Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena was founded on June 1, 1533, and named after Cartagena, Spain. During the colonial period Cartagena served a key role in administration and expansion of the Spanish empire. It was a centre of political and economic activity due to the presence of royalty and wealthy viceroys. In 1984 Cartagena's colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The increasing wealth of the prosperous city turned it into an attractive plunder site for French and English privateers. 30 years after its founding, the city was pillaged by the French nobleman Jean-François Roberval. The city set about strengthening its defences and surrounding itself with walled compounds and castles. Pirate Martin Cote attacked a few years later. A few months after the disaster of the invasion of Cote, a fire destroyed the city. In 1568. Sir John Hawkins besieged the city, but failed to level it.

After this disaster, Spain poured millions every year into the city for its protection, beginning with Gov. Francisco de Murga's planning of the walls and forts. The city recovered quickly from Drake's attack and subsequent occupation, and continued its growth and hence its inevitable attraction for predators including a group of pirates who attacked in late 1683. Nonetheless, trade began to increase, continuing into the 17th century. The city reached the peak of its development in 1698 before the arrival of the Baron de Pointis.

The Raid on Cartagena in 1697 by Sir Bernard Desjean, Baron de Pointis and Jean Baptiste Ducasse was an all-out invasion attempt. Entry to the city was hindered by the recently finished first stage of walls and forts, and the invasion was costly.

During the 17th century, the Spanish Crown paid for the services of prominent European military engineers to construct fortresses. Today these are Cartagena's most significant identifiable features. Engineering works took well over 208 years and ended with some 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) of walls surrounding the city, including the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, named in honor of Spain's King Philip IV.

The Castillo was built during the governorship of Pedro Zapata de Mendoza, Marquis of Barajas and was constructed to repel land attacks. It is equipped with sentry boxes, has buildings for food and weapons storage, and contains underground tunnels connecting the fortifications. The original fort was constructed between 1639 and 1657 on top of San Lazaro Hill. In 1762 extensive expansion was undertaken, and the final result is the current bastion. Numerous attempts to storm the reinforced fort were mounted, but it was never penetrated.

Cartagena was a major trading port, especially for precious metals. Gold and silver from the mines in the New Granada and Peru were loaded in Cartagena on the galleons bound for Spain via Havana. Cartagena was also a slave port; Cartagena and Veracruz, (Mexico), were the only cities authorized to trade African slaves. The first slaves were transported by Pedro de Heredia and were used as cane cutters to open roads, as laborers to destroy the tombs of the aboriginal population of Sinú, and to construct buildings and fortresses. The agents of the Portuguese company Cacheu sold slaves from Cartagena for working in mines in Venezuela, the West Indies, the Nuevo Reino de Granada and the Viceroyalty of Perú.

On February 5, 1610, the Catholic Monarchs established the Inquisition Holy Office Court in Cartagena by a royal decree issued by King Philip II. With Lima in Peru, it was one of the three seats of the Inquisition in the Americas. The Palace of Inquisition, finished in 1770, preserves its original features of colonial times. When Cartagena declared its complete independence from Spain on November 11, 1811, the inquisitors were urged to leave the city. The Inquisition operated again after the Reconquest in 1815, but it disappeared entirely when Spain surrendered six years later to the troops led by Simón Bolívar.

On November 11, 1811, Cartagena declared its independence. It had been the biggest city of the Viceroyalty until 1811, when the Peninsular War, which became Wars of Independence and Piñeres's Revolts, marked the beginning of a dramatic decline in all aspects for what had become the virtual capital of New Granada. In 1815 the city was almost destroyed. There are accounts of how the city became a ghost town. Around 500 impoverished freed slaves dwelt in the city, whose palaces and public buildings became ruins, many with collapsed walls. By mid-1815 a large Spanish expeditionary fleet under Pablo Morillo had arrived in New Granada and forces besieged Cartagena. After a five-month siege the fortified city fell in December 1815. By 1816, the combined efforts of Spanish and colonial forces, marching south from Cartagena and north from royalist strongholds in Quito, Pasto, and Popayán, completed the reconquest of New Granada, taking Bogotá on May 6, 1816. In 1821 the general Mariano Montilla conducted the pivotal siege of Cartagena assisted by naval forces under José Prudencio Padilla. The city fell on October 10, 1821 after a siege lasting 159 days. Among the defenders who surrendered was Brigadier Gabriel Torres, commander of the royalist forces. The patriots captured large stores of gunpowder, lead, rifles and field pieces.

