Lonely Planet describes Cartagena as “the undisputed queen of the Caribbean Coast, a fairytale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13km of centuries old colonial stone walls”.
There might be a bit of hyperbole in that description, but definitely there’s a reason Cartagena is the most visited place in Colombia.
Cartagena was founded in 1533. In 1552, a fire destroyed many of its wooden buildings, and since then only stone, brick and tile are allowed to be used as building materials. Built to last, the old town has survived many changes in fortune. In recent decades, the core of the old town, surrounded by the inner defensive wall which has stood for 400 years, has been transformed from virtual dereliction to a sparkling jewel of shops, restaurants, cathedrals and galleries, as well as the naval museum, history museum and gold museum.
It is, however, ridiculously hot, with a harsh white light that hurts your eyes and saps your energy. There’s lots of fruit vendors and drinks carts to fend off dehydration.
At the heart of the old town is leafy Plaza Bolívar, with a statue of Colombia’s great liberator, Simon Bolívar.
Facing the plaza is the Palace of the Inquisition, now a history museum.
The Punishment Tribunal of the Holy Office, aka the Spanish Inquisition, set up shop here in 1610 and stayed until Colombia gained independence in 1821. Heretics were denounced from this palace window and, if found guilty, were executed, usually by being burned at the stake. More than 800 colonials were killed, mostly for witchcraft, magic and blasphemy.
In the 1600s, Cartagena was a slave trading hub. More than 10,000 enslaved Africans transited through the city every year. Plaza de la Yerba was used as a market for slaves. The arched portico at ground level is now known as El Portal de Los Dulces and is lined with vendors selling traditional Colombian sweets made from coconut, tamarind, caramel and chocolate.
Spanish-born St Peter Claver came to Cartagena as a noviciate in 1610 and, after being ordained a priest, spent most of his lifetime ministering to slaves brought from Africa. He was way ahead of his time in considering them as fellow Christians when many considered them sub-human. As well as converting them, he provided health care and worked to get their basic human rights recognised. He was the first person in the New World to be canonised.
Following his death, the church and convent where he lived was re-named in his honour, the Convento and Iglesia de San Pedro Claver. You can visit the church, the room where San Pedro lived and the beautiful cloister.
In true Catholic tradition, his body is in a glass coffin within the church altar, complete with exposed skull.
Colombia’s most famous author, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and one of Julie’s favourite writers, Gabriel García Márquez came to Cartagena as a penniless student in 1948. He left after only a year, but visited often because his family moved to the city two years after he left. He loved the city and owned a house here until his death in 2014 at the age of 87.
Although he spent most of his adult years in Mexico, Cartagena had a profound influence on his writing. In an interview late in his life, he said “All of my books have loose threads of Cartagena in them. And, with time, when I have to call up memories, I always bring back an incident from Cartagena, a place in Cartagena, a character in Cartagena”.
It is therefore surprising that there is virtually no official reference to him here. No museum, no walking trail of sites related to his writings. But we found two murals dedicated to him: a street mural and one in the entrance to a hostel, showing quite different personalities.
From the window of our hotel room we could see Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, said to be the greatest fortress ever built by the Spanish in their colonies.
In response to repeated attacks by pirates, a small fort was built on the site in the late 1600s and progressively expanded to its current size. It has some ingenious features including an elaborate system of tunnels designed to echo the slightest sound to reveal any intruders, enable movement of provisions and facilitate evacuation.
An audio guide tells the story of the most famous siege, in 1741. Blas de Lezo, a Spanish officer who had already lost one arm, one leg and one eye in previous battles, with a fighting force of 2,500 ill-equipped soldiers saw off an attack by 25,000 led by English privateer, Edward Vernon.
The invaders successfully landed, and sought to attack the fortress from the hill above. The fortress was never breached and the English were defeated. The audio guide makes a big deal of the impenetrable nature of the fortress and the bravery of Blas de Lezo, although in truth the victory was also in large measure due to devastation of the English soldiers by malaria.
It’s a classic ‘David and Goliath’ tale. However it was almost impossible to take it seriously because the story is narrated by someone in the character of a soldier in Blas’ army whose Spanish-accented English sounded exactly like Antonio Banderas’ bumbling Puss in Boots character in the movie of the same name.
It didn’t help that the one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed Blas de Lezo evoked the Black Knight from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. This is unfortunate as he was apparently a clever strategist and obviously a courageous fighter, who later died from even more wounds sustained in this conflict. He is a national hero and his statue stands outside the fortress.
Between the fort and the inner walled old town is an outer wall encompassing what is now the suburb of Getsemani. It gets less attention than the old town but we found it more vibrant and eclectic, not least because it’s a living, residential area and not a restored ‘museum piece’. Bits of it are grungy, bits are tidy. All of it is colourful and bustling with activity.
Of all the places we have been, Getsemani does building decoration the best.
Street flags seem to have become a feature here.
It has some eclectic street art.
During the day, Plaza Trinidad looks like this.
At night, it transforms into this.
How can you not love a place where guys can just set up a mobile stand on the footpath with some plastic chairs across the street and start blending cocktails.
As we said, Cartagena is ridiculously hot during the day. Nightfall brings some relief, but it’s still a perfect excuse to pull up a plastic chair, sip on a mojito and watch the world go by. It’s city full of colour and activity. We loved it.