In one of Latin America’s hottest cities, things are really looking up. The city’s steamy temperatures are almost a metaphor for the buzz surrounding this colorful town along Colombia’s Caribbean coastline.
Known formally as Cartagena de Indias, the city was originally settled in the 1500s by Spanish commander Pedro Heredia who gave the city the same name of his hometown Cartagena, Spain (today, an important port city for cruise ships in the southern Spanish region of Murcia). Cartagena de Indias would become a major port in its own right, and a center of growth during the Spanish empire’s rule of this region of the world.
During its tumultuous history, the city saw ups and downs thanks to its position as a principal trading port – which made it a target of pirates looking to plunder its riches – as well as its role as a center for the slave trade. But luckily, the city’s fortunes today take a decidedly more upbeat path.
Significant investments in security reform and trade regulation have improved Colombia’s reputation around the world. This allows the country’s secondary cities to share in the limelight with the capital, Bogotá, when it comes to luring visitors whether for business or pleasure.
The comparison between the Colombian city of Cartagena and its Spanish counterpart is notable. Both have striking colonial-era architecture, and both are burgeoning destinations for meetings and conventions. City leaders on both sides of the Atlantic quickly recognized the touristic importance of each destination and followed in the footsteps of other savvy leisure towns, looking to build their business base through infrastructure and service improvements.
And it’s working for both Cartagenas. Global events like the Summit of the Americas, the Latin American Economic Forum, and the Interpol General Assembly have all taken place in the Colombian city. It’s not just diplomatic events that are drawn to this UNESCO World Heritage Site, but corporate and commercial functions as well. The success of the city’s efforts have helped it reach the ninth spot in the latest ranking of Latin American cities by the International Congress and Convention Association.
Build It and They Will Come
With its walled city center packed with crisscrossing streets, each seemingly more picturesque than the last, building the hotels and conference facilities necessary to host large groups in Cartagena has presented quite a challenge. For this reason the compact city is quickly growing vertically rather than horizontally.
“In recent years, the skyline has started to look like Miami or Panama City, with lots of high-rise condo buildings filled with vacation buyers and investors from other parts of Colombia, as well as Venezuelans trying to put their money in a more stable place,” says Timothy Scott Leffel, editor of LuxuryLatinAmerica.com and an expert on the region.
Taxis are cheap, and walking distance between the beachfront or the historic colonial center and the commercial section of town is easy. Branching off from the historic center is the narrow stretch of land known as Bocagrande, the newer section of town where most of the beaches and their accompanying hotels are located.
At the very tip is the popular Hilton, an anchor of the city’s hotel industry for years thanks to its own sizeable convention center. The property is fresh from a remodel in its lobby area with new lighting and furnishings and guestroom accommodations. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide jaw-dropping views of the waterfront with little obstruction thanks to its location on the point, making it one of the most popular hotels for American visitors.
Thanks to a forward-thinking tax incentive by former President Alvaro Uribe, hotel construction that begins before the end of 2017 can receive a long-term exemption from taxes for hotel services. This has helped boost interest in the destination especially with international brand names.
Yet to open, but nearing the end of construction, are the new Hyatt Regency and Sheraton hotels, also situated along Bocagrande. Both modern towers will rise above the beachfront with a mix of guest rooms, private residences and large-scale meeting facilities to capture growing business demand.
In addition, a slew of other brands have their sights set on the city as they recognize the flourishing demand for luxury accommodations. A full-service Marriott and new AC by Marriott – one of Marriott’s new design-focused properties with its own Spanish roots – are set to open in the city by 2018.
New hotel openings lead to increased demand from tourists and business travelers alike, especially when they are linked to international names with the marketing power to help fuel interest in the city.
Where To Meet
With the growth of meeting spaces available, it comes as no surprise that building more hotel rooms has become a priority. Outside of the numerous hotel meeting venues, there is the modern Las Americas Convention Center, which is situated on the beachfront and only a short distance from hotels and the airport. With a capacity to host 3,600 attendees, it often does double duty with the Cartagena de Indias Convention Center in the old town. The latter can welcome as many as 4,000 conferees.
Casa 1537, a beautifully restored colonial mansion, offers another unique venue for gatherings of as many as 1,000.
Within the walled city, outdoor squares and small boutique properties have rooftop terraces perfect for small get-togethers. It’s common to pass wedding processions taking place on the steps of centuries-old churches adding to the town’s overall festive atmosphere.
“With the US economy doing well and the dollar maintaining strength against the Colombian peso, meetings and conventions in Cartagena can come with a lower end cost than comparable ones in dollar-denominated economies such as Costa Rica or Panama,” Scott points out.
Immersing Yourself in History
In the historic colonial center of town, visitors can opt to explore on foot or hop aboard one of the many horse and carriage tours that navigate the cobblestone streets. Cafes, shops and impromptu musical and dance performances surprise and delight visitors. Fresh fruit vendors, Colombian coffee shops and lively bars spill out into tree-lined squares which offer that all-important respite from the hot Caribbean sun.
It can be especially crowded when cruises are in port. But ships leave by the evening hours, which lets locals and overnighting tourists have the tasty restaurants and lively nightclubs to themselves.
There are numerous smaller boutique hotels, which have been converted from colonial houses into quaint inns that recreate the feeling of living in the old town. For visitors desiring a bigger hotel, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is a perennial favorite among those who want to bunk within the walled city. Its preservation of the colonial architecture makes this one of the most highly favored hotels in town.
Rafael Nuñez International Airport is named for the former president who’s perhaps best remembered for writing Colombia’s national anthem. This is the main point of entry for visitors to town. While compact, the airport is functional, but will soon be bursting at the seams. In addition, its lone runway often doubles as a taxiway meaning aircraft have to turn around and backtrack after landing, which limits aircraft movements during peak periods.
The airport – Colombia’s fourth largest – is only a few miles from town, meaning taxi rides are both brief and inexpensive. Links to the United States are limited to Delta flights a few times a week to Atlanta and low-fare carriers JetBlue and Spirit, which compete to Fort Lauderdale. JetBlue and Avianca also offer service to New York JFK. Increased nonstop airlift to the US could go a long way toward boosting the region’s tourism prospects although no new routes have been announced. Once more hotel projects are completed, that may happen quickly.
Luckily, there is plenty of competition from regional airlines like Avianca, Copa, and LATAM. In addition, Copa has announced plans to launch a low-fare airline named Wingo which will fly domestic routes from the city.
It’s not just the airport that is responsible for the rising tourism numbers to Cartagena. Cruise lines have increasingly added the city as a port of call thanks to government investment in improving the port facilities. While this influx of leisure guests lasts only one day at a time, it introduces the destination to enamored visitors who could likely find a return in their future, whether for work or play.
While the nation’s capital of Bogotá is the center of Colombia’s economy and government, Cartagena is often referred to as the jewel in the nation’s crown.
Just remember to bring some sunscreen.
By Ramsey Qubein