Forget Rio: Colombia is the hottest new South American destination, offering secluded white sandy beaches, colonial architecture and amazing nightlife. It’s also one of the most progressive countries south of the border, with same-sex couples beginning to tie the knot in September 2013.
For a taste of what Colombia truly has to offer, we’ve mapped out a 12-day itinerary that hops from Cartagena to Medellin and on to Santa Marta.
Grupo Maximo Agency is a one-stop shop for everything Colombia and specifically Cartagena. Spend a day touring the Old City or if you are the adventurous type, contact Cartagena Divers for some excellent scuba diving out at sea. Jump on a boat and zip out to Baru Island for the day if you’re searching for white sands and aquamarine, Caribbean waters.
Don’t miss a drive up to La Popa Monastery for a bird’s eye view of all of Cartagena. In the walled Old City, stroll through the shops and cafes as you make your way to Plaza Santa Domingo, easily found by locating the reclining female Botero sculpture in the southern corner. Need VIP access to the hottest clubs in town? Grupo Maximo Agency can hook you up with live music at Club Havana or easy access to one of the many discotheques in town like Cinema on Calle Arsenal or Studio 54 on Calle Larga.
For the fashion set, Tcherassi Hotel + Spa offers a sleek interior off the bustling streets of the Old City of Cartagena. The style of Silvia Tcherassi (the hotel’s Miami-based owner and famous Latin American fashion designer) touches each corner of this gem. Stop by for dinner or a drink but if you can, try to spend a few nights. Escape the tropical humidity on the roof where you’ll find a small pool that’s perfect for a cool dip. The rooms are large with vaulted ceilings and the bathrooms feature walk-in glass showers with fantastic rainfall shower heads.
Casa La Fe is ideally located on Plaza Fernandez de Madrid in the heart of Cartagena, offering a calm and relaxed atmosphere but with the convenience of the town’s antiquities and restaurants on the doorstep. The building dates from the Republican era and was restored to its former elegance by the current owners in 2005.
For the best roof pool in Cartagena, go straight to La Passion. Spend the afternoon lounging on poolside daybeds while sipping piña coladas as sounds of classical piano trickle over the walls from the ballet school next door. Few hotels have such character as La Passion, not to mention such an incredibly friendly staff and a rooftop breakfast to set your day on the right path.
Built within the walls of a former 17th century mansion, Casa Pestagua is a work of art. The third floor “penthouse” is a luxurious retreat and features a private roof Jacuzzi with ocean views of the sunset. If you are looking for a great honeymoon, it doesn’t get more romantic than this. The suite itself is massive with 20-foot exposed beam ceilings. The bathroom is draped in white marble with a walk-in shower recessed into the floor that takes up an entire side of the room. Stand under a deluge of water and feel like a Roman emperor.
If the city heat gets to you, book a few nights atKarmairi Hotel Spa which is a 20 minutes drive east of the old town. Enjoy the luxuries of being on your own private beach, right outside the city. This boutique hotel features an open air restaurant that spills out to a wide beach. Recline at the pool before your spa treatment amongst the palm trees then dine at night under the stars with the ocean lapping upon the shore. Karmairi is the perfect escape from the Cartagena scene for a couple of nights. Nothing beats a morning jog along miles of empty beach.
Medellin or “The City of Eternal Spring” sits amongst the Andes in a valley surrounded by peaks. Graced with a temperate climate, the city is a wonderful change from the humidity of the coast. Once plagued with crime, Medellin has experienced a renaissance of sorts in recent years and the world is starting to notice. In March of 2013 the city was named the most “Innovative City of the Year” in the Wall Street Journal, beating out both New York City and Tel Aviv. Don’t miss a stroll around Botero Plaza downtown or a vernacular ride up to Parque Arvi. The city’s Metro (or subway system) is clean, convenient and easy to use.
Nestled on a hillside in the fashionable neighborhood of Poblado, The Charlee Lifestyle Hotel feels like a touch of New York chic in the heart of the Andes. Rooms feature sliding glass walls that open up to huge balconies overlooking the entire city of Medellin. The hotel’s gym takes over the top two floors and membership is free for hotel guests. Check out the scene at the gym around 6p daily for a glance into the world of Medellin’s famed beautiful women and men. At night, the rooftop turns into the club Envy, one of many all night parties in the neighborhood.
