The legendary port on Colombia’s Caribbean coast looks back on a turbulent history.
It was founded in 1533 by the Spanish frigate captain Pedro de Heredia and christened Cartagena de Indias to distinguish it from its Spanish namesake, where most of the crew came from.
The place offered the best conditions for a settlement: a natural harbour at the end of a wide bay, separated from the sea by islands and headlands, which only allowed access to the bay at two points, separated from the interior by mountains and hills.
The port quickly developed into an important trans-shipment point for the riches that the Spanish colonizers robbed from the colonies of New Granada in order to ship them via the River Magdalena to the coast and from there to Europe.
The Spanish galleons loaded with gold also attracted the pirates of the Caribbean, and after only a few years Cartagena had to defend itself against the first attacks.
In 1586 Francis Drake conquered the city with his fleet, and Spain had to pay a horrendous ransom to buy back the city, which had been destroyed to a quarter.
To protect the prospering port, city walls and fortifications, so-called Murallas, with a total length of 11 km, were built, until finally the city was completely walled. The so called Ciudad Amurallada with its four forts (San Fernando, San José, San José de Manzanillo and the enormous San Felipe de Barajas) turned the “Perla de las Indias” into an impregnable fortress.
From the end of the 16th century, almost half of all ships that came to Hispano America were slave ships and Cartagena became the largest transhipment point for the human merchandise.
The later canonised Jesuit Father Pedro Claver was an advocate for the African slaves, and his selfless commitment earned him the nickname “slave of slaves” and the status of patron saint of Colombia.
Cartagena remained New Granada’s secret capital and most important port until the end of the colonial era.
Cartagena was the first city in present-day Colombia to declare independence from Spain in 1811 under the influence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic occupation of the mainland, but it was not until after the Battle of Boyacá in 1822 that it became official.
During this period Cartagena almost became a ghost town and many of its magnificent buildings were in ruins, famines and cholera outbreaks had decimated the population to such an extent that the city threatened to disappear from the map.
Cartagena fell into an all but romantic Sleeping Beauty slumber, which lasted despite a few ups and downs until the late 19th century.
First efforts to restore Cartagena’s historic centre were made when it was declared a national heritage site in 1959. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1984.
Cartagena’s historic centre is divided (clockwise) into the districts of Ciudad Vieja, San Diego, La Matuna and Getsemani. The latter two are separated by the Parque Centennario.
The official entrance to the Ciudad Vieja is the Puerta del Reloj, with the Plaza de los Coches behind it, where the slave markets once took place. In its centre is a statue of the founder of the city. The square is surrounded by old colonial buildings with wooden balconies and shady arcades. To the southwest is the Plaza de la Aduana, the largest square in the old town with a statue of Christopher Columbus. The renovated former customs building (Casa de la Aduana) is now the home of Cartagena’s municipal administration (Palacio Municipal).
Following the Baluarte de San Ignacio you will find one of the most beautiful squares of the city, the Plaza San Pedro Claver with the church of the same name and a statue of the national saint by Enrique Grau.
Continuing northwest along the ring of fortifications, you will first find the interesting Maritime Museum (Museo Naval del Caribe) at the Baluarte de San Francisco Javier and further north, at the southwest corner of the shady Parque de Bolívar, the Palacio de la Inquisición with its striking stone portal. The northwest corner of the square is occupied by Cartagena’s Cathedral, which was completed in 1612 and thus claims to be the oldest on the continent alongside the one in Mexico City.
In the evening hours, the Parque de Bolívar becomes a stage for Afro-Caribbean dance groups. One block further north you reach the epicentre of Cartagenas nightlife, the Plaza Santo Domingo in front of the church of the same name. Actors, musicians, jugglers and pantomimes gather here in front of the numerous bars, cafés and restaurants, most of which are open almost around the clock.
At one corner of the square lolls the lush Gertrudis by sculptor Botero.
The Plaza de San Diego at the northern end of the district of the same name between the Baluartes of Santa Clara and San Lucas is a popular meeting place not only for tourists but also for locals. During the day, the square is decorated with the buildings of the University of Fine Arts, whereas it becomes a large open-air restaurant in the evening.
At the northern end of the San Diego district, the former dungeons of the Bóvedas, as part of the city wall, now house pubs and souvenir shops.
Outside the old town centre, the mighty Castillo San Felipe Barajas, considered the largest Spanish fortress in the New World, and the monastery of La Popa on the hill of the same name are well worth a visit.
Outside the “Ciudad Amurallada”, Cartagena has grown within a century from a small town of 29000 inhabitants in 1912 to the city with over a million inhabitants that it is today.
It is anything but glamorous to live in the poor districts of Cartagena, which mostly developed as informal settlements for civil war refugees. The most famous of these quarters, Nelson Mandela, in the southeast of the city, is home to 50000 people on 56 hectares.
After Syria and Afghanistan, Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced persons and Cartagena the highest quota within Colombia.
Estimates suggest that every seventh inhabitant fleeing the civil war has stranded in the Caribbean port.