Several famines and cholera outbreaks in the mid-19th century decimated the city, and it was in danger of disappearing. After the 1880s the city began to recover from crisis. Progress continued, though somewhat slowly, after the 1929 crash. Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Chinese and other immigrant communities developed in this period of time. The city used to be served by a railroad with a railroad station near today's "La Matuna" neighborhood. In the late 1950s, with a general trend toward paved roads for mobile traffic, the railroad closed. Between 1930 and 1970 the city showed population growth at rates higher than the national average. By 1970, the population spurt was over. Yet the population has tripled since the 1980s with a mixture of privatization of the port infrastructure, decentralization of tourism, and the fact that, proportional to its population, Cartagena is the city that has received the most displaced people from the countryside with the escalation of civil war in the 1990s in the Andean regions as refugees looked for safety in the Caribbean capital

We went out to Cartagena three nights before meeting up with the Wild Frontiers group - mainly because I thought Cartagena looked a really nice old colonial town, and that it should be worth spending more time there. And so it turned out to be - a town worth exploring. We settled into the Casa Gastelbondo which is well situated in the old town of Cartagena. You can easily walk everywhere you need to go from here. Cartagena is very safe and has remarkable few touts (those that there are are not persistent). It is laid out in a grid pattern, so is easy to find your way round - the hotel will give you a map anyway.

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This is a true boutique hotel, it has only 4 rooms,and has been sympathetically converted from the original Spanish colonial house. Our room was on the top floor, the same level as the small, roof top, pool. It was comfortable and air conditioned. There are two small pools, the other being on the ground floor. They offer a good breakfast, but not dinner - not a problem as there are dozens of restaurantswithin easy walking distance .Breakfast had lots of fresh fruit, eggs to order, and a selection of breads

Cartagena, and I suspect Colombia, is not knee deep in tourists, which adds to the charm. Speaking a little Spanish will help in both the hotel and in restaurants, but much is written in English, so you will not run into any problems. We got them to arrange transport from the airport - it is not far, but is very cheap, and worthwhile to avoid the aggro of a scrum with taxi drivers.

We then joined the group at a more modest B&B, Casa Lucy, which had a certain "charm" but missed out on things like air-con and decor.

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We spent many (hot) days walking round the old town, which always seemed to offer new corners to discover. The iconic view below of the church up one of the typical streets is but one of the things to admire. Doorways, buildings, streets and even doorknockers await you.

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Agua del Mar.

I suppose the place was best summed up to me in that nobody even bothered to say goodbye to us as we left. We had 3 tapas between us to start, 2 puddings and a bottle of wine The tapas, as are to be expected, very small. The octopus was slightly over cooked, the crab cakes o.k, but nothing special. The main problem I had here was the scallop, note singular. Basically it was not a scallop, but some cookie cut white fish. I have spent much of my adult life running a restaurant, and personally removing and cleaning scallops from the shell, this was not a scallop. I am sure it was bought as one- in a frozen state-, but it was not. A scallop is gelatinous , this was fishy flakey. A scallop has an ozone smell, this did not.. Anyway nobody came round to ask if we had enjoyed the tapas, so it was never brought to their attention. I was certainly not going to interrupt the maitre d's dinner that she was eating at another table, to complain So we paid, left, and were ignored

Agave Mesas y Copas. We had an evening meal here. The Sangria was very good, and very strong. but the ambience and service were lacking. The lighting was just bad, and the staff were conspicuous with their absence. We went because it had a good rating on TripAdvisor, but came away disappointed. The restaurant, which is owned by the adjoining hotel, was not attracting many clients from the hotel, as we saw them come and go by the hotel door, without entering the restaurant. The restaurant itself is small. Chris had mussels and I had a creamy rice, but the food was not memorable - neither good nor bad!

Gelateria Paradiso.

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The plus point here is a well decorated little cafe, a pleasure to sit in to eat your ice cream The ice creams themselves seem a bit hit and miss. Chris's passion fruit was excellent. My chocolate and almonds was below par. Interestingly I see another review on TripAdvisor had the same problem, perhaps they should drop this flavor. So if you want somewhere cool to sit and eat, then try this. But maybe stick to fruit flavors !

Yogyou Natural Frozen Yogurt

They give you a selection of flavours that are on offer on the day. Today there were four to try before making your choice. The service was friendly and informative. Chris opted just for a small pot, I opted for the large one with two flavours. Just the thing to cool you down on a hot day in Cartagena. We went a number of times, and in fact the most informative was the first time when the owner was there.

