Cartagena, Colombia, Is the New "It" Destination

It’s one thing when you have a party and nobody comes. It’s another altogether when 800 ­people turn up at your house on a night when you’ve invited fewer than half that many. Chiqui de ­Echavarría and her daughter, Cloclo, 27, faced just that situation a few years ago, at one of their holiday bashes in their sprawling compound in the historic center of ­Cartagena, Colombia.

“The house was so full, everyone was sure it would collapse,” Chiqui recalls. “My construction engineer, who renovated the place, was here—and he spent the whole night standing next to a big stone column. He told me it was the safest place to be if everything came crashing down.”

A colonial door in the historic center.

Photographer: Billal Taright

If you’ve been to Colombia lately, you know the country offers plenty of opportunities for unbridled revelry, with or without an undercurrent of danger. As the nation emerges from its decades-long plague of cartel-backed violence and kidnappings, Colombians—many of whom are not exactly wallflowers even in the most sober of circumstances—have been indulging their pent-up cravings for celebration. And nowhere is that more evident than in Cartagena around New Year’s Eve, when fashionable young expats return home, with their foreign friends in tow. For this crowd, social life revolves around Chiqui’s house, a three-story warren of shaded nooks and terraces overlooking an intoxicatingly lush inner courtyard, where rare ferns sprout from the 18th-century stone walls. If the multi­billionaire Santo Domingos are Colombia’s grand poobahs—treated like royalty whenever they pop in from their bases in the U.S. or Europe—the ­Echavarrías are their carefree counterparts, whose chief mission seems to be to show everyone a good time.

Cloclo, against the abundant greenery her mother planted.

Photographer: Billal Taright

During my visit in late December, the merriment begins a few hours after I arrive, when I meet Chiqui and Cloclo (real names: Evelia and Maria Claudia, respectively) in their garden before we stroll through the old town for dinner at their favored hangout, the ­Cuban cantina La Vitrola. A small cluster of paparazzi, shooting for the Colombian social rag Jet-set, are lingering in front of the restaurant, and they quickly snap to attention: “Chiqui, Chiqui! Cloclo! Cloclo!” they squawk, sounding a bit like the tropical birds that populate the mangroves just beyond Cartagena’s port. Chiqui, whose typical evening attire ranges from ­Lanvin shifts to embroidered tunics she’s commissioned from craftspeople in Chiapas, Mexico, tonight has thrown on a simple linen blouse, and she puts up a mild protest for the photographers. “Please, I’m basically in pajamas, with no makeup!” she demurs, though her big smile makes it clear she doesn’t mind the attention too much.

The table, set for dinner in the courtyard.

Photographer: Billal Taright

Chiqui is the widow of Felipe Echavarría Rocha, who was descended from a clan of Basques who arrived in Colombia in the 17th century and gradually built a fortune—first in agriculture, then mining, then manufacturing. Today there are several family branches in Colombia and abroad, with dozens of cousins who convene at Chiqui’s regularly. Cartagena, of course, is the atmospheric walled town, founded in 1533, that Gabriel García Márquez fictionalized in his acclaimed novel Love in the Time of Cholera; the author had a house around the corner from Chiqui’s and popped over a couple of times for drinks in the garden. In fact, the more one hears about the Echavarrías’ history, the more one suspects that García Márquez might have borrowed a few details from them for his magical realist fables. According to family lore, Chiqui’s father-in-law, Felipe Echavarría Olózaga, was captured by the secret police in Bogotá in the 1950s and forced to spend two days sitting on a block of ice; later, he requested a visit from a priest, ostensibly to confess his sins, but the two men switched clothes so that Echavarría could escape across the border to Panama and continue on to Rome, where he remained until Colombia’s then-dictator, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, was impeached.

For Chiqui, who has spent the past 32 years building her home here (she also has a place in London), the mere act of running a household in Cartagena provides a nonstop stream of stranger-than-fiction adventures. After buying a modest property near the city’s fortified walls and building a small pool in its courtyard (one day the bottom caved in, revealing a secret cellar where cannonballs and an aguardiente cistern had been stashed for centuries), she became determined to expand, eventually snapping up six adjacent houses. When one neighbor refused to sell, Chiqui did what any self-­respecting ­Cartagenan would do: She installed a pair of toucans in the upper branches of her trees, to incite a little ruckus. “The birds chirped on the hour, and that drove the woman’s dogs crazy,” Chiqui recalls with a smile. “So she finally decided to sell the house to me and move away.” Next, Chiqui began transforming her courtyard into a fabulous live-in jungle, but, due to the salty ocean air and limited sunlight, this called for further ruses, such as sneaking in plant specimens from outside the country. “Fortunately, I love smuggling,” she says. On a recent flight back from London, Chiqui hid some orchids in her luggage and added a layer of beef jerky as a decoy for the customs inspectors, so that if the dogs smelled something, she could contritely hand over the meat while leaving the orchids untouched. Gesturing around the garden (she also maintains a large plant nursery and greenhouse in another part of town), Chiqui says, “So, some of these are from Ikea in England—can you believe it? What matters is that they look perfect.”

