After almost five centuries of colonial heritage, the History of Cartagena Walled City seems to permeate with every step you take. This is one of the most storied and beautiful cities in Latin America. It was founded in 1533 by Don Pedro de Heredia on the site of the ancient Carib settlement of Calamari. The city’s full name, Cartagena de Indias, is a constant reminder that the Spaniards believed they had sailed not to America, but to the Far East.
Less than 20 years after the Spanish settlers’ arrival came the first of Cartagena’s many tragedies. Along with the city’s wealth, these create the dramatic history of this jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. In 1552 fire destroyed much of the already prosperous town.
Cartagena recovered quickly. Shortly after the port became the temporary repository for much of the treasure that was taken from the indigenous people. The warehouses soon filled with gems and gold. As they sat awaiting shipment to Spain the city quickly because a target for pirates. Perhaps the best-known of these was Sir Francis Drake. Known as ‘El Draque’ or ‘The Dragon’, he is still detested in this part of the world. In 1586 he destroyed Cartagena’s port. Returning to England with 10 million pesos, which was his reward for not turning his cannons on the town. His was just one of many similar attacks. In response the Spanish built forts and the walls that surround the city today.
Wealth and Independence
In 1650 they opened the Canal del Dique linking Cartagena to the ports of the Rio Magdalena. This created more wealth for the city. Its growing prosperity attracted Spaniards, Jews, Turks, Syrians, Italians and Lebanese amongst others. Many of their descendants still own businesses they started. Ensuring that the Cartagena of today remains a vibrant cosmopolitan melting pot of nationalities.
Cartagena had grown to be the most important bastion of the Spanish empire by the end of the 18th century. It wasn’t to last. In 1810 the city became one of the centers of the national liberation movement. It declared independence from Spain. Five years later Spanish forces reconquered the city after a brutal four-month siege. Around 6000 residents died, but the freedom struggle continued.
The city was finally liberated in 1821, two years after Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. The local militia joined forces with national hero, Simón Bolívar. In response he gave the city its nickname, ‘La Heroica.’ No longer a part of the Spanish empire, one of the key reasons for Cartagena’s wealth disappeared. Treasures looted from the Americas ceased flowing through the port on their way to Europe. A period of slow decline followed. Cartagena was hit by a cholera epidemic in 1849, which killed around a third of its 18,000 inhabitants. The authorities of the time attempted to help by firing cannons over the city to ‘purify the air’.
Inspiring and unforgettable
The tragedy undoubtedly helped inspire Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez, to write the novel ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’. Although the novel is set in an unnamed city, decades after the epidemic, many of the descriptions are locally drawn. It’s not surprising. His writing career began in Cartagena where he spent a year as a penniless student. Later, his parents and family moved to the city. Although no longer resident, he remained a frequent long-term visitor. The family still own the house where he used to stay in the Old Town.
Wandering through the cobbled streets it’s not hard to feel the origins of his novels’ famous magic realism. The bougainvillea, bright facades and mysterious interiors seem drawn from dreams. Equally, the cobbled passageways, shops, bars and restaurants are still filled with the sort of characters who jump from the pages of his books.
For much of Márquez’ time Cartagena was in decline, quiet if not quite forgotten. That turned out to be fortunate. The city was spared the ravages of violence and modernization. It’s now the most crazy, colorful, noisy, vibrant, beautiful, steamy, ever-changing, thrilling, historic and unforgettable destination we enjoy today.
Perhaps the best way to discover Cartagena is to wander the city streets.
Here are just a handful of the best-known spots around the Old Town.
Las Murallas. These formidable walls which stretch for 2.5 miles (4km) are what made Cartagena the center of Spain’s Latin American empire. Constructed in the late 16th century. In 1741 they were attacked by over 186 British warships. This was the largest battle fleet attack on recorded until World War 2.
