Inside the most historic luxury hotel in Cartagena, Colombia

Travel to Colombia from the U.S. has boomed in recent years, facilitated by a number of direct routes from several major U.S. airports to both Bogota and Cartagena. And many hotel groups are expanding their footprint in the region as a result. Sofitel recently both renovated one of its existing properties, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, and opened the doors to a new one, Sofitel Barú Calablanca Beach Resort.

The Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is considered by many to be one of the most iconic and historic properties in Cartagena. And many events that took place at the building where the Sofitel Santa Clara resides now had a direct effect over the city in the last 400 years. Also a popular frequent stay among royals and celebrities, the historic hotel has evolved to meet the modern needs of travelers, most clearly through the recent renovation of 25 guest rooms.

The Legend suite at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara

Courtesy of Sofitel

When the building was first constructed and founded as a convent in 1621, Cartagena was a much different city than the one travelers visit today—even the old city popular with tourists. The stone walls that surround the old city did not exist in those times, and weren’t built for at least another 90 years. So in the earliest days of the city, being right on the coast, the convent was only protected by the walls surrounding the property, and often faced the brunt of attacking pirates searching for gold and the treasures that the Spanish already looted from other communities and were subsequently put into storage in Cartagena before being shipped back to Spain.

When architects visited the site the restore the building and turn it into a hotel in the 1990s, they found dozens of cannonballs in the former backyard (which is where the swimming pool is now). The hotel still uses these cannonballs, and guests might spot them at various points around the property, often holding open doors and windows.

The floors were restored very similarly to the original in the convent as well the walls, columns, and most of the ceilings. (Wooden ceilings, especially, are usually the first architectural details to become damaged when abandoned). But the ceiling above the lobby when guests first enter is the only one with the original wood, which can be spotted with an inscription dated to 1788.

Nearly all of the decorative furniture and artwork (i.e. desks, chairs, Catholic artwork) around the hotel, outside of the 125 total guest rooms, were discovered on the property during the building’s restoration. One example is a wooden statue, regarded by many historians as unusual given its artistic style and lack of clothing, constructed in the image of Santa Clara de Asís (St. Clare of Assisi), the founder of the Catholic order to which the nuns belonged. (There are some pieces of furniture that were taken from other properties around the city, but were still from the colonial period.)

But the main challenge for the architects was to restore the original sense of the convent. They found a construction over another (and another over another) because this place was not only a convent, but it was also a jail, a military fortress, and most recently, a hospital, which was abandoned for several years before the hotel restoration.

And because photography obviously didn’t exist during the time the building was a convent (for roughly 240 years), there is no visual for comparison—only studies of the nuns’ lifestyle. That’s the only basis current researchers have about the daily lives of the nuns, especially given that they were cloistered, so there is no way to be 100% sure everything that happened within those walls between the mid-17th to mid-19th century.

On the terrace with the Amaral suite at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara.

Courtesy of Sofitel

The nuns who lived in the convent were cloistered, meaning they couldn’t be seen by others. Thus, there were a number of architectural tricks, so to speak, to ensure anonymity. For example, the windows were constructed higher than the average height of a woman at that time, allowing sunlight to enter but preventing the women from being able to look outside. Additionally, the hotel does not have any original balconies facing outside—only internally.

One floor down from the lobby, there is a basement with a series of tunnels, which now hosts offices for the hotel sales department and the parking lot. But when it was a convent, that is where the nuns would go to hide in the case of pirate invasions, which during those times was frequent to the point of normality.

El Coro, the lounge bar—where many guests can come for a cocktail in the early evening, enjoy live music on weekends, or even watch a soccer match during the middle of the day—had a previously life as the convent chapel. Guests can even get a glimpse of the crypt right below the bar through an illuminated, though blocked off, stairwell. (Another local fun fact: The crypt also has a significant role in the novel Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who has used many sites within Cartagena’s old city for settings in his books.)

The door in the bar that opens to the street, through where patrons who aren’t hotel guests can enter, has seen a lot of action—including an escape of several nuns during a local military invasion as well the arrival of French pirates, which prompted most religious groups (including the nuns) as well as academic and political figures to take refuge in another town several hours away for at least a year. Upon their return, the nuns found the convent looted as well as mostly destroyed. Several years later, Cartagena was rebuilt and more prepared for foreign attacks, including the thwarting of an attempted English invasion.

Right next to the hotel bar is the 1621 Restaurant, named for the building’s origin, which offers elevated fine dining with wine pairings in the evening. Guests should also get a look at the wine room, where they can book tastings with the hotel’s sommelier for both tastings of wines from South America as well as rums made in Colombia. But in the convent era, it’s safe to say that this area wasn’t as glamorous. Yes, it was also a dining room back then for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—but all meals were consumed in total silence. And today’s wine cellar was then the private dining room for the mother superior. (And the kitchen just across the courtyard is still a kitchen today, but now for the restaurant where guests can truly enjoy breakfast, lunch, and either alfresco or inside the comfort of the cool air conditioning—all while talking as much as they like.

The El Claustro restaurant at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara.