A lush outdoor seating area.

Photographer: Billal Taright

On the Tuesday before New Year’s, Chiqui and ­Cloclo host a bash that begins with a “very small” sit-down dinner for 38. Andrés and Lauren Santo Domingo are among the first to walk in, along with Andrés’s brother Alejandro and his fiancée, Lady Charlotte Wellesley. (When Wellesley compliments Chiqui on her pendulous earrings—Chiqui’s own design—Chiqui takes them off and gives them to her on the spot.) During dinner, Cloclo confesses that she wasn’t able to find a good DJ for the night. Fortunately, Isaac Ferry (son of Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, and a DJ) is a few seats away and happens to have a selection of party tunes on a USB drive in his backpack. Ferry ends up spinning for a glam crowd of 300 or so that includes such fixtures as the designer Esteban Cortazar; the fashion editor and shoe designer Tabitha Simmons; Prince Ernst August Jr. of Hanover and his girlfriend, ­Ekaterina Malysheva, known in London for Ekat, her line of audacious catsuits; Taliana Vargas, Miss ­Colombia 2007 (and, a year later, first runner-up to Miss Universe), who is married to Cloclo’s cousin Alejandro Eder; and, wearing the shortest of short-shorts, Juan Del Mar, the ­Colombian actor-bullfighter-restaurateur, who once posed nude for a local magazine wielding a toreador’s cape. Chiqui circulates with a fan in one hand and a mojito in the other, stopping to chat with her statuesque daughter-in-law, Hunting Season designer Danielle Corona, in from Bogotá.

Vintage birdcages.

Photographer: Billal Taright

Even though this crowd skews heavily toward the pretty, the privileged, and the educated-in-­Switzerland (I hear two people lament separately that there was “no snow in Gstaad this year”), there’s little tolerance for Saint Moritz–style snobbery here; froideur stands no chance in the 95-degree heat. At 2 a.m., a few moments after I’m introduced to 27-year-old Bettina Santo ­Domingo, she approaches with a full bottle of aguardiente, holding it above my head. “Open up!” she commands, and then pours a stream of the anise-­flavored liqueur straight into my mouth.

Part of the reason for the buoyant openness in ­Cartagena is that many Colombians are now rediscovering their own country, after decades of either living abroad or staying sequestered inside Medellín’s and Bogotá’s heavily guarded bubbles. (Cloclo grew up mainly in Miami; Geneva; and Villars, Switzerland, with a few stints in Bogotá.) The Echavarrías, Cloclo tells me, were particularly sought-after targets for kidnappers: Since the 1980s, several family members have been abducted, one killed. As children, Cloclo and her brother, Felipe, each had up to six bodyguards while in Bogotá. “Whenever we talked on the phone to our parents or friends, we weren’t allowed to say where we were going, in case someone was listening,” she says. “It was just the reality.”

A side table adorned with some of the treasures Chiqui has collected from her trips around the world.

Photographer: Billal Taright

One upside to Colombia’s turbulent past, Andrés Santo Domingo tells me at dinner, is that large chunks of the country have remained almost frozen in time, “so we’ve escaped a lot of the rampant development that has happened everywhere else in the Caribbean.” That’s especially evident on the nearby Barú peninsula, where the Echavarrías, the Santo Domingos, and their friends own beachside retreats that we visit via speedboat on successive afternoons. The routine: a dip in the ocean or the pool, followed by a lunch of grilled fish and coconut rice served on good china under a thatched roof. Barú still has no high-end hotels, and even in Cartagena the scene has mostly revolved around private homes since the 1970s, when frequent visitors like the Agnellis and Greta Garbo brought a kind of stealth sophistication that still lingers. Though the Echavarrías are not ones to put on airs—one night Cloclo takes some visitors to the divey salsa bar Quiebra-Canto in her preferred family vehicle, a Toyota pickup—the family’s international connections are the kind that keep Jet-set writers busy. One of Cloclo’s aunts, María Eugenia Garcés de Campagna, briefly dated Prince Charles; another, Elena Echavarría Olano, was ambassador to Switzerland. Her cousin Sebastián Echavarría (an investment banker whose grandmother was Countess Consuelo Crespi, the style maven) remembers that as a child he saw a strange man with silver hair wandering around the seashore in Barú and wondered, Why does he keep taking pictures of that rock? It was Andy Warhol, who was a frequent guest at the home of Sam Green, the late New York art world and society fixture.

