Lobby at Casa Pestagua, Cartagena, Colombia

Casa Pestagua

When Count Pestagua, shipping magnate and one time mayor of Cartagena, set out to build his mansion in the 17th century, he declared his desire to have the most beautiful house in the city. He succeeded with extravagant touches, including a nine-foot-wide, curved stone staircase that’s still in use today.  A private developer eventually bought the crumbling mansion and carefully restored it while preserving its antique details, such as elaborate frescoes and carved wooden ceilings.

French investors then bought the property and used their knack for hospitality and a commitment not to polish away the property’s history to create one of the most authentically historic hotels in Cartagena. The cavernous mansion has only eleven guest rooms, all of which are different, set around a double interior courtyard and garden with a reflecting fountain, al fresco restaurant, sitting areas, an outdoor bar, small spa and a large swimming pool shaded by a massive mango tree. There is so much space that even when Casa Pestagua is full (which is often) it’s still possible to find an appealing corner to retreat to with a good book or a good friend.

Details like wood floors, beamed ceilings, antique furnishings (many from the original house), tapestries and salvaged gilt mirrors add to the atmosphere. This is clearly a house with history but modern comforts such as mini-bars, Wi-Fi, TVs and safes have been incorporated along with vast marble bathrooms. As one of the owners pointed out, the building has been saved but not sanitized. Minor water damage, small cracks and other natural ravages of time are managed but not erased, giving Casa Pestagua a feel of authentic aged beauty.

Pool Lounge at Casa Pombo, Cartagena, Colombia

Casa Pombo

There is no sign for Casa Pombo but you can’t miss the stately, elegantly restored, lemon-colored building that dominates an entire corner near Cartagena’s main cathedral. And even this spectacular exterior won’t prepare you for what awaits inside. The building’s foundations have been dated back to 1585, but Casa Pombo was brought back to life as five thoroughly modern, multi-bedroom luxury apartments, using a combination of painstaking restoration and breathtaking modern design.

The building was constructed largely from stone and many of the original architectural details have survived, including imposing arches on the ground floor which are a rare example of a stone arch from the period built without bricks or other filler. A team of 10 master craftsmen worked for nearly a month to uncover and restore original wall murals from the early-17th century. A narrow, worn internal stairway, made of stone, is still used today, and climbing up it you almost expect to encounter a colonial servant on her way down.

History is all around you, but so is a remarkably modern sense of style, including the enormous ground-floor wading pool, which appears to be about to spill over into the foyer thanks to a dramatic Plexiglas retaining wall. Many of the apartments are starkly chic on the inside as well, and the juxtaposition of old and new is elegant and playful.

Many of the apartments have private terraces and pools and there’s a shared rooftop pool and social area with amazing views over the old city. A full-time staff is also at your service.

Bedroom at Casa San Agustin, Cartagena, Colombia

Casa San Agustin

Opened in 2012, this 30-room boutique hotel is the result of turnning three adjoining, 17th-century buildings into the most stunning hotel in Cartagena.  Here modern luxuries including Frette sheets, remarkably fast Wi-Fi, iPads and gourmet mini-bars mingle with lovingly restored architectural elements.

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Walk into this white-washed Republican-era mansion and you enter a fresh take on how to enjoy the charms of Cartagena. Sunlight streams in through a central courtyard planted with palms. Open stairways, lattice screens and interior balconies lend a surprising airiness to the hotel.

Enormous wooden doorways lead to the twelve guestrooms, which have exposed brick walls, tiled floors, white painted furniture and slip-covered couches that evoke a beach house and barefoot summers more than a bustling historic city. There are sitting areas with wicker furniture and coffee tables piled with whimsical objects and photography books as they would be in a home. The rooftop pool is the perfect place to enjoy fabulous views and breezes off the nearby Caribbean.

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Hotel Amarla

Hotel Amarla is an intimate boutique hotel in the old city of Cartagena, Colombia that feels more like a family home than a hotel.
Pool Lounge at  Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa, Cartagena, Colombia

Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa

This hotel was originally built as a convent in the 17th century and as you enter through a gorgeous red brick arch you expect to find a beautifully preserved hotel (like the Monasterio in Cusco, for example). Unfortunately, the interior charm has mostly been gutted and replaced with standard cookie-cutter hotel details. Rooms are well-appointed with mini bars, flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi but they look Hiltonesque. Common spaces seem designed and furnished to accommodate the waves of cruise ship passengers, who often stay here.  The hotel does offer multiple conference rooms and a comprehensive business center right down to bilingual secretaries if you need them plus a gym, a spa and four restaurants.

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Lounge at Hotel LM, Cartagena, Colombia

Hotel LM

There are hotels in Cartagena that are more polished and there are hotels in Cartagena that are more hip but none are more welcoming than Hotel LM. From the moment you arrive at the staff make it clear (in Spanish) that you are home. No request is too big or too small, and they don’t seem to know the meaning of the word “no” in any language.

The hotel itself has two personalities. The guests-only dining room is full of baroque upholstery but the elegant room is anchored by a striking, pseudo-Lichtenstein painting by a Spanish painting duo called Caseras y Miranda. The open courtyard has more modern art, including sculptures by Colombian Enrique Grau and the lobby reading room is full of more baroque upholstery and antiques. It’s a pleasing mix.

Like any home, the heart of Hotel LM is the gourmet open-air kitchen facing the small pool in the courtyard. Here Javier Diaz Daza, the hotel’s young and gregarious chef, invites guests to request their favorite meals and to participate in wine-fueled cooking classes which he leads in Spanish along with the fun-loving kitchen staff.

The seven guest rooms, which have a slightly out-of-the-box décor, are spread between three floors. On the top floor is a lovely rooftop pool with a cabana set up for massages. At night this is a dangerously romantic spot. The whole house can also be reserved.

Pool Lounge at Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Hotel, Cartagena, Colombia

Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Hotel

The largest hotel in the old city manages to hold on to some of its heritage but deliver the service and amenities international travelers expect.

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Stairs at Tcherassi Hotel & Spa, Cartagena, Colombia

Tcherassi Hotel & Spa

The original owner of this 250-year-old colonial mansion could never have imagined what it would become in the hands of Colombian fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi. Namely, a sexy seven-room hotel where the owner’s singular, shimmery sense of style rules starting with the gold-dusted iron gates at the front of the hotel which allow passersby to catch a nearly irresistible glimpse into the cool, all-white courtyard, interior pools and living wall covered in more than 3,000 plants. The hotel now also includes a 42-room modern addition located two blocks away with reciprocal access at both.

Each of the open design rooms is named after one of the designer’s favorite fabrics. Bedspreads and massive canvases on the walls are covered with gold fabric Silvia Tcherassi clothing labels. Showers are glassed in and every detail seems to have been chosen for tactile appeal, including the bedside lamps, which look like synthetic feather dusters. If you don’t share the designer’s taste, however, rooms can feel a bit like the inside of an exploded prom dress and some of the furnishings and facilities are beginning to show signs of wear and tear.

Don't missVera, the hotel’s 40-seat Italian restaurant where well-heeled locals and guests mingle under the arches in the main courtyard.The petite Aquabar is nestled between the two courtyard pools, one of which is covered with thick Plexiglas and set with a table and chairs. A one-room spa is located next to this pool and a second more private pool is located on the roof. It’s a private club atmosphere that feels more modern Miami than historic Cartagena.

At the Hotel & Spa addition, the rooms are modern and sophisticated, with a large pool and lush hanging gardens.

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