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  • The traveler’s guide to historical Cartagena, Colombia

    photo by Bernd Lutz on Fotopedia

    Most people spending their holidays in Colombia end up visiting Cartagena at some point – it is the most popular destination in the country, after all. Cartagena is a city with several faces, and two of them are overrun with travelers most of the year. The resort areas with high rise hotels along Bocagrande strip, where beach bums and luxury travelers alike come to enjoy the sun and the ocean. But history buffs are attracted to the colonial walled city, which flourished after the 16th century.

    Cartagena was founded by Spanish conquistadors on the site of a small indigenous village, and the growing town rose to fame, was targeted by pirates and then became one of the first sanctuaries of freed African slaves in the Americas. Here’s a traveler’s guide to historical Cartagena that will give you a taste of the wonders of this city.

    Cityscape

    If you take a look at Cartagena from a boat, all you will see is modern skycrapers and high-rise buildings that line the beaches. Offices and company headquarters fill the city – at least that what it looks like from a distance. But go deeper into the city, and you will find the old walled city which withstood many adversities over the course of history.

    Cartagena view, Colombia

    Cartagena view ©Ben Bowes/Flickr

    After Sir Francis Drake, the famous English pirate/ sailor destroyed a quarter of the city in 1586, the Spanish government poured huge sums of money into the fortification of Cartagena, and the defenses were completed in the 18th century.

    For a long time, the defenses were considered impenetrable, and most of them are still standing tall today. The old city has many sights dating back to the colonial era, and thanks to the great condition of the buildings, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    Sights in the old city

    Perhaps one of the most interesting (and unsettling, considering its history) buildings is the Palace of the Inquisition. The palace is now a museum with displays that are educational and horrifying at the same time.

    The sheer number and variety of the torture devices are enough to unsettle even the most apathetic visitor, and the list of questions that the officers of the Inquisitions asked from presumed witches is going to make you either cry or laugh. The site is a must, but not for the faint hearted.

    The Convent of San Pedro Claver is a beautiful piece of religious architecture with an interesting history. It was named after one of the monks, who is remembered for supporting and helping the former slaves and who became the first person to be canonized in the Americas. The building has three stories and is surrounded by a lush, tree filled garden. Part of the convent is a museum with displays on art and pre-Columbian ceramics.

    Convento y Iglesia San Pedro Claver

    Convento y Iglesia San Pedro Claver ©amanderson2/Flickr

    Iglesia de Santo Domingo is another sight worth seeing, especially since it is believed to be the oldest church in the city, built in the 16th century by builders who weren’t particularly good at their craft (the vault had to be buttressed and the the tower is decidedly crooked), but the church is charming and atmospheric nonetheless.

    The old walled city is a wonderful place to get lost in, and the colonial streets with colorful buildings can surprise you with quaint places that no one thought to put in a brochure. The towering mansions, plazas, monasteries and shady patios make Cartagena a genuine gem of colonial architecture.

    You must also see one of the symbols of the city, the Puerta del Reloj (Clock Tower). This 19th century tower is right on the main entrance on the wall of the Old Town. The tower and entryway have two side archways, one gave home to a chapel and one to an armory. If you walk beyond the wall, you will find the Plaza de los Coches, a square surrounded by colored Spanish colonial houses.

    Puerta del Reloj - Cartagena

    Puerta del Reloj ©Jorge Lascar/Flickr

    The Plaza de Bolivar is not only home to beautiful old trees and a statue of Simon de Bolivar but also to some of the most notable colonial houses in the city including the cathedral, the Gold Museum and the Palace of the Inquisition. You can sit on one of the banks and feed the pigeons while enjoying the city’s classic South American flare.

    The Cathedral of Cartagena was built in 1576 by the Spanish, but underwent several alternations since. The inside is as captivating as the outside, but the marble pulpit and the gilded altar from the 18th century are the most stunning parts of the Cathedral.

    Cartagena’s Gold Museum exhibits breathtaking collections of ceramics, jewelry and other objects from the different cultures that inhabited the area since the ancient times. You can find stylized human figures and animal shaped pendants and other fine works of master goldsmiths in the Baroque building, a collection that does not stay behind the much larger Bogota Gold Museum.

    Teatro Heredia - Cartagena

    Teatro Heredia ©Roger/flickr

    Teatro Heredia Adolfo Mejia is another fine piece of Colombian architecture that you should visit. It has amazing ceiling frescoes by famous painter Enrique Grau and wooden balconies with stunning latticework.

    There are several organized tours to the different sights of the city you can book. You would not have as much liberty on wandering off track or staying longer at one sight or another, but you will be able to see all the best attractions in one package without having to search for them individually for hours.

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