Founded in 1533, Cartagena was one of the most important and strategic locations for the Spanish to transport gold and silver from Peru and Ecuador to Europe. Cartagena’s old town is a Unesco World site… and rightly so. The old town has centuries-old colonial stone walls, cobbled stone streets, beautiful plazas, and large churches. An estimated 70% of the nation’s population claim to be Catholic. Catholicism was the official relation of the country since the Spanish colonized the region until a separation of church and state in 1991 under a constitutional reform. During the colonial period, the Catholic Church created and ran the universities, schools, libraries, hospitals, and even the jails. The influence of the church can be seen throughout Cartagena. We visited Convento de la Popa which was at one time a monastery. The building sits high on a hill and provides sweeping views of the city.
The cities of El Centro and San Diego (no we are no longer in Cali Toto…. It’s Columbia!), are part of the walled historical area of the old city. The beautiful and colorful balconies overflowing with flowers and the patios and plazas that serve as meeting places are in keeping with the colonial churches, palaces and mansions. The thick walls that were built to protect the city began at the end of the 16th century and took nearly two centuries to complete. Between pirates and storms, the walls were not finished until 1796.
Two important fortresses are San Felipe de Barajas and Fortress Pastelillo. The former looms over the city and is considered one of the greatest fortresses ever built by the Spaniards. The original was commissioned in 1630 but it was another 27 years before construction began on the San Lazaro hill. It was later expanded 100 years later in 1762, and by design, became a powerful symbol of the Spanish power. Because of it’s massive size, pictures cannot do justice to the immense structure.
Inside the Old City walls, we walked through the neighborhood where different streets decorate their lanes in an informal contest to make the prettiest lane. My favorite was the one with umbrellas.
Men still push wooden carts loaded with fruits and vegetables down the streets selling their produce to the residents. With as many as 5-7 families living in one house, with each family occupying one room of the house, luxuries such as a refrigerator or washing machine are not in every home.
On the western end of Managa Island sits the 16th century fort named Fortress Pastelillo. It was built as one of the first defense posts in Cartagena and protected the entrance to the harbor. If you love history, as I do, a visit to both of these Fortresses is well worth the time!
The skyline of Cartagena is stunning, with the white towering buildings. We were surprised that much of the modern city is built on a very narrow stretch of land with water on each side. From a distance, it loos as if the city is floating on water.
While it was very hot and humid, there weren’t any mosquitoes or biting bugs so sunscreen, a hat, and a bottle of water was all we needed to enjoy a fantastic day in Cartagena with our Tours by Locals guide, Paulina.
Paulina introduced us to a refreshing drink of coconut milk, lemons, and mint blended with ice. Yum!