Cartagena Travel Guide

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Take a journey back in time when you visit Cartagena’s old walled city that has sights with a colour to match.

Founded in 1533 Cartagena serves as an important trading port and was earlier subjected to several invasions and attacks. As a result, a part of the city was fortified and this is known as La Ciudad Amurallada or the walled city or Old City as it is referred to as today.

El Castillo San Felipe
El Castillo San Felipe

Chequered Past

When the Spanish conquistadors discovered that Columbia’s interiors were rich in gold and emeralds, all kinds of wealth flowed to Spain. This fortune invited pirate attacks prompting the King to order a 50-inch-thick wall to be built and the streets intentionally to be made narrow and crooked so that it could be protected in case of an assault. And to come up close with history, a visit to the El Castillo San Felipe, a large fortress that was built to defend the Caribbean trade of the city was built in the 1600’s is a must. The imposing structure (with ticketed entry) has a fortification that has several walls and the defense mechanism here is admirable 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.

The colourful building of the walled city
The colourful building of the walled city

Sites Galore

A stop at Los zapatos viejos, a bronze cast statue erected in honour of Don Luis Carlos Lopez, Cartagena poet who became famous for the sonnet “to my native city” is a must do. The sculpture has two shoes of a mid-cut boot style with a base shaped like a flattened hemisphere with small stones in its surface. 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. As you go to the top you can see Stations of the Cross marked at several locations as well as a statue of a black Mother Mary enroute. 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 well known for its emeralds and there is a museum in the city where you can both see how these gems are mined and also buy some emeralds. Apart from emeralds, the famed Juan Valdez Colombian coffee is a must try when you are here.

Local artists display their art work in the old city
Local artists display their art work in the old city

The Walled City

The true charm of Cartagena however is in its old city that is best explored on foot. As you enter the old city there is a ramp located on an elevation that is called the ‘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 makes a mesmerizing visual here. The citadel has many small squares, renaissance-style domes, clay tile roofs and colonial houses. Start your exploration at the 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 is a hustle bustle of activity as this is the Plaza de San Pedro Claver a square that has many sculptures on display. This is a hub of all kinds of artistic activities as theatre, dance and music events are held here. The Museum of Modern Art an ode to various manifestations of visual arts is also around the square a must visit for art aficionados. This is where women are seen wearing their colourful local costumes selling fresh fruits. The rows of shops on the ground floor and houses on the first floor with bougainvillea hanging out of the balconies makes for a pretty sight here. The stores sell several kinds of local handicrafts that make for excellent souvenirs to take back home too.

The colours of the walled city of Cartagena
The colours of the walled city of Cartagena

Museum Musings

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 where you can see the history of the first settlers of the Caribbean region, the goldsmithing techniques from the Caribbean coast where the filigree simulating technique is highlighted. On the opposite side of this museum is a beautiful square with a park called Barrio del Centro which is the historic center of Cartagena. This is a typical Spanish style plaza and is used as a meeting point by the local people. 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 and a gable roof with clay tiles. You will also see many horse driven carriages pass by – it is a tour you can do too to see the labyrinths here. Simply admiring the buildings here is an immensely likable activity. Special mention must be made of the Banco de la Rupublica, the Central Bank building that has been operating for over seven decades, a republican style building set on three floors. The Naval – Antiguo Hospital de San Juan de Dios here is a republican style building that houses a museum that aims to explain the naval history of the Caribbean. With its rich cultural past and modern contemporary present, Cartagena is a delicate balance of the old and new. Make sure you stop here for your next holiday; it is the best way to make memories that will last a lifetime.

Cartagena is a popular port of call for cruise ships
Cartagena is a popular port of call for cruise ships

Fact File

  • How to reach: Cartagena’s Rafael Nunez International airport is connected to cities in the US like Miami, Atlanta and New York. It is also a popular port of call for cruises like
  • Best time to visit: January to March
  • Average budget: Apart from travel and accommodation you can budget at least $50 per day per person for other expenses.
  • Highlight of the trip: Walking around the walled city.
  • Remember: Keep Pesos and USD handy. You will not receive USD in change when you shop at smaller outlets.
  • Mark your Calendar: The Hay Festival an international music festival in January and The International Film Festival in March are a good time to visit the city.

This story first appeared in The Tribune dated Feb 23, 2020 here:

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