Cartagena, Colombia

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Ten years ago, I traveled to Cartagena for the first time, ready to be dazzled. My friends in Bogotá, where I had been living for the previous year, raved about the colonial charms and glamorous nightlife of this Caribbean port city, promising I would love it.

On that first trip, Jorge and I arrived at sundown in the midst of a torrential rainstorm and massive traffic jam. As our bus crawled slowly through the outer limits of the city, I gazed through my rain-stained window and beheld my first sighting of Colombia’s most beloved tourist destination: a jumble of tin roofs sinking into a slosh of mud and litter. Children jumped with glee among puddles of garbage, while their parents huddled beneath blue tarps watching morosely as the rain flooded their shops and homes. The sight of such overwhelming poverty in the city of which Colombians were so proud jolted me.

Our arrival at our hotel proved equally unsettling. Priced out of the lodgings in the walled city, the heart of Cartagena’s colonial attractions and internationally acclaimed hotels and restaurants, we had booked a room in the nearby grungy enclave of Getsamani. It was dark by the time we arrived and, as we scanned the street nervously for the entrance, prostitutes in tight glittery dresses called to us, while drunken revelers planted firecrackers that exploded in our path.

Startled, we quickly identified and bolted towards the entrance of our hotel, only to find ourselves in a neglected courtyard with a swimming pool of rancid green water. At the pool’s perimeter, a few strung-out French tourists, collapsed on lounge chairs, stared at us vacantly. The owner of the hotel stumbled towards us in an unbuttoned shirt and led us to our room. For US $70 a night, far more than I had ever paid for a hotel in Colombia, I had expected a minimum level of luxury. Instead, we encountered a sterile, windowless room, empty save for a plastic-covered bed that radiated under a terrifying fluorescent bulb.

By the time we reached the walled city– the destination I had so eagerly anticipated— I was rattled and hungry. The colonial buildings and plazas bled hazily into the night and I hardly noticed them. I could think only of finding a place to eat. Jorge and I quickly spotted a few trendy restaurants where we might be introduced to the thumping Cartagena nightlife we had heard so much about. However, the prices shocked us. We literally could not afford to eat at any of them. Embarrassed, we ducked into a local fish joint for a greasy meal of fried mojarra and plantains and then closed our night by sharing an outrageously expensive cocktail at a rooftop bar. There, we commiserated over our failure to enjoy the city of which we had heard so much.

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For years, when my American friends would tell me excitedly that they wanted to visit Cartagena, I would feign enthusiasm and encourage their plans. I did not want to dissuade them from traveling to the only city with enough name recognition to bring them to Colombia in the first place. However, the image imprinted in my mind during my brief stay endured. To me, Cartagena was over-rated and over-priced, a playground for rich Colombians oblivious to the grinding poverty outside of the walled city.

Last November, Jorge and I returned to Bogotá to live. Many of my friends and family in the U.S. promised to visit me in Colombia and all of them wanted tips for where to stay and what to do in Cartagena. I felt ashamed of how little I could offer them, given that my own trip ten years earlier had been such a disaster. Grudgingly, I resolved to return to the city that had so thoroughly disappointed me, purely for research purposes.

This time, I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of our first visit. I allotted a hefty budget for our two-day stay and reserved a room in the Alfiz, a boutique hotel in the walled city. Still, I was haunted by memories of my previous visit, and when the taxi pulled up in front of the two enormous unmarked wooden doors guarding our hotel, I fully expected to find another hellish drug den lurking on the other side.

To my surprise, we stepped through the doorway and discovered a paradise of shady palms, bright red flowers and trickling fountains. An arched passageway radiated from the patio and led to a series of tastefully decorated and shadowy rooms, all wonderfully cool. A receptionist greeted us with a bright smile and refreshing glasses of fresh passion fruit juice. She ushered us to our room, where a plush bed and rustic Jacuzzi awaited us. The hotel felt deliciously luxurious. I wanted nothing more than to lounge in a poolside hammock I had spotted on the second floor and savor the pleasures of this lavish oasis.

However, before long, we were hungry, and– as the Alfiz did not serve lunch– we had no choice but to venture into the walled city in search of food. To my amazement, the walled city was not at all as I remembered it. The streets were gloriously clean and inviting, with imposing churches and joyful plazas brimming with drummers and dancers. White and purple flowers burst from Spanish colonial buildings, each façade meticulously preserved and freshly painted in bright yellow, turquoise or orange. Tourists from around the world swarmed the streets, happily exploring art galleries, Garcia-Marquez themed bookstores and delectable pastry shops. Yes, it felt like Disneyland—in its artificial perfection– but it was beautiful. I was enchanted.

