Pulsating with a rich history, exuding modern charm, and emanating an ambiance that can only be described as magical, Cartagena (pronounced Car-ta-hay-na), Colombia, has seen a reawakening of its spirit. Once described as a city “unchanging on the edge of time” by Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cartagena was recently dubbed Latin America’s “hippest secret” by the New York Times, thanks to what National Geographic Traveler is dubbing the city’s “colonial chic” amenities.(Link?) Within the confines of the city’s sun-and-salt-bleached walls, the cobblestone streets are alive with an intoxicating blend of color, rhythm, and romance that radiates from the historic center and out to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Ships dock on Manga Island, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge. Here, visitors can marvel at some of the world’s finest emeralds in the terminal’s man-made cave, complete with emerald veins and the aroma of Colombian soil. A free shuttle runs from the dock to the port gates, where taxis and buses are available to take guests into the center of town. Best explored by foot, Old City Cartagena is reminiscent of many storied towns in Spain and Italy, with winding cobbled streets and numerous plazas.
When approaching the Port of Cartagena, be sure to take in the splendid views of the mighty forts of San Jose and San Fernando. These 18th-century white-stone strongholds once protected the entrance to Cartagena Bay from plundering pirates.
Ten minutes south of Old City lies the Bocagrande Peninsula, a modern neighborhood complete with high-rise buildings, luxury hotels, and resort-owned beaches. Here, the Pierino Gallo Shopping Plaza is the premier location to purchase leather goods, world-famous Colombian emeralds, and coffee.
See, Do, Explore
La Puerta del Reloj (the Clock Gate) is the entrance to Old City. When the gate was built at the beginning of the 18th century, it was the city’s only entrance. Just a few blocks away, the fountain-filled Plaza de Bolivar was named in honor of the general who helped liberate Cartagena from Spain in 1811. The plaza is also home to the magnificent 16th-century Minor Basilica cathedral and the Museo del Oro Zenu (the Gold Museum).
The Inquisition Palace is one of the city’s most intriguing attractions. During the New World’s Spanish Inquisition of the 1600s, those accused of witchcraft and heresy were tried in this grandiose structure, which served as the Court of the Holy Office. Today, it houses a historical museum that speaks to Cartagena’s history via displays of artifacts, documents, and even strange torture devices.
The Santo Domingo Church is the oldest church in Cartagena. Construction began in 1551 and continued for almost 150 years. Local legend says that the devil tried to make the church collapse by vigorously shaking it, which resulted in its somewhat crooked tower.
Heredia Theater was built in 1911 to commemorate the independence centennial. It remains a cultural hub today.
The San Felipe Fortress, perched on San Lazaro Hill, is the largest Spanish fortress in the Americas. Construction began in 1586, and the structure’s sheer size played an important role in defending the city against British invasion.
Las Bovedas Artisan Center is the perfect place for souvenir shopping. The old arcades feature 46 arches and 23 dungeons, which have now been transformed into an attractive shopping center featuring boutiques, souvenir shops, galleries and a local handicrafts market.
Tips for Travelers
1) The official language of Colombia is Spanish. Remember to say por favor and gracias.
2) ATMs are prevalent throughout the city and are the best way to obtain Colombian pesos.
3) Colombia sits on the equator, which means 12-hour days and temperatures near 85 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
The romantic setting of Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was inspired by Cartagena.