Today the city still bears the scars. Most notably in the Iglesia Santo Toribio de Mogrovejo. The damage from a British cannonball marks the west wall of the church. Las Murallas attracts visitors and locals, who typically come to stroll along side the wall catching the breeze from the sea as the sun sets. Should you want to know about the walls’ construction check out the Museo de las Fortificaciones at Baluarte de Santa Catalina.
El Torre del Reloj clocktower is to Cartagena what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or the Empire State to New York. It forms part of the original fortified city gate, built over a drawbridge in 1601. The gate didn’t always have a clock. The pendulum clock was added in 1874. In 1937, it was replaced by a Swiss timepiece.
Plaza de los Coches. This former slave market, is now a vibrant triangular plaza flanked by balconied colonial homes. Leading off it is El Portal de los Dulces which, as its Spanish name suggests, is the place to buy local sweets and candies.
Plaza de la Aduana. Originally used a military parade ground, today the plaza is the largest square in the Walled City of Cartagena. The Royal Customs House, from which the plaza takes its name, is now the City Hall.
Discover memorable sights around every corner
Museo de Arte Moderne. This is a small, memorable gallery. Notably for the intensely bright surreal expressionist paintings of local artist Alejandro Obregón in its permanent collection. There is an additional floor which houses temporary exhibitions.
El Teatro de Adolfo Mejia Heredia. This is one of the most-loved buildings of Cartagena. Created in 1911 from a dilapidated 17th century church. The elegant interior features gold-plated fittings, cedar wood dividers and a graceful marble staircase imported from Italy. The stunning ceiling mural, painted by local artist Enrique Grau, depicts the dance of the nine muses. Today, the theatre remains a thriving center for performing arts.
Iglesia San Pedro Claver. This three-story convent building is dedicated to the first named saint of the New World. He was a young priest from a wealthy Spanish family who arrived in the city in 1610. Shocked by the treatment of the African slaves, who built the city walls. His care and fight for equal rights began the movement towards the abolition of slavery in the Americas. To honour him, you can visit the marble altar. Here you will find a glass coffin, with intricate stained glass containing the “El Apóstol de los Negros’” bones on display.
Iglesia Santo Domingo. One of the most unmissable sights of Cartagena, this is the city’s oldest church, built in the 1570s. The spectacular baroque marble altar features the Virgin in an emerald and gold encrusted crown. Next to her is a wooden image of Christ that, legend has it, will grow too big to pass through the church’s doors should anybody try to remove it.
Catedral Basílica de Santa Catalina de Alejandria. In 1586 Sir Francis Drake destroyed the original cathedral. This second cathedral was built in 1612. At the beginning of the 20th century a dome was added to the soaring citadel structure.
Glimpse into the past
Casa de Rafael Núñez. The home of the 19th century Colombian poet and president is one of the most elegant mansions of the city. The restored building is nowa museum offering a glimpse into colonial life of 140 years ago.
Palacio de la Inquisición. Located on the leafy Plaza del Bolivar, this is the building that served as the Spanish Inquisition headquarters. The inquisition lasted from 1706 until the revolution of 1811. During this time about 800 people were sent to their deaths, from this building. Most were convicted for ‘crimes against Christianity’. The building is now a museum, displaying various gruesome torture and execution devices.
Casa del Marqués de Valdehoyos. This opulent mansion takes its name from its original owner, the Marquess, an immensely wealthy slave owner and sugar tycoon. Filled with stunning woodwork, and chandeliers. It is worth a look.
Museo del Oro y Arqueología. Gold was what drew the Spanish to conquer Colombia. This small museum features the exquisitely detailed work in the precious metal and pottery created by the local Sinú people centuries ago.
Las Bóvedas. To some these perfectly characterize modern Cartagena. The 23 dungeons, originally built into the 50 feet (15m) thick city walls, have been converted into a parade of craft shops.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. A short 20-minute walk from the old town lies the castle of San Felipe. Built in 1657. The underground tunnels enhance sound of approaching enemies. If you wish you can explore these spooky underground tunnels, which are partially open to the public.