Portals to past in storied Cartagena
Cartagena, Colombia’s UNESCO World Heritage walled city and fortress, is a maze of narrow, cobbled streets and mysterious doorways. Behind each of the 16th-century facades, with their narrow overhanging balconies, lies many a story.
Behind one particularly imperious portal, emblazoned with brass amulets, hides the former home of English pirate-explorer Francis Drake, who resided there briefly after capturing this Caribbean port in 1586. Other doorways sit flush with the whitewashed walls, intriguing the observer with their own particular tales.
Such is the entrance to Alfiz Hotel Boutique. The solid timber door creaks eerily to admit me, revealing a sunlit, verdant courtyard completely isolated from the bustle of the street. In the oppressive April humidity, I find the sanctuary within is immediately cooler and calming.
The decor is reminiscent of Spanish Revival homes and manors found throughout Latin America, yet with restraint, plus many features of the original 300-year-old structure, such as exposed brickwork and an enclosed, Islamic-style archway known as an alfiz. This architectural nugget was discovered during the painstaking renovations and gave rise to the hotel’s name. In restoring the building, Colombian heritage architect Pedro Ibarra made generous use of locally sourced caracoli and guayacan timbers that, polished to a high sheen, enhance the exposed ceiling beams and bannisters.
To what degree the building now resembles its previous incarnations as a lair for the French merchantcum-smuggler Juan d’Anglade or 19th-century British consul George Burghalt Watts is left to the imagination. With just eight individually themed rooms, Alfiz Hotel can rightfully claim to be boutique and each chamber is decorated to reflect a chapter of Cartagena’s colourful history and its connection to the house. The names set the tone, with themes such as Conquest, the grand and spacious Republica suite, the ornate Viceroy and the nautical Pirate.
I’m apparently taken for a pious sort of fellow and am allocated a junior suite known as St Peter Claver. This quasi-chapel relates the saga of the selfless patron saint of slaves and comes complete with candlelit portrait of the soulful martyr, hung prominently so that I might venerate him while savouring a good Argentinian malbec.
The suites include Moorish references such as tasselled velvet upholstery, brass hanging lamps and candelabras sitting atop delicately inlaid faux antique furniture, plus quality reproduction art. Many of the items were recovered during the renovations while the introduced ones blend seamlessly. The voluminous guestroom bathtubs look big enough to welcome a battle-weary football team.
In historically rich Cartagena de Indias, the multiple heritage references in Alfiz Hotel’s structure and its embellishments help illuminate for this first-time visitor the significance of the 500-year-old citadel’s tumultuous past. Rich aspects of that heritage were revealed during the hotel’s restoration, described to me by manager Karl as “almost archeological” in scale. Numerous artefacts were unearthed as the “complete ruin” was slowly transformed to the compact stately home we see today. The haul included mundane household objects such as cutlery through to more dramatic discoveries like spent cannonballs and even a skeleton. I wonder if the soul of the departed still wanders the corridors of Alfiz Hotel and my inquiries to that effect are met with a non-committal twitch by Karl.
I’m assured, however, that despite the occasional instance of ghostly footsteps and items shifting apparently of their own accord, no one has reported wafting apparitions or any malevolent presence.
The library cum sitting room is something of a shrine to the late Colombian-born Nobel prize-winning author and novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, renowned for his politically critical works and magical realism novels. In the antique bookcase I thumb several well-read volumes, which guests are encouraged to borrow. Modern intrusions are not overlooked and all rooms have satellite TV, Wi-Fi, minibar and air-conditioning. The rooftop terrace contains an open-air Jacuzzi tub that guests can reserve for private use.
While there is no restaurant, a minimalist breakfast is served in the airy courtyard. Sliced citrus fruits and melon, fresh juices, toasted cereals, proper Colombian coffee and eggs anyhow are all that’s needed to sustain me in this tropical atmosphere. Alfiz Hotel, in its numerous incarnations, has sheltered many residents and been witness to myriad stories over the centuries. Garcia Marquez once wrote, “All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” He might well have been referring to Alfiz Hotel.
Roderick Eime was a guest of Alfiz Hotel Boutique and Movidas Journeys.
Alfiz Hotel Boutique in Cartagena, left; the pool, top; courtyard, above; and comfortable guestroom, below left