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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A striking reminder of Cartagena’s colonial heritage and standing proud at the heart of the historic district, Cartagena Cathedral (St Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral) is not only one of the city’s most notable landmarks, but one of Colombia’s most famous cathedrals. Dating back to 1577 and taking over 84 years to complete, the historic church is remarkably preserved, with recent renovations helping to restore its original features.
Today, the cathedral stands out thanks to its domed clock tower and bright yellow-painted façade, and makes a popular tourist attraction, as well as hosting daily services. Highlights of the cathedral include a series of exquisite frescos, an 18th-century gilded altar and a gleaming marble pulpit.
The coastal city of Cartagena is one of Columbia’s most-popular destinations. This fortress of a city was once the center of politics and economy. Today, remnants of this past draw visitors to its idyllic colonial streets, ornate cathedrals and beautiful beaches, making it a perfect destination for a day away from the ship.
A free shuttle bus transports passengers from the dock to exit gates where it’s easy to find taxis to Old Cartagena, about 25 minutes away. Get dropped at the Convention Center, since it’s easy to find most sites from here.
It’s easy to spend a day wandering the streets of Old Cartagena, where the city’s rich history comes alive. Explore the underground tunnels of the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas fortress or visit the unnerving Palacio de la Inquisition, where ancient tools of torture are on display. Then wander the streets of El Centro and San Diego where quaint homes, local restaurants and bustling cafes line the streets.
Opened in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the Americas, Cartagena's Naval Museum of the Caribbean tells the history of the city and its surrounding areas, as well as the story of how Panama became a separate country. Housed in what was once a Jesuit college, the whitewashed museum by the sea is easy to spot.
As you make your way round the exhibits, you'll see historic maps, ship tools, detailed model cityscapes, and model boats from throughout the centuries. And in the outer hall on the second floor, you'll get to see guns that have been salvaged from the seabed.
The history of Cartagena is immutably tied to its relationship with the sea, and the detailed texts on show at the Naval Museum of the Caribbean give a summary of 300 years of naval conflicts off the city’s shores. You'll learn all about the Spanish conquest of Colombia, and the later attempts of other European fleets to take Cartagena.