Lapped by the Caribbean Sea and in its entirety a beautiful treasure chest of history full of incredible jewels, Cartagena is magnificent.
Founded by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, Cartagena quickly became a highly significant cog in the mighty machine of the Spanish Empire. Plundered gold, silver and emeralds along with tobacco and sugar were gathered here before being shipped back to the European continent; arriving in the opposite direction was a tragic human cargo as Cartagena served as the largest of the Americas slave ports.
Such incredible riches drew the attentions of raiders and pirates and the history of Cartagena is littered with stories of attack, ransom and siege.
What grew up from all of this was an incredibly wealthy city where fabulous buildings and grand mansions sat protected behind imposing city walls while a fort, strategically placed high on a hill, kept vigil.
Incredibly, almost all of this remains to this day which means exploring these UNESCO World Heritage Site ancient streets and plazas is like stepping back in time. Filled with beautiful buildings painted in every shade, almost all you see is just crying out to be photographed -from grand portals to elegant arches and balconies full of flowersto plant-filled courtyards and crumbling cannons sitting pointing out over the Caribbean. Cartagena isn’t simply an instant window onto the glorious and often tumultuous past but an especially stunning one too.
Among the many treasures you can explore during your Cartagena day are a 400 year old cathedral, a palace which was once home to the Spanish Inquisition and a wealth of museums displaying indigenous gold artifacts and emeralds brought forth from Colombian mines. Browse the handicrafts displayed forsale in former dungeon cells, take a pause in the ultimate calm of a convent cloister or drink in incredible views from atop the city walls.
Cartagena has a new delight to discover round every corner and the only problem you will have in this magnificent destination is how to fit it all into your day.
A Morning in Cartagena
Your Cartagena morning begins with a discovery of some of the Old Town’s historic highlights. After coffee you can continue your meanderings or head off to one of the city’s most overlooked treasures –the beautiful Santa Cruz Convent. Another choice to round off your morning is the imposing Spanish fortress of San Felipe.
Cartagena’s Old Walled Town
There are many cities and towns littered around Latin America which are full of old colonial leftovers. Their glory and splendor echo down the centuries, with churches, forts, palaces and grand houses telling endless stories of the supreme wealth and power of the Spanish conquistadors.
However, none do this quite as spectacularly as Cartagena; a town so well preserved and rich in historical treasures that wandering around can feel like having stepped onto a movie set.
Almost everything here is centuries old –from the imposing fortified walls strewn with the cannons which saw off multiple pirate attacks to the squares surrounded by towering colonial structures.
The whole is a marvelous feast for the eyes with buildings in vibrant shades of sunshine yellow, acid-pink and lilac from which ornate balconies spill rainbow-hued flowers and blooms. Amid the overall magnificence are 101 smaller but no less wonderful details. Some of these are impossible to miss such as the brightly-dressed palenqueras –descendants of the first freed slave settlement in the Americas. Others –such as the door-knockers –are not so obvious.
All over town you will see over-size and ornate door-knockers which hold clues as to who once lived within. Fish or other ocean animals were the symbol of sea merchants, lions were used by those with some military connection while hands were for religious leaders. Today the tradition of fanciful knockers continues and are attached according to taste rather than profession but many which you see are as old as the buildings they adorn.
There are statues and art everywhere, frequent dance performances in the squares and occasionally you will come across the surprisingly different such as the exterior wall of the Marzola Parilla Argentina restaurant on Calle 39 covered with mirrors, clocks and shelves of old wine bottles.
The streets resound to the clop of horses hooves which although these days are used to convey visitors on sightseeing tours add considerably to the bygone atmosphere.
The area within the walled city is relatively small and easily explored on foot but so plentiful are the highlights it is impossible to see everything in a short space of time. Nothing short of a fantastic open-air museum, Cartagena’s atmosphere and sights are best soaked up by simply wandering but there are a few not-to-be-missed stops however.
Torre del Reloj –The Clock Tower
Ornately tiered and bright yellow, the 17th century clock tower is the old city’s most instantly recognizable feature. It sits above the entrance which takes you under and through the imposing walls and was once the site of a drawbridge and moat.
Plaza de Los Coches
This is the first of the many squares which you arrive at and stepping into this large plaza instantly surrounds you on all sides by Cartagena’s beautiful colonial buildings. If you have a sweet tooth be sureto have a wander beneath the arches here. The stalls you’ll find are packed with glass jars all filled with a mouthwatering range of traditional candies and treats. The practice of selling such things in this very spot is an old one hence the name –the Portal de los Dulces or Candy Hall.
