Luxury heritage iconA majestic landmark hotel in Cartagena Old Town
Destination: Cartagena, Colombia
Vacation: Caribbean city break
Seeking: Latin flair and chilled Caribbean vibes
Highlight: Panoramic rooftop pool
Located on the edge of Cartagena’s walled Old Town, the Charleston Santa Teresa is a much-revered landmark and known as ‘the’ place to stay when exploring this colourful city. What was once a 17th-century convent is now a beautifully renovated hotel that’s a mix of historic grandeur and contemporary cool.
The evening we arrived, we pulled up to the regal ochre building, cutting a grand shape against the stone city walls – all softly lit with dramatic cloisters and a stone archway entrance. Plaza Santa Teresa, the hotel’s outdoor restaurant that spills out onto a square just in front, was bustling with people enjoying cocktail hour.
The service was faultless. We stepped into the impressive atrium to a huge arrangement of fresh lillies and hydrangea, and our bags were quickly whisked away to our rooms. We were given a list of the best local restaurants to try and were encouraged to head straight out to catch the sunset at Café del Mar. The iconic bar is perched right on the wall’s edge and comes with amazing views of the ocean and live chill-out music.
Cartagena is a force of a city and the hotel was a welcome haven of calm. Floor-to-ceiling indoor plants hung dramatically from the inner courtyard balconies and the rooms were spacious and cool. The hotel has three restaurants to choose from and a boutique spa offering everything from hydrotherapy to oxygen facials.
But, the pièce de résistance was the rooftop. The view is captivating, framing Cartagena’s historic domes, the modern skyrises and the Caribbean sea beyond. The vast panoramic pool is so refreshing after a day of exploring and you really do feel on top of the world up there.
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“In the heart of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, full of Spanish influence and a powerful mix of multiculturalism, is our hotel, built in a historic and renovated 17th-century building that reflects the tradition of Cartagena de Indias.”
Best food & drink
1. Harry’s Cartagena
This was our favourite of the hotel’s three restaurants. Harry’s is set in the grand central courtyard, so you feel right in the middle of everything. The dishes are led by one of the best chefs in Colombia, Harry Sasson, and the food is an exciting mix of traditional Cartagenan dishes like ‘Meloso’ – a creamy Spanish-style risotto – blended with international favourites like delicate raviolis and seafood salads.
We sipped a round of stiff Margaritas before tucking into some of the signature dishes. From tiger’s milk ceviche to beef carpaccio, coconut stir-fried shrimp to saffron-scented grouper – the menu is vibrant, with plenty of big, bold flavours. ‘Harry’s Crab Meloso’ was deliciously creamy and savoury, with a little fresh green pepper. It was the perfect dinner before a night exploring Cartagena’s lively rooftop bars (we loved Alquimico and Townhouse).
2. Plaza Santa Teresa
The Plaza stretches out into the square from the entrance of the hotel. It’s a magical place to be as evening sets in. Enclosed by the city’s fortified stone walls, the setting is incredibly atmospheric and the restaurant’s traditional Latin music floats out into the night. You also have the hum of Baluarte de San Francisco Javier just above – a cool tapas and cocktail bar with live music that starts later.
Here, the menu is a little more relaxed but still centred around the incredible local seafood. The langoustines with orange and chilli are a stand-out but the fritto misto, patacones (fried plantain) with guacamole and crispy octopus with chorizo are all delicious.
3. Candé Cocina
We celebrated our last night in Cartagena at Candé Cocina – a hidden oasis of a restaurant just a few minutes walk from the hotel. You arrive into the cosy bar area, pulsing with locals and tourists enjoying pre-dinner drinks. It has a mix of colonial and contemporary styles, with plenty of Latin warmth. On the second storey, the main restaurant is decorated with glamorous rattan chandeliers, chequered flooring and lush hanging baskets.
The traditional live music and dancers felt a bit tongue-in-cheek, but this place is all about the drama. Take the cocktail menu – the signature Candé Coquetona with rum, tamarind and lemon is served in a huge blue conch, of course. But what truly sets Candé apart are the creative Caribbean-Mediterranean dishes. Everything is beautifully presented, and we went all-in with some the menu’s meatiest dishes, including the shredded rabbit stew and the slow-cooked beef with coconut rice and sweet plantain.
The hotel boasts 87 luxurious rooms and each are a welcome retreat from the city’s busy, balmy streets. They all pay homage to the city’s colonial past – mixing high ceilings and elegant marble bathrooms, with colourful, local artworks and crisp white sheets. We stayed in a Standard room, which was surprisingly spacious and offered views over the inner courtyard. The suites are opulent with great views of the city or the hotel’s gardens.
The attentive service adds to the exclusivity of the hotel. The room service is 24-hours, which is great if you’ve stayed out late enjoying some of the city’s amazing bars and clubs. There’s an in-house jewellery store, which stocks Colombian emeralds, and the hotel has bicycles for guests to zip around the city.
Cartagena’s Old Town is not just beautiful (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) but it’s also a shopping paradise. You can find anything from high-end fashion to vintage clothing, local artwork to interior accessories. Check out St. DOM, a cool and colourful concept store just minutes from the hotel, and Café San Alberto for freshly ground coffee. It was the best we tasted in Colombia. You can also head further out of Old Town to Getsemani, the city’s hip new quarter, or to Bocagrande for the Plaza Mall – and pick up fresh watermelon and mango from streetsellers on the way.
A 20-minute walk further into central Cartagena takes you to the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The towering fortress was built in the 1500s and is located on a fairly steep hill, so remember your walking shoes. But the views out to sea are worth it and it’s also stunning when lit up at night.
Then, there are the Cartagena beaches. The bustling city beaches like Castilliogrande and Bocagrande offer long stretches of golden sand but get very busy and crowded. I’d recommend heading to the harbour and catching a boat to the nearby Rosario Islands. In about 45 minutes you can reach paradise-like beaches with soft-white sands and lush mangroves. Try snorkelling around Isla Grande or head to Isla Cholon for a day-time party in the shallows.
This is the perfect place to say if you want to explore, but also want to retreat away from the heat of the city. Head to the roof and spend a few hours chilling by the pool on the pristine white cabanas. La Terraza restaurant serves fresh juices and brunch favourites and the views are uninterrupted.
But if you really want to unwind, the boutique spa is a must-visit. Small but perfectly formed, the modern monochrome design creates a serene setting. There’s a steam bath and hydromassage but also a selection of treatments from deep tissue massages to cocoa wraps. Try the ‘Santa Teresa’ for a relaxing head-to-toe massage, hydrating facial and steam bath – it was the ultimate antidote to a couple of very late nights. The spa also offers nail services and hair styling and treatments to help you get ready – wherever in the city you’re headed.
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