Hotel Bantu, Cartagena, Colombia
When visiting Cartagena, nothing compares to the experience of staying inside the walled old city, rather than in a modern section. “Inside the walls” means you will be surrounded by colonial architecture and the vibrant, electric atmosphere of a city that never seems to sleep, yet manages to feel languid and carefree at the same time. Plazas appear at the end of narrow streets overlooked by carved balconies overhung with geraniums, and at nighttime folks old and young spill out of restaurants and toss coins at performing singers and carriage drivers. There are modern, name brand hotels in Cartagena such as Hilton and InterContinental, but these are located in the skyscraper section of Cartagena; you wouldn’t even know that the walled city exists if you wandered those streets. But Cartagena the Old City is made for wandering.
The only proper choice, then, for accommodations, is one of the delightful boutique hotels that are tucked away next to cafes and churches. Yet many of these hotels are wonderfully deceptive – open the imposing wooden doors and most of them reveal beautiful courtyards and pools hidden from the rush of the busy streets.
Hotel Bantu is no exception. It’s located in the San Diego section of the walled city, easily found by taxi and just off the plaza. Although enlarged maps can make the walled city look big, everything is walkable and never more than 10-20 minutes stroll away, so don’t worry about the specific location. It’s impossible to move quickly in Cartagena – not just because of the fierce heat (wear sunscreen at all times – the back of my neck was burned on an overcast cloudy day taking taxis to meetings), but also because of the many storefronts, ice cream shops, specialty coffee stores, artisanal craft sellers, and grouchy old men selling fresh coconut water (highly recommended for its anti-heat electrolytes).
We arrived late at night, after 11pm, and were greeted by the night watchman who said, “Welcome to your house.” This set the tone for the rest of our stay; the staff was always smiling and so convinced that of course you must love it here that their joy was infectious. From answering our questions, making an unforeseen needed photocopy, greeting us smilingly at breakfast, arranging a sightseeing tour, and bidding us goodbye at the end of our stay, the staff’s unwavering commitment to our satisfaction shone through. Although we spoke mainly Spanish to the staff members, they did understand and many also spoke English, and we saw other Americans there who had no problems communicating their needs.
Perhaps the most important staff member of the hotel is the most famous. Tado the Toucan was undoubtedly the star of the show. He generally joined us in the first courtyard, although a plate of papayas set out every day demonstrated that his home was also in the second courtyard. He is clearly held in great affection by the staff – at one point he was following them around veritably purring and clacking his beak as they let him nibble on their uniforms. If you stay here for no other reason, stay for the toucan!
Hotel Bantu is built out of a colonial mansion several hundred years old. As such, you must embrace the boutique hotel concept and recognize certain architectural limitations. For instance, our room did not have an overhead light and made use of several strategically placed lamps, but its one window did not let in a lot of light, which did provide a challenge when getting ready for meetings. The bathroom also relied on artificial light. This did not bother us (having a toucan makes up for a lot of limitations) but you must bear this in mind if you are used to staying in very modern hotels. But most people don’t come to Cartagena to spend a lot of time in their rooms.
The first and second floors of the hotel have hotel rooms, all with doors leading from the central courtyards. The hotel never seemed crowded, although I am not sure how many guests were actually in residence, but I don’t think there are more than 15 rooms or so at Hotel Bantu – possibly less, although I forgot to count the doors.
Our room was one of the few with double beds and was quite large – I had thought , since we booked the cheapest room available, that we’d be crushed together in a cruise-ship-sized bedroom, but our room was big enough for two queen beds, a wardrobe, a small table, and suitcase holders. The room was tastefully decorated with some local items that were also available for purchase such as coffee or artisanal weavings. The bathroom had a sink and a shower – I thought the rainfall shower was great and the water pressure was perfect.
The third floor was the rooftop pool. Many hotels in Cartagena have pools, and although I don’t make pools a priority at modern hotels, it was lovely to take a dip at the end of a long day walking in the muggy humidity and strong sunshine. They also offer rooftop massages at the “spa” for the equivalent of $35 for one hour. I did not test it out, but a friend reported that it was well worth the money! There is also a bar by the pool, although it wasn’t staffed when I was there; I am sure during a more busy tourist season they would open it. The rooftop has lounge chairs and places for socializing and watching the city’s cats jump from chimney to chimney.
Breakfast was included in the rate and consisted of a small buffet, along with eggs made to order. (There were also hard boiled eggs and a Spanish tortilla / omelet on the buffet.) The first day we ate the best mango I have ever had! Alas, no more mango the following mornings, but the pineapple, papaya, and melon were also outstanding. Fresh breads, sausages, local Colombian fried delicacies, cereal items, eggs, cheese, fruits, coffee, and juices formed the majority of the breakfast items.
The hotel has its own restaurant for lunch and dinner, but there are so many additional scrumptious restaurants around the city that we chose to dine out for our meals.
Wifi is free and there is air conditioning in the rooms, but not the outdoor courtyard areas, obviously. Breakfast is in an enclosed area of the courtyard, however, so you remain cool. The air conditioning in the room was actually perfect, at the right temperature, and offered a wonderful relief from the midday sun. (I normally turn off air conditioning in my hotel rooms as I find it too cold, but this was set at the perfect temperature!)
Taxis were easy to find and when we had to leave at 7am on a Sunday, the hotel just telephoned for us and a taxi arrived in less than 10 minutes.
Some say “a hotel is just a place to sleep,” but I maintain that staying in the right hotel can enhance and complement your travel experience! Hotel Bantu did exactly that. The friendliness and helpfulness of the staff, its wonderful location in the old city, beautiful courtyards, rooftop pool, and of course Tado the Toucan all combine to offer an extraordinary experience in the Old City. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this hotel to any of my friends, family, or clients.