Plaza de San Pedro
One of the walled city’s loveliest squares, San Pedro is home to a modern art museum housed inside a 1600s custom house and the lovely San Pedro Claver Church. The square is always full of locals, sitting chatting on benches, and also has a wonderful collection of metal sculptures depicting ordinary scenes of life and work such as the seamstress at her sewing machine or two men playing chess.
The 16th century church –dedicated to the patron saint of slaves, St. Pedro Claver, and also the site of his tomb –is worth a look inside for its lovely architecture.
Plaza de Bolivar, the Cathedral and the Inquisition Palace
Another candidate for Cartagena’s loveliest square, this leafy, gated space with its fountains sits at the center of the walled town. Often alive with the vibrant colors and sounds of Afro-Colombian dancers staging impromptu performances in the shade of the overhanging trees, the square is dominated by the statue of Simon Bolivar. Known as the Liberator, this Venezuelan military leader is hailed as a hero all over the continent for his role in helping several countries throw off the yoke of Spanish control.
Bordering the square are two of the city’s most historically significant buildings –the cathedral and the Inquisition Palace. The cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria–also called the Minor Basilica –dates from the late 1500s and is widely accepted to be one of the most beautiful buildings of the Old Town despite such fierce competition. Topped by a distinctive terracotta and ocher colored tower which features heavily on postcards and tourist literature and was a later addition, the cathedral was the town’s original church and has a beautiful gilded altar inside.
The western side of the square is home to the 18th century Palace of the Inquisition which has a gory and horror-filled past as a place of imprisonment and torture. The museum which it houses today is part of your afternoon’s explorations as is the Zenu Gold Museum which is on the opposite side of the plaza.
Santo Domingo Square and Santo Domingo Convent
This bar-and restaurant-filled square represents the Old Town at its most bustling and after dark is the beating heart of its nightlife. Vendors are forever present here while at the center reclines the famous nude statue known as Fat Gertrude or La Gorda Gertrudis. This lady’s physical characteristics are indeed ample –the work of Fernando Botero –and she is never short of company as tourists pose for photographs and rub her left breast for luck which has received so much attention it is now showing definite signs of wear.
Dominating the entire scene is the sunshine-yellow 16thcentury Santo Domingo Convent with its grand portico and square bell-tower which rises from its right-hand edge.
Plaza de las Bovedas
Forming the north-west extremity of the old walled town, the elegant arches of Las Bovedas are today home to artisans and vendors selling their wares and handicrafts.
This 18th century building –which was to be the last erected by the Spaniards in their grand colonial style –was originally used to house military supplies but was turned into a series of dungeons in the early 1800s as the populace started to fight back against Spanish rule. With the waters of the Caribbean Sea just meters away, the story is often told that those who were unfortunate enough to find themselves imprisoned here would have to suffer frequent flooding of their cells at each high tide.
Today, these very same cells sitting beneath almost 50 arches are each home to a small shop. Here you can find such things as hammocks, handmade bags, jewelry, paintings and unusual home-wares making Las Bolvedas –which means the vaults or the caverns in Spanish –the ideal place to come for all those hunting down gifts and souvenirs.
The Walls and Viewpoints
There are several sections of the Old Town walls where you can climb atop and wander amid the ancient structures and past rusting cannons. Most of these come complete with fantastic views of the Caribbean and with sometimes sweeping elevated look-outs over the majestic old churches, convents, palaces and parks. One of these is the Bulwark of Saint Dominic which is located at the extreme western edge of the town.
Morning Coffee in Cartagena
You can take a pause and quick (or leisurely) coffee break from your morning meanderings whenever it suits you and with a plentiful array of lovely cafes to choose from you won’t have to look too hard. As a coffee-producing country Columbia’s cafes typically offer quality brews while Cartagena’s choices also allow you to factor in some incredible and charming views and venues in a city awash with ancient history.
Arguably the award for the cafe with the most fantastic interior goes to Abaco Libros Cafe and if you are a book fan this is somewhere not to be missed. A scattering of wooden chairs and tables are surrounded by shelves that stretch from floor to ceiling (which goes way over head height) and are stuffed with books in both English and Spanish. The air is one of tranquility and coziness and the coffee excellent quality which together offer a little oasis of calm in which to refresh yourself before hitting the bustling Cartagena streets again.