That night, on the way home from a heavenly meal at Cocina de Pepina, a Colombian restaurant that specializes in authentic and carefully crafted dishes from the nearby city of Monteria, Jorge received a call from a friend offering us two tickets to an outdoor concert taking place that night at a plaza near our hotel. We accepted and, a few hours later, took our seats in front of a stage set up before the illuminated façade of the majestic cathedral of San Pedro Claver. A trio of musicians from Romania appeared from the cathedral’s glowing red door and lifted their violins. The melody they played, a haunting tribute to the Romanian folk singer Maria Tanase, rose, slowly and exquisitely, from a whisper to a booming pitch, infusing the plaza and night sky with its melancholy beauty.

As the music swirled around me, I fell into a state of rapture, overwhelmed with love for Cartagena. I understood suddenly, how wrong I had been to dismiss this city. Yes, it is expensive and neatly packaged for tourists, and it no doubt masks the reality of most who live in this country. Yet, when taken for what it is, Cartagena is extraordinarily magical.

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How to get there: Fly direct from the U.S., or via Bogotá, to Cartagena’s Rafael Nuñez International Airport, which is a quick 15-minute cab ride from the walled city.

When to go: Avoid the rainy months (April, May, October, November) and peak times for Colombian tourism (Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Holy Week). Try to coincide with one of Cartagena’s many renowned arts festivals, including the Hay literary festival and International Music Festival, both of which take place in January.

Where to stay: There are many fabulous hotels in Cartagena. The Sofitel Santa Clara and the Charleston Santa Teresa are both supremely elegant, with a long tradition of catering to wealthy clientele. In more recent years, a collection of similarly lavish but more intimate boutique hotels—including the Alfiz, Casa Pestagua and Casa San Agustin— have sprung up in refurbished colonial houses in the walled city. For those seeking a boutique experience on a tighter budget, Hotel Monterrey in the walled city and Allure Chocolat in Getsemani are excellent alternatives.

Where to eat: My top recommendation is Cocina de Pepina, a casual eatery in Getsemani that specializes in authentic cuisine from the Colombian city of Monteria. For a more sophisticated but similarly delicious dining experience in the walled city, try the seafood restaurant Carmen in the ultra chic Ananda Hotel.  Finally, be sure to visit Pasteleria Mila for the most delicious pastries and desserts (as well as a range of lunch items) in the walled city.

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Mompos, Colombia

Ceiba Tree, Mompos, Colombia

I had long been intrigued by Mompos. A fabled Colombian city of exquisitely preserved colonial architecture, Mompos is perhaps best defined by its obscure location. The city sits on an island, shrouded by a maze of marshes on the Magdalena River, several hours inland from the Caribbean Coast. To this day, no road connects Mompos to the mainland.

However, Mompos’ location was not always remote. During the colonial era, Mompos achieved preeminence as one of Colombia’s key commercial ports, precisely because of its position on the Magdalena River. At the time, the Magdalena served as the region’s central thoroughfare, funneling goods from the interior of the continent to the Caribbean port of Cartagena and onward to Spain. In the 19th century, following the wars of independence, traffic along the Magdalena declined. Mompos’ location lost its strategic value and many of its residents abandoned it for new opportunities in the burgeoning industrial city of Barranquilla. Gradually, Mompos faded into obscurity.

Mompos’ fall into oblivion is what drew me. Unlike other colonial cities that have been forced to adapt to a changing society, Mompos was left entirely alone, its plazas, churches and houses untouched by the modern world. I envisioned Mompos as a relic of an earlier, quieter Colombia, a rare haven not yet bombarded by the blaring stereo systems and roaring motorcycles that have become ubiquitous across the Caribbean region. A forgotten city with nearly empty streets and glorious mansions and plazas, where only the faint gurgle of the passing Magdalena would be heard. A place, that I hoped, might still contain the magic of its colonial past.

Raft on Magdalena River, Mompos, Colombia

Outer Marshes, Mompos, Colombia

When I finally visited Mompos earlier this year, the main challenge was getting there. Jorge and I began our journey in Bogota, where we boarded an hour-long flight to Corozal, a marginal town in the Caribbean department of Sucre best known for its bird-infested trash dump. A loquacious taxi driver, Carlos, met us at the airport and entertained us with stories of his jealous wife, as we inched past wide-eyed bulls saddled on pick up trucks and jubilant families on horseback on their way to the annual bullfighting festival in the neighboring city of Sincelejo.

