Cartagena & Around
This dramatic and historic slice of Colombia's Caribbean coast is centered on the city of Cartagena, whose raw beauty, superb food, thumping nightlife and historical significance bring a steady stream of visitors year-round. Capital of the Bolívar department, Cartagena is by far the biggest attraction in this area of Colombia, and rightly so. Around Cartagena is a slew of worthwhile day trips, including the lovely Islas del Rosario, the curious Volcán de Lodo El Totumo and the fabulous stretch of white sand that is Playa Blanca. You won't ever find yourself off the beaten path here, but you'll quickly understand just why so many people find Cartagena and its surroundings so alluring.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Cartagena & Around.
Cartagena's old city is its principal attraction, particularly the inner walled town, consisting of the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego. It's one of finest examples of preserved colonial architecture in the Americas, packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and mansions with their famous overhanging balconies and shady patios.
The greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in any of their colonies, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas still dominates an entire section of Cartagena's cityscape. It should definitely be the first fortress you visit. The original edifice was quite small. It was commissioned in 1630, and construction began in 1657 on top of the 40m-high San Lázaro hill. In 1762 an extensive enlargement was undertaken, which resulted in the entire hill being covered with this powerful bastion.
The most developed of the islands, Isla Grande is indeed also the biggest. There's a large lagoon perfect for swimming in the unbelievably blue waters, and several sleeping options.
The Palace of the Inquisition may today be one of the finest buildings in the city, but in the past it housed the notoriously grisly Inquisition, whose bloody task it was to stamp out heresy in colonial Cartagena. The palace is now a museum, displaying the inquisitors' instruments of torture, some of which are quite horrific. The museum also houses pre-Columbian pottery and plots a historical trajectory of the city using armaments, paintings, furniture and even church bells.
Founded by Jesuits in the first half of the 17th century as Convento San Ignacio de Loyola, this convent later changed its name to honor Spanish-born monk Pedro Claver (1580–1654), who lived and died here. Called the 'Apostle of the Blacks' or the 'Slave of the Slaves,' the monk spent his life ministering to enslaved people brought from Africa. A series of lucid paintings inside the building relates his life story.
Work on Cartagena’s cathedral began in 1575, but in 1586, while still under construction, it was partly destroyed by the cannons of Francis Drake. The structure known officially as the Basilica Santa Catalina de Alejandría wasn't completed until 1612, although the distinctive terracotta dome visible all over town was added later. Further alterations were carried out in the early 20th century by Cartagena's first archbishop, who covered the church with stucco and painted it to look like marble.
Previously known as Plaza de la Yerba, the triangular plaza just behind Puerta del Reloj was once used as a market for enslaved people. It is lined with old balconied houses with colonial arches at ground level. The arcaded walkway, known as El Portal de los Dulces, is today lined with confectionery stands selling local sweets. The statue of the city's founder, Pedro de Heredia, is in the middle of the plaza.
Originally called the Boca del Puente, this was the main gateway to the inner walled town and was linked to Getsemaní by a drawbridge over the moat. The side arches of the gate, which are now open as walkways, were previously used as a chapel and armory. The republican-style tower, complete with a four-sided clock, was added in 1888.
This intriguing 15m mound looks like a miniature volcano. However, instead of erupting with lava and ashes, it spews forth lukewarm mud that has the consistency of cream. You can climb into the crater and frolic in a refreshing mud bath; the mud contains minerals acclaimed for their therapeutic properties. Once you've finished you can wash off in the lagoon, just 50m away.