Chiqui and Cloclo’s beach house.

Photographer: Billal Taright

Still, as recently as 10 years ago, Cloclo recalls, it was a big deal to spot a foreigner on the streets of Cartagena. “As a kid, anytime I heard people speaking English—even random tourists—I would always go over and talk to them, because it was so rare. Then my mother would always end up inviting them back to our house, to show them that Colombia could be a nice, safe place.” The shift began in 2008, with Andrés and Lauren Santo Domingo’s wedding extravaganza—attended by what seemed like the 500 living all-stars from the social pages of Women’s Wear Daily. The following year, after Cloclo graduated from Boston University, she, too, started hosting parties in Cartagena, including a New Year’s bash for 400 in 2010, when Marc Jacobs came down with Esteban Cortazar. She also helped recruit Haider Ackermann, who is originally from Colombia, to stage his 2013 runway show in Medellín.

The Barú scene: The Santo Domingos’ boat, a vintage Chinese junk.

Photographer: Billal Taright

According to Cortazar, Cloclo has inherited the unique combination of ease, earthiness, and glamour that has made her mother the top hostess in ­Cartagena. “On the day of their party this year, just to see how Cloclo would react, I told her that I had invited 50 more people that morning,” Cortazar recalls. “She was like, ‘Oh, okay, cool.’ I said, ‘Um, I was kidding!’ But it all comes naturally to her.” For her latest venture, she has teamed with another cousin—the chic ­American-born Giovanna Campagna Garcés, 28—to launch Creo Consulting, a firm that promotes Latin American fashion brands in London and New York. Chiqui is a persistent saleswoman who likes to put in long hours at Casa Chiqui, the eclectic housewares emporium she runs in the old town, but it’s rare to see her or Cloclo exhibit overt signs of stress. At 5 p.m. on the evening of their big house party, Cloclo and her entourage were stuck on a dock in Barú, after her boat sputtered in choppy seas and her cell phone was drenched by an errant wave. She reacted with a resigned smile and a shrug of the shoulders. “You know, in Cartagena, things end up working out somehow,” she said. “I learned that from my mom, who always pulls it together.” Sure enough, just as darkness fell, Cloclo and the group were rescued by a family friend who was returning to Cartagena in her own boat, which could comfortably accommodate 22.

Giovanna Campagna Garcés, Cloclo’s cousin and business partner.

Photographer: Billal Taright

For New Year’s Eve, Chiqui has booked several tables at La Vitrola, where a six-person Cuban band alternates with a DJ as a succession of cute young things with party whistles insists that I join them for yet another round of rum shots. While dancing near the bar, Lauren Santo Domingo, in a white ­Alexander ­McQueen outfit and a pair of earrings she picked up in Chiqui’s shop, assures me I don’t need to worry about pacing myself: “It’s okay in Cartagena—you just sweat it out.” Sure enough, this is one of those parties where the dance floor quickly expands to include the entire restaurant. At 3:30 a.m. everyone heads off to various nightclubs, and long after sunrise the diehards are still smoking cigarettes on the Echavarrías’ terrace when Ferry, who was unwittingly abandoned by the Santo Domingos when their speedboat whisked them back to Barú before dawn, slinks over to see if Chiqui has a spare room for him. (Of course, she does, and Ferry spends the next day lounging poolside.) Chiqui emerges at noon to make sure everyone at the breakfast table has tried her cook’s delicious arepas de huevo.

A view of the colonial rooftops.

Photographer: Billal Taright

“Today, even the street vendors will be too tired to move,” she says. “Maybe they will sell you a can of soda, but if you ask for ice with it, they’ll say, ‘Oh, sorry, too complicated.’ ” Still, since it’s my last day in Cartagena, Chiqui musters the strength to show me some of her favorite parts of the exquisite old town, whose colonial landmarks and shady plazas have begun showing some inevitable signs of change. At the Hotel Santa Clara, housed in a 17th-century convent, there’s a troupe of carnival-in-Rio–style dancers performing by the pool.

When we come upon the restaurant Juan del Mar, on Plaza de San Diego, Chiqui pauses to sit down at the bar for a cocktail while saying hello to what seems like two dozen friends. True, everyone is moving a bit slowly, and preparing for their flights back to Miami or London, but they are also discussing the plan for 2017, when, word has it, the New Year’s Eve festivities will move to Barú: The Santo Domingos might host a dinner at their compound there. The afterparty, everyone assumes, will be at Chiqui and Cloclo’s.