With its scenic setting on the Caribbean Sea and intact colonial city, Cartagena is Colombia’s cultural treasure. The Spanish originally came to these shores in search of the mythical El Dorado, but instead built this city between mountains and sea. The walls of its extensive Fort San Felipe de Barajas stretch for seven miles and are 25 feet thick, making them the longest in South America. Inside this impregnable fortress, Cartagena’s Ciudad Vieja, or Old City, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site heralded for its remarkable preservation. Its picturesque plazas and beautifully preserved buildings invite endless strolls and exploration.
Cartagena’s first inhabitants belonged to the Puerto Hormiga culture, which gave way to the more developed Monsú around 3,000 BC. Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia founded Cartagena de Indias in 1533 and named it after Cartagena, Spain. With ships passing through its ports at the height of the Spanish Empire carrying gold and other riches, locals amassed enormous fortunes, building spectacular mansions that can still be seen today.
Cartagena Lifestyle and Culture
In Cartagena’s Ciudad Vieja, or Old City, cobblestone streets lead to homes awash in bright blues and ochres. Intricately designed door knockers and swirls of magenta bougainvillea cling to walls. Spanish colonial buildings share real estate with republican and Italian styles. Lively Afro-Caribbean rhythms spill into the alleyways as straight-backed palenqueras–women balancing fruit bowls on their heads–offer a hint of the vibrancy that is a hallmark of the city. Large, mature trees shade charming plazas. In Plaza Santo Domingo, admire the bronze reclining nude sculpture by beloved native artist Fernando Botero. With his depictions of largely exaggerated human figures in a style that has come to be known as Boterismo, he is regarded as the most recognized contemporary artist from Latin America.
The peninsula of Bocagrande is Cartagena’s chic and modern beach area where luxury condos, upscale hotels and trendy cafés dominate the landscape. It’s a destination for well-heeled Colombians, food-loving travelers and nighttime revelers.
Colombians know how to party, and Carnaval de Cartagena, which celebrates the nation’s independence from Spain, is the biggest bash of all. Women in sequined costumes adorned with magnificent sprays of feathers parade the music-filled streets. Festivities culminate with the highly anticipated coronation of Miss Colombia.
Cartagena Sights and Landmarks
Cartagena’s Old City wouldn’t exist as it is today without the formidable Fort San Felipe de Barajas, whose fortified walls surround it. Built atop San Lázaro hill, it is considered one of the Spaniards’ greatest fortresses, boasting strategically positioned bunkers, batteries, parapets and a complex maze of tunnels. The Torre del Reloj, or Clock Tower, built at the start of the 17th century, marks the entrance to the Old City. Within these walls, every church warrants a visit, but the stunning church of San Pedro Claver tops the list with its marble altar and stained glass. Claver was the first person canonized in the New World and his body is kept in a casket within.
To learn more about Cartagena’s history, head to the Palace of Inquisition, where remnants of the notorious Spanish Inquisition can be found alongside historic artifacts from colonial and pre-Columbian times. Though the building has a dark past, its baroque stone gateway and long balconies help it strike quite a magnificent pose.
Convento de la Popa rests at the highest point in Cartagena, providing magnificent city views. This convent outside the city center was originally founded in 1607 and now houses a museum and chapel dedicated to Cartagena’s patron saint, the Virgen de la Candelaria.
Cartagena Entertainment and Activities
Learn about the construction of Fort San Felipe de Barajas during a visit to the imposing fortress. Its military engineer, Antonio de Arévalo, built its tunnels so that noise traveled easily through them, making it possible to hear enemy footsteps from far away or making it easy for soldiers to communicate.
One of the best ways to take in Cartagena is to simply meander the inner, walled Old Town, sipping fresh fruit shakes while admiring the impeccably restored architecture and following your curiosity. After a leisurely walk, perhaps stop at one of the outdoor cafés for fruit sangria and lively conversation.
For some Caribbean beach time, Bocagrande is the obvious choice with its long stretch of sand. At the far end of the Bocagrande peninsula lie El Laguito and Castillogrande, where locals and visitors share sand and sea. For a quieter option without the skyscraper backdrop, head about five miles north to the quaint fishing village of La Boquilla, a popular weekend escape for locals. Sit at one of the thatched-roof eateries for fresh fish and plantains, then lie on the beach or take a canoe tour of the mangrove forests.
Cartagena Restaurants and Shopping
Colombian food varies widely by region, with spicier flavors along the Caribbean. Seafood, coconut rice and plantains are staples, as are fresh, tropical fruits. Arepas (corn cakes filled with meats and cheeses) are ubiquitous in Colombia, but the Cartagena version tends to be extra buttery and delicious. Ceviche, or citrus-marinated raw seafood, is also popular in this seaside town.
For fresh Caribbean flavors, try El Boliche Cebicheria, located in a tiny house within the walls of the Old Town. You’re sure to savor its fresh ceviche alongside inventive empanadas and fruity cocktails. El Santísimo features innovative Colombian dishes from land and sea in an elegant setting. For small plates, Demente features Spanish tapas in one of the city’s oldest homes. Exposed stone walls and a sleek wooden bar surround diners in rustic elegance.
Colombia is known for its emeralds, and Lucy Jewelry offers an array of these colorful gems. For handicrafts and souvenirs, visit the street vendors and small boutiques in the Old City. Stop in and browse Colombia Artesanal if you’re particularly interested in high-end crafts.