Two hours later, we arrived in Magangue, a lively, but crumbling port city on the Magdalena, pungent with the air of fish and sewage. There, we boarded a chalupa, a rickety motorboat, with twelve other passengers, crammed with life vests, babies bobbing on their mothers’ laps and green bunches of unripe bananas to be sold at island markets. As we hurtled into the river, we rushed past tiny islands bursting with the jagged oversized green palms from which plantains grow. From their shores, children in their underwear waved at us excitedly before flinging themselves into the river on rope swings.

In only ten minutes, we had arrived in Bodega, home of the wobbly dock and patch of mud that is the principal port for the series of islands on the Magdalena. A mob of colectivo taxi drivers accosted us, each insisting that we pay him for passage to Mompos. We selected one quickly and boarded his car along with a tight-lipped momposina in a knit cap who refused to share in the payment of the empty seat that had to be filled before we could depart.

During the final hour of our journey, we traversed the marshes that separate Bodega from Mompos, via a series of precarious mud bridges. The road buzzed with the chaos characteristic of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Motorcycles, overloaded with passengers, barefoot and helmetless, weaved dangerously in an out of lanes and whizzed past us. Roadside pit stops advertised patacones and fried fish in garish hand-painted signs. Boom boxes blared a cacophonous mixture of traditional vallenato and hip-hop-inspired reggaeton outside cement houses, where entire families weighed down by heat and boredom, sat idly in plastic chairs, watching the traffic pass.

Yet, beyond the road, a tropical stillness reigned. Here, there were only marshes and high grasses, blanketed by a light mist. Where the land was firm, ceiba trees rose dramatically, dominating the landscape with their enormous trunks and broad, decisive canopies. A haunting primordial beauty pervaded this place, a hint of what I had hoped to find.

Houses, Mompos, Colombia

 

Motorbike, Mompos, Colombia

With dusk fast approaching, we reached Mompos. At first I saw only dusty streets and motorbikes and decaying one-story buildings, all painted in the same faded white with large wooden doors and iron wrought windows. The thump of reggaeton reverberated from a storefront. It did not look so different from any other modern Colombian town graced with the vestiges of colonial architecture. I braced myself for disappointment.

Then, as the taxi turned onto a riverbank, I caught my first glimpse of the Magdalena—flowing quickly and vigorously, dragging with it tassels of bright green foliage ablaze in the late afternoon light. Alongside the river, the city and its surroundings were suddenly infused with a glowing and magical force. On the opposite shore, the same giant ceiba trees I had seen from the road set the stage, reaching, like dancers, wildly into the sky. The city they faced gleamed with a serene elegance. Waterfront mansions boasted tall pillars and proud doorways, alongside open plazas and ornate churches, all carefully displayed to impress the visitors that had once arrived in droves along the Magdalena.

When the driver reached our hotel, I leapt from the taxi and scurried towards an empty park that bordered the river. I closed my eyes. Somewhere nearby, I imagined a pair of dainty young women strolling beneath white lace parasols. A lovesick man appeared too, serenading one of the señoritas with a violin. A crowd gathered around me and we all eagerly awaiting the latest shipment of gold that would soon arrive from a faraway mine. Alone with my trance, I savored the lost majesty of Mompos.

Contemplating the Magdalena, Mompos, Colombia

 

Ceiba Trees, Mompos, Colombia

How to get there
From Bogotá, fly to Corozal via Satena Airlines. Then, take a taxi or bus to Magangue, board a chalupa to Bodega and finally a colectivo taxi to Mompos. Alternatively, travel from Cartagena, where you can arrange for a door-to-door van (Toto Express 310 707 0838) to pick you up from your hotel and shuttle you by land and ferry to Mompos. The total travel time, from either Bogotá or Cartagena following the routes suggested above, is about five to six hours.

