We all know the value of a good first impression. Someone needs to give Lina Botero the key to Cartagena, because I cannot imagine anyone doing first impressions of Colombia’s oldest city the way the daughter of famed artist Fernando Botero does.
On Calle don Sancho road in the walled-in historic center of colonial Cartagena, eight Chilean girls pose in front of Lina’s big blue door. Her home is a seven floor, 10 bedroom, 17th century colonial manor decorated somewhat eclectically by Lina, herself an interior designer and globe trotting curator of her father’s artwork. Home is the operative word here. It’s not a hotel. And it’s more than a single-standing luxury rental with hotel amenities. Those are a dime a dozen. This has a particular cache that only comes with a Botero. You’re in Botero’s house, you’re part of the entourage. That’s the difference.
“This was my home in my twenties. It has meaning and value to me. I cannot be here all the time and that’s why I opened it up to tourists so the house stays alive,” she tells me as we walk home after lunch at Maria’s. Casa de Indias, as she calls it, rents for $3,500 a night and can be divided up among a maximum of 20 guests. Guests get full run of the house, which means butler and maid service; chef; boat captain and a VIP concierge that taps Botero’s inner circle to get into the best restaurants, or the best seats during festival season that starts in January.
The Chilean girls won’t see the papaya colored walls and sky blue beams beyond the carriage door they’re using as their duck-face selfie backdrop. If they could, the best time to see it as at night. At sundown, the house crew light lanterns by a small pool that make it look like the sun is setting in Botero’s courtyard living room. It’s cinematic-romance romantic. Botero waits patiently to get inside, standing in a long dress and sandals with primary color pompoms on them. She takes a picture of the tourists so they can all appear together. I think they have no idea who she is.
“When we bought this place in the 1980s, it was a complete disaster,” Botero says after a doorman lets us in. He’s all smiles in a white polo with a bead of sweat on his forehead. Cartagena is a furnace. “Right here, where the pool is, there was this huge vine with a chair stuck in it, mid-air,” she says, pointing skyward. Nearby is a large plant of some sort, green leaves the size of an adult’s upper torso. “This plant was half that size just a few weeks ago. A lot of life in here.” She puts a wicker purse down on a round wooden table by a living room. She had just flown in from Paris where she lives, and just days before she heads to Mexico City, where she also lives. Prior to this trip, she was in Hong Kong selling Botero paintings and sculptures to the Chinese.
A booking at Casa de Indias does not include a day with Lina. I got lucky. As a result, I got the sense of what it’s like to be part of her posse and what people who stay at the house will get as well, for the most part.
We got a table last minute at La Vitrola, a Cuban-inspired restaurant that plays salsa music. Botero’s friend Richard O’Connell owns it. His maitre d’ Grigorio gets her a good table, guaranteed. A few people dance on a make-shift dance floor by the dining room tables.
We took her 38 foot go-fast boat to Baru, one of the Caribbean Sea islands, and were taken to a deserted beach…in case you’re afraid of the paparazzi. She has friends everywhere. You go to their house. They cook you dinner. They pour you drinks. It can be included in the price, depending on your contract.
We did the usual things you do in Cartagena, like walking the old city and checking out the street performers dancing sweaty and topless to cumbia. For anyone who has been to the northeast of Brazil, the music and the dances feel sort of like that.
No matter where we went, no matter what time of day, there would be these local street rappers coming up behind her singing about her. Unlike the Chilean tourists, the locals know exactly who she is. Me, on the other hand, they had no clue but that didn’t stop them from singing about me. They pointed to my shoes, praised them, and said I was rich like El Chapo Guzman, the Mexican drug lord. Botero gave them 5,000 pesos and then they went away. Bring pesos. Unless you don’t mind Spanish hip-hoppers overstaying their welcome.
“This is how it is,” she tells me. “But look around. It’s safe. And people are having fun. One time, we took one of these salsa street bands home and they just played for us and we had a party. That’s how you do it here.”
For those who don’t know Fernando Botero, he is the Medellin-born artist known for his bronze sculptures of over-sized objects, usually people; sometimes cats. His original artwork sells for over a quarter million dollars. Lithographs of his work can fetch over $10,000. Curating her dad’s work, coupled with the occasional contract designing interiors, is how she spends most of her time. There are no original Botero works in the house; Casa de India’s is not a museum. The humidity would destroy them.
Botero’s mom Gloria Zea, Colombia’s former Culture Minister who turned Cartagena into a UNESCO World Heritage site, bought the home in 1979. From what Zea knows, Cartagena governor Don Sancho Jimeno De Orozco lived there in 1693.
Lina took over the home from her two brothers once they got married and moved on. It took three years to restore it to what it is today. She maintains a suite in the back end of the house on the first floor near the pool and hot tub. Her room comes with the house.
“Here’s the thing about the house: you cannot separate it from the style and tastes of Lina and her mother,” says Rodolfo Segovia, a historian who has written books on Cartagena. “Lina is trans-cultural, which she inherited from Gloria and Fernando. She knows how to live with art and culture and high taste. You might have heard about Princess Alessandra Borghese of Italy, but she is Lina’s friend. You might know that this chef from some restaurant in town is really good, but he cooks for Lina…in her house.”
Segovia is the co-owner of Casa Don Sancho, a colonial mansion converted into a six room villa down the street from Lina’s property. It’s not easy to get a room here from December to March. (Tell them FORBES sent you and maybe you’ll get lucky.) A night there will run about $250, depending on the season.
Don Sancho and Casa de Indias share the same staff, and while it does not come with the exclusivity of the Botero house, it does come with the same style and service standards from what I was told. Expedia calls it a hotel. I’d call it more of a private guest house. I had breakfast there with only two other guests when interviewing management just weeks before the FARC was in town and some negotiators to the peace deal stayed in Don Sancho. We sat together at a large dining room table overlooking the streets; horse drawn carriages clop-hopping down the road a few feet away. If I was at Botero’s house, the only people I’d be with would be people traveling with me, or people I invited there myself.
“Don Sancho is a different concept than Lina’s house,” says Segovia. “But the connection between the two is Amparo. You’re going to get the same level of service because it all comes from her,” he says. Mustique took over management of Casa de India’s last year. Velasquez named the company after the exclusive Caribbean island of the same name, known for its privacy and luxury rentals. I found out about the Botero house from Plan South America in Argentina when I was there in March. They made the meeting with Lina happen, and put me in touch with Mustique, handling all of the booking arrangements for me from there.
Back at the Botero house, Lina is getting ready to head to Mexico. “I come here three times a year now. That’s my bedroom,” Lina Botero says, motioning with her head over her shoulder to show me her master suite. We’re drinking watermelon juice. “The only problem is that for me to stay in my own home now, I have to ask Amparo first.”
Kenneth Rapoza, Contributor
I’ve written about Brazil pre-Lula and post-Lula and spent the last five years covering all aspects of the country for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones. Meanwhile, for an undetermined amount of time, and with a little help from my friends, I will be parachuting primarily into Brazil, Russia, India and China. But will also be on the look out for interesting business stories and investing ideas throughout the emerging markets.