A few blocks from The Charlee is Art Hotel, also in Poblado. With a dark lobby splashed with vibrant furniture and artwork, this industrial space boasts a stunning décor with a fabulous wine bar and a spa. Being steps from the nightlife and restaurants of Poblado make Art Hotel an excellent option for a few nights in Medellin.
For an evening of fine dining, reserve a table at El Cielo, just a couple blocks from The Charlee Hotel. In an elegant, intimate atmosphere experience the full “quince momentos” menu… 15 Moments that you will be talking about for weeks. This is experiential dining at its best, with each sense teased through dinner starting with the rose scented hand “clay” at the beginning of the meal to the martinis that bubble in a haze of liquid nitrogen fog and the crackle of the explosive dessert.
Aside from nightlife and dining, do not leave Medellin without exploring the nature that surrounds the city. Burrotek Tours leads day trips into the mountains on horseback as well as trips outside of the city limits to nearby Guatape.
After a couple of hours on a horse, lunch is served overlooking the city and if you’re lucky, it will be homemade pork and chicken tamales!
Santa Marta & Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona
Santa Marta is South America’s oldest surviving city and the second most important colonial city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, after Cartagena. The seaside town offers fabulous restaurants, historic plazas and tons of bars and cafes. Though the actual beach in town is not fantastic, Santa Marta is a great jumping off point to reach the famed beaches within Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona as well as Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City). Right in the heart of Santa Marta there are several high-end boutique hotels that we highly recommend.
Casa Isabella is a stone’s throw from Parque de los Novios in the center of the Old City of Santa Marta. If you are lucky enough to book the penthouse you’ll enjoy a private roof jacuzzi that is spectacular. Rooms include wifi, complimentary iPads and Apple TV as well as restored furniture and handmade adornments. Breakfast is served outside, one floor up on an outdoor shaded deck. The staff is warm and friendly and hugely helpful in setting up any plans around town.
Casa de Leda is located closer to the shopping district and feels like an oasis in the heart of Santa Marta. The roof features open air dining and the huge, modern rooms feature vaulted ceilings, tons of natural light and all the amenities of a luxury resort. First owned by a wealthy family of Santa Marta’s golden age, the original house where Casa de Leda sits dates back to the late 19th century. Escape the humid Caribbean air inside the hotel where the walls are lined with cascades of green vines and equipped with a cooling mist system. Historic Santa Marta Cathedral is steps from the hotel’s entrance. Flat screen TVs in every room have media players with music stations and video libraries.
Casa Verde is a small boutique accommodation that was originally built in the 1920s. It has recently been fully restored into a five-room hotel close to the vibrant downtown area that is the home to beautiful parks, restaurants and historic buildings. Inside the walls of Casa Verde there is a peaceful silence while right outside its walls are the bustling streets of Santa Marta.
There are several great options to dine in Santa Marta. On the edge of Parque de los Novios, try Ouzo for what many say is the best dinner in town. Try the grilled octopus appetizer, a favorite on the menu, or one of the thin crust pizzas cooked in the central brick oven. For lunch, hit Agave Azul for incredibly Mexican food. Order a fresh mango margarita and a steak taco that will knock your socks off!
A quick 45 minute taxi ride east from Santa Marta and you will find yourself outside one of the main entrances of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. Book a couple nights at Villa Maria for a room overlooking the mountains to the southwest and the ocean to the northeast. Walk through the hotel’s garden where the owners grow pineapples, avocados, oranges and bananas. If you cross the street and walk down a path through some palm trees you’ll find yourself on miles of untouched white sand. Be careful in the surf as these beaches are known to be quite treacherous at certain times of year. But definitely enjoy the solitude. For a $35 (US) entrance fee, spend a day inside Tayrona Park. By horseback you can reach secluded beaches that are only accessible by foot or horse path. Be warned that the trails are somewhat rocky so if you are not an experienced rider, consider walking.
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