Cartagena: The Fortress City

In 1984, the Port, Fortresses and Monuments, including the old town of Cartagena were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mystified in romance, legends and beautiful colonial era antiquity, this city captivates visitors and travelers with its cobbled alleys, enormous balconies draped in bougainvillea and horse-drawn carriages. The backdrop to movies such as “Romancing the Stone” and more recently the film adaptation of “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Nobel Prize winning Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Cartagena has a long history of fairy-tale mystique. Capital of the department (state) of Bolívar, Cartagena is currently the fifth largest urban area in Colombia. During the colonial period, Cartagena was the most important bastion of the Spanish overseas empire and influenced much of Colombia’s history.

Click here for a digitized map of the state of Bolívar (departmento).

Naming of Cartagena

One of the most beautiful cities in Colombia, with over a million inhabitants living right on the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena de Indias, or simply, Cartagena, was named after the famous Spanish City of Cartagena which, in turn, takes its name from Carthage, the great merchant city that once rivaled Rome itself. Carthage, the exalted city of antiquity, was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th Century BC in North Africa, in what is Tunisia today. The conquistadors had a tradition of naming a new colony for one of the cities that had sponsored their expedition, in order to honor their patrons. Thus, the names of the great monarchs of the time appear again and again in the names of locations in the New World, since they were the ones to finance most of the voyages. Louisiana, for example, was named after King Louis XIV.

Cartagena Geography

Cartagena’s bayside location has also seen huge tourist development in recent years. Located on Colombia’s northern coast and facing the Caribbean Sea, it is the most visited city in the country by local and international tourists. It gets extremely crowded during December holidays as well as the holy week in March (Semana Santa / Easter), when schools are out and most Colombians take their vacations. The city has basically two main sectors where tourists gather: the walled colonial city (“Ciudad Amurallada”), which is truly amazing and has many upscale restaurants, clubs and hotels; and a long strip of hotel towers and condos fronting onto the beach, known as Bocagrande.

Cartagena was built on several islands located at the end of a bay on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, not far from the majestic Río Magdalena. The marshes that originally surrounded these islands were later filled, in order to link the land to the coast. The city, nestled in the bay, extends onto an L-shaped peninsula called Bocagrande. At the end of this stretch of land are two large islands that appear to be guarding the mouth of the bay: located at the entrance to the bay is Isla Tierrabomba, a natural one, while Isla Barú was created when the Canal Del Dique was dug. This gigantic waterway is 114 kilometers long, and was completed during the colonial era with the aim of linking the Río Magdalena to the sea. The Barú peninsula was thereby cut off from the mainland and transformed into an island. This was one of the largest enterprises of its kind ever to have been carried out in the Spanish colonies, and is used by many boats to this day.

The Del Rosario archipelago lies off the western extremity of Isla Barú. Made up of a multitude of little islands, it has lovely white sand beaches and magnificent coral. Fans of marine life claim that this is one of the most beautiful places on the Colombian coast.

Just south of the downtown area is another island, known as La Manga, which is a residential area for well-off Cartageneros. Several ridges provide access to and from the island, and one of these leads directly to the old city. A number of lagoons separate the suburban areas from the old city, whose centre is surrounded by magnificent ramparts. The only elevated points on the horizon are the Castillo San Felipede Barajas at the gates of the city, and the Convento de la Popa facing the island of La Manga from its perch atop a 100-metre-high hill.

Click here to see a more detailed map of Cartagena and the islands that surround the area.

Thus admirably protected, Cartagena has managed to preserve its military buildings, as well as its lovely upper-class homes and colonial churches. Today, it is one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in all of South America and continues to draw more and more tourists as the rest of the world continues to discover Colombia.

Cartagena: A Meca of Culture & Activity

Cartagena’s calendar is packed with festivals -the biggest bash is the Carnaval de Cartagena, which culminates with the Miss Colombia beauty pageant on November 11 – one of the biggest cultural events in the country! Cartagena also hosted the 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games, finishing fourth of the overall medal count.

Today the city hosts numerous annual intellectual and cultural events. The town is painted with beautiful colonial restored homes among exotic, highly attractive and dynamic plazas, waterfronts and other public spaces. The city plays host to many conventions but the two of major interest to Europeans and North Americans are without doubt the classical Music Festival held during the first two weeks of January and the South American version of the (UK) Hay Literary Festival at the end of January. Both are particularly imaginative with world class performers, writers and critics.

The People of Cartagena

The city was one of the first sanctuaries of freed African slaves in the Americas and is currently populated by an ethnic mix representative of Colombia’s own mestizo inhabitants. This is one of the richest aspects of Cartagena today and adds to the amazing ambiance of the city.