As previously mentioned top-notch coffee is something of a given in this city and places such as the modern Folklore Colombian Cafe raise the standards higher still with skilled baristas and extra variety for true connoisseurs.
For many however, choosing a cafe in Cartagena is as much about the views and taking in the gorgeous surroundings of this incredible city as anything else and if so simply wander until you find a cafe that has set up tables in the street and gives you whatever you decide is the best view; you won’t have to wander far before finding any number of choices and the area of Getsemani is one option of this kind.
Still part of the Old Town but outside the walled section, Getsemani offers the same richness of history but without the polished refinement -an element which makes it, for many, even more charming and rather more authentic. Head to Plaza Trinidad, grab a pavement table at one of the cafes such as Cafe la Trinidad which line one side overlooking the lovely church and soak up the atmosphere of this bustling little square.
After your break for coffee you can decide how you want to round off your morning. You will not have been able to fit in all of the historic center’s highlights before your morning pause so you can simply continue exploring the town’s treasures. Or, for a slight change of scene and the most spectacular views, head to the beautiful Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa –itself a historical treasure -which sits perched high above the walled city.
The Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa
The beautiful Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa is located 5km from the Old Town’s iconic clock tower and perched atop the city’s highest point on a hill covered in tropical greenery. Such a separation, albeit small, combined with the almost overwhelming quantity of riches contained within the Old Town which take up the entire attention of the majority of visitors mean the convent is often overlooked and far less visited.
However, so lovely is this white-washed and red-tiled building infused with tranquility that all who venture here are glad they made the effort.
This former religious complex of the Augustinian friars which dates from the 1600s doesn’t take long to explore although you may find it difficult to tear yourself away from the exquisitely gorgeous enclosed cloister. Filled with plants and trees and spilling tropical blooms from all sides, the cobblestones are surrounded by two levels of arches and beautiful architecture which weave a dappled tapestry of cool shade and bright sunlight.
Unprotected by the imposing walls which surround the Old Town, the convent has suffered various attacks over the centuries and has been subject to several restorations giving it a slightly patchwork aspect which only adds to its charm. Much of the convent’s history is unknown as what historical records there were perished during the raids and onslaughts it has seen. Local legend however still relates the story of how the convent’s founder decided to build herein order to exorcise the evil spirit which took the form of a goat and which had been worshiped by locals, still strangers to Christianity at the time.
The small chapel with its ornate gold altar is beautiful to see and the small museum interesting but perhaps the scene-stealer of any trip here is the million-dollar view. From atop this hill you can take in all of Cartagena –both ancient and modern –with the sparkling Caribbean and islands forming the backdrop.
An Alternative to the Santa Cruz Convent –the San Felipe Fortress
Another must-see Cartagena sight is also, like the convent, found outside the city walls, this time just 1km away from the clock tower and easily reached on foot.
Widely considered to be the best example of Spanish colonial military architecture found anywhere in the Americas, the 16thcentury San Felipe castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Strategically sited atop San Lazaro hill to command views over potential attacks approaching by both land and sea, this imposing structure is a labyrinth of tunnels and passageways, all of which can be explored. Head up to the parapets for some fantastic views of the bay and city.
Lunch in Cartagena
It is very easy to work up an appetite wandering around and exploring the Cartagena highlights and when it comes to lunchtime you are in for a treat. Cartagena has plentiful eating choices and places for every taste and every budget and no matter whether your ideal spot is something of the humble, hole-in-the-wall and authentic variety or a sophisticated restaurant you will be able to find it here.
For something within the hidden gem category El Boliche Cebicheriais a wonderful choice for ceviche fans. Located within the historic center off an easily missed side-street, this small restaurant deals directly with fishermen who use traditional methods while also ensuring all its ingredients are ethically sourced and local. With tamarind and coconut cropping up time and again, the ceviche choices here offer a lunch as fresh as it gets with everything arriving at your table notable for its lovely presentation. What’s more, the inventive twists on the varieties here will give the taste buds of even the most dedicated ceviche fan some entirely new experiences.
The tiny restaurant is charming too –wooden tables and mismatched chairs, brightly painted wall-murals and countless little touches all make for lovely surroundings which, with the excellent ceviche, add up to a memorable Cartagena lunch.
Another tucked away treasure which you are unlikely to stumble across unless you know it is there is Montmatre. Pass through the small door, climb the narrow stairs and you will arrive at a small space, simply decorated with exposed brick walls, a pitched wooden roof and stone floors. The theme here is French bistro and as the owner and head chef is French you can expect authentic. Choose from the menu of French classics, some with a Latino twist, or opt for the three-course lunch which offers exceptional value.