Where to stay
Portal de la Marquesa: This beautifully renovated colonial mansion originally served as the residence of the Marquis of Valde Hoyos. Its location—directly facing the river, but removed from the nightly parties near Iglesia Santa Barbara– is ideal. Address: Cra 1, No. 15-27, Mompos, Colombia; Tel: + 57 (5) 685 6221, + 57 (5) 685 6781

Where to eat
El Fuerte: This restaurant, owned by Austrian chef and furniture-maker Walter Maria Gurth, features delicate and flavorful wood-fired pizzas in a whimsical garden setting complete with outlandish wooden tables and lush palms. The classical music playing in the background provides a welcome respite from the dueling boom box parties in the nearby plaza. Address: Cra 1, No. 12-163, Mompos, Colombia; Tel: + 57 (5) 685 6762

Trees on Magdalena, Mompos, Colombia

Bicycle taxi, Mompos, Colombia

 

California: Mendocino Hotel Recommendation

Glendeven Inn, Little River, California

Glendeven Inn, Little River, California

My dear friend, Jenny Kern, visited the Glendeven Inn in December and raved about her stay.  Here she describes in her own words what dazzled her about this small historic hotel on the Mendocino Coast:

The Glendeven Inn is a historic property on the Mendocino Coast that creates an atmosphere with a certain magic.  When we pulled into the inn, a herd of six llamas all turned to greet us from their pasture. The inn attends to the details — when you arrive you notice a parking space reserved for you, greeting you by name.

Our room contained beautiful historic furniture, while maintaining a luxury feel.  We stayed in the Bayview Suite, which looks out on the ocean over the llama pasture. It was a splurge, but when we read that Bill and Hillary Clinton stayed there, we sprung for it and were happy we did.

Each room has a fireplace and is stocked with firewood.  In the evening, we picnicked in our room by the fire, enjoying a bottle of wine and delicious sausage we bought downstairs. Upon request, the innkeepers provide a picnic basket with utensils, napkins and wine glasses.  In the morning, a breakfast spread is brought on a tray to your room, with eggs sourced from their own chickens. This is a real perk for me, as the one drawback of B&Bs is the need to dress and socialize over breakfast.

The inn provides many other great touches — a bag of chicken feed is left in each room so you can enjoy feeding their beautiful chickens. You can also observe the friendly bees buzzing about their beehives.  There is an endless supply of free cookies downstairs and a complementary wine hour, pouring a local wine and serving an appetizer each day from 5:30pm – 6:30pm.

There are a number of hikes you can take without needing to get into your car. We walked for about five miles along the beach and bluffs near the property.

The owners John & Mike are attentive and friendly – and spent a great deal of time chatting with us as they guided us through a flight of Mendocino wines. Part of the charm of the place, as with all great B&Bs, is feeling you are a part of the innkeeper’s vision by staying there.  We overhead a couple was checking in for their fourth stay there, which is now a tradition. We will be sure to be back, and start a tradition of our own!

Little River, California

Chile: Santiago Hotel Recommendation

Casa Moro, Corte Suprema 177, Santiago de Chile

Casa Moro, Santiago, Chile

In the heart of Santiago just two blocks from the presidential palace, this funky bed and breakfast has garnered a large and enthusiastic following on Tripadvisor thanks to its stylish décor and welcoming hosts.  The hotel revolves around a lush, open-air courtyard of bright plants, colorful folk art and the soothing trickle of a fountain, an ideal place to relax after a long day of sight seeing.  Guests also have access to a communal kitchen and a gallery that features jewelry, woven tapestries and crocheted garments from the south of Chile.

Innkeepers Marcelo and Walter are adored for their warmth and attentive service.  They also serve an exceptional breakfast of homemade scones, eggs and fruit.  At $130 for a double room, Casa Moro’s rates are on par with hostels in pricey Santiago.  However, staying at this delightful inn feels more like visiting the home of a dear friend.

Northwest Argentina: Best Hotels

Finca Valentina, Salta, Argentina

Hotels I Loved

1) Finca Valentina, Salta, Argentina

On a country estate in a bucolic suburb of Salta, this exquisitely decorated colonial style inn with only five guest rooms features a quintessentially Argentine aesthetic and superb service.  An adobe façade gives way to cool stone floors and white washed walls draped with colorful hand-woven rugs and gaucho saddles and hats.  Baskets of bright red chili peppers dried in the sun rest lazily atop rustic wooden furniture.

The friendly and attentive staff prepares lavish three course dinners of regional favorites like beef filet and ossobuco paired with excellent local wines.  Guests with a fondness for sweets will swoon over the homemade cakes and cookies served for afternoon merienda and breakfast.  A swimming pool, airy living room with adjoining outdoor seating area and individual patio for each guest room provide ample opportunities for relaxation while staring at the mountains that surround the estate.

