The old city of Cartagena, Colombia, is a charming, colorful place filled with beautiful Spanish colonial architecture. A fun tourist heaven, it has enough to keep you busy for several days.
In the Walled City Itself
Walk Around, Get Lost
The old city is not big and is very walkable. Just walking around, absorbing the architecture, colors and vibrant life is a pleasure. Don’t be afraid to get lost–all streets lead to squares, and with a simple map you will be able to find your way back easily. Make sure to walk at different times of the day, as the city feels different as the day progresses (hint: due to the heat, it really comes to life at sunset!).
Make sure to walk on the wall, too! Sunrise or sunset are the most spectacular times.
Cartagena has food everywhere. Try some street food.
Visit a restaurant. Sit outside at a table on a square in the evening, and pay one of the musicians to play you a song.
And yes, as all the guidebooks recommend, do go sit on the wall at Cafe del Mar at least once.
There is a surprising number of museums for such a small place. I suggest starting with the Naval History Museum (Museo Naval Del Caribe), as it has a good coverage of the city’s long history from pre-Colombian times on. The museum is mostly in Spanish. If you can’t read Spanish, I highly recommend hiring the English tour guide who usually sits at the ticket office booth. This will make your visit significantly more enjoyable and helpful. After your visit you will find that you understand much more of what you see in the city itself.
You don’t need to bother with the nearby Museum of Modern Art, unless you really have a lot of time on your hands. Even as an avid art lover, I found this museum underwhelming.
The small Gold Museum is also a must. While I was there, the museum was under renovation, and the small exhibit was temporarily housed in a nearby bank. Even then, I really enjoyed seeing the display of beautiful pre-Colombian artifacts.
The Inquisition Museum is no longer dedicated to the Inquisition, and is rather a municipal museum instead. It has a room or two with Inquisition artifacts on the bottom floor. Go if you have spare time, but keep expectations low.
Whether or not you visit the museum, do walk around the corner of the building to find this little window:
This is where the residents of Cartagena left anonymous notes, telling on their enemies and neighbors to the Inquisition…
You will see signs to the Emerald Museum, and your book might recommend it, too. It’s actually a small, somewhat-amateurish display attached to a shop. It explains where emeralds come from and a bit of history, but is not a must-visit destination.
Cartagena offers a wide array of things to buy. Peddlers carry displays of items, like these hats or jewelry:
Artisans sell their wares at street markets scattered about the city:
There is a nice cluster of artisan shops at the former military storehouse at Las Bovedas:
There are also many high-end galleries and shops, selling beautiful handcrated items from throughout Colombia:
Outside the Walled City
This is a neighborhood right outside the wall on the city’s southeast. In colonial times, it used to be a lower-class neighborhood. Its architecture, therefore, isn’t as grand as that found in the walled city. Until fairly recently it was run down and full of crime and prostitution, but in recent years it has undergone gentrification. Now it’s mostly the backpacker tourist area. Go here to to see colorful street art or to hang out at bars.
During the summer, there’s a month-long artisan market right at the entrance to the neighborhood, opposite the city gate. It is well worth visiting!
Castilo de San Felipe
The Castilo was the largest Spanish fort in the New World, and should be high on your to-see list. It can get very hot when you stand on top, so make sure to bring lots of water.
You can always take cover from the heat in the many tunnels that burrow through the fortification–a great attraction for kids!
Convento de la Popa
You will need to take a cab to this monastery, located on hill overlooking the city. you can explore the monastery itself, and enjoy a panoramic view of the city:
To Keep in mind
Cartagena is a great place to visit, but the ghost of darker days hangs about it. The city began as a small village surrounded by spikes topped with enemy skulls. Under the Spaniards, its used to be the largest slave port in the Americas. It’s beautiful biggest square was a bustling slave market. In the days of the Inquisition, many of its residents were tortured and killed in grizzly ways.
Nowadays there is a slightly different undercurrent. Once you get used to the picturesque beauty, you will start noticing the many beggars, many of them destitute Venezuelan families trying to eek a living. And while we were not bothered as a family with kids, when my husband went alone to pick something from our hotel, at 10:00 am, he was propositioned by people offering to get him “anything he wanted.” There were even signs on walls warning against the prostitution of boys and girls (suggesting that anything else was OK).
So, by all means, enjoy what the city has to offer, but also make sure to use common sense and keep safe.