As makeovers go, Colombia's has been speedy: from no-go zone to upmarket destination in just a few years. In Cartagena, the jewel in its crown, you'll find 32 boutique hotels within the Unesco-protected old town alone. With so many options, from romantic colonial houses to lodgings fit for, and frequented by, royalty, it's hard to know where to begin. The Casa Blanca stands out from the crowd: stylish but not too cool and contemporary, this 18th-century republican house retains its historical charm, plus it has the biggest roof terrace in town.
It's no surprise that Casa Blanca is, well, very white. Old-town Cartagena tends to go heavy on tropical-faded oranges and reds, so the look of this renovated colonial house is rather more trendy. That same cool, urban feel can also be found in the interior design: huge, angular wooden doors and sleek daybeds on the roof, offset by restored mosaic floors, a carved Turkish screen and imported antique furniture. It's spacious, too: with the mercury hovering around 30C year round, Cartageneros go for open-air living, and here ceilings are high and walls sparse.
There are 12 rooms which, with their granite bathrooms, huge mirrors and soft, contemporary lighting, feel more loft apartment than old casa. Four also have their own private plunge pools. There's are lap pools on the ground floor and roof terrace, where you'll find a bar and massage facilities.
Breakfast is on the terrace or down by the lap pool under the palm trees. Go local with arepas con huevo (deep fried corn patties filled with egg), carimanolas (fried yucca pasties) and typically salty cheese, or the usual continental breads, jams and eggs. The star of the show, though, is the fruit: the papaya, melon, mango and pineapple taste unlike anything back home.
The hotel is the pet project of Bogotá architecture firm Suma; hence the serious attention to aesthetics and the slick, urban vibe. It opened in 2008 and is run by a small team headed by Rocio Mendez, which operates out of a front desk that sits daintily under the main stairs – an informal touch that makes the place feel like the summer house of a really cool, rather wealthy friend.
Cartagena has a lot going on with classical music, literature and film festivals bringing in international names. But the real appeal here is in strolling around one of the best preserved colonial cities in the Americas, from the thick city walls to crumbling churches.
The cathedral, particularly, is a beauty dating back to 1612 and one of the oldest churches in the Americas. Francis Drake's cannons had a pop at it while it was being built and it's now an absurdly romantic venue for weddings of the continent's rich and connected. Nearby, the torture implements in the Palacio de la Inquisicion (00 57 5664 4570) nod to a less lovely side of the Catholic church in Latin America, but the museum is worth checking out for the setting alone: a beautiful late-colonial house looking out on to a plaza filled with old men playing chess and smoking cigars.
The pit stop
Café del Reloj (00 57 5645 5051) is the sort of place that's in everyone's guidebooks, but doesn't feel oppressively touristy ... yet. Brave the heat of the outdoor tables and you'll have views of the clock tower gateway and a statue of Pedro de Heredia, the Spaniard who founded the city in 1533. This square was once the city's main entry point and its principal slave market, too. Nowadays, it has a certain ruffian charm with hawkers trying to tempt kids and honeymooners with sweets, helium balloons, and horse and carriage rides. As for the food, it's light and international: the zingy Peruvian monkfish ceviche, washed down with a freshly squeezed passion fruit juice, is a perfect refreshing lunch on a steamy day.
Unless you're an ex-president throwing your own party, the walled old town doesn't offer much in the way of decent nightlife, so for drinks and dancing you'll need to head to Getsemani, a ramshackle barrio 10 minutes' walk away that remains the centre of the backpacking scene despite going slowly upmarket. Kick off proceedings with a mango mojito on the roof of Malagana (00 57 5660 1360), a café and bar with open-mic nights and low-key DJ sets.
Casa Blanca, Calle del Tejadillo 38‑71, Cartagena, Colombia (00 57 5664 7111; casablancabyb.com). Double rooms start at US$260 (£173), including breakfast.