While tourism from abroad to Colombia may still be in its infancy following the drug war of the 1990s, Cartagena de Indias has always been the most prominent tourist destination in the country. Cartagena boasts the best-preserved walled-in colonial city in the Americas along with pristine Caribbean beaches in close proximity. Understandably so, this gem of a city has drawn millions of visitors each year to enjoy its colonial beauty, hot year-round weather and great beaches.
Nothing quite captures the beauty of Cartagena more than a night walk around the historic old city with beautiful illuminated buildings on every corner. Although settlements in the area date back as far as 4000 BC, Cartagena as a colonial city was only founded in 1533 and played a key role in Spain’s colonial conquest of the Americas, the slave trade as well as pirate activity in the Caribbean. The city was fortified by a thick wall during the late 16th century to keep the Spanish crown safe from pirate attacks by sea, eager to capture the city’s riches. Designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1984, Cartagena boasts magnificent colonial buildings that can be easily discovered during a 2-hour night walk within the city’s walls.
The natural point of departure to discover central Cartagena by foot is the so-called TORRE DEL RELOJ, the city’s clock tower dating back to the 19th century. In front is a statue of Pedro de Heredia, who founded the city back in 1533. Turning left and passing the popular landmark HARD ROCK CAFE Cartagena, we arrive at the spacious PLAZA DE LA ADUANA featuring the Town Hall of Cartagena alongside the ramparts of the city wall and St. Peter’s church (Iglesia de San Pedro Claver).
Taking a sharp right turn from here again, we arrive at what ranks among the most picturesque squares of the city and in all of Colombia, PLAZA BOLIVAR, the famous 19th century leader who paved the way for Colombia’s independence from Spain and that of several other South American countries. The square is covered in lush green from palm trees and tropical shrubs and houses the Cathedral of Cartagena on one end, a colonial house used as the residence by the current MISS COLOMBIA beauty queen, as well as the infamous yet beautifully ornate PALACIO DE LA INQUISICION. Inside we can find invaluable historic testaments to this brutal chapter of Spanish colonial history, which included Cartagena for over 200 years from the early 1600s to the abolition of the inquisition there in the 1830s.
Just a block and a half away we reach one of Cartagena’s most popular outdoor seating squares…PLAZA SANTO DOMINGO with numerous outdoor cafes and restaurants, a voluminous bust of Colombian artist Fernando BOTERO and the gorgeous facade of Santo Domingo church. From here a small narrow alley leads towards the city’s ramparts along what many consider among the most picturesque of all streets in the historic old town and leading to the Porton de Santo Domingo, gateway to the quaintest section of the city wall. The famous CAFE DEL MAR can be found here with extortionate prices, but inexpensive drinks can be bought from nearby vendors and sitting on the city wall next to the cafe is just as atmospheric and at no charge.
Now it is time to traverse the famous Cartagena city wall from South to North…passing GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ´ secured mansion, the 5-star Santa Clara and Bóvedas de Santa Clara Hotels, reaching the quiet, secluded yet safe BÓVEDAS section of the fortification with interesting people watching, good breezes from the Caribbean Sea and moments of peace in quiet in what is otherwise a busy tourist town. Returning from here to TORRE DE RELOJ we still have 2 of the most picturesque squares waiting to be discovered, PLAZA SAN DIEGO as well as PLAZA FERNANDEZ DE MADRID, both equally captivating because of their laid-back atmosphere perfect for people watching, splendid colonial architecture and neatly landscaped vegetation. The beauty of Cartagena´s old town is certainly stunning during the day as well, but nothing quite beats a discovery walk of Cartagena at night because of far fewer crowds, lower temperatures and its beautifully illuminated architectural gems.