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Cartagena - Colombia's Walled Garden

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By The Gremotraveler

A Colonial Street inside the Walled City of Cartagena.

A visit to Cartagena can be an inspirational time for relaxing and recharging or a full-blown 24 hours of intoxication. It really depends on the traveler and their goals for "getting away". For a true foodie, the city offers the opportunity to experience the best of South America – the sophistication of a modern European-inspired city and the unique Latin influence of a people and history filled with flavor and heat.

Cartagena’s history is a long and controversial one. In 7,000 BC, the settlements of the Puerto Hormiga Culture were located near what is now Cartagena proper and archeologists have found remnants of clay pots used for cooking and the transportation of water in the area dating back to 4,000 BC. They settled in the region due to the mild climate and the abundance of wildlife, still true today. After the collapse of the Puerto Hormiga Culture, shortly after 4,000 BC, the Monsu culture inherited their use of the art of pottery and started the next wave of development in the region. The Monsu were highly advanced and developed a mixed economy of agriculture and basic manufacturing. They developed canals to support agriculture however their diet was primarily based on the abundance of seashells, and fish found in the Caribbean Sea and bays along the coast of Colombia.

The Caribbean Sea is still a major part of the cuisine and daily life of Cartagena and is the perfect backdrop as you make your way from the airport to the walled fortifications of the old city. Historically, the hotels and resorts have been located near the beaches along Bocagrande, a sand-bar island north of the downtown core. However, most activities and sights are based within the walled fortifications and probably your best bet for finding a unique place to rest your head at night. When visiting one of the most historic cities in the Americas, it would only be suiting to stay in an architectural jewel from the 17th Century. The Sofitel Santa Clara is a unique hotel with luxury service and warm, inviting, and festive service. This property has 119 unique bedrooms, including 17 suites, distributed in two separate areas, the Colonial and Republican wings. Each room offers a view over the ancient city, the Caribbean Sea, or the internal gardens. Nearby, the Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa is another unique property. At the beginning of the 17th century, Mrs. Maria de Barras y Montalvo, a wealthy noblewoman of Cartagena, ordered the construction of the Santa Teresa convent. She did this in order to spend the last years of her life with the Carmelita nuns within the secure fortress of the walled city. Today, that very structure is home to this lovely boutique hotel. Both properties offer a great starting point to explore this lovely city.

If you grabbed an early flight, check into your hotel and take a coffee to go. You won’t want to miss a minute of the history on display here. After all, this city is considered one of the best examples of a traditional colonial walled city and fortress, the reason they were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Cartagena de Indias was founded on the 1st of June, 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, and this event marked the beginning of an important and controversial role the city has played in the development of the Americas. In the early days of its settlement, the increasing fame and wealth of its residents made it attractive for pirate attacks. Within 30 years of its founding, the city was pillaged by French pirate Robert Baal causing the city to begin rebuilding with more solid materials like stone and to surround itself with walls and defense fortresses. The construction took 208 years, and resulted in eleven kilometers of walls surrounding the city proper.

Cartagena is known for both its beauty and dark history. It was a major trading port in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially for precious metals like Gold and Silver. Mines in New Granada and Peru shipped cargo through Cartagena on galleons bound for Spain. In addition to precious metals, Cartagena was the most well-known port for the slave trade. The first slaves arrived with Pedro de Heredia, the founder of Cartagena, working as cane cutters to construct roads in addition to constructing buildings and fortresses. Cacheu, a Portugese company, were the agents responsible for distributing human cargo from Cartagena to Venezuela, the West Indies, and Peru.

View of the Church of Saint Peter Claver from the square.

One man, possibly Cartagena’s most famous resident in history, would play an important role in the slave trade and be the first person to lead the human-rights movement. Peter Claver was born in Verdu, Spain on June 26, 1580. For almost forty years, this Jesuit Priest worked in Cartagena de Indias, defending, protecting and nursing newly arrived African slaves. On April 3, 1622, he wrote his famous oath of servitude to the enslaved people of the world stating that for the forty years of his remaining life, he would never live for himself; he was now a "slave of slaves". Till his death in 1654, from his residence at The Cloisters, Peter Claver cared for every slave who landed in Cartagena. He worked to create highly nutritious meals to nurse recent arrivals back to health. He worked with natives to understand the healing powers of local herbs and vegetation and incorporated them into special dishes to help the people he devoted his life to. He was beatified on July 20, 1850, and eventually San Pedro Claver was the first monk in the new world to be canonized (January 15, 1888) when he was named the patron saint of slaves. Today, his life and his mission to treat all humanity with compassion are celebrated at the Sanctuary, Museum and Church of Saint Peter Claver on Plaza San Pedro Claver. A walk through this shrine to Saint Peter Claver, of Cartagena de Indias is disturbing and dark. The story of his compassion and the tragedies of the time he served humanity are graphically displayed along-side interesting artifacts and artwork of the time. It is a shrine to human rights and certainly worth the visit when in Cartagena.

