Without a doubt the Caribbean’s most beautiful city, CARTAGENA DE INDIAS offers stunning colonial architecture, gourmet dining, all-night partying and beaches. Cartagena literally embodies Colombia’s Caribbean coast, with many of the city’s colourful, weathered buildings built using coral from the surrounding reefs.
Founded in 1533, Cartagena was one of the first Spanish cities in the New World and served as the main port through which the continent’s riches were shipped off to the mother country. Not surprisingly, the city proved an appetizing target for English pirates prowling the Caribbean, and it suffered several dreadful sieges in the sixteenth century, the most infamous led by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, during which he held the town hostage for more than a hundred days. After “the Dragon” was paid a hefty ransom to withdraw, the Spaniards began constructing the elaborate fortifications that are now the city’s hallmark. Cartagena’s monopoly on the Caribbean slave trade in the early seventeenth century is evident in its diverse population, the rhythms of its music, its songs, dances and traditions.
Bursting with history, Cartagena’s supremely photogenic walled Old City is a colourful assault on the senses and where the bulk of the sightseeing is. The greatest pleasure here is wandering the narrow streets, lined with colonial buildings painted in bold colours with their wrought-iron detail, bougainvillea tumbling down from balconies, peddlers trying to sell you all manner of tat, and horse-drawn carriages passing by. You might get a little lost, but the city’s many plazas can guide you, acting not only as convenient landmarks but as distinct social hangouts. You can take in the city by strolling the 11km of stone ramparts that encircle it, though it’s best to avoid this late at night.
San Diego, home to a good number of mid-priced hostals and several hostels, offers a more mellow, though still lively, version of the Old City. Grittier Getsemaní, in pockets of which shirtless men play dominoes and cumbia music blasts out in the plazas, lacks some of the architectural grandeur of the walled city but offers a better taste of local life. The most raucous nightlife and nearly all budget accommodation are found here. South of the Old City is Bocagrande, Cartagena’s modern tourist sector, a thin isthmus dotted with high-rise hotels catering to Colombian holidaymakers.
More than a single, uniform wall, Cartagena is surrounded by a series of impressive fortresses, most of which are still standing. The largest and most important was Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a towering stone fort just east of the walled city along Avenida Pedro de Heredia. The sacking of the city by Sir Frances Drake highlighted the need for protection, and so this mighty fort was built between 1656 and 1798 with plans from a Dutch engineer. The fort is an ideal spot from which to watch the sunset, and getting the audioguide is well worth it, as you can walk around the fort walls and underground passages at your leisure, learning about its history, functions and other important landmarks, such as the leper hospital. Alternatively, you can talk to one of the guides who hang around at the entrance.
Looming above the northeast corner of the Plaza de Bolívar is the fortress-like Catedral, whose construction began in 1575, but which wasn’t completed until 1612 due to setbacks such as its partial destruction by cannon fire in 1586 by Sir Francis Drake when Cartagena was slow to come up with the extortionate ransom he demanded. The interior is airy and pleasantly austere and the compulsory audioguide tour very worthwhile.
Standing on the quiet plaza of the same name, the imposing Convento de San Pedro Claver was founded by Jesuits in 1603, and is where Spanish-born priest Pedro Claver lived and died, in 1654. Called the “slave of the slaves” for his lifelong ministering to the city’s slaves, aghast at the conditions in which they lived, the ascetic monk was canonized two centuries after his death. His skull and bones are guarded in a glass coffin at the altar of the adjacent church. The convent itself is a grand three-storey building surrounding a large courtyard bursting with greenery; besides exhibits of religious art and pre-Colombian ceramics, there’s a superb display on the top floor featuring colourful, contemporary Haitian art and intricate African wooden masks and carvings.
If you haven’t yet visited Bogotá’s larger counterpart, this excellent gold museum, off the Plaza de Bolívar, will whet your appetite. The displays feature the intricate gold creations of various pre-Columbian cultures, particularly the Zenú. Look out for their intricate “woven” earrings and mammal-bird hybrids, as well as the elaborate gold and copper figures of the Tayrona and the schematic representations of shamans from the San Jacinto range.
On the west side of Plaza de Bolívar stands the Palacio de la Inquisición, a splendid block-long example of late colonial architecture. The seat of the dreaded Inquisition for two hundred years from 1611 onwards, it wasn’t completed until 1776, and is believed to be the site where at least eight hundred people were sentenced to death. Heretics were denounced at the small window topped with a cross, around the corner from the entrance, and culprits found guilty of witchcraft and blasphemy were sentenced to public autos-de-fé (executions) until independence in 1821. The museum within features a particularly interesting display of torture implements favoured by the Inquisition, as well as scale models of Cartagena, pre-Columbian pottery and displays on the city’s history.
The city’s main entranceway is the triple-arched Puerta del Reloj, which gives way to the Plaza de los Coches, a triangular former slave-trading square. Today, it’s where horse-drawn carriages can be hired for romantic tours around the city, and the stage for street performances. In the centre stands a statue of the city’s founder Pedro de Heredia. In the plaza’s covered arcade, Portal de los Dulces, vendors adeptly pluck sweets of your choice out of a sea of huge glass jars. In the evening, several lively bars open up above the arcade.
The small, mud-blowing Volcán de Lodo El Totumo, 50km northeast of Cartagena, makes for another popular day-trip. You can clamber down into the crater for a refreshing wallow in the mud that allegedly has therapeutic properties, while helpful locals gather nearby, offering to photograph you in your Creature From the Black Lagoon guise, and to give you an energetic but not terribly professional massage. Most hostels arrange this trip.