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Declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, Cartagena combines the charm of Spanish colonial architecture with exotic scenery and beautiful Caribbean waters.
Cartagena de las Indias is a port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, east of Panama and south of Cuba. The city’s position close to the northern tip of South America and its proximity to the mighty Magdelena River made it an ideal location for the Spanish conquerors to store plundered gold and resources before shipping them to Europe.
Founded in 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, Colombia’s fifth largest city is one of the prettiest and most well preserved colonial towns in South America and wandering through its colourful streets is like taking a step back in time.
Once an important fortress town to the Spanish empire, Cartagena fended off regular attacks from hordes of European and Caribbean pirates during the Colonial period. In 1586, naval commander Sir Francis Drake, arrived with a powerful fleet and quickly took the city. During Drake’ brief hold of Cartagena one-quarter of the city was destroyed. Many of Cartagena’s key defensive features, such as the San Felipe Fort, one of the oldest buildings in Colombia, are still standing today and are incredibly well preserved.
Due to its location overlooking the Caribbean Coast, Cartagena enjoys a tropical climate and a relaxed pace of life. Known for its bright and colourful buildings and friendly bustling atmosphere, Cartagena is a perfect place to get to know the best of Colombia.
Cartagena Historic Centre
Access to the Old Town is via a clock tower gate, leading to the wide Plaza de la Aduana. The winding streets of the historic Old Town can easily be explored on foot, stopping at cafes, shops, museums and attractive baroque churches along the way. It is also possible to walk on the 400-year-old stone walls themselves, known as Las Murallas, with excellent sea views. If you prefer not to walk in the Caribbean heat, horse and carriage tours make regular circuits of the cobblestoned streets.
Adjacent to the walled city lies the slightly edgier neighbourhood of Getsemaní, where many colonial buildings have also survived. This district now attracts visitors for its colourful murals depicting scenes from Colombian life, and its many bars and restaurants.
Convento de la Popa
The hill of La Popa is a good site from which to appreciate the city from a distance, with a beautiful view of the Caribbean, the island of Tierrabomba, the walled downtown area and the city in general. The convent of Nuestra Señora de La Candelaria, founded in 1607, was initially a small wooden chapel which was replaced by a stronger construction two centuries later.
San Felipe Fort
The impressive Castillo San Felipe de Barajas overlooks the city and is considered by some to be the most impregnable fortress the Spanish ever built. It is a huge fort constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries to defend the port from repeated pirate attacks. The fortress contains hidden tunnels that you can explore with or without a guide.
These are 23 military dungeons built between 1792 and 1796 in the city walls. Later, during the republican era, they were turned into a jail, and today they house craft and souvenir shops.
Museums in Cartagena
Some of the city’s best museums surround the picturesque Plaza de Bolívar, where a grand statue of the liberator Simón Bolívar stands at its centre.
The Museo de Arte Moderno is located on the Plaza San Pedro Claver. The museum showcases the works of modern Colombian artists.
The Museo de Oro is located on the Plaza de Bolívar and is housed in a baroque mansion. It exhibits jewellery and pre-Columbian artefacts. The Palacio de la Inquisición displays the Inquisitors’ instruments of torture.
Day Trips from Cartagena
As well as boasting a beautiful colonial centre with cobbled streets and colourful balconies strewn with flowers, Cartagena is close to white-sand beaches and paradisiacal islands.
Islas del Rosario
The idyllic Islas del Rosario comprise 27 small islands, with fine white sand and coral blue water. They are located approximately 35km, or a 40 minute boat ride, from Cartagena. Day trips can be arranged to different islands, and visiting Playa Blanca on Isla Barú is one of the most popular options with both Colombians and international tourists.
El Totumo Mud Volcano
A visit to the mud baths at El Totumo makes an easy day trip from Cartagena. The ‘volcano’ is a 15 metre mound with thick, warm mud in its crater. Bathing in the mud, which is said to have healing properties, is a unique and fun experience. Access is via a staircase and slippery ladder with a hand rail. El Totumo is approximately one hour’s drive from Cartagena.
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- Population: 900,000
- Altitude: Sea level
- Climate: Cartagena’s climate is typically Caribbean. The dry season runs from December through to April, with hot, very humid and sunny weather. October and November are the wettest months. For the rest of the year, rainfall is common, although mornings are often sunny with the rain coming in the afternoon. The average daytime temperature is approximately 30°C throughout the year