Mingling poolside at a boutique hotel, I am balancing some downtime with a client on his third piña colada. Catching a glimpse of the sunset between the evaporating trays of canapés; and with conferences scheduled in windowless rooms, my romantic perception of the colonial city is challenged by the ‘business’ trip. And between meetings, there hasn’t been time to flex by the beach or take in a run along the ramparts.
As one of the world’s most besieged cities, people still travel great distances to visit Cartagena. While some come here to tie the knot in front of the San Pedro Claver cathedral, others to untie the tie; putting away pin stripes for soft-flowing guayaberas.
Since earning its independence from Spain in 1811, Cartagena has been coveted by the outside world. From its all-inclusive tourism to celebrities with guarded anonymity, Cartagena caters to everyone, and is always in season. If it’s corporate gold you are after, you can negotiate now over chilled mojitos rather than the sword.
Cartagena hosts some 300 conventions every year and many companies pay to top dollar to use the facilities of the Centro de Convenciones, given its central location along the Pegasus pier and experience in hosting summits and official state receptions. From the Convention Center it’s an easy walk to many of the city’s more exclusive hotels, such as the Charleston Santa Teresa, Movich’s Cartagena de Indias and the Sofitel Santa Clara.
Hosting literary festivals and the annual International Film Festival, Cartagena prides itself on being a window on Colombia. Hence companies tend to take over the Old City for private functions and congresses in low season. And because of its choice location on the Caribbean, Cartagena has no shortage of gastronomy to be enjoyed when visiting the old city for a limited time.
Take a seat at La Cevichería in the graceful Plaza San Diego for shrimp cocktail. For pan-seared fish, there’s Juan del Mar nextdoor and one of the city’s more tropical restaurants. A new Peruvian restaurant, La Perla, serves plates of tiraditos and ceviche, best enjoyed with a passion fruit pisco.
From the buzz of ceiling fans to the soothing effect of a Gin tonic at the sophisticated Don Juan restaurant, a successful congress should balance work with an opportunity to explore the city’s landmarks: such as the emblematic Clock Tower, the under-the-rampart cellars at Las Bovedas, and the gateway to all things sweet and sugary, Portal de las Dulces.
One can appreciate why Cartagena earned its status as a World Heritage site from the turrets and stone look-out points along the ramparts. Next to the canons pointing northwards, a city of clay roofs and ochre-painted domes rise to greet you. If time permits, the white-walled convent of La Popa overlooks the bay, the colonial city and offers another a high vantage point to appreciate the why this historic port was so strategic for pirates and traders.
As you leave the enclave of the Old City, you pass through Getsemaní and Manga neighborhoods with their Arabian-influenced architecture and turn of the last century workers’ homes. The San Felipe de Barajas Fort is also a must on the circuit. Built to protect La Heróica – as Simon Bolivar coined Cartagena- it is a reminder that this “jewel” by the sea has always been desired.
Looming next to the walled town are the glass skyscrapers of Laguito and Bocagrande. With their air-conditioned shopping centers selling vacation items, established resort hotels such as the Hilton, Almirante and Caribe have converted this area of greater Cartagena into a condensed version of Miami Beach.
In the afternoon, you’ll hear vallenato ensembles laden with accordions offering tourists some melancholy in a tune. Book a day trip (or stay the night) on the archipelago of Islas del Rosario. An hour’s boatride from the mainland, the charming islands strung out in the sea like a “rosary” are home to bungalow style hotels, San Pedro de Majagua on Isla Grande being the most exclusive. Ecological walks and canoe trips through the mangroves or a trip to the nearby aquarium are some of the activities to do as much as, enjoying white sandy coves and the turquoise waters of an idyllic archipelago.
So, if your days are limited in Cartagena, don’t break with the Convention, but embrace an opportunity of being in an age old setting by the sea. Your business should come first, but you can combine it with carriage transport and dining by candle light.