Things to Do in Caribbean Coast
A leisurely walk through the narrow streets of Old Town Cartagena, with bougainvillea spilling off second-floor balconies and brightly painted Colonial houses, invites visitors to escape into the past. The bustle of daily life mixes with the historical architecture of this walled city by the ocean. In addition to the beautiful boutique stores, numerous restaurants, and colorful street vendors, there are many treasures to see around town and just outside the city walls. The leafy Plaza de Bolivar serves as a good place to start a tour in Cartagena and to see some of the local culture and buy fruit from the colorfully dressed women known as palanqueras. Next to the plaza, the free Gold Museum (Museo de Oro) displays pieces that tell the history of the Zenú indigenous tribe. The nearby Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisición) provides a rather gruesome look at Colombia’s past and the Spanish Inquisition -- some of the torture devices used on the accused are on display.
Cartagena’s strategic significance as Europe’s conquest of the Americas intensified cannot be overstated. Some say that if the British had won the 1741 Battle of Cartagena, that South America would now speak English. They didn’t, largely because of massive El Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the largest and most formidable Spanish colonial fortress in the hemisphere.
Begun in 1536, almost immediately after the conquistadors arrived, the massive megastructure sits atop San Lazaro Hill, with flawless views across the harbor. Bristling with cannons and other armaments, it was enlarged and re-fortified in 1657 and 1763 as part of an ongoing arms race against other European powers. A marvel of military engineering, the compound’s angles and parapets offer maximum coverage, and are connected by a warren of secret tunnels threading the mountain of stone.
Take the wooden steps up the 15-meter mud mound that is Totumo Volcano (Volcán de Lodo El Totumo) then look down to be greeted by a mud bath big enough to fit dozens of bathers. A popular day trip from Cartagena, it's said that the volcano goes hundreds of meters deep, but when you dip into the warm mud you'll find that it's so dense it's impossible to do anything but bob about at the top. While wallowing, it’s possible to pay one of the attendants for a personal massage.
Legend has it that Totumo Volcano used to spew out fire and lava, but a local priest, believing such hellfire to be the work of the devil, used holy water to turn it all to mud. After the bath, everyone heads to the next-door lagoon to wash off the gloop, which local women will help you wash off with buckets of water, for a small fee, if you wish.
Iglesia Santo Domingo, founded in 1534, is the oldest church in Cartagena and one of the first in the hemisphere. The original stone structure, finished in 1551, was so badly damaged by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 that a new church needed to be built; the current incarnation was finally completed some time during the 1700s.
The cool, spacious interior, with its imposing central nave lined with massive stone columns and inspiring marble altar are unusual, and certainly worth a look. Most travelers will spend more time on Plaza Santo Domingo, right out front, the spot to enjoy a little rest and relaxation of a premium-priced beverage. Surrounded by some of the city’s finest architecture, and filled with umbrella-shaded café tables, the plaza is also a magnet for souvenir vendors. Be sure to bargain.
Gleaming white in its vantage point, high above Cartagena’s protected bay, the Convento de la Popa is visible from almost anywhere in the city. Though it’s a bit of a chore to get here—you’ll need to hire a taxi (to avoid walking through poor, rather unsafe neighborhoods) or book a city tour—it’s worth the effort.
The convent itself is quite pretty, particularly the flower-filled interior courtyard of graceful stone arcades. It was founded by an Augustian order in 1607, after Father Alonso de La Cruz Peredes received a divine message to build the chapel in honor of Cartagena’s Patron, Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria. Her lovely gold altar also worth a look.
But you’re really here for the grand views over the city, from atop a 150m (500ft) hill above the bay. You can see almost everything, from the the delicate strand of skyscrapers rising from slender Boca Grande, to the dusty reds of tejas tiles topping the old walled city.
