Portia Hart is the business brain behind two of Cartagena’s most fashionable and sought after boutique hotels, the Blue Apple Beach Club and Townhouse Cartagena.
The British Trinidadian set up Blue Apple back in 2016 and has not looked back since, welcoming guests from all over the world who love the good food, excellent music and super stylish surroundings. She is also co-Founder of not-for-profit social enterprise Green Apple Foundation.
Here she shares her insider tips on the city she now calls home.
What is the best time to visit Cartagena and why?
December to March is the dry season, and there’s loads going on culturally, with the classical music festival in January, film festival in February and Hay literary festival in March. It’s generally breezier too, so the heat and humidity feel less intense.
How would you spend 48 hours in Cartagena?
6.00pm Friday – 6.00pm Sunday
Check into your hotel (Townhouse Cartagena) in the Historic Walled City, and take in the sunset from a rooftop bar before heading to eat (Lobo del Mar or Moshi for dinner), followed by some kind of dancing (Caleño Salsa show at 1968, or Champeta at the Bazurto Social Club) and then cocktails (Alquimico or La Movida). Cartagena is a living party, and the music, soul, food and atmosphere make Friday nights unmissable.
Saturday mornings are for lazy breakfasts in your hotel (or Epoca Café), and possibly a spot of souvenir shopping (St Dom). As a Unesco heritage site, anyone visiting should fit in a walking tour of the Walled City and Getsemani neighbourhoods to learn as much as possible about the rich history, architecture and street food, as well as the street art that is springing up around the place.
It would be madness to be in the Caribbean and not hit the ocean, so at 5 pm jump on a boat out to Blue Apple Beach House in the islands, and check-in for a night away from the noise and hustle of the city. The cabañas with private plunge pools are to die for.
A swim is the only way to start Sunday, followed by a slow rotation between beach and pool, enjoying the DJ and lively vibe at Blue Apple. Lunch is a long affair, washed down with lots of rosé, but for the actively inclined, there’s also onsite paddle-boarding, scuba and beach horse trekking. Ideally topped off with a massage at the end of it all, before being whisked back to the mainland at 5.30pm.
How has Cartagena inspired your work?
I wear a swimsuit to ‘the office’ which is in fact nothing more than a table on the beach. I’d say my city hasn’t influenced my work, rather than completely revolutionised it! I’ve had to adapt to a different pace of life, as things do move more slowly in the Caribbean, but the joy of it is that work and life integrate here, so there are no Sunday blues!
Where do you go to get inspired?
The beach, every single day. We started as a simple restaurant, then a five-room B&B and now we are a ten-bed hotel with full-scale beach club, a dive school and our own foundation recycling glass and running kitchen gardens for other hotels in the city. We host weddings, yoga retreats and run an artist in residency program, exchanging accommodation for the arts or volunteering. Next year we plan to open a spa. The sky is the limit, and not a day goes by where we don’t grow in some way or another. Inspiration grows like coconuts here.
What’s your favourite neighbourhood and why?
On the mainland, Getsemani, because local people still live there, and while it has its share of hostels and restaurants, there’s still a community feel. The street art is breathtaking and constantly evolving, and you never know when you might find an impromptu concert on any street corner. But my soul is on the island of Tierra Bomba, because I am a beach bum at heart. Looking out onto the ocean every day and picking coconuts straight from the tree is my kind of life. No traffic jams here.
What are the people like?
Delightful. Loud. Energetic. Colombians have a zest for life that is infectious. They sing, they shout, they dance, and dance some more. People talk to you on the street and at the bar. Mostly, people here are really happy to have you visit their city and their country. You’re likely to make lots of friends, even if no one speaks the same language.
Describe your city in 3 words…
Breathtaking hot mess.
What’s the best way to get around?
In the Walled City, walking. And then, by boat, to get to the islands. Forget everything in between.
Your favourite secret spot is…
If I tell it wouldn’t be a secret… but it’s Novo, the best place to get a cheeky, freshly made, late-night falafel and chips in the whole city. And not touristy at all!
What should I wear?
All the things you’ve ever bought for holidays and thought were a little too OTT. Colombian ladies love to dress up, so no heels are too high (although wedges are best for the cobblestones), no dress is too dressy. Go for natural fabrics, like linen, silk, cotton in whites and bright colours. This is a gorgeous, colonial city, so I would opt for elegant as an overall look.
Essential beauty item to pack?
Mattifying foundation or powder – it’s humid, you’re going to sweat!
Leave the hair straighteners at home. There is just no point.
Best hotel? Why?
Townhouse and Blue Apple. Because, er, they’re mine… And because we made them because we couldn’t find places in the city for people like us – who were young at heart, wanted to have fun and enjoy a social experience with a busy bar, DJ, music, fun décor – but still have top-rate facilities. Both hotels are unique in Cartagena in that aspect. Also because we make an effort to be popular with local people, so our places don’t feel like tourist traps.
Why? You’re on holiday. If you must, keep it calm and do some yoga at Blue Apple (we provide mats and have a dedicated yoga deck).
St Dom, Calle Santo Domingo. The best collection of Latin designers and brands. They do fashion, homewear and accessories. Impossible to leave without something, and it’s great to buy souvenirs that aren’t just touristy tat.
Budget: Caffe Lunatico in Getsemani. Owner-chef Maria trained in the Basque Country in Spain and makes unreal Basque-inspired dishes with Colombian ingredients. Do not be fooled by the scruffy look and feel, the food is top level.
Blow-out: Moshi in the Walled City. Asian-Colombian fusion at its most creative, in one of the most beautiful restaurants in the city. The cocktails are amazingly presented and tasty too. I love eating at the bar.
Townhouse, Members Only, Alquimico, El Baron, La Movida.
Most authentic experience to try?
A guided tour around Bazurto food market, where all the locals buy their produce.
The spas at the San Agustin or Sofitel Santa Clara are the most sophisticated. Townhouse offers in-room spa treatments and Blue Apple has massages on the beach.
Souvenir to take home?
Swimwear. Colombian bikinis are to die for, and you can’t go wrong with anything from Maaji, Onda de Mar or Touché. That and a mochila (hand-knitted shoulder bag) in all your favourite colours. It’s very Colombian, 100% authentic, as everyone here uses them, and you will use it all the time.