Cartagena’s Sofitel Santa Clara is one of the two most iconic religious-history luxury hotels in the whole of South America, says the gal. Built 1621 by Doña Catalina de Cabrera for her Clarisa nuns, it is today a sanctuary for anyone seeking genuine experiences. Now is the time to visit: KLM starts direct flights from Amsterdam this May, and US and South American airlift is now excellent. Ask to be picked up from the airport in one of the hotel’s Mercedes Benz limousines and you are offered local one-bite delicacies, and water with ribbon-wrapped glasses, on route. You instantly get a flavour of Cartagena as you pass its old town’s multi-coloured buildings.
The 123-room hotel is in the Barrio San Diego part of the old town. You are greeted by ambassadors (employees), in pristine uniforms designed by Lina Cantillo deliberately to evoke a feeling of former times – note white embroidery on some sleeves, as Doña Catalina and her ladies had, four centuries ago. Every one of the 320 ambassadors, by the way, has been professionally trained in story-telling and they are all keen to share history, real and accurate. They will also share details of the hotel’s inner courtyard, where now all the trees and lush undergrowth are indigenous to the area – any invasive species was painstakingly rooted out by legendary local horticulturalist Gloria Escobar.
Another fascinating story here is that of Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero (the Presidential Suite named in his honour was decorated by his daughter Lina Botero). Another legendary suite is called after artists Olga and Jim Amaral – Olga Amaral’s stunningly shimmering gold El Sol hanging highlights the hotel’s main lobby. The 1,900 sq ft Amaral Suite has a 1,100 sq ft terrace. There are so many big names associated with the ‘Santa Clara’: at this year’s literary HAY Festival, January 26-29, 2017, the hotel is bringing over French neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik, whose theory of resilience in human behaviour is incredibly well suited to the current and much lauded political peace initiative in beautiful Colombia.
I was only able to spend a quick lunch back at this very special luxury hotel but, whenever I am talking with its passionate GM, Richard Launay, it is always a case of quality being much more valuable than quantity. There was time for him to explain the significance of brightly-coloured hats, on a wall for display, to the right here, and on a table for party guests to pick up (see the top of this story). And while he shared details of the fortnightly two-hour rumba therapy that he shares with his ambassadors, we both managed to do justice to a memorable lunch of ceviche followed by salad, and yes, extra avocado please.