At the northeastern corner of the old walled city is Cartagena’s grandest arcade, stretching with imperial purpose from Santa Clara to Santa Catalina Fortress. Behind the 47 painted archways are a string colorful souvenir shops, well stocked with all the emeralds, Botero knockoffs, hammocks, hats and molas that your coworkers and catsitters might desire. These unusually proportioned alcoves are interspersed with equally cramped bars, galleries, and other businesses. It’s a fun place to shop and photogenic spot to enjoy, but the rather oppressive barrel ceilings that overarch each vault (boveda) come with a bit of history. The vaulted alcoves were originally built into the massive sea wall between 1792 and 1796, and at first used to store provisions. They were repurposed during the early 1800s as an incredibly uncomfortable prison.
This shady park, centered on a trickling fountain and statue of Simon Bolivar, is a more local hangout spot than the upmarket cafes taking over Plaza Santo Domingo. The benches are full of pensive-looking old men, and wandering baristas make their rounds, selling sweet sips of “tinto,” black coffee, for a few pesos. The afternoon entertainment might well be an itinerant preacher saving souls for centavos.
Of course, it’s a fine place for travelers just looking for a shady spot to relax. The square is surrounded by some of the city’s prettiest buildings, and you’ll be able to buy the same shell jewelry, woven hats, beautiful watercolors, and Botero knockoffs from Plaza Bolivar’s vendors as you would anywhere else within the city walls.
Simón Bolivar is viewed as the Liberator of much of northern South America and is considered one of the most important Latin American political figures who ever lived. He was born in Caracas, the son of wealthy landowners, and led the independence movement, eventually achieving independence from Spain for what was then called Gran Colombia, covering most of northern South America.
Simón Bolivar spent his last days at La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino near Santa Marta, a quinta (large house) and hacienda (farm) built in the 17th century. At that time the estate produced rum, honey and panela, a sugar cane product. Bolivar died of tuberculosis in one of the rooms there on December 17, 1830. Now the Quinta is a tourist site, museum and historical landmark. The main house, painted a deep yellow color, is where Simon Bolivar breathed his last breath.
The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, is the archaeological site of an ancient indigenous city in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Thought to have been a commercial center for trade around 700 A.D., its population probably ranged between 1,400 and 3,000 inhabitants. Hidden in the jungle for over a thousand years, the Lost City was found in 1972 when treasure hunters followed a series of stone steps leading up to an abandoned city.
The Lost City is open to visitors, but the trip is not for the faint of heart. The nearly 30 mile trek takes visitors through farmland and jungle on an unforgettable six-day journey. Part of the adventure includes trekking over mountains filled with exotic plants and animals, climbing stone paths through dense jungle, bathing in waterfalls and sleeping in indigenous villages.
Upon arriving at Lost City, climb more than 1,000 stone steps to the top of the site for incredible views of the surrounding mountains and jungle.
Opened in 1982, Cartagena's Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Zenu) is dedicated to Colombia's indigenous Zenu people. Housed in a grand colonial building facing the Plaza Bolivar, the first room greets visitors with a pre-Hispanic golden jaguar and an ornate gold filigree butterfly. In fact, there are 538 gold pieces to see, as well as 61 carvings, including bone carvings, which you'll find in the next room — La Sociedad — dedicated to the body painting and textile traditions of the Zenú.
The final exhibit, La Epoca Hidráulico, profiles the Zenú people's hydraulic engineering feats. It's estimated that, up to 2,500 years ago, half a million hectares of Panzenu land was cultivated with the aid of a vast network of hand-excavated canals that ran up to 4km long and 10 meters wide, making them some of the largest man-made features in the Americas. Cartagena’s Gold Museum also has an onsite bookshop and auditorium.
More Things to Do in Caribbean Coast
Cartagena’s Catedral de San Pedro Claver, so close to the sea wall, seems unduly imposing for such a sanctified site. Begun in 1575, when this was a very rough neighborhood, its unfinished fortifications were destroyed in 1586 during a tiff with Sir Francis Drake and his pirate crew, and rebuilt by 1602.
Its namesake, San Pedro Claver Corberó, did not arrive until 1610. The Spanish-born priest arrived in Cartagena, then a slave-trading hub, as a novice priest. Horrified by the treatment of African captives, sold to a motley crew of middlemen on what’s now Plaza de los Coches, the young man became an activist, writing in his diary, “Pedro Claver, slave of the slaves forever (3 April 1622).”