An Afternoon in Cartagena
Alongside its obvious treasures which can be viewed by simply strolling the streets Cartagena also has a wonderful selection of museums with diverse themes. These allow you to explore more closely some specific Cartagena elements such as its emeralds, city life through the centuries or the story of the brutal Spanish Inquisition.
The Museum of the Palace of the Inquisition
Sitting at one side of the pretty Bolivar square of the Old Town is a building which many consider to be one of the city’s most beautiful. Dating from the 18th century the entrance-way is a grand arched portal framed by bougainvillea tumbling down in a profusion of blooms and aromas from the balconies.
However, despite its outward loveliness this grand building hides a history of horror. At the center of some of the city’s darkest and most macabre chapters, this palace was once home to the Court of the Holy Office. More commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition, this body of the Catholic Church was responsible for extracting confessions by torture from supposed heretics before putting them to death in the inner courtyard.
After passing beneath the majestic entrance-way you arrive at a tranquil tree-filled courtyard, surrounded by cheerful yellow-painted walls and intricate tiles. As you stand in this peaceful and pretty place it is almost impossible to believe what atrocities and suffering it has seen.
Hundreds of denounced heretics, suspected witches and all those who spoke out in any way against the church entered here to undergo trials by torture although not one was ever found innocent. The practice continued until 1812 when Spanish rule was toppled.
The whole of the lower level is given over to a museum related to this disturbing historical period with many torture instruments and devices on display. Upstairs the theme is a more general history of the city which covers indigenous culture along with explorations of daily Cartagena life from various historical periods.
Cartagena’s Other Museums
The gruesome theme of torture and death may not appeal to all and if so the city has plenty of other fascinating museum alternatives beside the Inquisition Palace. These include:
The Zenu Gold Museum–Sitting opposite the Inquisition Palace is the small butwonderful (and also free to enter) Zenu Gold Museum housed in one of the city’s colonial era mansions. The Cartagena region was once home to an indigenous people known as the Zenu whose skill with working gold was legendary. Here you can see examples of their exquisite work along with many other gold pieces from all over the country.
The Emerald Museum –Caribe Jewelry Museum and Factory –Columbia is a country rich in emeralds with several existing mines still in operation. A visit to this museum will not only bring you face-to-face with some outstanding specimens of this natural treasure but also allow you to understand something of the processes of this gem industry. You will see replica mine set-ups, be able to see cutters and polishers at work, wander various exhibitions of gem stones and see jewelry artisans crafting stunning pieces from gold, silver and the emeralds themselves.
The Museum of Modern Arts –This is one of the few Old Town attractions which focuses on modern times although its home –the old customs house -is one of the city’s historic leftovers. With a collection of hundreds of pieces first gathered together in the 1950s, this museum showcases modern art and features both permanent and temporary exhibitions
Pedro Claver’s House–Part of the Pedro Claver Church and Cloister in the Old Town, this museum –once the home of Pedro Claver –is dedicated to his life and work. Arriving in the city in the early 1600s, this priest and missionary became the champion of the African slaves who arrived in a steady stream at this major slave port in order to be transported to various parts of the Americas. The preserved house itself is beautiful as are the gardens and the story of this historical humanitarian is fascinating.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Cartagena
Cartagena’s Old City has a wonderful drinking and dining scene. Wandering within the old wallssurrounded by its historical splendor or strolling the less polished but charmingly vibrant area of Getsemani will present you with a wealth of choices. Within the overall collection are everything from cocktail bars filled with salsa beats to some of thefinest restaurants found in the entire country.
When it comes to Caribbean Sea-view sunset spots and an idyllic perch upon the very city walls themselves, the well-known Cafe del Mar grabs all the attention. Lesser known however and offering that very same fantastic view from atop the walls is Casa de la Cerveza.
The lovely alfresco terrace here is strewn about with elegant cushioned loungers, wooden tables and chairs just made for relaxing. Despite its name which translates to ‘beer house’ there are also a great range of cocktails as well as sangria, wine and spirits while the sublime views encompass not just the Caribbean Sea beyond Bocagrande but also the imposing Spanish fort of San Felipe.
