Cartagena’s ‘Old City’ Undergoing a Vibrant Rebirth
The Colombian neighborhood offers iconic Spanish-Colonial architecture and a robust nightlife
After decades of decline, the Colombian port city of Cartagena has roared back to life in recent years, beloved by both tourists from around the world and wealthy Colombians looking for a second home on the Caribbean Sea.
With a rich history dating hundreds of years to Spanish colonization in the 1500s, the walled “old city” at the Cartagena’s core, in particular, has become a must-see destination for tourists and a must-own real estate deal for well-to-do Colombians.
“It’s a dream of people to have a place in the old city,” said Paul Juan, a native Cartagenero and the owner of cartagenarealty.com. “The old city is getting fancier, more expensive and it’s a big hub for tourism.”
The area, which locals refer to as Centro Historico, or simply El Centro, is a Unesco World Heritage site. It is known for its easy walkability, old churches, narrow cobblestone streets, Old World-style plazas and vivid tropical colors. There are trendy restaurants, outdoor cafes and dance clubs as well as street vendors selling fruit, fritos, or fried snacks such as papas rellenas (potato balls stuffed with farmer’s cheese) and arepas de huevo (a disk of fried corn masa, slit open and fried again with an egg inside).
“The old city is the prime location in Cartagena,” said Jerome Durand, the residential sales manager at Cartagena First American Realty. “It’s where most first-timers to the city want to go, want to live.”
Centro Historico is defined by its tall, salt-bleached stone walls that were built in the 17th and 18th centuries to ward off marauding pirates.
Its boundaries are roughly Avenida Santander and the Caribbean Sea on the northern and western sides, with the India Catalina monument, Luis Carlos Lopez Avenue and San Lazaro Lake as the eastern edge, Mr. Juan said. The southernmost boundary is Animas (Souls) Bay and the Roman Bridge that connects to Manga.”
“The old city is very small,” Mr. Durand said. “You can walk across it in 15 minutes.”
“It’s difficult to find a decent property in the old city for less than US$1 million,” Mr. Durand said. (While the official currency is the Colombian peso, in real estate, especially for companies dealing in the international luxury market, U.S. dollars is often used.)
Smaller apartments, which are difficult to find, are usually in former houses that have already been subdivided, according to Mr. Durand.
“One-bedroom apartments are rare, apartments less than US$1 million are rare,” he said.
“The latest one that we sold, which was three small bedrooms, was for US$560,000,” he said. Another recent sale was a six-bedroom apartment in an old restored building that went for US$2.5 million.
“For US$1 million to US$1.3 million, you can find a small house or a three-bedroom apartment,” Mr. Durand said. “The next level is US$1.8 million to US$2.5 million, and then it goes to US$3 million and up,” he said.
Some of the villas that are being converted into boutique hotels sell for US$5 million to US$7 million.
To get a nicely renovated place in the wealthy Centro Historico barrios of Santo Domingo or San Diego, “you will need to spend no less than 10 million pesos per square meter,” Mr. Juan said. “That translates into about US$326 per square foot. That would be the lowest; the highest would be 30% more, about US$400 per square foot.”
The area is known for its distinctive Spanish-Colonial architecture, with thick, wood-beamed balconies, tall shutters and stone towers that look out to sea.
“It’s naturally beautiful, the way it has been kept and preserved—it’s authentic, it’s a jewel,” Mr. Juan said. “Everything is brick and wood.”
“Most of the buildings in the old city are 400 to 500 years old, and most have been restored,” Mr. Durand said. Just outside of the Centro Historico, you will find buildings from the 1800s and early 1900s.
Some of the big houses there have been subdivided into as many as 15 apartments, Mr. Juan said. “The new conversions offer all kinds of sizes of apartments, with modern comforts and the colonial charm,” including studios and one- and two-bedroom units.
Many of the old homes have been turned into boutique hotels, as well as government offices, he said, but “there are still quite a few of those big houses that are privately owned.”
“New construction is very rare,” he added.
What Makes It Unique
Centro Historico really comes to life after 5 p.m., when the sun goes down, Mr. Durand said, as during the day, it is hot and tropical.
“You really get transported in time in the old city,” he said. “As the lights come on and the horse carriages come out, everybody is smiling. It is a magical place.”
Residents there are very friendly and welcoming, Mr. Durand said. “If you walk slowly, you can see right into people’s houses as you walk around.”
“The owners will invite you in to see their houses and they will tell you the story of their home and how they got it,” Mr. Durand said.
Centro Historico has a pair of medieval convents that have been turned into luxury hotels: the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara and the Charleston Santa Teresa. Other luxury hotels there include Bastion Luxury Hotel and Hotel Casa del Arzobispado.
“All of the luxury hotels have fancy spas,” Mr. Juan said.
Upscale restaurants in the neighborhood include La Vitrola, a Cuban restaurant that’s very popular with locals; Juan del Mar Restaurant, a seafood eatery run by the charismatic actor-bullfighter-singer Juan del Mar; and Don Juan, a bistro from Colombian chef Juan Felipe Camacho, who spent part of his career in San Sebastián, Spain.
“Cartagena has become the gastronomical hub of Colombia,” Mr. Juan said.
There are several high-end boutiques in the Centro Historico as well, including St. Dom, which sells men’s and women’s clothing, jewelry and art; a women’s clothing shop from Silvia Tcherassi, a Colombian native and now Miami-based fashion designer; and Goretty Medina, a high-end boutique for women’s wear with stores in Cartagena, Barranquilla and Riohacha.
There is a good private school in the neighborhood, Colegio Salesiano San Pedro Claver, Mr. Juan said. It is a co-educational elementary and high school run by Jesuits in the San Diego barrio.
Spa Santa Teresa
Spa Santa Teresa
Who Lives There
Along with the remaining members of families who have been in Centro Historico for generations, the old city is very popular with rich Colombians from Bogota and Medellín, who want to have a place to stay when they vacation in Cartagena, Mr. Durand said.
“The Colombians with a lot of money will try to buy—they are the biggest investors in Cartagena,” Mr. Durand said.
The University of Cartagena is also in Centro Historico, so students, faculty and other employees also call the neighborhood home.
The late Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez maintained a second home within the walls of Centro Historico for decades.
The actor and Bogota native John Leguizamo also has a house there, Mr. Juan said. He bought it after filming Mike Nichols's 2007 film “Love in the Time of Cholera,” which is based on a novel by Garcia Marquez.
Mr. Durand said he still expects that market to remain strong for many years, particularly as the Cartagena airport is expanding and the roads are getting better. “Now, it’s much easier to get in and out of the city,” he said.
Even though Cartagena was never really part of the country’s cocaine-fueled violence in the 1980s and ‘90s, there was a perception that it was dangerous, and many people stayed away.
“Cartagena is very safe now,” Mr. Durand said. “You see police everywhere.”
Mr. Juan said that his agency “has been slow, for the last year or so,” with very little turnover of property and high prices, but he is hopeful that will change in coming months.
“In the past couple of years, some big airlines have moved in,” and there are now direct flights from New York; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Atlanta and Toronto.
Still, though, he worries about high prices and their effect on the real estate market.
“The market will become more and more restrictive as to who will be able to buy, especially in the old city,” Mr. Juan said.