As Cartagena is an international landmark in its own right, where do we start when giving an overview of the separate sites that all join together to make this the case? We guess that first and foremost, we have to mention the start of it all – the Old City – securely embraced by kilometres of forbiddingly impressive fortifications. It would be remiss of us not to also point out the many beautiful churches; such as Cartagena’s Cathedral; or the San Pedro Claver standing alongside the Museum of Modern Art in Plaza San Pedro. Now we’re on the subject of plazas and such, we suppose we better talk about the compulsory Bolivar Square, as well as the history-rich Plaza de los Coches.
We could go on about all the colonial treasures nestled inside these walls, but then we wouldn’t have time to point out the bleedingly obvious attractions just outside – primarily the La Popa Convent perched atop its hill, and the spectacular San Felipe Castle. Furthermore, we wouldn’t be able to talk about the swanky beaches of Bocagrande, or the backpacker-favoured Gethsemani, with its urgently energetic Arsenal Street. Frankly, though, even after we’ve said all this, it’s really best for you to have a stroll around the city by yourself, and pick out your own favourite landmarks. As there are too many to mention succinctly, that would be the most effective – and also memorable – method. Enjoy.
Talk?? These walls are chatterboxes of the highest order. Built when gold-thirsty buccaneers got the memo about what alluring riches the new Caribbean port had to offer, they only took a couple of hundred years to complete. Clocking in at around 11 kilometres in length when completed, and fortified with brilliantly strategic sentry-points; they transformed a vulnerable treasure-trove into the New World’s most formidably protected city. Now, they embrace the beating heart of Cartagena, holding the beautifully preserved Colonial architecture and narrow, winding alleyways in a warm bear-hug.
Built to keep invaders out, they now lure a world of sightseers in. If you make it to Cartagena – and we think you probably should – and don’t take a stroll atop the walls around sunset to take in the historical treasures of the Old City, you may just end up feeling a little silly. You would have missed the chance to feel the old, magical stories of this city rich with fantasy talking to you right up through the soles of your feet. You’ll also miss the chance to dance till those soles ache at Café del Mar, perched right atop this grand old structure. Don’t be silly: take the time to listen to the Old Wall’s stories. It’s worth the trouble.
La Popa Convent
Like all the stories that make up Cartagena, the one of La Popa Convent is tinged with Marquez-esque magical realism. It is said that at the dawning of the seventeenth-century, Brother Alonso de La Cruz Paredes received a message from the heavens which instructed him to go and build an Augustine convent on top of the highest hill near the city of Cartagena. After this fearless monk battled the horned devil presiding over the hill and threw him down the slope; he convinced the local inhabitants to build a small wooden church. After a few brushes with less pious pirates, the more resilient – and beautiful – stone convent, replete with a gorgeous patio and chapel, replaced the one made of wood. Years later, no less esteemed a personage than the Liberator himself, Simon Bolivar, would use the convent of La Popa as his independence headquarters; during which time a cannonball fired from San Felipe Castle two kilometres away whizzed just past El Liberator’s ears as he was looking out the window.
True, the stories are fabulous, but then again, so is the present-day view from this hilltop. Today, La Popa offers its visitors an unequalled panorama of Cartagena old and new, as well as its surrounds. The convent’s chapel, restored and reclaimed by the Augustinian order, boasts a beautiful golden altar that houses a statue of the city’s patron saint; as well as a fine collection of other Catholic iconography. The majestic view outside isn’t too shabby, either. Negotiate a taxi-fare up to the foot of La Popa, and you will be rewarded with the best view this magical city can give you. You probably won’t even have to wrestle a cloven-hoofed demon.
San Felipe Castle
Cartagena has always been a jealously guarded, highly desirable location. To protect it from the rough-and-tumble of European expansion and the hordes of marauding pirates, the Kingdom of Spain pulled out the big guns; none bigger than the commissioning of the slave-built San Felipe Castle. Perched atop a hill commanding all the surrounding land and sea, this crucial fortress, after its three expansions, eventually became the hill, and not once in its centuries of existence has it been taken by an invading force. We can all now take advantage of less tempestuous times to inspect the strategically laid-out battlements and ingenious network of spooky tunnels which come together to form the masterpiece of Spanish colonial engineering.
In 1741, the one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged protector of Cartagena, Admiral Blas de Lezo, managed to repel a British force ten times the size of his, and could do so in good part due to the geographical and architectural brilliance of this imposing structure. Take a bus or a taxi to the foot of the hill, and it’s not hard to see why. Even though some say Blas de Lezo’s and his fortress’ exploits ensured that most of the continent now speaks Spanish instead of English, hiring a guide – either living or recorded – will help you get more of a taste of San Felipe’s storied pasts as you gaze out at the city from the peak and explore some of the tunnels that still dimly communicate their old secrets. If you head there in the late afternoon, you can beat the full force of the sun, and then watch it go down over the jewel of a city this impregnable fortress still guards with an unwavering, if less urgently vigilant, eye.
A bit of gruesome history never hurt anyone. Well, clearly it did, but anyway. If this is the kind of thing you’re into, Inquisition Palace is screaming your name. Here you will find a museum teeming with instruments of torture, torture chambers and fairly squalid prison cells. There are also historic records detailing the gruesome acts committed by the Spanish settlers.
In 1610, the inquisition landed on Colombian shores to deal with crimes against Christianity and this palace was used as the Punishment Tribunal. Crimes could be anything from magic and witchcraft to a few blasphemous words. Before independence in 1821, around 800 people were sentenced to death. The jurisdiction of the inquisition stretched as far as Venezuela and Panama although strangely Indians were not judged.
As well as reminders of the brutality of the campaign, the museum also houses arms, paintings, pottery, old maps and a model of Cartagena in 1808. And while some of the content is fairly vicious, the building itself is a picture of serenity, with beautiful baroque stonework and stunning long balconies. It is an excellent and elegant example of colonial architecture. On one side of the building is a window looking out onto Plaza Bolivar from which the public received information about sentences.
Some of the items in the historical museum have seen better days and the palace is closed to the public on Mondays.