The Convent of Santa Clara inside Cartagena’s walled city on the coast of the Caribbean Sea was built in 1621. To this day it remains an important historic landmark with guides pointing to the former convent during the city’s tour.
But in the 21st century, the Santa Clara is no longer famous for the devoted nuns who spend their days isolated from the rest of the world praying for salvation – it is the home of the Sofitel Legend Hotel Santa Clara, known as one of the most luxurious and desirable places to stay in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
The hotel opened its doors in 1995 after four years of rebuilding and restoration works during which an abandoned and almost ruined building had been converted into a glamorous hotel bursting with extravagance, history and magical stories.
I arrived at Hotel Santa Clara in a taxi (pick-up truck to be exact) from Mompox, a town whose old centre, like Cartagena’s, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Covered in dust, tired and hungry after a six hour journey on mostly unpaved roads, I stepped into what looked and smelled like paradise on Earth.
Every employee at the Sofitel Hotel Santa Clara was dressed in white and was very, very beautiful. Exotic tropical trees and plants in the courtyard and colonial style fans were shielding the guests from the sun and equatorial heat.
Where once was Clarisas’ vegetable garden, now stood the biggest outdoor swimming pool in Cartagena’s historical centre where lots of glamorous people were sunbathing and drinking cocktails.
The original tiny windows in the wall through which the nuns were whispering their confessions and communicating with the outside world remain to this day, as does the 17th century well and a former chapel.
I could write about the beauty of the view from my balcony, the comfort of the bed, the quality of the spa services and the pleasure of the hot shower (this, it turned out, is a luxury in Cartagena), but the real charm of the hotel is its history, anecdotes and stories; and the way the colonial, republican and the modern eras are blended into one unique experience.
The Santa Clara Convent served as a monastery for 240 years and was witness to invasions and sieges, scandals, natural disasters and is the origin of many legends.
The house of probably the most famous Colombian of all times (Pablo Escobar excluded) – writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez is next door. The crypts of Santa Clara inspired the great author to write one of his brilliant novels, “Of Love and Other Demons”.
The writer, who worked as a journalist in Cartagena, apparently visited the burial crypts of Santa Clara when workers were removing the remains.
In the book’s preface he claims that when the stone had been shattered by the pickaxe, ‘hair the intense colour of the copper spilled out of the crypt’… but I wouldn’t want to spoil the pleasure of reading that story if you haven’t done so.
Nowadays visitors can steal a look into the crypt almost at any time – it is located in the middle of a beautiful colonial style bar that serves excellent Mojitos. But if the crypts and mysterious remains are a bit morbid for you, the hotel offers a calming experience at a very modern and romantic restaurant called ‘1621’.
That year in the same place, the nuns’ dining room was built – today the restaurant is far from a modest dining experience, where Caribbean delicacies are fused with Old World influences by Head Chef Isabelle Alexandre.
On the night of my stay at Hotel Santa Clara a glamorous and unusual dinner was taking place in the former chapel – huge red ribbons were hanging under the ceiling, waiters served food and drink dressed as monks and Gregorian chants entertained the lucky guests.
Another big dinner was taking place outside by the swimming pool under the stars and the light of candles.
When I wanted to enjoy the views of Cartagena and the breeze from the sea, I just had to step through its front door, walk a few minutes and get onto the defensive wall to admire the beauty and pleasures of this charming city or just get lost in the narrow streets of the old town and thank fate I wasn’t born during the days of inquisition and slavery.
In colonial times Cartagena was one of the most important Spanish ports and a key gateway to South America. Conquistadors and slaves were coming in; gold, coffee and other continents’ treasures were sailing out.
It was sieged by pirates numerous times, most famously by Sir Francis Drake, who captured the city. The Englishman not only got the ransom of millions of pesos for not burning it down, but also helped himself to some jewellery, the city’s bells and artillery pieces.
Cartagena’s churches, squares, monasteries and houses are soaked in history, its weather is perfect for enjoying the sunshine and its restaurants and cafes are best for Caribbean music and cuisine.
There aren’t that many places in this world where a toucan steals your croissant from the breakfast table, Cuban cigars are smoked on the terraces, excellent Ceviche and Mojitos are served on every corner and horse-drawn carriages transport people dressed in white from one gorgeous part of town to another….
So if you want to immerse yourself in history and luxury – the Sofitel Legend Hotel Santa Clara is the place to have it all.