tower a block or two away. Up here you can relax on the sun loungers or take a dip in the pool to cool off. The hotel also offers a range of relaxation and beauty treatments for when you need to treat yourself. On one occasion I went down to reception to ask about manicures and they asked me to give them a few minutes to prepare some options. I didn’t even have to go back downstairs, they phoned the room and said they could send someone up to do it! Talk about great service, and at just $30 you’d be foolish not to indulge a bit.
There is plenty to do in Cartagena during your stay, and you will certainly never be bored. Of course you should give yourself plenty of time to wander the streets of the city and admire its fairytale charm, but there is also much to see beyond the ancient walls. You can visit the fort on the edge of the old town, from which the Spanish defended their city, and you can also go out and enjoy one of the many spectacular beaches in the local area. Some of the best can be found on the islands just off the coast, and a short boat ride can take you to paradise. The hotel can actually organize a private boat to Playa Manta, a particularly nice beach on one of these islands.
As the city grows in popularity, so do the eating and drinking options. There are lots of great seafood restaurants around, but we recommend La Cervicheria in particular for an array of yummy ceviche. Another suburb spot is Cafe del Mar which is actually located on top of the city walls. From here you can get incredible views of the beach and at sunset it is the perfect place to be. Sipping a Pisco sour here in front of a pink sky was one of our favorite moments of the trip.
Spending a few days relaxing in Cartagena was the perfect way to finish our South American adventure. It’s a great place for a beach holiday, while it also has plenty to keep active people occupied. We were happy to have been there and happy to have chosen to stay at LM. It felt like our own private villa whilst still putting us right in the middle of the colorful city.
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