It sounds like an unusual property: a Chinese and Indian decorated Spanish colonial home tucked in a small neighborhood in Cartegena. Casa El Carretero, found in the local's neighborhood of Getsemani, is an unusually perfect boutique hotel. I started my recent trip throughout South America in Cartegena, one of Columbia's most enchanting cities, and made Casa El Carretero my first hotel. It was a marvelous start to a long trip, and here are a few reasons why:
The home: Originally, Casa El Carretero was going to be a vacation estate of its humble owner, Carlos. He was soon convinced by friends and family to remodel the traditional Spanish home into a boutique hotel. The home was literally a ruin when Carlos purchased it in 2005. A thorough renovation restored the property’s former grandeur, with added touches such as a rooftop pool and spacious modern kitchen. Carlos also incorporated his personal collection of originalIndonesian and Chinese artworks. Somehow, it all works impressively well. I loved the rich touches of the Asian reds and gold motifs alongside the smooth cream-colored stucco walls where flowering vines clung. My favorite area was undoubtedly the pool deck. The slim pool glimmered with royal blue tiling and an inlaid deck and offered stunning views of the cityscape barely shrouded by white linen curtains. Several afternoons were spent on this deck, enjoying fresh fruit juice, a good book, and the hum of the neighborhood below.
Every morning, my guest and I lingered at the communal dining table for a traditional (or Continental, if desired) breakfast prepared by Carlos' sweet staff. It was a delight to see our Arepas de Huevos (a Columbian favorite) made just a few feet away in the open kitchen. One morning I was sipping freshly brewed Colombiano coffee and listening to the faint but always present salsa music from the streets of the city and thought, "now I feel like I'm home in Cartegena."
The area: Most of the largest and traditional hotels of Cartegena are found within the old walled city. Although exceedingly charming in its architecture and cobble stone streets, much of the walled area is rampant with tourists and increasingly, tourist attractions such as emerald stores. TheGetsemaní area, just a 10 minute walk from the old walled city, brims with locals' vibrant dance halls, ice cream parlors, and quaint restaurants. At night, dozens of people, from youngsters to elders, linger in the plazas, playing cards and snacking on vendors' fried arepas or empandas. Cafe Havana, quite the dancers' spot until the sunrise hours, was but 3 blocks fromCasa El Carretero. A daytime favorite of mine wasCasa Pájaro y Emilio Hernández, a half-art, half-wine bar with great shaved ice drinks. I've always preferred to live like a local while traveling, rather than being another obvious tourist. Casa El Carretero's location provides the ideal opportunity to feel local.
The guide: Unrelated to Casa El Carretero but imperative to gaining a local's view of Cartegena and its rich roots is a tour with Marelvy Peña-Hall. Marelvy runs a tour company, Tours in Cartagena, where she personally escorts visitors around the city and beyond. She met my guest and I at our hotel, and we were off on foot for several hours. I can't remember a better tour guide I've ever had. Warm and intellectual, Marelvy is a superb story-teller and clearly highly regarded by locals. Everywhere we ventured, people would call out her name, waved and greeted us just as kindly. I quickly understood why she was such a coveted guide for tourists. Fluent in French, English, and Spanish, it was easy to gain the inside track to stores, restaurants, clubs, or deals, one would want.
She told us about historical landmarks, but what I particularly liked were her updates of the current culture, outlooks, and going-ons. Should the street vendors still be able to flaunt their goods on the sidewalks? Will the poor still be able to remain in the old city, or be pushed out by the rich foreigners seizing all the dilapidated real estate for private homes? A native of Columbia and well traveled in Europe and America, Marvely's grasp on current affairs and outlooks were worldly and insightful-one could not flip through this knowledge in a tourist guide. We loved her so much that we insisted on taking Marelvy to dinner.