My boyfriend and I found ourselves in a lucky predicament: We could both could take ten days off. But where to go? The easy options from L.A. — Mexico and Hawaii — felt uninspired. We wanted someplace new and easily accessible, which ruled out Europe. We wanted a cultural city without feeling pressured to rev into major tourist mode and we wanted lots of lazy beach time. And we hate chain hotels and golf courses.
Well then, Colombia it is. Specifically, Cartagena and its nearby islands and beaches.
Although Colombia has a bad rep for being extremely dangerous (see: kidnappings, bombings, cocaine cartels), it has become significantly safer in the past decade. The troubles, however, have centered on Medellín and Bogotá; Cartagena is where wealthy Colombians go to vacation and get married because it's lovely and on the Caribbean. In 1984, Cartagena's colonial walled city and fortress were even designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We spent three nights in the heart of the old city in one of the nicest places I've ever stayed: Hotel Agua, a restored colonial house built in the 17th century. The service is lovely, the breakfast is simple and perfect, the rooftop pool is a great place to spend hot afternoons, and the design is well conceived. The catch: They only have six rooms, and the small ones are just too small. If a big room isn't available, stay at Casa Pestagua, another restored colonial house that's bigger and brighter with slightly less charm. It's a better choice if you're traveling with friends because it has a bar, spa, and large suites — which also makes it a popular private party spot for monied Colombians.
As long as we're on the topic of parties, if you love the nightlife, Cartagena is insane at New Year's. It's a jet set bacchanalia. We, however, went during the off-season in late May. We were worried that because it was the start of the rainy season it would be insanely hot, but the weather was great. Yes, it rained a bit, but there was sun every day and the heat was only intense at midday. It was easy to make reservations anywhere, though the city really comes alive on the weekends.
We had the good fortune to crash a friend's cousin's 40th birthday bash. The birthday boy is a hedge funder who married a Colombian heiress. They both really like to party — with fireworks, scantily clad dancers in headdresses, and a woman in a sparkling thong jumping out of a fake cake. My point: Try to find something fabulous to crash, because no one does it better than Colombians.
By day, Cartagena is very relaxing. There are not a ton of tourist destinations. This is a small, manageable city sprinkled with sculptures by Colombian artists like Botero. I imagine old Havana must have felt like this, though maybe even sleepier. The heat creates a sultry vibe that makes it perfectly okay to lounge around eating ceviche and drinking beer without feeling like you should be at a museum. The old churches are gorgeous and best visited during masses or weddings. Days should be spent wandering — around the windy cobblestone streets, buying fruit from a lady carrying a bowl of it on her head, and browsing the shops.
Galeria Cano has the best jewelry, though it's not cheap. Lucy is a chain of high-end jewelry stores that sells the emeralds the country is known for at fair prices. On the street, you can haggle vendors way down for bags and beaded jewelry.
For dinner, our favorite restaurant was La Vitrola (Calle de Baloco No. 2-01; +57-5-660-07-11), a Cuban-themed place frequented by Gabriel García Márquez, who has a house in Cartegna and has written extensively about the city. We also liked El Santísimo. For drinks, we found ourselves at the outdoor bar perched atop a fortress wall across the street from Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa, a former 17th-century convent, which also has a nice rooftop bar with fantastic views, but closes at 8 p.m. Hotel Santa Clara has a sexy bar on its ground floor and is reliable for frequent live music and García Márquez sightings.
One day, the helpful Hotel Agua concierge arranged a car to take us to Volcán de Lodo El Totumo, a volcano an hour outside the city. We were led up steep steps and into warm bubbling mud inside the volcano. Locals massaged us with mud that supposedly has magical powers — or at least is good for the complexion. Then we were led into a warm bay where women washed us clean. I loved it, but it's not for everyone. If you're the kind of person who loves Russian or Korean city spas, go for it. If you freak out when you forget flip flops for the shower at the gym, forget it.
Our next stop was Hotel Agua's sister hotel, Hotel Agua Barú on Barú Island, a one-hour speed boat ride from Cartagena. (The hotel transports you on its fancy high-speed boat.) There are only three rooms, all thatched hut luxury bungalows with private freshwater pools, stunning views, and major tranquility. It was the most romantic place I have ever been. There's not much to do, so it helps if you really love your travel companion.
The bungalows are located at the top of a long, steep staircase. The staff will bring you room service or you can dine in the stunning open-air restaurant with a high thatched roof. It's like Ralph Lauren goes to Fantasy Island. Be warned: It gets really pricey, because the food and drinks are all shipped in from Cartagena. (Even the laundry gets cleaned in the city and brought back via boat). To save cash, bring a few bottles of wine and water and skip dessert — it was always disappointing and weirdly pricey. As for amenities, the WiFi was spotty, but the rooms had Direct TV, AC, and mini fridges.
We took the hotel's boat to a private beach five minutes away and swam naked in warm turquoise water. It was wonderful. Until I got stung by a jellyfish. (Two days in a row.) The snorkeling was pleasant, not amazing. We ate lobsters at a restaurant nearby and sat in the water under a palapa. Most of the time, we were in our pool, reading, drinking Champagne, and marveling at how awesome it all was.
TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK
After Barú, we went back to Cartagena and jumped in a car for the four-hour drive up the coastline to Tayrona National Park, a vast jungle on the Caribbean Sea below Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, one of the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world. Just after dawn, you can see snow on top of the mountains.
We stayed at Ecohabs, a luxury resort inside the park, and had our own thatched hut high on a cliff above the ocean. WiFi was amazingly fast, and there was Direct TV, but no AC. The beach is set up with lounge chairs, towels, a bar, a spa with great massages, Jacuzzis you can rent by the hour, and a restaurant that serves very good local fare and seafood (avoid anything else).
There are plenty of guides you can hire to lead you on hikes, and they're worth it: We saw monkeys, bright butterflies, iguanas, frogs, and lizards on our guided jungle walk — and much less when we went on our own. You can also ride horses along the paths. The jungle leads out to vast stretches of beach dotted with backpacker hangouts and restaurants. There's a major riptide, so only swim in designated areas in daylight. No matter how bold you think you are.
Once we got to our big beach destination, we couldn't face walking back two hours through the buggy jungle (don't forget to pack insect repellent), so we persuaded a boat of tourists going to Santa Marta to drop us off at our hotel beach. It was a 10 minute ride for $40, and it was totally worth it.
The park is run by Colombia's largest tourist agency, Aviatur. And they make booking a nightmare. You have to fax all sorts of paperwork to reserve a room, and they got pretty nasty with us. We were on Barú Island — without a fax — when they realized they were missing our forms. After much ado, the owner of the hotel vouched for our credit card. If you are not traveling at peak season, bypass Aviatur and just show up at Eco-Habs. When we were there, only half the huts were booked. (Christmas season, by contrast, gets booked a year in advance.)
On our last night, we stayed at Casa Pestagua and dined at Club de Pesca, a restaurant just outside the old city on the water. It was touristy and not nearly as charming as the places in the old city. In the final analysis, Tayrona was lovely, but it was a challenge to get there. So if you're pressed for time, spend two or three days at Hotel Agua in Cartagena, then bliss out on Barú Island.
HOW TO GET THERE
We flew Spirit Air from LAX to Ft. Lauderdale, then on to Cartagena. Never again. Spirit Air was a nightmare — as in, smoke-filled cabin, deplane off the inflatable slide on the runway. Anyone else is better. From the Cartagena airport, it's only a ten-minute drive to the old city.
See the locations for this trip. (Googlemaps)
FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE
Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw, Mark Bowden
News of a Kidnapping, Gabrial García Márquez
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabrial García Márquez