Cartagena City Sectors

North Cartagena – In this area you will find the Rafael Nunez International Airport, in the neighborhood of Crespo, only ten minutes away from downtown or the old part of the city and fifteen minutes away from the modern area. It must be said that this large area is that with the greatest long-term urban development. Here you will find the majestic Coralia Americas Hotel, and several educational institutions.

If you decide you’d like to relive the history of Cartagena, go to the Ciudad Amurallada (Walled City), also called “Centro Historico” and “Corralito de Piedra”, where you will find four sectors, each one with a peculiar story to tell: San Diego, La Matuna, Getsemani and Santo Domingo.

Downtown – Downtown (Centro) is undoubtedly the heart of the city and the most evident testimony of its history. It has a varied architecture, mainly of a colonial style, but there are also republican and Italian style buildings, such as the Cathedral’s bell tower.

The official entrance to downtown is through Puerta del Reloj (Clock Portal), which comes out onto Plaza de los Coches (Carriages Square). A few steps from there you will find Plaza de la Aduana (Customs Square), next to the mayor’s office. Located nearby is Plaza San Pedro Claver, and his namesake’s church, as well as the Museum of Modern Art.

Further on, you will find Plaza de Bolívar (Bolívar’s Square) and the Palace of the Inquisition to one side. If you are interested in knowing more about Cartagena’s history, you can do in-depth research in the office of the Historical Archive. Next to the archives you’ll find Government Palace, where the Governor of the Department works. Across from the palace you’ll see Cartagena’s Cathedral, which dates back to the 16th century.

There is another religious temple that you should take time to admire: The newly restored Santo Domingo Church, in front of Plaza Santo Domingo (Santo Domingo Square). The square was recently decorated with the sculpture Mujer Reclinada (Reclining Woman), a gift from the renowned Colombian artist Fernando Botero.

You should not forget to visit Teatro Heredia (Heredia Theater), an architectural jewel located in front of Plaza de la Merced. A few meters from here you’ll find Calle de la Factoria; on it is the Marquis of Valdehoyos House, where the Historical Photographic Library is housed.

A little bit further on is Augustinian Fathers Convent, where the University of Cartagena operates. This university is a higher education center, opened to the public more than 120 years ago. Don’t forget to visit Claustro de Santa Teresa (Saint Theresa Cloister), which has been remodeled into a hotel, operated by Charleston Hotels, an upscale Colombian hotel chain. It has its own square, protected by the San Francisco Bastion.

San Diego – It was named after San Diego Convent, nowadays the Beaux Arts School Building. In front of it you will find Convent of the Nuns of the Order of Saint Claire, now the beautiful Hotel Santa Clara. In the surrounding area you will find Santo Toribio Church, the last church built in the walled city, and next to it, Fernandez de Madrid Square, in honor of Cartagena’s hero Jose Fernandez de Madrid, whose statue can be seen here.

Inside the Old City, you have to go to Las Bovedas (The Vaults), a construction attached to the walls in the Santa Catalina Bastion. From the top of this construction you will be able to view the beautiful Caribbean Sea.

The Matuna – The Matuna is the commercial and financial area par excellence in the city. Here you can also find affordable hotels, like Saint Philip Hotel, and affordable restaurants with good service.

Getsemani Neighborhood – This is one of the most representative neighborhoods in Cartagena. African people who were brought as slaves used to live here. Parque Centenario (Centennary Park) is the most prominent place in this area; built in 1911, it commemorates a century of independence. In this very same area you will find Cartagena’s Convention Center, Third Order Church and San Francisco Cloister. You will also see San Roque of the Trinity churches, in the square with the same name. Note that the entirety of the Old City has the same architectural styles as the area surrounded by the walls.

Bocagrande – Bocagrande is the most modern area of the city, with many upscale hotels and restaurants. It forms part of a land extension delimited by Cartagena Bay to the east and the Caribbean Sea to the west, where you will find El Laguito (The Little Lake) and Castillogrande (Big Castle), two renowned neighborhoods. Its particular appeal is the beaches and nightlife. All over Avenida San Martin (Saint Martin Avenue), which is the backbone of the area, you will find many business centers, restaurant venues and hoteliers that service the area.

Fact: Cartagena has experienced heavy urban development in recent years, particularly with the construction of new skyscrapers. As of May 2007, there were 41 high-rises under construction, including an effort to create Colombia’s tallest, the Torre de la Escollera. The new high-rise, extraordinarily narrow, was expected to be completed in early 2007, and was planned to stand at 676 ft and have 58 floors. However, a construction defect has sadly led to its dismantling.

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