When Australian ship’s captain Greg Hills first came to the Colombian port of Cartagena some 30 years ago, he found a place that felt depressed and unsafe, in spite of the architectural glories of its colonial-era Old Town.
But when Hills made a return visit to the sprawling Caribbean city of just over 1.2m people in 2004, he was surprised by the turnround: “I could see that a renaissance was under way. There was a lot of reconstruction going on in the Old Town and I sensed that Cartagena was really moving ahead.”
Hills wasted no time in snapping up a duplex unit on the top two floors of a building atypical of the Old Town: a construction dating from the 1930s that had been used for offices. After going through an eight-month renovation, Hills’s two-bed apartment has a roof terrace with pool and views over 16th-century Castillo de San Felipe.
Today, Hills plans to buy a catamaran and sail the Pacific and has put his home on sale for $1.5m (in Cartagena, properties in the Old Town are often advertised in US dollars rather than in Colombian pesos, as is usual in the rest of the city).
Paul Juan of Cartagena Realty, the agent handling the sale, says that property prices in Cartagena appreciated by around 3 per cent in 2012, with square metre values for renovated colonial mansions in the Old Town averaging 10m Colombian pesos ($5,508) against 4m pesos ($2,203) per sq metre for entirely unrenovated properties. This places many refurbished colonial homes within the $3m to $5m price range.
Typically these have between two and four storeys, with reception rooms and bedrooms surrounding a shaded patio perfect for al fresco entertaining. Rooms invariably have high ceilings to counter the city’s sometimes oppressive heat – they were built, after all, in an age when air conditioning was not available. With a number of good dining options scattered around the neighbourhood, it is easy to see why so many North Americans and Europeans are seduced by the idea of owning a home here.
But whether or not Cartagena’s colonial homes represent good value for money is a moot point. Asking prices of colonial mansions are sometimes pushed up in the expectation of offers not only from buyers looking for a second home in an atmospheric location, but also from others seeing potential for high-end guest houses.
On the plus side, it is true that these are a scarce resource and many mansions are undeniably lovely, with their distinctive carved wood balconies and ochre- and pastel-coloured façades. A number of prominent Colombians, including author and Nobel prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, own property in or close to the Old Town. They have a rich cultural offering on their doorstep including – in the past month of January alone – a Colombian edition of the Hay literature festival and a wide-ranging international music festival.
The argument against is that the Old Town still has a few rough edges and that the gentrification of the adjacent district of Getsemaní, just outside the old ramparts, has been patchy, with abandoned lots, low-rent stores and carefully converted homes sometimes sharing the same block, which suggests that the appetite for restoring old property in Cartagena may have flattened out – at least for now.
A modernised three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Getsemaní, with 168 sq metres of living space on a 194 sq metre plot, is on offer for 1,800m pesos ($1.04m) via estate agents Araújo & Segovia.
In short, there may be better deals elsewhere in the city. Fuelled by a growing economy and optimism about the improving security situation, Cartagena is expanding to the north of its international airport in a succession of pleasant, modern seaside communities reminiscent of developments in southern Florida. Here, luxury newbuilds with sea views average 6m pesos ($3,304) per sq metre, according to Paul Juan.
Last October saw the opening in the northern suburbs of restaurant and tapas bar Erre, a Colombian outpost of Spanish chef Ramón Freixa – whose Madrid restaurant has two Michelin stars – the kind of venue that may eventually help pull the city’s centre of gravity away from the Old Town. Many overseas oil sector workers look for homes in the district, attracted by amenities such as the British School, 18km from the colonial centre.
There is an increasing number of gated communities in the area, including Karibana, a beachfront development containing 264 apartments flanking an 18-hole golf course. Here, a 348 sq metre split-level penthouse with five en suite bedrooms and a 26 sq metre terrace is on sale for 2.719bn pesos ($1.497m).
Interior designer Isabel Parra, who has worked on projects with foreign clients in the northern suburbs, says North American and European buyers (Spanish and Italians head the list) tend to have differing approaches: “Europeans tend to prefer more neutral colours and want minimalist living spaces. North Americans, on the other hand, often want to experiment more with shapes and brighter colours.”
In tropical Colombia, bright colours might be just the thing: you can use fossilised coral stone from local quarries – sometimes a golden yellow with visible coral patterns – as a floor covering or in place of bathroom tiles.
Units built in the past five years or so are likely to have spacious open-plan kitchens. Foreign buyers in Colombia are often disappointed by the cramped kitchens of otherwise roomy older apartments and are occasionally told by estate agents with disarming honesty that “the kitchen is really just for the maid”.
Meanwhile Bocagrande, an established residential and commercial area on a peninsula flanking the Old Town, offers relative proximity to Cartagena’s historical sights and some relative bargains for home-seekers. Cartagena First American Realty is offering a three-bedroom, four-bathroom unit on the 11th floor of a beachfront apartment block in Bocagrande for 684m pesos ($376,760).
● Estate agent’s commission: unlike some markets in Latin America, this is paid in full by the seller (usually 3 per cent of the sales price)
● Buyers should budget around 2.5 per cent to cover notary costs and government transfer taxes
● With the exception of one-bedroom units, most high-end apartments have staff accommodation
● Cartagena was founded in 1533 and in 1984 its colonial walled city was designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco
● Colombia’s central bank expects the country’s economy to grow by around 4 per cent in 2013
● Colombia is the world’s second most populous Spanish-speaking nation – behind Mexico but just ahead of Spain
What you can buy for …
US$500,000: a second-hand four-bedroom apartment with two or three covered parking spaces
US$ 1 million: A new four-bedroom villa or apartment in a gated community close to the ocean
US$ 5 million: A well-located and luxuriously renovated Old Town mansion with six or more bedrooms