Cartagena De Indias is nestled on the northern coast of Colombia.
It was an important port during the Spanish conquest of South America. Due to its proximity to the Caribbean Sea, the Spaniards bought in people to South America and transported valuable cargo to Spain.
Cartagena became a stronghold for the slave trade and silently suffered humiliation and inhumanity for centuries. Spanish ships laden with people from Africa would dock in Cartagena and offload her cargo of men, women and children. They were not here for the tequilas or the sunsets.
Today we have cruise ships from around the world docking in her port. The men, women and children are not here for any back breaking hard labor.
The old walled city of Cartagena has intimidating high walls, a maze of cobbled streets, churches and plazas. Boca Grande is the new city a little away from the old city, and looks like another Rio in the making.
Don’t let the high walls of the old city fool you. Cartagena hides a vibrant and buzzing city inside. As you enter the walled city the vibes of the Caribbean surround you like long lost friends.
The lanes and alleys have houses dressed in the colors of the local cumbia dancers. The Spanish lived here before and now these houses host travellers or are owned by locals.
Some of them are covered with bougainvillea or other flowering plants. The evening sun casts a golden glow around and makes everything look like HD.
Walking in these lanes, Bob Marley’s song is looping in my mind…. sun is shining, the weather is sweet, make you want to move your dancing feet 🎶
Walking around the streets I see a common feature in most houses. The entry ways or main doors have unique knockers that are fascinating. There are heads of lion, men, lizards, frogs, fish. They could have held some significance for the owners.
The main entrance to the old city opens up to The Plaza De Los Coaches or Slave Square. This location was a popular market place for trading people bought from the African continent. The plaza is a macabre reminder to Cartagena’s dark past.
Adjacent to the Plaza De Los Coaches is the colonial building, Casa de la Aduana, which housed the founder of Cartagena, Don Pedro de Heredia. Come here early to avoid the tourists. Soak in the morning sun and history of this place.
The Spanish were devout Catholics and made no reservations when building their places of worship. Churches were personified with tall stone buildings, huge domes and massive doors. Altars were intricately decorated with marble and gold trimmings. The stain glass windows are some of the finest that you can see in this side of the world.
The Church of San Pedro de Claver is worth spending a couple of hours.
San Pedro worked endlessly for the betterment of the slave people bought to Cartagena.
A short visit to the church of San Claver will take you through the history of the slave trade in Colombia and the works of San Claver.
Spend some time under the mango trees in the peaceful courtyard and reflect about the difficult past of this beautiful carribean region.
Castellio de San Felipe was built at the end of the 16th century and is a UNESCO heritage site. Gold and other valuable products from South America were shipped out from here. So it was necessary to build a fort to defend the city.
Explore the tunnels inside the fort. The old and new cities can be see from the top of the fort. Take care of the intense heat and stay hydrated☺
Dance and music is woven into the fabric of life here. Locals express themselves with noisy, colorful and energetic sound and movements.
Cumbia is a traditional courtship dance popular among the people. European musical instruments were added alongwith their local instruments and this blend gave birth to a dance and music unique to Cartagena.
The traditional dress is either white or a colorful swirl of frills. The skirt is wide and can be picked up and spread like a fan when dancing. The women are show stoppers with their swinging hips and graceful swishing of skirts.
Hang around Plaza de Bolivar for a chance to see this performance. Don’t forget to tip.
The vibrancy and color of the city and the people has also influenced the food of this region.
The ladies of Las Palenqueras or Fruit Basket ladies are found all around the walled city selling a variety of exotic fruit. They come from the nearby village of San Basilio De Palenque. Having a plate of fresh fruit and limonada (lemonade) is a great way to beat the heat.
Another exotic experience is having a taste of Ceviche. The well known La Cevicheria restaurant is an excellent choice to sample this peruvian dish. It was the first time I tried Ceviche and loved it.
A number of restaurants also serve fusion food and Caribbean cuisine. You can take your pick as the options are many.
When the carribean sun sets, Cartagena puts on her brightest lights. The many street side restaurants get ready for a night of good food, sundowners, dance and music.
A weekend well spent!!
There are many more things to see and do in the colorful city, this was just a glimpse.
On my way back to Bogota I summarize what I thought about this city…From a dark past she has moved on to a vibrant present. She proudly displays her scars so we never forget her past struggles. Cartagena is a rare and precious pearl of the Caribbean!!
Cartagena caters to all types of travelers. It is safe for solo women travelers (i went solita), an excellent family holiday destination, honeymooners paradise, backpackers haven, a luxury holiday destination and a port of call for cruise ships.
Rafael Nuñez International Airport is a domestic and international airport. It is well connected to the US, Latin America and within Colombia. Avianca, LATAM, Spirit are some the of airlines that fly domestic and international routes.
Buses connect to and from Santa Marta to Barranquilla and from there another bus to Cartagena.
Humidity and heat is in abundance. Beach wear and cottons are preferred. Always carry water. I almost got a sun stroke and rescued myself in an air-conditioned mall of Boca Grande☺
The old walled city can be explored by foot. Here are the recommended places:
Plaze de lo Coaches
Plaza de la Aduana
Iglesia de San Pedro Claver
Iglesia de Santo Domingo
Plaza de la Trinidad
Castillo de San Felipe
La Popa hill
Day cruises can be arranged to the near by Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca. Contact your hotel helpdesk for boat operators. Do not venture on your own as you can get scammed.
There are several restaurants within the old city, be brave to try new cuisines☺
Hostels, boutique hotels, Bnbs etc. are present inside the old city. Backpackers generally choose to stay at Getsemaní, which is a neighbourhood of the old city. Boca Grande also has many choices.
I chose Casa Bustamante, a typical Spanish hacienda very close to the old city. The stay was fabulous and very much recommend if you want to get a feel of living like the Spaniards.
For more stories about my solo travel to Colombia read HERE
Before I go…the iconic bronze sculpture outside the church of Santo Domingo, Lady Luck☺
Adiós y gracias!