The clear liquid hit the back of my throat like a bullet, rendering me momentarily speechless. I looked up and through my watering eyes saw the smiling face of Noah, bartender at El Barón who was taking us through his rum and cigar tasting masterclass at the Santa Teresa hotel in Cartagena. ‘Strong, eh?’ he said. Lost for words and my oesophagus burning, I could only nod weakly, whilst assembled friends looked on and laughed. Lesson learned: when distilling your own rum, take baby sips of the product when it’s fresh out your makeshift tabletop still. Luckily, the magic mixology man’s shortlist of tipples for us to taste were altogether more palatable and when matched with a choice of Colombian or Cuban cigars, made for a spectacular sundowner. Not a bad start to a Tuesday night.
But that’s par for the course when it comes to life in Cartagena, the colonial city perched on Colombia’s northern coastline. A heady mix of Latin flair and chilled Caribbean vibes, the city runs on its own special variety of clockwork, which might not quite equate to GMT briskness, but is no less enchanting for that. In fact, time becomes somehow irrelevant, unless used as a marker to kick-off another indulgence. It was a refreshing change from the stereotypes that one is confronted with when Colombia crops up in conversation – no thanks to the popularity of Narcos on Netflix. Cartagena was a sea of sights and sounds and, well, sea, mixed with history, dance and some fine food and drink. Which brings me back to the rum.
When one thinks of Colombia’s most famous exports, rum and cigars rarely feature. But the five that passed our lips, which hailed from all over the country, were deliciously distinctive. And the cigars proved more than a match for their Cuban cousins, too. The most famous export brand is Dictador and the same company has also brought out a gin – named Colombia – which is distributed overseas. Light and refreshing, it almost bears to be drunk neat, but fearful that such consumption would hinder my salsa moves later on in the night, I mixed it with tonic as I lazed by the hotel’s rooftop pool. I also drank in the unbeatable panorama: historical church spires punctuating the rooftops of the Old Town to my right and the towering skyscrapers of the new part of the city looming to my left, whilst being serenaded by the gentle roar of the waves hitting the shore. I could get used to this. Especially in February, when it’s sleeting in London.
The Santa Teresa from Hoteles Charleston is a landmark in the city’s walled Old Town, its ochre exterior unmissable and its reputation as ‘the’ place to stay as secure as its historical foundations, which date back to the arrival of Spanish conquistadores in the mid-16th Century. Our charming hostess, Carmen, told us that it used to be a convent and, as a group of three chaps, I can’t pretend that there wasn’t something delightfully decadent about following in the footsteps of 18th century nuns as we eyed up the locals and sipped on a never-ending stream of cocktails. Thankfully any sense of austerity or privation has been shaken off like a bad nun’s habit. The hotel is all about offering guests luxury, comfort and the very best of Colombian culture, starting with the food and drink, which was abundant. From platters of exotic fruits and a veritable rainbow of juices at breakfast – Colombia’s equatorial location means that it produces a host of fruits that don’t exist elsewhere in the world – to tasting menus that put a fine-dining twist on local dishes like the Posta Cartagenera, and some of the largest gin and tonics I’ve ever seen, served in their private plaza (the only one of its kind in the city). Colombian celebrity chef Harry Sasson also has his eponymous restaurant within the hotel – his only outside of the capital city Bogotá – with a menu that puts a tasty Mediterranean twist on traditional indigenous ingredients.
And when the hustle and bustle of the city gets too much, there’s always the nearby Rosario Islands to escape to. We chartered a speedboat which came with a fully stocked bar, but there are all manner of crafts competing for customers from tiny little launches packed to the gills with punters right through to large yachts decked with bikini-clad examples of Colombia’s famous beauty queens. Not that you will find it easy to notice them as you tear through the waves on an adrenaline-fuelled adventure that sees the boat soar out of the water for a few seconds before crashing back with a reassuring thudding splash. Great fun and no better way to blow away the cobwebs of a tequila-based hangover from the night before.
The white sand, clear blue warm waters might sound like a Caribbean cliché, but there is something truly special about mooring up and jumping overboard to swim with fish that make Nemo and his pals look monochromatic. We then headed to a private island for lunch. Las Aguas is hilly and from our mooring point – where we were met with more liquid refreshments – we climbed a handful of steps to the summit with its infinity pool and expansive view of the sea and neighbouring islands. Guests at the Santa Teresa get first dibs on the handful of exquisitely appointed beach huts and for the ultimate island escape, believe me, it’s not to be missed.
Back on terra firma, we toasted our trip with shots of the local firewater called Aguardiente, a fierce anis which burns almost as much as the 140 proof rum. As I cracked out my pigeon Spanish, honed over the last seven days – and including the phrase ‘as cold as a wedding dress’ and a toast that involves clenching one’s asshole – I looked around the group and realised how much I’d been able to debunk the myths about Colombia.
Far from being a land of brooding moustachioed narcos, the warmth of the welcome wherever we went – regardless of the language barrier – will probably be one of my most enduring memories. Everyone who crossed our path, from the smiling door men of the Santa Teresa to hip-hop rapping buskers in the street, were relentlessly cheerful. And an endearing sense of national pride (of the non-UKIP variety) runs like a leitmotif through the hotel – it’s history and heritage is recounted with alacrity and they are set on launching a new experiential programme for international visitors to truly immerse them in the country’s culture. Cooking classes, cocktails, tours and excursions – they even have a playlist of quintessentially Colombian music on Spotify that can be streamed via the in-room ipads.
Colombia is fast becoming the new ‘capital of cool’ for travellers – due in large part to the much-feted signing of the FARC peace accord at the end of 2016. Cartagena was never plagued by problems during Colombia’s ‘Troubles’, but one senses that nonetheless it will be sharing in the renaissance of the country. And I for one think that will be no bad thing.
For more information on the Santa Teresa from Hoteles Charleston visit hotelcharlestonsantateresa.com