What comes to mind when you think of Cartagena (photos)? Ok, admit it, some of you are thinking about “Romancing The Stone”. The movie introduced lots of us to this city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It’s a modern city of over 1 million people with high rises lining the harbor. Yet the heart of the city is the old town which dates back to Cartagena’s beginnings in the mid 1500’s, particularly the inner city which consists of the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego. Here you can wander the narrow cobbled streets and alleys among gems of colonial architecture with churches, monasteries, plazas and mansions with balconies draped in bougainvillea. The outer walled city of Getsemani is less impressive but has its charms and is worth exploring.
All three districts are surrounded by Las Murallas, the 13km long thick walls built during the 1600’s and 1700’s to protect it. Without the wall, Cartagena had been looted repeatedly by pirates and the construction took almost two centuries to complete due to damage from storms and continued pirate attacks. In addition, they built some impressive fortresses, most notably Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the greatest and strongest fortress built by the Spaniards in any of their colonies. Construction began in 1657 with a significant enlargement in 1762. A complex system of tunnels connect strategic points of the fortress to distribute provisions and facilitate evacuation.
During our few days in Cartagena we stayed at Hotel El Viajero in El Centro and didn’t leave the old city. There’s more than enough to see and experience by just wandering the streets and exploring Las Murallas. It seems that every turn you take provides more beautiful doorways, windows and balconies. Everywhere you go there are street vendors who can pour you a small cup of coffee or offer you a cup of freshly cut fruit. Perhaps you’d prefer a piece of cake from a mobile cake shop. Or you can try the Colombian favorite snack, the arepa, made from ground corn or cornmeal that can be filled with cheese and grilled or with an egg and seasoned ground beef and deep fried. Quite tasty.
We really enjoyed our brief visit to Cartagena and would likely visit again.