5 tips for Cartagena de Indias

Cartagena Panorama
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Due to its favorable yet protected location by the sea, the city of Cartagena already played an important role in the history of Colombia. It was here that the world trade in gold, silver and precious stones was conducted. Conquerors and statesmen first set foot on Colombian soil on this coast. Slave ships landed here and many pirates, plunderers as well as freebooters did their mischief in the lonely bays of Cartagena. Over the centuries, but especially in recent decades, the city has experienced rapid population growth due to immigrants, rural refugees and job seekers.

As one of the most beautiful colonial cities in South America, it offers visitors a unique flair of color, romance, exuberance and a magical Caribbean feeling.

Tip 1: San Felipe de Barajas Castle

The rapid development of the city, founded in 1533, soon made Cartagena the most important Spanish port on the Caribbean coast.

During its heyday, it was considered the most important gateway to South America. For the Spaniards, it was a good temporary storage place for their treasures from their raids through South America. Here, looted Indian gold, silver and copper only waited for a ship home to Spain.

San Felipe de Barajas Castle in Cartagena
© Paulo Costa | Dreamstime.com

But as the value of the camp increased, so did its attractiveness to rogues and scoundrels. While the Spaniards toiled through the jungles of the country for their booty, privateers hoped for a quick harvest of the stockpile. In the 16th century, Cartagena was besieged by pirates no less than five times. One of the most notorious privateers was the Englishman Francis Drake.

The foundation stone of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas had already been laid in 1536 on the San Lázaro hill. Compared to the importance of the port, however, the structure was quite small, so it was considerably expanded in 1657.

In 1762, the Castillo San Felipe was extensively enlarged once again, creating a bulwark that now extended over the entire San Lázaro hill. This was also attacked and stormed several times. None of the attackers, however, succeeded in taking the fortress.

Since it dominates a large part of Cartagena’s cityscape, cruise ship passengers can see it from afar, so that now whole armies of vacationers invade here, slowed down only by the bag check at the entrance. Who can blame them? Compared to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza in Havana or even the Fort Ozama in Santo Domingo, it is truly enormous.

Tip 2: Clock Tower Monument

One of the great icons of the city. It is the point of connection between the walled city and the lively neighborhood of Getsemaní. An impressive structure attached to the wall and equally crowned by a bright yellow tower and its inseparable clock. Moreover, it was originally called Boca del Puente and was built as the main entrance to the walled city. The lateral vaults were used as a chapel and armory.

Clock Tower Monument in Cartagena
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You could say that this is the main entrance to the old city. And what an entrance it is, because as soon as we pass through the door of the tower, we find ourselves in the beautiful Plaza de los Coches. One of the most beautiful in Cartagena. Although there is a lot of competition, they are all beautiful.

Tip 3: Old town of Cartagena

After an attack by the pirate Sir Francis Drake, an 11 kilometer long city wall, called “Las Murallas”, was built around Cartagena in the 16th century. In addition, two forts were built to protect the city from attacks from the sea. The well-preserved city center, the Centro Historico, is still walled today and is considered one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Colombia. Therefore, it is not surprising that “the walled city” together with the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1984.

Cartagena Old Town
© Anamaria Mejia | Dreamstime.com

To some, Cartagena reminds in many corners of the old town of Havana, only nicely renovated. Numerous beautifully restored and colorful colonial buildings with enchanting balconies, lovely patios and pretty door knockers can be found in the narrow streets. In addition, many monuments, picturesque squares and beautiful churches can be discovered in the neighborhoods of El Centro and San Diego. The best thing to do is to drift through the labyrinth of alleys in the Centro Historico, without a plan. Marvel at the musicians and dancers on the plazas, enjoy the Colombian street food at the numerous stalls and let the incomparable charm of Cartagena take effect on you.

Tip 4: Plaza de la Aduana

The largest and oldest square in the city is the Plaza de la Aduana, the square of the Customs House. In the middle of the spacious square you will find a statue of Christopher Columbus.

Plaza de la Aduana in Cartagena
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In the archways around the square, vendors sell fresh fruit. In addition, the Customs House, once the residence of Don Pedro de Heredia, the founder of Cartagenas, is located here.

Tip 5: St. Peter Claver Church

The Iglesia de San Pedro Claver with the associated monastery on the Plaza San Pedro Claver of the same name is extremely impressive. The monk Pedro Claver had once made it his task to fight for the rights of the black population. He was considered the “slave of the slaves” and was canonized by the Catholic Church after his death. Thus, the church, first built as Convento San Ignacio de Loyola in the Jesuit style, was renamed in his honor.

Iglesia de San Pedro Claver in Cartagena

Inside the church, one can find some paintings that tell the story of the monk’s life. His remains can also be found in the church – his skull is even displayed in a glass coffin on the altar. Much of the monastery now houses a museum of religious artifacts, pre-Columbian ceramics, and contemporary Afro-Caribbean works.