Cartagena, founded in 1533, feels straightaway very different to any other place in Colombia – at least in the old town, one of three distinct areas of the city and certainly the most frequented by any visitor. No traffic issues (you are more likely to see a horse carriage), nice be it expensive bars & restaurants set into the many nicely restored streets & houses and a lot of history inside the grand city walls. Given plentiful tourists in town – be it straight off direct flights from the US, off a cruise ship in the deep-sea port or part of an organised tour – there is money about.
On top you have the domestic rich & famous that come here for holidays from Medellin or Bogota (they own most of the historic center basically). But the city has also a darker side, chiefly the huge sex trade the money attracts. Loads of young Venezuelans (and I guess some Colombiana’s) hunt for Western customers on the main square near the clock tower. Sad stuff, though utter reality and to an extent entertaining to watch (see below).
First up – happy birthday rocket! It was my 38th birthday the morning of the day I headed for Cartagena. So I started the day with a fresh club Colombia lager back in Taganga before hopping on the transfer bus to Cartagena. The journey wasn’t overly stressful and the ‘free’ city tour was waiting at 4pm (see below). The party continued afterwards of course with a draft beer in one of the pubs around clock tower square and steak for dinner at Quebracho – highly recommended if you don’t mind Western prices. Good wine selection (the Malbec was excellent).
Significance in Colombian history – the battle of Cartagena de Indias & independence from Spain: In 1741 the city was attacked by US/British troops including 186 ships and 23,600 men against the 6 ships/6,000 people on the Spanish side. The Spanish were victorious after a long siege and many casualties on the attacking side from fighting and disease. Further, the city is known for being the first city to declare independence from Spain on the 11th November 1811 and is celebrated as a national holiday (Independence of Cartagena City Day) on the Monday on or following 11 th November.
Free city tour – ticks the main boxes, but take the other operator: There are two free tour providers. I went with Free Tour Cartagena. He is a local guys that tells stories like an American showman, but is short of facts. It took almost an hour before a really interesting fact emerged from this showman. I recommend to use the other tour – it can’t be worse judging by this tour and the other three I have done across Colombia. Arguably, the sights on the tour are stunning including the walled city itself, clock tower & square and loads of beautiful colonial architecture. See above map for all key sights.
Time for the beach: There are beaches not too far from the city centre, but if you want the real deal you need to hop on a boat and head for one of the islands opposite Cartagena. Lovely sandy beaches though at times annoying local tradesmen. Prices are very touristic, but given a lack of alternatives you just gotta swallow it.
‘Puta’ spotting: Not the nicest thing to do, but funny in a way. There is a bar on clock tower square where you can head for 2 or 3rd floor and take a seat with a perfect view of the square. Just order your cocktails and take in the stuff happening down there, how customers come and pro’s come & go. Ahh … one thing, they don’t like when you through ice cubes at them ;o)
Cartagena fortress: You can’t miss the crown jewel of Cartagena’s defense system – a huge fortress built on the 130-foot-high hill of San Lazaro and towering over the city. The Castillo San Felipe de Barajas was named after Spain’s King Philip IV and was originally built in the mid-1600s, though rebuilt and enlarged several times over the years to become the greatest fortress Spain ever built in the Americas. Must see. Be careful how you get there (best in taxi), as the walk from where the city walls end to the fortress is not meant to be safe if you trust police (no issues my end).