Courtesy of Sofitel

Today, sleeping standards at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara are as luxurious as it gets, with plush bedding and comforters (and very strong air conditioning) across its TK guestrooms and TK suites. Not so, unfortunately, for the nuns who lived here hundreds of years ago. They slept in one giant dormitory with several entrances, and each nun had her own bed. But the mother superior, the nun in charge of all the others within the convent, had a bed one foot higher than the other beds in the dormitory so that she could have a wide view of the entire room. Numbers varied over the years, but the convent had anywhere between 100 and 200 nuns at any given time in the convent’s history. The spot where the mother superior had her sleeping arrangements is now a duplex suite, which is often popular with bridal parties for two reasons. One is the historical significance to the room. The other is that it’s right next to the church—usually the site of the wedding—so only that guest suite is privy to the loud noises coming from the venue.

Inside a junior suite at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara.

Courtesy of Sofitel

The nuns resided at the convent in Cartagena’s old city from 1621 to 1841. Then came a new political power in Colombia, and the new administration at that time did not favor the Catholic Church, using a law already in use in Mexico to expropriate the properties of the Catholic Church. Basically, if the Catholic Church could not prove that they bought the property, the government took it back. And as the convent was not bought by the Catholic Church (instead funded by a wealthy local noblewoman named Catalina de Cabrera), the nuns were forced out. Most of them moved to Havana, Cuba, where they started a new convent. But some of them moved to Turbaco, approximately seven miles away from Cartagena, where the order still resides today.

From that point on, the building had a tumultuous history, starting off as a military fortress that hosted a jail and also served as an artillery to store weapons. Over two decades later, the government built a hospital in the backyard where the pool area is now, with the surgery right in the middle, approximately where the poolside bar serving pisco sours and mojitos is now. (And the site where the So Well wellness spa, showcasing popular luxury French skin care brand Sisley products, is today used to be the morgue, truly giving new meaning to feeling revived after a facial or massage.)

The structure where most of the guest rooms are today are part of the building constructed for the hospital, which only had three floor. But looking at the building now, it’s clear there are five floors. That is because the hotel architects took advantage of the extremely high ceilings during the hospital era, redesigning the building to add two more floors.

The Botero presidential suite at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara.

Courtesy of Sofitel

One luxury suite that does retain very high ceilings is one in the original building that overlooks the pool: the Botero Suite. Essentially the hotel’s presidential suite, the suite includes a master bedroom, a living area, a kitchenette, a full bathroom, and a hallway bathroom. The room is especially significant as it was designed by the lauded Colombian artist Francisco Botero himself along with his daughter Lina Botero. (Although most of the paintings in the room are approved replicas of his work.)

The Sofitel Barú Calablanca Beach Resort is located on the eastern part of the island of Barú, a 20-45 minute trip from Cartagena by boat.

Courtesy of Sofitel

Following the hotel’s restoration from 1990 to 1994, the hotel opened as the Sofitel Santa Clara. It has since been rebranded as the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara given the building’s historical significance. There are only five other Sofitel Legend properties—all housed in historic buildings—around the world: the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi in Vietnam; the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract in Aswan, Egypt; the Sofitel Legend People’s Grand Xian in China; the Sofitel Legend The Grand in Amsterdam; and the Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo in Panama City, which will open next year.

Inside a superior guest room at the Sofitel Barú Calablanca beach resort.

Courtesy of Sofitel

Sofitel’s newest property in the Cartagena area, the Calablanca beach resort on the island of Barú, is a stark contrast to the Santa Clara, offering a much different but equally luxurious experience.

To start, the new beachfront property on the Isla de Barú is only a year old. And while it is possible to get there by land (a 90-minute drive from the city), the best way to get there is by sea: either a 45-minute catamaran ride or a 20-minute speedboat ride, the latter of which is only available on weekends. But Sofitel can arrange transport between the two properties, including rides to and from the marina, streamlining the voyage for guests.

A glimpse at La Pergola, the rooftop bar at the Sofitel Barú Calablanca beach resort.

Courtesy of Sofitel

One important uniformity across all of the 187 rooms and suites is that each offers a panoramic view of the Caribbean sea. And all accommodations come with a deluxe bathroom (some with custom bathtubs and a jacuzzi), HDTVs, Bose SoundDocks, Nespresso coffee machines, L’Occitane toiletries, Sofitel’s signature mattresses and bedding, air conditioning, and high-speed Wi-Fi across the property. Beach chairs and umbrellas are setup not only all across the beach but also at several pools on multiple levels, including both pools designated for families and adults-only.

There are three restaurants onsite, including two indoors with air conditioning. Bahia, an open air restaurant with plenty of shade and fans, serves local favorite dishes and cocktails. Humo is a Peruvian-Japanese concept open for dinner, serving twists on Japanese dishes with Peruvian (but also Colombian) twists and flavors. And the hotel’s eponymous restaurant, Calablanca, is an all-day affair, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Additional amenities include the wellness spa, a cutting edge fitness center, and a boutique with clothing by local designers.

The Sofitel Barú Calablanca beach resort at sunrise.

Courtesy of Sofitel

Starting rates at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara range from $340 per night for a classic guest room to $2,380 per night for the Botero presidential suite. Rates for the Sofitel Barú Calablanca range from $285 per night for a superior guest room to $2,000 per night for the presidential suite.

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