Founded in 1533, Cartagena quickly became a keystone of the Spanish Empire, a prosperous port where the wealth of a continent was loaded on to galleons bound for Spain. As such it proved an irresistible target for pirates and rival powers, being attacked numerous times (including by Sir Francis Drake). The exasperated Spaniards therefore built a thick wall around the city, as well as a number of imposing forts.
During the struggle for independence, Cartagena changed hands several times and lost much of its population and wealth. Like other Colombian cities, it expanded rapidly in the 20th century as people fled the violence in the countryside. These days tourists flock to the city, drawn by the handsome city walls and brightly painted colonial streets.
The streets of Cartagena’s Old Town
After checking in to our hostel, we passed through the city walls and walked to Plaza de Trinidad, in the southern segment of Old Town. The food and drinks were fantastic, while the the plaza teemed with locals and salsa music filled the evening air.
The next day we made our way to the nearby Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a huge fortress whose squat profile dominates the skyline by the city gates. Built on a hill and composed of numerous defensive levels, sheer walls and firing ranges, the fort was designed to be impregnable. If a level was captured, staircases and bridges would be destroyed, leaving attackers stranded as they were fired on from above. The land outside the fortress was a diseased swamp, full of mosquitos carrying yellow fever and malaria.
As we trouped around the ramparts listening to our exhaustive audio guide in the relentless heat, we thought that no-one could have been daft enough to attack this place. In fact, the British were mad enough to try in 1760, during the intriguingly named ‘War of Jenkin’s ear’. The assault was a complete disaster, leaving thousands dead. The only legacy of this in the UK seems to be a number of pubs named for the British commander – Admiral Vernon. We noticed that guards have been posted around the fortress, seemingly to stop idiotic tourists throwing themselves from the walls in pursuit of the perfect selfie – why not let Darwinism have its way?
Afterwards we enjoyed a delicious burger at Carne de Res (which boasts real Angus beef) and examined our burgeoning sunburns. We returned to Plaza de Trinidad that evening for a tapas dinner, before rounding things off with drinks at a bar built in to the city walls.
On Thursday we caught a taxi to the beautiful (and expensive!) centre of Old Town, where we met up with my parents (Kate and Will). Despite their initial misgivings about Colombia as a holiday destination, Mum had been very taken with photos of Cartagena’s colourful streets and swiftly booked a flight out to join us. In his long-sleeved shirt, trousers and Panama hat, Dad looked like someone from ‘Our Man in Havana’, fresh from the Colonial Office. As a big Graham Greene fan, it may have been a deliberate choice on his part.
We spent the day touring the centre of Old Town, walking from the leafy Plaza José Fernandez de Madrid to the western edge of town. Cooking in the midday sun, we took in the Torre del Reloj (previously the gateway to Old Town before the waterways were built over) and walked the city walls near Baluarte de San Ignacio. Peering beyond the battlements, we saw the gleaming high rise buildings of Bocagrande, Colombia’s answer to the Miami Strip.
The Torre del Reloj
After a great seafood tapas lunch at Lobo de Mar, we explored the many eateries of Plaza de San Diego before dinner at the excellent Cuba 1940 bar, accompanied by a live salsa band.
On Friday we went to Simón Bolívar Square, with it’s impressive statue of El Libertador astride his horse, then entered the imposing Palace de la Inquisicion. Exhibits portrayed the role of the Inquisition in maintaining colonial rule through torture and fear. The smaller torture devices were particularly macabre. One, a sort of spiked spanner held under the chin, pierced the wearer’s skin when he got tired and let his head drop – the kind of cruel ingenuity that characterised these supposedly religious men. Monty Python these guys definitely were not!
After cooking ourselves in the open space of Parque de la Marina, we retreated to a Russia-themed bar (why not?) to cool down. In the evening we ate at La Cevicheria, a restaurant made famous by the recently departed Anthony Bourdain. The ceviche (fresh raw fish seared in citrus juice and served with onion and chillis) was incredible – we definitely converted Dad to South American cuisine.
That night the power went down all over Cartagena. Without air con, the room temperature quickly rose to the low 30s and we boiled sleeplessly in our humid room. To make matters infinitely worse, the water was also out, leaving us sweaty, tired and dangerously smelly.
On Saturday we were joined by my sister (Ella), and took her on a tour of the city highlights before paying a visit to the towering Iglesias de San Pedro Claver. A Jesuit priest in the 1600s, Peter Claver ministered to African slaves arriving in Cartagena and baptised an estimated 300,000 people. He became the first person to be canonised in the New World and today is the patron saint of Colombia, slaves and seafarers.
Our guide, Carlos, was a husk of a man. His enthusiasm for the church shone through, while years spent in Europe had left him with impeccable English but a very strange accent. “Thisss is da CHUCHA of PiitA de ClaVAA” he exclaimed excitedly, showering onlookers with spittle. For a man in about the same shape as the 400 year old saint (whose dressed skeleton is unsettlingly on display in a glass case near the main altar) he was remarkably spry, bounding around the rooms and giving us an entertaining, exhaustive tour of the church.
After lunch we walked atop the Northern city walls, along the balustrades and through Las Bóvedas – these former jail cells have been enterprisingly converted in to craft stores. After another sweaty night without power we boarded a boat to the Rosario Isles.