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Cartagena, Colombia Travel Guide

Relaxing by the Caribbean Sea

The Fabulous Dream of Columbus
By André Gayot

One of Cartagena's major draws is its architecture
One of Cartagena's major draws is its architecture

Nowadays it's simply known as Cartagena, but in 1494 when he reached these shores, Christopher Columbus dubbed them Cartagena de Indias because—as he tripped against the Isthmus of Panama and could not sail any further—this turned out to be the end of the voyage, the end of his dream, reaching the fabulous Indias.

It was not at all the Indias of course, but the land was—and is—fabulous enough to rival the Indias. In fact, a somewhat disappointed Columbus did not take the time to set foot there. Had he done so, he would have discovered what we have: one of the most picturesque sites of the then new world, classified as a World's Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO.

The Santa Clara Sofitel is a former convent
The Santa Clara Sofitel is a former convent

Conquistador Pedro de Herrera was wiser when, 39 years later in 1533, he founded a city that unfortunately burned down shortly thereafter. The reconstruction with bricks and stones was more durable. Today, we can still enjoy the elegance of the 16th century Spanish architecture—a unique display that is the main attraction of Cartagena. The location was ideal for a commercial and military turntable for the Spanish crown. The gateway to the legendary Eldorado and to the riches of Colombia, Peru and Ecuador was the dispatching point for the people and the merchandise arriving from Spain and for the goods shipped to Europe. In these tranquil waters, navigation was easy and the bay a haven for the sailors of the galleons: the hurricanes have always spared the area. The enviable location and the accumulated wealth in the city was a temptation not only for the pirates but also for Spain's rivals. The British and the French raided and destroyed parts of Cartagena until the Spaniards resolved to build massive fortifications that rendered the city quite impregnable from sea or land.

This bellicose past explains today's configuration of the city. The older quarters are located within the ramparts (Centro, San Diego, La Matuna, Getsemani), while the new ones that did not fear the pirate incursions of the past, sprawl to the residential West (Boca Grande, Castillo Grande) or to the busy South and the harbor zone (Manga).

Today, the Eldorado lies in the pockets of the tourists who succumb to the charm and beauty of the region. Tourism is obviously the future of Cartagena's economy. Don't wait and discover this Caribbean pearl before it becomes a mass destination.


A typical window
A typical window

Slowing down and relaxing—that's what Cartagena is made for. This is the place where you want to take the time to do nothing and just take life as it comes when the sun rises, distilling its' rays in the narrow streets of El Centro. Staying in one of the many hotels and, in particular, the boutique hotels of the old city is the best way to enjoy Cartagena and to capture its essence. Many boutique hotels (a few rooms in a mansion-like atmosphere) such as La Passion have opened in remodeled residences of notables, retaining behind the old walls a sense of a refined past. A similar ambience exudes from a former convent converted into a posh hotel, The Santa Clara Sofitel.

If you are not already staying in the inner city, enter through the spectacular and principal entrance the famous Puerta Del Reloj (the Gate of the Clock). It opens on the Plaza de los Coches boarded with arcades. It was once a slave market, where carriages (coaches) waited to be hired. On the left, the plaza de la Aduana faces Casa del Premio Real, the residence of the King of Spain delegate. After the Museum of Modern Art devoted to Colombian contemporary artists, is Cartagena's greatest character: San Pedro Claver, the monk who in the 17th century devoted his entire life to the defense of the slaves. Canonized, he is buried in the eponymous church erected here by the Jesuits. Enjoy the view up a few stairs on the ramparts from the Balluarte de San Francisco near the Navy Museum.

La Boveda
Shopping arcades of La Boveda

The convent of Santa Teresa has been converted into a hotel while a few steps further La Bodegon de la Candelaria set in a restored colonial residence is a seafood restaurant. Calle Santo Domingo will take you to the Convento de Santo Domingo nesting a "miraculous" carving of the Christ. On your way see the noble patrician houses.

The Plaza San Domingo ornate with a statue of Botero is a favorite nighttime hangout among locals, with its lively restaurants, bars and cafés. From there, direct your steps south still on Calle Santo Domingo toward the Cathedral on Plaza Bolivar. It was reconstructed in 1612 after Francis Drake ransacked it. Other points of interest are the Museo del Oro and the Inquisition museum.

The real pleasure that Cartagena offers is to walk in the narrow streets, watching the carved wooden doors and balconies, the vivid colors of the façade and when the gates are the patios filled with lush greenery. Shopping for artifacts is best at La Plaza de Bovedas with its many stores tucked in the arcades.

Continue to Day 2


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