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Escape to Cartagena

The colonial city on the northern coast of Colombia is an aesthete’s dream discovery

A medieval wall surrounds the Colombian port city of Cartagena.
A medieval wall surrounds the Colombian port city of Cartagena.
Buildings awash in vibrant hues line the streets of the historic El Centro.
Buildings awash in vibrant hues line the streets of the historic El Centro.

Do you like your melon juiced, your buildings candy-colored, and your fish prepared al frito? If so, then Cartagena, Colombia, is calling your name. The coastal city is an enticing tropical destination rapidly making its way onto travelers’ radar. With a port, fortresses, and group of monuments that were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, the town is known for its colonial architecture and Caribbean climate, both of which inform an unexpectedly Dickensian aesthetic—as if one might stumble at any moment upon Miss Havisham’s tropical estate. It’s a literary vibe befitting the adopted home of magical realist and national treasure Gabriel García Márquez, whose former house is located in the stately San Diego quarter.

A local man fans himself in the shade.
A local man fans himself in the shade.
Coffee and palm fronds: quintessential signs of a tropical vacation.
Coffee and palm fronds: quintessential signs of a tropical vacation.

Sleepy plazas come alive at night as the temperature drops and tourists and locals mill about, dipping in and out of one another’s lives. A slew of boutique hotels and hostels make Cartagena a reasonable place to stay at any budget, whether you’re an Australian backpacker or a Bogotá banker. High-end shopping exists—Michael Kors and Salvatore Ferragamo both have outposts, as does Italian furniture maker Kartell—but the real design stars are the city’s centuries-old buildings, awash in a rainbow of saturated hues. You’ll be inspired by everything from the patina on doors to the elegance of rough-hewn joints meeting at odd angles, seemingly on the brink of collapse in the sweltering heat. And amid the chaotic vibrancy of Caribbean life, you’ll glimpse moments of tranquillity: negative space on a canvas exhausted with color.

Plaza Trinidad in the Getsemani neighborhood is quiet during the day but comes alive at night.
Plaza Trinidad in the Getsemani neighborhood is quiet during the day but comes alive at night.
Escape to Cartagena
A black-and-white portrait of local fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi hangs prominently in the entryway of her eponymous hotel.
A black-and-white portrait of local fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi hangs prominently in the entryway of her eponymous hotel.
A patio seating area at the Tcherassi is stocked with an international selection of magazines and books.
A patio seating area at the Tcherassi is stocked with an international selection of magazines and books.

STAY
Tucked behind one of the many gorgeous doors around town, the modern, intimate Tcherassi Hotel + Spa has seven high-design guest rooms and a courtyard restaurant that’s a dreamy retreat from the stifling humidity. Savor the ambiance while gazing out on a vertical garden of more than 3,000 local plants. Another verdant courtyard can be found at the Sofitel Santa Clara, a 17th-century convent converted into a family-friendly 122-room hotel. It’s got enough antique wood tables to make you swear off Saarinen for good.

The Sofitel Santa Clara, housed in a converted convent, makes a grand first impression with a super-saturated lobby.
The Sofitel Santa Clara, housed in a converted convent, makes a grand first impression with a super-saturated lobby.
The hotel's resident toucan strikes a pose atop the arm of an antique bench.
The hotel's resident toucan strikes a pose atop the arm of an antique bench.

EAT
At Restaurante María Cartagena, chef Alejandro Ramirez Gomez turns out crowd-pleasing spins on local ingredients—including grilled lobster tail with fettuccine and a classic pulpo al olivo. La Central Antillana is a good pit stop for a budget-friendly lunch in an atmosphere that conjures up Havana. The Anthony Bourdain–approved La Cevichería offers a flavorful alternative to the region’s abundant fried fare; order the shrimp ceviche, served with mint pesto–drizzled mango on a bed of avocado.

The author's Instagram feed became a riot of color, pattern, and texture during his stay.
The author's Instagram feed became a riot of color, pattern, and texture during his stay.
Escape to Cartagena

SHOP
The city’s street vendors hawk everything from arepas to dizzyingly patterned mochila bags. Buy a fresh coconut water before heading off for an afternoon of browsing. Colombia is known for its emeralds, which are in no short supply at Maríelena Villa Rodriguez’s MariRustic (Calle del Curato No. 38–60). But it’s the store’s collection of antique objects—from Wedgwood china to salvaged brass drawer pulls—that most strikingly caught our attention. Vendor Julian Reyes López has a showroom, Dos Reyes (Calle Estanco del Aguardiente No. 5–63), in a beautiful old high school that also houses art galleries; look for more antique furniture as well as original work by Ecuadorian painter and sculptor Oswaldo Guayasamin. An eclectic collection of found items and stately treasures, from vintage clocks to ornate candelabras, is the specialty at Olano boutique (Calle de Las Damas No. 3–90).

The day's end atop the ancient city wall overlooking the Caribbean.
The day's end atop the ancient city wall overlooking the Caribbean.

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