A long ago party spot for raucous pirates, the first South American settlement of the Spanish colonists, the mystical setting of many a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, a vacation retreat for cartel drug lords - over the years, Cartagena de Indias, or Cartagena as it’s known, has been a lot of different things to a lot of disparate people - and now it tops 2017 lists of chicest holidays. Colombians realized the beauty of their Caribbean coastal jewel when the beau monde (Yoko Ono, Greta Garbo, Mick Jagger) started sniffing around. Politicians, artists and expats began pouring love and cash into restoring its traditional dwellings (many now worth upwards of $10M USD) and refurbishing its landmarks (the 1500s Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the church of San Pedro Claver and the Adolfo Mejia Theatre among them), gaining the city UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1984. It went through a brief cooling when a 2001 US travel advisory to the country was issued, but warnings lifted, Cartagena is now Colombia’s top tourist destination. This year, 300,000 foreigners are slated to visit, seduced by lovely weather year-round, a couple of direct JetBlue flights, the rumored opening of properties by Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, and more restaurants per square foot than the trendiest parts of London and NYC. Recent sightings run the gamut from Keanu Reeves and Clive Owen to Eva Longoria and Shakira to Prince Charles and Camilla. It is also home to the Cartagena International Film Festival and the Hay Festival Cartagena, a literary meeting of the minds frequented by authors like Julian Barnes and Jonathan Franzen. Despite the uptick in interest from abroad, the Caribbean’s most beautiful city still retains a quaint charisma, due to its cozy, walkable layout - narrow streets lined with a kaleidoscope of colored colonial homes, dignified plazas, and mom and pop shops (offering everything from coffee to ceviche to emeralds), all cocooned within a walled old town. Romance is an intrinsic part of Cartagena’s DNA, as aside from being the setting for the heartbreakingly passionate Love in the Time of Cholera, its where real life Mr. Darcy (AKA Colin Firth) fell for now wife Livia, and the site where former Vogue editor Lauren née Davis staged a lavish fairytale wedding to Andres Santo Domingo, as close to a Colombian prince as they come. Who knows what amorous adventures await you on your first trip?
There are loads of stylish accommodation options, from fashion designer owned Tcherassi Hotel + Spa to Andalusian-inspired Casa San Agustin. For a small city, Cartagena has a pulsing energy that comes alive at night. Outlying, graffiti-filled neighborhood Getsemaní is the place to see and be seen, and Demente, on lively Trinidad Square, is its most in-demand venue - think a historical house serving up fusion tapas and wine, complete with a bulldog mascot. Back in town, you can decide from a plethora of excellent dining choices, perhaps a sidewalk table at Juan del Mar, the actor’s eponymous restaurant known for its heavenly pizza, or La Vitrola, an old school establishment frequented by the creme de la creme of Colombian society, who flock here nightly for a taste of their lauded carpaccio, complete with Cuban house band. Finish your evening at Café Havana, a salsa spot where Hillary Clinton even let her hair down (figuratively, of course) on the dance floor. Although beaches can be found near town, the superior sands lie a short hour’s boat ride away in the Rosario Islands National Park, a coral reef archipelago mixed with private homes, small hotels, and uninhabited land that is a must day trip or even overnight sojourn for those looking for true R&R.
Cartagena allows you the kind of trip where you can pack light and stock up local style during your stay. Leave room in your bag for OndadeMar swimsuits, kaftans from concept store St. Dom and pieces from Silvia Tcheressi’s boutique, as well as home accessories found at Casa Chiqui. The bag to carry is a mochila, crafted by the native Wayuu Indians - but the fashion set will order a version by Muzungu Sisters ahead of time. For a sundowner at seaside Cafe del Mar, slip into a breezy The Great cotton maxi dress and keep the look cool and casual by adding a Figue Tuk Tuk clutch and Soludos slippers. The afternoons get muy calor, therefore we recommend sporting a shady hat, say from Helen Kaminski, with a simple tank and an airy Missoni wrap skirt, then ditch the headwear and switch to a Cedric Charlier fringe mini for after dark hours. You’ve managed to take South America’s most stylish city by storm - where to next?