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DISCOVERING
CARTAGENA
by Mark Chesnut


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It’s a breezy, warm Friday evening in the historic city center of Cartagena de Indias, and horse-drawn carriages clip-clop down the narrow streets, past pristinely restored Colonial-era buildings. I stop at a small square to admire the energetic talent of a troupe of street performers, who dance, sing, and play music in a small park, as groups of strolling foreigners and locals applaud. Two blocks away, at Plaza Santo Domingo, diners are gathered around outdoor tables at candlelit restaurants, savoring an array of cuisine. I proceed a couple blocks further, to the lushly landscaped Plaza de Bolívar, where young heterosexual couples are holding hands. Then it’s on to L’Petit, a small gay bar in an historic, dramatically lit building, where male couples are kissing over cocktails, and everyone seems to be smiling. It’s just an average evening in this postcard-perfect city by the sea, and the good moods and emotions are as palpable as the humid Caribbean breezes.

Far and away the most popular tourism destination in Colombia, the city of Cartagena de Indias (often called simply Cartagena) is an historic gem (complete with UNESCO World Heritage Site status) that exudes an increasingly hip, modern take on the travel experience, thanks to a growing list of stylish hotel options set in historic landmark buildings. Add to that the expanding gay nightlife scene (not to mention the city’s first gay hotel) and you’ve got a potent recipe that’s putting this city on the itineraries of more LGBT travelers.

Strolling the Streets
The key to Cartagena’s allure as a vacation destination is its historic city center. The best way to begin a visit in this neighborhood is with a walking tour—either guided or on your own. The streets here are lined with precious colonial architecture from the 17th to the 19th centuries, representing styles ranging from Victorian and Belle Epoque to Greek Revival. An appropriate place to begin the tour is at the Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower), built at the beginning of the 18th century as the main entrance to the walled city. From there, you may stroll along the square called Plaza de la Aduana, which was once home to the royal offices of the Kingdom of Spain.

Noteworthy museums include the Museu de Oro (Gold Museum), which exhibits the gold artistry of the Zenu culture dating to the second century BC, and the Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena (Car­tagena Modern Art Museum), which features work from Colombian and foreign artists.

Additional must-see historic sites include the Church of San Pedro Claver, named for the first saint to be canonized in the New World, who dedicated his life to helping recently arrived African slaves.

One of the most fascinating attractions sits next to Plaza de Bolivar, the lush town square decorated with a statue of Latin American freedom fighter Simon Bolivar. One side of the square is flanked by a deceptively lovely building that dates to 1770. This beautiful façade was once the gateway to terrifying events—namely, when it served as the regional base for the Inquisition, a Catholic institution that used torture to ferret out accused heretics. Today it’s a museum; a fascinating place that exhibits actual torture devices used in Spain and Latin America during the Inquisition’s 200+ years of activity. Upper floors of the building are dedicated to Cartagena’s history, from the conquest to colonial days, through the slave trade and into more recent times.

Happily, most of Cartagena invokes far more peaceful and even artistic sentiments. The city has a rich tradition of creativity, from the impromptu live dance and music performances on public squares to the silent, mime-like performers who stand on some street corners. It’s also home to larger-scale live entertainment, especially during the annual Cartagena International Music Festival, which in January brings a variety of mostly classical musicians from around the world for a week’s worth of public and private concerts in a variety of venues. One of the most impressive of the venues is Teatro Heredia, opened in 1911 to commemorate the first 100 years of the independence of Cartagena. Even if you’re not here for the music festival, you might still be able to catch a live performance at this wonderful theater, which is graced with Italian marble statues and balconies of Portuguese wood.

Cartagena’s appeal isn’t limited solely to historic sites and old architecture. Its beachfront neighborhoods are lined with shimmering high-rise condo towers and hotels. One of the most popular such areas is Bocagrande, home to the city’s gay beach, glamorously named Hollywood (it’s in front of the Hotel Caribe, which was the first luxury hotel on the beach when it opened in 1941). The waters here are not Caribbean clear (even though this is the Caribbean), but it’s still a convenient option for sunbathing and taking a dip.

Attractive Inns
One of the wonderful things about Cartagena is the variety of interesting and stylish, small hotels set within landmark buildings in the historic center. During my most recent visit, I stayed at the Charleston Santa Teresa, a former convent built in the 17th century that has been luxuriously transformed into one of the city’s grande dame hotels (and also one of the most expensive). Beautifully detailed, the property features conservative décor, including an altar-like reception desk, peaceful lobby courtyard, and a rooftop pool and restaurant with excellent views of the city.

CLICK FOR SLIDESHOW OF CARTAGENA
Another of the large luxury hotels is the Sofitel Santa Clara, set in a former monastery built in 1621. Set around an elegant, pillared courtyard, the property has a lovely spa and two restaurants—one of which specializes in French cuisine, in keeping with Sofitel’s French roots. Guestrooms are crisply decorated and feature modern amenities including flat-screen televisions and Wi-Fi access.

New on the scene is Hotel L’Petit, which was opened in 2009 by Fernando Palacios, the man who also owns Studio 54, one of the city’s most popular gay bars. Primarily targeting gay travelers, it is nevertheless straight-friendly (“We just had a straight couple from Venezuela stay with us for a week, and they had a wonderful time,” the receptionist tells me during my visit). Rooms have basic but attractive décor and are clean, newly furnished, and have flat-screen plasma TVs, free wireless Internet access, and private baths. An added plus is that guests get a complimentary welcome cocktail at Bar L’Petit, the gay bar on the first floor of the hotel.

Other new choices include Anandá, a sumptuous den of luxury that opened in 2009 as a member of the Preferred Boutique consortium. It’s a style-conscious getaway in the heart of the historic center, set in a 28,000-square-foot former colonial home that’s been updated with amenities including swimming pool, Jacuzzi, sun deck, and spa services.

A more affordably priced alternative is Delirio, still stylish and pleasant, with bright colors and design accents that include large photo murals. The roof deck here is a great place to relax as well.

For a definitively fashionable stay, consider the Tcherassi Hotel + Spa, opened in 2009 by Colombian fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi. Its ultra-cool style is evident in everything from the open-air restaurant, which sits next to a slim plunge pool in the courtyard, to the large guestrooms that feature comforters embellished with the designer’s name.

Also worth a visit is the Hotel Cartagena de Indias, which opened in 2009 as a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. This property has contemporary style and an excellent rooftop deck with a small swimming pool.

Meanwhile, at Casa Pestagua, an 11-room hotel, you just might feel like you’re vacationing in an elegant private residence, thanks to the owners’ dedication to preserving the original style of this property. Rooms are large and comfy with antique furnishings, and the large courtyard is a tranquil step back in time, albeit with the modern luxury of s swimming pool.

Continued

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Chico Chico is the newest gay bar in Cartagena. It is a great place where you'll find great prices, style and class! Located on Calle Larga in Getsemani, we open our doors every Thursday - Sunday from 8pm - 4pm.
- Chico Chico , Cartagena, Colombia

We are just back from there. The city is amazing. Great people and great, great food. Def dont miss Vera Restaurante (in the Tcherassi Hotel), Don Juan and Oh La La. Three really great restaurants!!
- Kara , Ny, NY




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