Pedro would not only baptize newly enslaved arrivals right in the cathedral’s courtyard well (which was already controversial), but he would then explain to the newly saved that they deserved all the rights held by other Christian citizens of the Spanish Empire.
At the base of the imposing San Felipe Castle, Cartagena’s Old Shoes Monument (Los Zapatos Viejos) is, you guessed it, a giant sculpture of a pair of old boots. A popular spot for a selfie or ten, the monument was created by the sculptor Hector Lombana as a reference to the popular poem, “Mi Ciudad Nativa,” by local poet, and one of South America’s most respected writers, Luis Carlos López.
In the final line, López compares the love and sense of comfort he feels for his hometown of Cartagena to that which he feels for a pair of worn-in, but familiar and comfortable shoes. And on a plaque in front of the famous sculpture, you can read the whole poem in full.
On the edge of Tayrona National Natural Park and the northern coast of Colombia, Crystal Beach is one of the most picturesque white sand beaches in South America. Its clear turquoise waters provide ideal conditions for swimming and snorkeling. Many come to relax on the soft sand shaded by coconut palms or to eat fresh seafood caught right off the shore. It is also a great base for exploring the Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most important protected ecological areas, for the day.
Marine life in the waters off Crystal Beach includes sea turtles, dolphins, and several species of fish. Even without spotting one these creatures, the coral and sponges of the reef provide colorful underwater scenes. The Caribbean reefs offshore also attract those seeking scuba diving and other water sports.
Built in 1911 to commemorate a century of Colombian independence, Cartagena’s Teatro Heredia was designed by Luis Felipe Jasper and based on the Italian-Caribbean design of Havana’s Tacon Theater. Restored in 1970 and again in 1988, the grand theater is famous for its Italian marble stairs and sculptures, and on the ceiling you can see artwork by the famous Cartagenan artist Enrique Grau.
Located in the Plaza de la Merced in Cartagena’s Old Town, the theater’s performance hall is known for its acoustics and shaped like a horseshoe, with Portuguese wooden balconies looking onto the stage which hosts local and international acts.
Officially named the Teatro Heredia Adolfo Mejia, on the second week of January each year, Teatro Heredia hosts the Classical Music Festival of Cartagena.
At the main entrance to Cartagena’s Old Town, La India Catalina Monument is a bronze rendering of the Doña Marina of Colombia — India Catalina.
The daughter of a local chief, in 1509 Catalina was abducted, aged 14, from her home in Galerazamba. Once she’d learned Spanish in the Dominican Republic, she was thereon required to accompany the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia as an interpreter and pacifying presence in interactions between the Spanish and indigenous groups.
The local Calamari people were decimated in the Spanish conquest, and that was in part due to Catalina’s collusion with the Spanish. In that sense, it might seem strange that the sculpture of her has become so iconic, but really, it’s a tribute to the indigenous people who inhabited this land before the Spanish conquest.
In Cartagena, the Casa de Rafael Núñez is a mansion that was once home to the famous politician, poet, and lawyer Rafael Núñez. The country's president on four occasions, Núñez' importance in Colombian history cannot be overstated — not only did he write the country's 1886 constitution, in effect until 1991; he also wrote the words to the Colombian national anthem.
A three-minute walk from the Walled City in El Cabrero, the Caribbean-Antillean styled white and green mansion was built in 1858, and today it's a museum where you can see Núñez' documents and personal possessions including furniture, paintings, and art. Just opposite the Casa de Rafael Núñez you'll see the chapel of Ermita del Cabrero, where the ashes of Núñez and his wife rest.
In Cartagena's Old Town, every evening the Plaza de San Diego becomes lively with street performers entertaining the crowds. Vendors sell everything from jewelry to Cuban cigars to paintings, and as the day ends, the traffic gets blocked on two sides so that more outdoor seating can be laid on outside the restaurants lining the square.
