Standing in the middle of the road, looking up, I couldn’t help but smile at the marvelous vista right in front of me. Colorful houses in vivid hues, designed in architectural styles dominant in the Spanish colonial era. In almost every patio and portico, beautiful bougainvillea flowers bloom, and locals wearing friendly smiles spend the lazy afternoon resting in their rocking chairs, and they would wave at you as if you’re a long lost friend.
It’s supposed to be winter in the southern hemisphere but here, the sun shines brightly making you long for ice-cold smoothies, while lying cozily along the the Caribbean coast.
This is Cartagena de Indias, or simply Cartagena, a port city north of Colombia. It is one of the most popular destinations in South America and its offerings are limitless, attracting visitors from different parts of the world, from different economic classes.
Located at the coast of the Caribbean, Cartagena, with its colorful colonial houses has long been a playground for the rich and powerful elite. For art and history aficionados, the 400-year old houses and buildings, are a major attraction, not to mention, that jaw-dropping murals and paintings painted by the locals.
Those who are into architecture love the city for its massive churches, and colorful colonial-period houses and mansions. and for casual world travelers like me, it’s the mixture of all these makes Cartagena such an irresistible destination that you just have to visit at least once in your life.
I arrived in Cartagena, still feeling jetlagged from traveling all the way from the Philippines and then to Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro and then Bogota, Colombia. But all the exhaustion vanished at the sight of Cartagena’s impressive beauty.
My wanderings were concentrated in the Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site and my three days in the city weren’t enough for me to get a glimpse of of at least half of what this South American jewel has to offer.
Cartagena is a place that makes you drop all of your sightseeing routines and set ways. With virtually every corner and street boasting of a colorful sight, it is best to simply walk you way around the city and the Old Town, and go where your feet and eyes will take you.
But almost everyone will agree that in Cartagena, the first place you visit is the Centro Amurallado or the Old Walled City.
A Port City, Cartagena is surrounded by a 13-kilometer wall that both protects the city from the elements and from the raiding pirates during the 16th-18th century. You will spend roughly 90 minutes if you walk around the stone walls. Inside the walled city, almost all of the city’s highlights can be reached within minutes by walking.
At the Walled City, the first historical sight that will welcome you is the Clock Tower or the Torre del Reloj. The most original elements of the tower were built in the 17th century but over the years, its has seen several updates and repairs, and the clock it now sports is Swiss made, added in the early 1900’s.
Once inside the Centro Amurallado, be sure to check out the stunning 16th century church Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, named after the saint. The church has an imposing facade that lords over the plaza. In front of the church, are several fine dining restaurants where locals and travelers alike, stay drinking wines and dining expensive Colombian delights while waiting for the sunset.
Iglesia de San Pedro Claver
Around the wall city are several colorful plazas, houses and buildings that compete with each other in terms of beauty and elegance. One plaza that I really like is the Plaza Santo Domingo where you can find the Spanish consulate.
Another highlight destination inside the Walled City is the beautiful Cartagena cathedral dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria.The building was designed after basilicas found in Andalusia and the Canary Islands. Outside the cathedral, you can find Colombian artists selling portraits and water color-painted slices if rustic Colombian life.
Walking around the old town’s cobbled alleys, and admiring beautiful porticoes and verandas can take some time, since every houses makes an effort to stun admirers. You won’t have any difficulty finding a hotel, restaurant or souvenir shop inside the walled city, but they are a bit pricey. The up and coming bars and clubs are also located inside the walled city, just right after passing the Torre de Reloj.
If you want more value for your buck, a few blocks away from the wall city, travelers gravitate towards the hip, artistic, laid back, realistic, if a bit noisy, community of Getsemani.
Over the years, travelers have raised their eyebrows on Getsemani no thanks to its reputation as a sketchy community, where the poorer people of Cartagena live. It also had a reputation for prostitution and drugs but that reputation is slowly washing away as more and more restaurants and hotels open within this enclave, and police increase visibility in the area.
The result? An up-and-coming destination, that now attracts a serious load of travelers and tourists. Around Plaza Santissima de Trinidad, travelers, even those staying inside the walled city, hand around and mingle with locals for some authentic feel of Cartagena.
One of the most popular destinations in Cartagena, you simply cannot miss is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, one of the most impressive and solidly build fortresses in the Americas. Built in the 17th century, this fort was never taken, despite attempts by enemies.
Inside the fort is a complicated network of tunnels used by the soldiers of Cartagea to transport food and ammunition. Today, the fort remains intact and a trip to the castle’s highest tip, will reward you with a breathtaking view of Cartagena.
If you have some extra dough, you can also head south of Cartagena to Bocagrande, long considered as Catargena’s own version of Miami beach. The young, hip and moneyed Cartagenos flock to Bocagrande to dine in glitzy restaurants and stay in upscale hotels and condominiums.
Truly, Cartagena is a world class city that opens its arms to the everyone. It is a charming and colorful city that’s full of excitement and romance. It’s a city that makes you feel relaxed and complete at the same time.
If you ever get the chance to visit Cartagena, take it. You won’t ever regret it.