Nestled in the walled “old town” neighborhood of Colombian port city Cartagena, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is a blend of old and new: notable features include original wood beams, museum-worthy contemporary art, and possibly a few ghosts (more on that later).
Housed in a restored 17th century convent, the hotel is home various relics, from an underground crypt to a so-called “gossip window”, from which the Mother Superior once spied on the nuns as they smoked or played cards. And while most of the convent’s rituals have lapsed, some religious traditions remain: everyday at 6 p.m., the staff changes from white to black uniforms, and three costumed “monks” with bells march through the corridors heralding nightfall.
With a staff of 400 for 123 rooms and the largest and most beautiful pool in the old town, you might never want to leave the Santa Clara. Still it’s worth stepping out into the cobble-stoned streets of the Plaza San Diego with its musicians, brightly painted Colonial buildings and vendors hawking colorful woven bracelets, bags and more.
Below, the Santa Clara’s charming general manager Richard Launay tells us about the hotel’s most requested room, and why Cartagena today rivals the excitement of “the days of the pirates and conquistadors.”
What’s the most requested room?
We have four “iconic” suites, named after well-known South American artists. The most expensive is the Fernando Botero Suite, named for the famous artist who celebrated women’s bodies in his voluptuous sculptures and paintings. The suite was designed by his daughter Lena, who spent two years assembling Botero’s personal books and photographs as well as one of his paintings and hand-picked everything in the room.
What is the rate?
$2,500 a night.
What is your favorite room?
I can’t answer, that would be like asking me to pick my favorite child!
Famous people who’ve stayed here?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Estefan, Francis Ford Coppola, Mick Jagger, Sting have all stayed at the Santa Clara, as well as Botero himself (in The Botero Suite, of course!)
Most memorable request by a guest?
Three years a go a young man from Australia said he wanted to get engaged to a local woman and asked if we could organize a special dinner. He said he wanted it to be a unique moment and that money was no problem. When I suggested a budget of $20,000 he didn’t flinch.
So we hired an orchestra and spent two whole days transforming the chapel with 1,000 candles and 1,000 roses that we had specially flown in. When the day came he arrived in a white tux and he made a request I wasn’t expecting. “You have to call my girlfriend,” he told me. “Tell her that you’re the general manager and that her boyfriend is drunk at the bar and he can’t pay his bill.” When I called her she was angry, but of course she came to rescue him. And when I opened the door to the chapel, with the music playing and her boyfriend in a white tuxedo flooded by candlelight, it was incredible! They returned a year later with 200 people for their wedding and they come back every year from Australia to celebrate their anniversary.
The site of the Santa Clara was the inspiration for one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s most famous books, Love and Other Demons. In the book, the heroine, Sierva, has rabies, is abandoned by her family, falls in love with the priest performing an exorcism on her and dies of a broken heart. While Sierva was a fictional character, guests tell us that they’ve met the ghost of this amazing young lady in the corridors. And in the bar area, where the sisters of the convent once congregated, there is a footprint of a dog in the stone floor. At least twice in the last two years guests have sworn that they saw the ghost of the dog that gave Sierva rabies! Of course the whole story was made up. But we Colombians believe in magical realism.