Cartagena is a city where you can immerse yourself in history, simply by walking through its colonial neighbourhoods. Set on the north edge of Colombia on the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena was an important port city for the Spanish. They left behind fabulous architecture in their homes, churches and even a castle.
The Walled City
The Walled City of Cartagena has everything you want in a colonial town. It has old buildings that have been beautifully renovated and freshly painted in bright colours. It has narrow, cobblestone streets that are safe to walk, day and night, and it is a living, usable space. As with all old towns there are squares which allow people to congregate and churches with splendid architecture. The streets are lined with homes that were elegant estates and official offices, that are now boutique hotels and fancy restaurants. The Walled City covers such a large area that you can easily spend a day admiring the buildings and not see the same one twice. One of the most unusual sites is a sculpture of a large naked woman in front of Santa Domingo Church. Her breasts are bright gold from being rubbed by many passing tourists. The ‘Fat Lady’ was donated to the city by Colombian artist Fernando Botero.
Palenquera women dressed in bright long skirts, carrying baskets of fruit on their heads add even more colour to the streets. These women are descendants of African slaves who escaped slavery and established their own communities outside of the city. In the late 1700s these slaves were officially freed and the women became fruit sellers in Cartagena. Their descendants continue this tradition today.
Surrounding the Walled City and neighboring Getsemani, is an old defensive wall. Built in the 1500s, the 4km long wall is made of stone and coral. Some sections of the wall are over 5 meters thick and at its narrowest it is still at least 1 m thick. It’s in remarkable shape considering its location next to the violent Caribbean Sea. We walked along the top of the wall where from one spot you can look down the narrow streets of the old town; turn and see tall new high-rises along the water; or turn again and see the long coast with waves crashing into the shore.
Getsemani is also within the walls of Cartagena but is a different community than the Walled City. You can tell that Getsemani is where the commoners lived, not the aristocracy of the Walled City. It’s the same today. Getsemani is filled with hostels, coffee shops and cafes that are less expensive than the Walled City. The narrow streets and renovated colonial buildings in this area are quaint, charming and equally colourful. Even though Getsemani doesn’t get the same attention as the Walled City, it is as nice as any Old Towns we have visited around the world. Getsemani is definitely worth your time to visit.
San Felipe de Barajas Castillo
Sitting on top of the small Hill of San Lazaro is an impressive-looking Fortress. With thick stone walls, 68 canons, numerous bastions and lookouts, the Castillo provided protection against attacks from the sea. Inside the Fortress are walkways between lookout posts and even a series of underground tunnels leading from one side to the other. This would allow soldiers to safely move within the fortress in case of attack. Today the fortress is a museum which allows you to see the tunnels and bastions up close. As with many historical buildings, this one looks more impressive from afar than it does inside.
In addition to having wonderful colonial neighborhoods, Cartagena has an impressive modern skyline. Lining the coast are several tall high-rise apartment and office buildings. In front is a busy marina filled with sailboats and yachts.
An hour boat ride from the Walled City is a long beach with white sand living up to its name Playa Blanca (White Beach). Given its proximity to the city, it wasn’t a surprise that it is a very popular beach. There were more people here than at Grand Beach on August Long Weekend (that’s for my Winnipeg friends). You can walk the length of the sandy beach but will be constantly asked if you want lunch, a cervesa or a sunbed. After spending a few days on a pristine Tayrona beach, we weren’t very interested in sharing our paradise with thousands of people.
Coming Next: Top Ten Pictures from Colombia
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