Surrounded by ice cream-colored buildings and bougainvillea-covered balconies just outside the Old Town’s core area, the Plaza de San Diego is a lasting relic of the wealth Cartagena held during the days of the gold, sugar, and slave trade's peak. Home to the famous Hotel Santa Clara, the square is a popular place to sit down, order a drink or a bite to eat, and watch the world go by while listening to live music by the local street performers.
This fun little museum on Plaza Bolivar, in an impressive 18th-century mansion, already attracts the morbidly inclined. Your tour begins with two entire rooms full of horrifying torture devices, used right here by the Cartagena chapter of the Spanish Inquisition. Between 1776 and 1821, when Independence heroes banned the practice, hundreds of people were tortured, and some killed, on suspicion of heresy or dabbling in witchcraft.
Head upstairs, however, for several excellent (and air-conditioned) exhibits illuminating less tragic period’s in the city’s history. You’ll find everything from paintings of Cartagena through the ages, to detailed dioramas (with cool cut-away interiors showing construction details of the cities finest buildings), as well as maps, ceramics, Independence-era cannons, pre-Columbian statues, and much more. Signage is in both Spanish and English, and offers often poignant commentary on the city’s history.
Less than an hour southwest of Cartagena’s port is a fragile archipelago of some 30 picture-perfect islands, wrapped in shimmering white-sand beaches, and strung like rosary beads through the deep blue Caribbean Sea. They sit atop the world’s third-largest barrier reef, which has protected as Islas del Rosario National Park since 1977. Though this clearly remains a mixed-use area, the designation has helped conserve 1300 species of flora and fauna present on and around the islands.
Dozens of operators offer day trips to the Islas del Rosario, which lie between 45 and 90 minutes southwest of the city, depending on the type of boat you’re on. As you cruise past Boca Chica and out into the open sea, don’t miss the 18th-century Spanish fortresses of of San Rafael and San Fernando.
Former Colombian football player Carlos Valderrama is known for his athletic ability and his outgoing personality, and this 22-foot-tall bronze statue of him in his hometown conveys both qualities. He is known as “El Pibe” or “the kid” and for his blond curly head of hair. His distinct personality has made him one of the most recognizable figures in football worldwide. Part of the Colombian national team in the 1990s, he represented Colombia in several international tournaments and became known for his skills in passing and accuracy in assisting. He is one of few foreign players who joined Major League Soccer in the United States.
His statue is the work of Colombian artist Amilkar Ariza, standing tall outside the Estadio Eduardo Santos in Santa Marta. It was erected in 2006 in honor of his contributions to Colombian national sports.
Santa Marta, surrounded by beaches and mountains, was the first city founded by the Spaniards in Colombia. Due to its cultural and historic importance, the historic center of Santa Marta was declared a national monument in the 1960’s. Five years ago it underwent a costly renovation and is proud to show off its new face and is best explored on foot.
The best place to start is from the center point of all towns in Colombia, the Simon Bolivar Plaza. The nearby Bank of Republic Library presently houses the Tayrona Gold Museum. Take time to see the displays of the fascinating gold pieces made centuries ago by the Tayrona indigenous group. Construction of the white-washed Santa Marta Cathedral was completed towards the end of the 18th century. Some of the features of the cathedral are its dome-shaped bell tower, the floor plan in the shape of a cross, the main area’s vaulted ceiling and the side chapel marble screens.
For a tropical paradise experience, Playa Blanca is about as good as it gets. A short boat ride from El Rodadero beach on Santa Marta, this calm beach away from the larger concentrations of tourists is ideal for leisurely swimming as well as snorkeling and water sports like banana boats or mini diving classes.
Every day boats head out in the morning from the El Rodadero beach. The boat ride is a bit rough and fast but is an adventure to remember. There are no docks when you arrive at Playa Blanca, so be ready to jump from the boat.
Playa Blanca is set in a protected bay with mountains rising in the background. As its name suggests, the sandy beaches are white and are lined with palm trees. Thatched roof huts, ranging in size from individual to large buildings, line the beach. The smaller ones near the water are available to rent for the day, and don’t be afraid to haggle to get a good price.
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