Bindu Gopal Rao
Founded in 1533, Cartagena serves as an important trading port. Consequent to several invasions and attacks, a part of the city was fortified and is known as La Ciudad Amurallada (walled city) or old city. When the Spanish conquistadors discovered that Columbia’s interiors were rich in gold and emeralds, all kinds of wealth flowed into Spain. This fortune invited pirate attacks, prompting the rulers to order a 50-inch thick wall to be built.
To come up-close with history, a visit to El Castillo San Felipe, a large fortress that was built in the 1600s to defend the Caribbean trade of the city, is a must. The imposing structure (with ticketed entry) has a fortification with several walls. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the climb up is not for the faint-hearted, but you can see some wonderfully panoramic views of the city once you reach the top.
Sites not to miss
Do take out time for Los Zapatos Viejos, a bronze-cast statue in honour of Don Luis Carlos Lopez, the poet who became famous for the sonnet “to my native city”. The sculpture has two shoes of mid-cut boot style with a base shaped like a flattened hemisphere. A small climb up a hill will get you to Convento de la Popa, the highest point of the city, that is home to a convent built by Augustinian monks in 1607. From the top of the convent, you can see the best views of the city and the port. Inside the convent is a small chapel done up in gold as well as a small museum. The central courtyard, that is open to the sky, is dotted with palms and enveloped in a sea of bougainvillea.
Cartagena is known for its emeralds and there is a museum where you can both see how these gems are mined and also buy some. Apart from emeralds, the famed Juan Valdez Colombian coffee is a must try.
The walled city
The true charm of Cartagena, however, is its old city that is best explored on foot. As you enter it, there is a ramp located on an elevation that is called ‘las murallas’, with a stunning view of the harbour. Once done clicking pictures, head down and you will get your first glimpse of the old city. Rows of colourful buildings, cobbled roads, a beautiful square dotted with plants — it is a visual delight. The citadel has many small squares, renaissance-style domes, clay tile roofs and colonial houses.
Start your exploration at Santuaris de San Pedro Claver, a museum that houses the saint’s remains. The main altar of the church contains a number of elements of religious art from the colonial period that have been carefully restored. The main attraction of the museum is the room where the saint died which has a lot of furniture from that period. The museum has several rooms dedicated to fossils and religious art as well and is set around an open courtyard that has many trees, which adds to its colonial charm. Outside the museum lies Plaza de San Pedro Claver, a square that has many sculptures on display. This is a hub of all kinds of artistic activities such as theatre, dance and music events. The Museum of Modern Art, an ode to various manifestations of visual arts, is located around the square. This is where women in colourful local costumes can be selling fresh fruits. The rows of shops on the ground floor and houses on the first floor with bougainvillea hanging out of the balconies make for a pretty sight.
The old city also houses Museo del Oro-Cultura Zenu, a museum administered by the central bank that has a large collection of Zenu jewellery. There are several rooms depicting the history of the first settlers of the Caribbean region and the goldsmithing techniques from the Caribbean coast. On the opposite side of this museum is a beautiful square with a park called Barrio del Centro, which is the historic centre of Cartagena. Slightly ahead is the beautiful cathedral Basilica Santa Catalina de Alejandria that was built in 1612 after a fire destroyed the original structure in 1552. The architecture has Doric columns and semicircular arches.
You will also see many horse-driven carriages pass by. Simply admiring the buildings here is an immensely likable activity. Special mention must be made of Banco de la Rupublica, the Central Bank building that has been operating for over seven decades. It is a republican style building set on three floors. The Naval - Antiguo Hospital de San Juan de Dios houses a museum that aims to explain the naval history of the Caribbean. With its rich cultural past, Cartagena offers a delicate balance of the old and new. A place you will not remember not to forget.
- How to reach: Cartagena’s Rafael Nunez International airport is connected to cities like Miami, Atlanta and New York in the US. It is also a popular port of call for cruises
- Best time to visit: January to March
- Average budget: Apart from travel and accommodation, budget at least $50 per day per person for other expenses
- Highlight of the trip: Walking around the walled city
- Let-down: Keep Pesos and USD handy. You will not receive USD in change when you shop at smaller outlets.
- Origin of the name of the place: Cartagena dates back to 1533 and was founded by Spanish commander, Pedro de Heredia. It is named after Cartagena in Murcia in southeast Spain
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