“The surprise lay in the third niche of the high altar, on the side where the Gospels were kept. The stone shattered at the first blow of the pickax, and a stream of living hair the intense color of copper spilled out of the crypt.” ? Gabriel García Márquez, Of Love and Other Demons
In the deep recesses of a 400-year-old chapel a bartender standing under a slowly revolving rickety wooden ceiling fan shakes mint, rum and sugar together before pouring the liquid into a glass of ice. Not far away an Afro-Cuban band sets up on a small stage. One of the bar’s towering arch-shaped doors is open giving way to the scene outside, where carts overloaded with mangos stagger by as vendors try to gingerly maneuver wooden wheels over cobble-stone streets without shaking loose a piece of fruit. Nearby women in brightly-colored traditional dresses pose with tourists for a picture in exchange for a tip and the echoing sound of hooves clip-clopping can be heard moments before a horse drawn carriage turns the corner.
Named El Coro—The Choir in Spanish—the bar was once a hidden choir room for the cloistered nuns who lived in the adjoining Santa Clara Convent. After taking a vow of silence, poverty and chastity, cloistered nuns endured one of the strictest forms of monastery life, never allowed to leave the stronghold of the convent’s walls. In colonial Cartagena this choir room was the only spot where the outside world heard the voices of these nuns as they sang hymns through the walls during mass while their faces remained cloaked in darkness.
Today the bar simply looks like an Old World Havana-inspired bar until a glass door in the middle of the floor catches one’s eye. The door swings open revealing a set of uneven stone stairs leading down to a crypt that once entombed senior nuns, bishops and noblemen before providing inspiration for one of Colombia’s most famous sons to write a tragic love story.
In 1949 a young reporter named Gabriel García Márquez stopped by the then abandoned convent to detail the emptying of long-forgotten burial crypts. According to the foreword of his book Of Love and Other Demons, he stood by as workers breaking open a stone coffin discovered the skeleton of a girl with 72 feet of copper hair. As Márquez wrote, “Nothing else remained in the niche except a few small scattered bones, and on the dressed stone water eaten away by saltpeter only a given name with no surnames was legible: Sierva Maria de Todos Los Angeles.” That young girl with the unruly hair became the protagonist in the book that introduced the Santa Clara Convent and Cartagena to the world.
Truth is stranger than fiction in this part of the world. There is good reason to believe that the Santa Clara Convent perched on Colombia’s northern coast at the exact spot where the Caribbean Sea crashes into Spanish Colonialism would be famous even without Márquez. Its 400-year history includes not only 17th century nuns permanently sequestered away from society, but also pirates pillaging the convent for the gold, silver and emeralds that the Catholic Church freshly looted from the burial grounds of Indigenous kings and queens, and revolutionary nuns breaking off from the Franciscan bishop causing a war within the church resulting in a siege on the convent. After more than 240 years of housing the cloistered nuns, the building acted as a jail, military barracks and hospital before falling into disarray.
In the mid 1990s hoteliers bought the property and began transforming the dilapidated landmark into a luxury five-star hotel. Today the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is one of the top rated hotels in all of South America. The owners paid special attention to restoring it to its golden era as a 17th century convent. The terracotta colored hotel along with its old chapel and El Coro command an entire city block in the San Diego neighborhood of the old walled city. The building still retains the architecture techniques originally designed to maintain anonymity. The windows are set high in the wall to prevent anyone on the street from looking in, all balconies face inside the courtyard without any facing the street, and the tunnels under the convent that once helped the nuns escape attacking pirates now act as staff offices. Cannon balls used to defend against pirates now act as door stoppers throughout the hotel.
Entering the hotel, guests pass under a wooden beam with the date April 5, 1788 sketched into the wood, indicating the last restoration date of the ceiling straight into the convent’s central courtyard. The low-lit courtyard is filled with overgrown palm trees, massive ferns and native flora, making it the largest indoor garden within the walled city. During the day birds chirp as they hop from limb to limb; after dark the tiny coquis (frogs) can be heard whistling the night away. At dusk butlers dressed in hooded brown monks’ robes walk through the corridors lighting candles and gently swinging incense vessels until they reach the crypt where they light an altar in memory of the Poor Clare Sisters who died there.
The 123 guest rooms in the historical Colonial wing and the modernized Republican wing include 17 suites and the crown jewel of the hotel: the 1539 square-foot Fernando Botero Suite. Named for the celebrated Colombian artist, the suite includes a kitchen, large double height dining room, master bedroom with living room and a private balcony that overlooks the pool. The hotel’s gourmet 1621 restaurant was the Clarisas sister’s dining room for the 240 years they lived in the convent. A small room to the side of the dining room that served as the Mother Abbess’s private dining room is now the restaurant’s wine cellar.
The gritty, rum-soaked streets of old town Cartagena are long gone, cleaned up for the throngs of tourists here to soak up the magical realism Marquez so frequently wrote about. The Sofitel Legend Santa Clara still stands much the same as it did when it was originally built in the 1600s, though—a reminder of its past revived in the name of luxury.
Jennifer Simonson is a travel writer by trade and a lover of the world’s food, cultures, drinks and outdoor spaces by nature.