If atmosphere is the main deal-maker or breaker for you when it comes to finding the perfect spot for pre-dinner drinks you need to head to the Plaza Trinidad.Outside of the walled city and within the wonderfully bohemian and quintessentially Colombian Getsemani area of the Old Town, this square always has something going on. Souvenir vendors spread their wears on the ground, mobile stalls wafting mouth-watering aromas serve up street foodand it isn’t unusual to find music and dancing of either the laid-on or totally impromptu kind to keep you entertained.
Bordered on one side by the picturesque Holy Trinity Church painted in bright yellow and beautifully lit at night, this plaza is also edged by cafes, bars and restaurants. From the tables of each of these which spill out onto the cobbles for alfresco eating and drinking you will have a perfect view of all that is going on.
If you want a slightly elevated view of it all head to the upstairs of the Solar Bar on the corner and grab a balcony seat. All the usual drink choices are available here along with some cocktail options
While Cartagena is not short of elegant restaurant options the beautiful Alma has to be a top choice for those looking for a distinctively romantic air. What’s more, Alma is fine dining with all the atmosphere but without the pretense and offers both indoor and alfresco seating.
The interior’s tones of white walls and honey-wood hung with chandeliers from its high ceilings and lit by candles is a tranquil and sophisticated space while the courtyard is especially lovely. Floored with tiles and dotted about with plants, this alfrescospace is ideal for an intimate dining experience and if you are here from Wednesdays to Saturdays you can also enjoy some tropical-themed live music as you dine.
The emphasis here is on traditional Colombian Caribbean cuisine, beautifully presented and although the menu is relatively small it seems to cover everything from lamb to prime steak and lobster to ceviche. Be sure to save some room for one of their delectable desserts such as the ‘coco snooky’ which blends milk, coconut, sponge cake, mint, ice-cream and meringue for a meal finale made in heaven.
For something a little livelier head to La Vitrola where the theme is 1950s Cuba and where the clientele frequently break off mid-meal for a spot of salsa when there is live music. The menu here is particularly vast with the main theme that of seafood and Latin dishes from both Colombia and further afield. Although the vibe is fun and informal the food quality is considered of the highest Cartagena standard and you can expect crisp table cloths and attentive service too.
An Evening in Cartagena
It is highly unlikely you will have been able to see all of Cartagena’s multiple wonders during the day and the relative cool of evening allows you to wander more comfortably and take in anything you might have missed.
After dark is a great time to explore the area known as Getsemani –still part of the Old Town but located outside the walls. Not so long ago this neighborhood was a no-go for visitors; very definitely the dark underbelly of the city peopled by prostitutes, drug dealersand those generally up to no good. Times change however and today it has become arguably the most happening and lively area of the city.
It lacks the polish and perfect restoration that defines the Old Town within the city walls but it is this very element which appeals to many who feel its faded splendor charms offer a more authentic experience. Here, cobble-stoned streets criss-cross each other opening out into charming plazas; beautiful street art and murals by highly talented artists adorn buildings and churches are romantically lit. The night becomes filled with 101 aromas from the street food vendors which are everywhere and the sounds of Cuban salsa spill out of the plentiful bars.
Simply strolling is perhaps the best way to explore with nowhere particular in mind to be but if you’d like to pause for a while with a drink make your way to the small but lovely Trinidad Square which often has live musicians playing or impromptu dance performances and is nothing short of magical at night.
The City Walls
Several sections of the ancient walls can be walked and this is a lovely way to spend some of your evening taking in the elevated views of Cartagena by night.
Cartagena has several rooftop bar choices and heading to one of these spots after dinner makes for a great way to round off your Cartagena adventure and take advantage of a cooling breeze in the tropical night. Alquimico is one of the options here which offers touches of luxury and a little magic with a fairy light-lit open-air patio atop an old colonial mansion.
Music and Dancing
Wandering either within the Old Town walls or the hip neighborhood of Getsemani in the evenings could reward you with live dance andmusic performances at every turn you take and are typically a normal part of every night in the plazas.
If you want to get a little more involved and still have some energy to spare after dinner you might want to join the locals at one of the live music salsa bars and clubs either to watch and marvel at some expert maneuvers or to try it out for yourself. Nobody cares if you you can dance or not; the only necessary element is a smile and a willingness to try and don’t be surprised if a local takes your hand and offers to guide you through a few steps.
Choices are plentiful but arguably the most iconic is Getsemani’s Cafe Havana where the crowd is typically a mix of ex-pats, locals and curious city visitors. The band here is normally made up of more musicians and instruments than you can count and counting will certainly start to get a little difficult if you enjoy too many of the especially potent rum cocktails served here!
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