The magnificent fortresses and walls encircling Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are part of a earnestly restored and historically important center showcasing museums, churches, plazas, and shops. These, merged together, create a vibrant and dynamic coastal destination that’s at once surprising, gritty, appealing, and interestingly infectious. The center once attracted pirates going for gold stolen from indigenous people and safeguarded within the walls. The walls also once protected a prominent New World African slave market. Today, Cartagena’s historical remnants blend with an even newer world, one that feels fresh, innovative, and has a lot to offer inquisitive minds.
Visit Barrio San Diego
In the north end of Cartagena is Barrio San Diego, a district filled with peaceful streets and lined with broad colonial homes and large, white-washed, ocher, and blue estates. The neighborhood is an invigorating sight. This up-and-coming district is enjoying true gentrification. Throughout the neighborhood, blooming flowers spill over steep balconies and cracked open doors divulge courtyards thick with lush vegetation. Walking through the barrio, you’ll see a spread of vendors with their wares laid out along street side booths, horse-drawn carriages, pretty, tiled street signs, and local musicians serenading passers by. The local treasure in Barrio San Diego is the plaza, with the School of Fine Arts front and center, situated in a former, historic convent. At the wall’s northern end, The Vaults (Las Bóvedas) draw plenty of attention, 18th century storage rooms created to house military equipment. These rooms are now home to a host of shops geared toward tourists, selling handicrafts and other locally made goods.
Explore Old Town
Old Town is one of Cartagena’s most endearing districts, enclosed by stone walls flanked with palms and dotted with old fortresses. Old Town, or Cuidad Amurallada, has been restored impressively and is a center home to several good museums, busy plazas, ancient churches, and plenty of shops offering an array of things to do in the city’s most interesting quarter. Years of restructuring have seen new restaurants and hotels built within Old Town which now means tourists can find commendable accommodations where they were once lacking. Pedro de Heredia founded the city in 1533 when it was South America’s only port to the mainland. Historically, the city had been looted and attacked by pirates for years and was also home to one of the most prominent African slave markets of the New World. Today, it’s a bustling center that’s as interesting to sit back and watch as it is to explore.
Walk the Old Stone Walls
Taking a walking tour around Cartagena’s Old Town is a worthy experience and one not to be missed. The surrounding ancient walls give the center a snug, secure feel. But walking around and seeing the walls from the ground level is simply not enough if you want to feel the real city atmosphere. Find a set of stairs along the wall and climb on up–anyone can do it. You’ll be doing yourself a huge favour because it’s from these walls you’ll not only experience 400-year-old construction but everything comes into view perfectly. The gleaming Caribbean Sea is to the right and the painstakingly revived medieval avenues to the left. Take in the panoramas along a two-kilometer walk along the wall during the day, or save it for sunset when you can enjoy the setting light with cocktail in hand at Café del Mar, a small bar with outdoor stools on the wall.
Convento de la Popa
Convento de la Popa is a strategically built monastery reached by a steep climb up one of Cartagena’s most scenic locations. Built in the 17th century, the monastery was periodically used as a protective fortress throughout the colonial era. The name translates into Convent of the Stern because of how similar the convent’s back end is to a ship’s stern. When originally constructed, the chapel was a small, wooden building eventually replaced by a stronger structure when fortification of the hill took place just before Pablo Morillo’s persecution two centuries later. Today the chapel is devoted to Virgen de la Candelaria, the patron saint of Cartagena–you can see an image of her inside. Heading up the hill, the rest at the top involves flower-filled patios and breathtaking city views that stretch on endlessly. The safest ways to arrive at the convent are by taxi–ask the driver to wait–or by horse drawn carriage tours (Cartagena’s chivas), a popular way to see the sights.
Climb Castillo de San Felipe
The old city of Cartagena rarely gives any reason to vacate but for an adventurous spirit, a trip outside the city walls to Castillo de San Felipe can be an exceptionally rewarding experience, especially if you’ve been city-bound for too long. Castillo de San Felipe is huge–massive most might say–and was built by Spanish settlers’ slaves throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as a strategy to defend the telluric flank at the port. Striking out for a climb anywhere in Columbia is best done in early morning or the sun’s beating heat will fry any plans of going further, especially if the trip is long. A collection of hidden tunnels are located throughout the fortress and can be explored independently or with a guide. Anyone traveling with kids ought to give the tunnels a look–they’re definitely a favourite with young ones–magical and mysterious and fun to walk through.
Stroll Through Getsemaní
Once troubled and in shambles, the Getsemaní quarter is located a little farther beyond the upscale areas of Cartagena. Today, it radiates a fresh, free-spirited energy with an infusion of new bars and restaurants along with a handful of laudable boutique hotels. The busy, narrow streets are where locals stop to chat. They gather within the heart of the neighborhood, Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad, a day-to-day social center and destination for local events. Getsemaní is definitely still going through a slow overhaul, and although to some, the area still appears somewhat run down, to locals, it’s vastly improved and a favourite haunt. Walking along streets like Calle de la Sierpe, the street art stands out brightly, contributing to social commentary on life in Columbia. Many buildings, or at least parts of them, are painted in vibrant, cheery hues while immense vines climb across balconies and telephone posts, offering some natural appeal in a mostly concrete backdrop. Drop by on an evening weekend for a lively show of camaraderie.
Take a Museum Tour
Cartagena is home to three well-maintained and interesting museums, all within a block or so of each other and easily explored in less than 45 minutes each. Museo del Oro Zenú (The Gold Museum) is established inside a grand Baroque estate, a smaller version of Museum del Oro, the famous gold museum in Bogota. A detailed collection of gold and Zenú pottery is housed here– if you’re overheating, take fair advantage of the glacially set air conditioning. The Museo de Arte Moderno presents an extremely impressive gallery within a brightly coloured building where inside, the walls are made of beautiful stone full of character and a soothing backdrop to the fine art on display. The remarkable art pieces are from renowned national artists like Dario Morales. A quick walk to the plaza’s opposite side is Palacio de la Inquisición, an interesting yet somewhat unsettling museum exhibiting torturous instruments used by the Roman Catholic Church to combat agnosticism in the New World’s.