Finca Valentina, Salta, Argentina

Finca Valentina, Salta, ArgentinaFinca Valentina, Salta, Argentina

2) Finca La Paya, Cachi, Argentina

In the foothills of the snow covered Nevado de Cachi mountains, this nineteenth century farmhouse built upon the ruins on an important Inca settlement evokes an earlier era.  The cozy and dimly lit interior of low ceilings and exposed stone walls adorned with religious paintings conjures images of poncho-wearing gauchos who likely passed through here 100 years earlier.

A long veranda, known as galerias, wraps around the house and faces the dramatic mountains and river valley that sit on the hotel’s property, complete with a vineyard and walnut orchard.  Activities include lounging by the swimming pool and hiking into the nearby mountains.  The owner’s daughter, Virginia, is a wonderful host and source of information regarding history and culture of the region.  Though simpler than some of the boutique options in the area, Finca La Paya is exceptionally comfortable and stands out for its amazing value (about US $50 for a double room with breakfast included).

Finca La Paya, Cachi, ArgentinaFinca La Paya, Cachi, Argentina

Where I Wish I Had Stayed

 My principal regret during my trip to Northern Argentina was not reserving at least two nights for my stay in the town of Cafayate, about three hours south of Salta.   Cafayate offers world-class vineyards and spas and is thus the ideal place to rest for a few days amidst a hectic sightseeing tour of the Calchaqui Valley.  If money were no object, I would no doubt stay at the opulent Patios de Cafayate, which I was told by a guide is so enchanting that guests frequently miss flights home to be able to prolong their stay.

On a moderate budget, however, I would have happily stayed at Casa de la Bodega, a boutique hotel and vineyard which boasts the extraordinary perk of being located among the mesmerizing rock formations of the Quebrada de las Conchas.

Another regret was not visiting San Lorenzo, a suburb of Salta known for its lush beauty and hiking paths.  I could have gone for the day or stayed at the affordable and highly recommended Selva Montana.

 

On hotels

There is a certain category of hotels that thrills me.  These hotels are not luxurious in a conventional sense.  Nor are they easy to find.  But the challenge of identifying them and the reward of staying in one is enormously satisfying.

The hotels to which I’m referring are small and unique and offer maximum comfort in a way that responds to the natural environment in which they are situated.  Ocean breezes and ceiling fans replace air conditioning.  Local foods are served in lieu of continental style buffets. The scenery is stunning, the service impeccable and you as a guest are made to feel so at ease that you could happily melt into your surroundings and never leave.  These are hotels where the experience in itself is a destination.

One of the goals of this blog is to introduce you to such rare and wondrous hotels, especially those that are reasonably priced.  Here is one of my favorites, located on Point Reyes National Seashore, about 45 minutes outside of San Francisco:

Osprey Peak Bed & Breakfast, Inverness, California

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The Osprey Peak Bed & Breakfast is a tiny inn with only two guest rooms hidden deep in the wooded hills that surround the coastal town of Inverness, California in Point Reyes National Seashore.  Do not let the term “bed and breakfast” deter you.  You need not fear faded floral wallpaper, musty bed sheets or outdated bathrooms at this bed and breakfast.

From the first moment you enter Osprey Peak, your senses will be overcome by the serenity and beauty that surrounds you.  The dominant aesthetic is Japanese.  The exterior is meant to evoke a Japanese style farmhouse with its distinctive sloping roof, while sliding doors and “ikebana” flower arrangements grace the interior.  Every room, from the two guest rooms to the common breakfast area with an adjoining deck, is immaculate and harmonizes seamlessly with the views of the forest and mountains beyond.

The service is also impeccable.  The innkeepers, David Herbst and Nancy Beck, anticipate every need of their guests, leaving a jug of water, Japanese robes and good reading lamps in each room, and preparing a personalized breakfast that is the pinnacle of the Osprey Peak experience.  David and Nancy ask guests to make their own breakfast selection from an elaborate menu that includes fresh ingredients from the farms, bakers, cheese makers and other artisan producers of the Point Reyes area.  A typical breakfast could include a morning bun from the enormously popular Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes Station, yogurt from Strauss Family Creamery in Petaluma, fresh brie from Marin French Cheese Company and various fruits from local farms.

Finally, Osprey Peak offers an excellent value.  Rooms are priced at $195 every night except for Saturday (when the price goes up to $225) and there is never a two-night minimum.  This is one bed and breakfast where I will happily stay anytime.

Virginia studying Osprey Peak's extensive breakfast menu

Virginia studying Osprey Peak’s extensive breakfast menu