Cafe San Alberto. Oddly the highest rated restaurant in Cartagena. They offer what it says on the can, single estate coffee. And it is very good coffee We had the cold lattes, which were very enjoyable on a hot day in Cartagena. But they were served in a plastic glass, very similar to you know who's plastic glasses. In other words you go here for a fast coffee, not for a restaurant experience There is no way you could call this the best restaurant in Cartagena. But it is a good place to stop for a coffee. They did not appear to offer much in the way of food.

El Boliche Cebicheria. A nice, very small, restaurant that only has space for 12 customers, and you can watch the open kitchen at work. We had local beers and a couple of their main dishes. The owner was present the evening we were there, and was taking a keen interest in the proceedings. Service was pleasant, and staff were always checking that everything was to our liking (perhaps checking a little to much). The food was well cooked and well presented, and I thought that the value for money was good - it was better value that a couple of the other restaurants we ate in. I would recommend this restaurant, and would certainly eat there again if we were in Cartagena

Sunset - the whole town seems to gather on the city walls to watch the setting of the sun at the Cafe del Mar

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Cafe del Mar is said to be "the" place to see the sunset. The cafe itself is expensive, the music is too loud, and the service is truly appalling. If you want to watch the sunset, then stand on the city walls near here and watch. Mind you we never saw a really good sunset in our time here, the horizon was too cloudy


A selection of Museums

La Popa. High on a hill overlooking the city

The convent stands on a 150m-high hill, and is the highest point in Cartagena. There is an image of La Virgen de la Candelaria, the patroness of the city, in the convent's chapel. There is also a statue of a speared Padre Alonso García de Paredes, a priest who was murdered along with five Spanish soldiers for trying to evangelise. The views from here are outstanding and stretch all over the city.

Founded by the Augustine fathers in 1607, the convent's name literally means the Convent of the Stern, after the hill's similarity to a ship's poop. Initially a small wooden chapel, this was replaced by a fortified construction two centuries later. Today you go there for the view rather than the convent.

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The Inquisition Museum.

A bit gruesome, but nothing really interesting. Did the entire thing in about 15 minutes. The Inquisition, or as it was known within the Catholic Church, Inquiry on Heretical Perversity, had been around for several centuries by the time King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain launched the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. Up to that point the suppression of ‘heresy’ by the Catholic Church in Europe had rarely used torture to force confessions and only the occasional heretic was put to death. The Spanish Inquisition was to change that dramatically, and with the founding of colonies in the sixteenth century, it wasn’t long before the tentacles of the Inquisition reached Spain’s new overseas possessions. Today, Cartagena has this small museum dedicated to the Spanish Inquisition in the city. Perhaps the best thing about the museum of the Palace of the Inquisition is that it is housed in one of the finest colonial buildings in the city.

Modern Art Museum

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Housing a small collection of historical works by artists, Alejandro Obregon and Enrique Grau, Cartagena's Museum of Modern Art attempts to show the Caribbean influence on Colombian art. Founded in 1959 in a former Customs House on the corner of Plaza San Pedro de Claver, the museum keeps its permanent collection on the ground floor and holds temporary exhibitions upstairs.

Obregon, born in Barcelona and raised in Barranquilla, fell in love with Cartagena and later made it his home. Obregon's paintings and sculptures are amongst the most powerful contemporary works created in Colombia. Other works of note include paintings by Dario Morales and a fine collection of works by Panama-born Cartagenero, Enrique Grau, probably the city's most celebrated artist.

Naval Museum

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An interesting collection of exhibits (for me anyway) with all the signs in Spanish, which was at times difficult to read from a distance. It details the whole history of the fortifications of Cartagena, plus the various sieges that took place over the years. Drake is an interesting example: whereas the British see him as a national hero, the Carthaginians regard him as a pirate

Street Art

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They are everywhere,especially in Getsemane, from the classical statues of clerics and war heroes , to the ubiquitous Simon Bolivar, to the modern rusted iron sculptures and the street art introduced to offer entertainment to local youth. The scrap iron sculptures are by the Colombian artist Eduardo Carmona - he apparently donated them to the town, and they have become a shop window for his work


You could call Cartagena a sleepy town, this group of snoozing workmen summed it up for me.

Having explored Cartagena thoroughly over 5 days, it was time to move on, and next day we hit the road, heading north along the coast to the Tayrona National Park

On to Tayrona National Park

Colombia - Venezuela Holiday