Thanks to the shenanigans of the US Secret Service, the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena has been mentioned a lot of late. But there’s much more to the city than the seedier elements being discussed on the cable news networks.
The fifth largest city in Colombia, Cartagena offers an array of cultural attractions including colonial architecture, an Inquisition Museum and a 500-year-old Spanish fortress. It is also a launching point for boat trips to white-sand Caribbean beaches.
Cartagena is truly a walkable city with hotels, cafes and historical sites located within the bustling ‘old city’ district. The following sites are all easily accessible from the center of town.
Exploring the Old City
Located in northern Colombia, Cartagena has a distinctly Caribbean feel; you might even mistake the modern port (fringed by high rise condominiums) for Miami. The main tourist draw, however, is not the upscale waterfront but the beautifully-preserved colonial city known as “ciudad amurallada.” This walled-off area offers cafes, museums, public sculptures and authentic colonial buildings.
Downtown Cartagena is the oldest part of the city and is surrounded by a giant wall built by the Spanish several hundred years ago for protection against attacks. Plazas within the old city are dotted with street cafes– a great place to stop for a drink– and sculptures by Colombian artists like Botero.
You’ll notice the name Pedro de Heredia, a Spanish commander who founded Cartagena, on monuments and buildings throughout the city.
In addition to upscale properties, there are plenty of simple, inexpensive hotels located within the walls of the old city. It is refreshing to see that colonial architecture has not been replaced by high rises in this historic area.
The Inquisition Museum
I often get bored going to museum after museum, but the City Museum Palace of the Inquisition kept my interest by showing dozens of creepy and creative torture devices from the Spanish Inquisition that took place in Cartagena in the 17th-19th centuries.
This museum is located in the heart of Cartagena and provides many photo ops– so you can pose next to a wooden guillotine or a range of bizarre torture devices.
About a 20 minute walk from the city center is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fortress ever built in the Spanish colonies.
The original fort was constructed in the 1500s and was greatly expanded about a 100 years later. Despite numerous attempts it was never penetrated.
An extensive system of tunnels is connected underground the fortress to distribute provisions and facilitate evacuation, many of which are open to explore.
The top of the fort offers views of the whole city, including the more modern metropolitan area of Cartagena in the distance.
While Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is the largest and most famous of the surrounding forts, there are many others dotting the coastline all over the area.
There are many beaches in the area, though the nicest ones require a boat trip to get to. A nearby island, Isla del Rosario, is included on most boat trips but can be crowded and a bit disappointing. Far superior is Playa Blanca, a white sandy beach with gorgeous clear water, and more space to get away from the crowds.
Have you visited Cartagena?
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