After a rather deep and moving visit to this shrine, you will probably want some time to reflect and relax. Adjacent to the plaza, and across from the Museum of Art, is Restaurant San Pedro, an intimate café offering internationally inspired cuisine with a local Colombian flare. Here, you can enjoy Japanese-inspired dishes using fresh local fish caught along the beaches of the Caribbean coast. You can dine inside or on the open patio. Enjoy a glass of wine, catch some sun, and reflect on the morning’s history lesson as you plan out the rest of your day. With so much history to experience, it can be a bit overwhelming. A great place to get the full story is at the museum of history at the Palacio de la Inquisición (Palace of Inquisition). In this building, the Spanish Inquisition tortured, judged and sentenced men accused of crimes against religion. It is situated in 'Plaza de Bolivar', in the historic center. Of course, if you have had your fill with history and want to explore the modern-side of Cartagena, it is time to head north to Bocagrande.

The northern beach strip of Bocagrande is a great area to get some shopping done. Here, along Avenida San Martin, a wide range of global retailers have set up shop alongside several unique food and drink haunts. You can step into a few specialty rum and spirits shops, discover gourmet fresh fruit markets, and pick up some shoes or jeans from your favorite brand-name store. The great thing about Bocagrande is the variety. Everything from specialty local candies to designer sunglasses can be found along the main boulevard and the palm tree-lined side streets. If you are looking for something to keep you cool, there are several places to buy freshly squeezed fruit juices, most for less than $1.00 USD. Colombia is home to a fantastic assortment of exotic fruits the locals traditionally mix with water or milk. At the fresh fruit stands, expect a sweet assortment of refreshing goodness with an emphasis on the sweet!

Skyline of Bocagrande from the fortifications in Cartagena’s Centro District.

After an afternoon of shopping, there is nothing better than grabbing some shade and sampling a little local favorite. It may be a chain, but nothing beats a visit to Crepes & Waffles, Columbia’s version of a very sophisticated Baskin Robbins. In 1980, they started selling delicious Crepes, Waffles, Blintzes and related sweet dishes in Bogota. Today, they can be found across Columbia as well as expanding into new markets like Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Panama. If you want a treat in the shade, ask for a lovely thinly layered crepe filled with berries and some whipped crème and ice cream. But eat it fast, with the humidex at well over 40 degrees Celsius, every minute counts. Every ingredient they use comes from Columbia, something they are very proud of, and after being pushed downward into the sidewalk by the blazing sun, it is the perfect treat to cool you off.

With arms filled with shopping bags, grab a taxi and head back to the central city. You will deserve a drink by now and a great spot to relax is El Coro at the Sofitel Santa Clara. This sleek lounge offers the perfect place to relax and cool off with a good book and a scotch. Into Cigars? Then you are in luck. The El Coro has a dedicated cellar offering a wide range of the finest hand-rolled cigars available. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy a scotch, a fine cigar, and some live music. But don’t get too comfy, dinner time approaches!

Also within the Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel is El Refectorio, Cartagena’s finest French restaurant. Seafood is plentiful in Cartagena and this place offers some of the finest in French-inspired seafood dishes available. The room was once the dining room used by the Clarisas nuns but the food is far from being conservative. Expect modern European specialties with a Columbian twist including crab with avocado, and duck a l’orange. It is a perfect setting for a refined dinner before a big night out on the town.

At night, the city comes alive with tons of options for letting your hair down and going loco. Cartagena is where the rich and fabulous from Bogota play on the weekend, so the nightlife here is designed to help you blow off a little steam. Of course, the locals are a little more accustomed to the scene. Visitors will need to ease their way into it. Don’t worry; they have a solution to get you up to speed, the Chiva or "Country" Bus!

The Chiva Bus picks up passengers at the El Dorado, Decameron, and Caribe Hotels in Bocagrande. Each Chiva Bus has a "Director" with a microphone, and he or she will lead you and the rest of the Chiva gang in a safe and fun tour of the city. The one fare of $18,000 Pesos per person (about $9.00 USD) gives you a full tour of Cartagena’s historic sites, unlimited rum and coke, and a whole lotta fun. Expect a noisy and thrilling tour as you and the other members of the Chiva sing, drink, and laugh your way through the warm city streets. Who Chiva’s? Essentially anyone aged 18 to 100. Your bus will travel through Laguito, Bocagrande, Centro, Castillo Grande, Manga, and Pie de la Popa. In the old city, you and the rest of the Chiva will stop for an hour or so at the historic Las Bóvedas, a series of 23 dungeons built between 1792 and 1796 in the city walls. These dungeons were the last major construction in the old city and were built for military purposes. Today, they are filled with great shops with assorted crafts, artists, and specialty boutiques. Here, you will meet up with several other Chiva busses and the party goes full-force. Revelers dance to the beat of the "Papayera", the Columbian musical style featuring drums and guitars, and sample local assorted fried delicacies including beef and chicken patties.

Inside the Fortifications, a stop along the Chiva Bus tour of Cartagena.

When the horn blows, it is time to head back to the bus for your final destination, the Las Escolleras, a Disco Club where every member of the Chiva Bus is treated with a free cocktail and admission. Dance the night away with a bottle of Ron Medellin, a local Columbian Rum, or hop back on the bus and head back home. If you are in Cartagena for a short spell, we certainly would not recommend calling it an early evening. After all, Las Escolleras is a short stroll back to the Hotel Charleston or the Sofitel and there are several great watering holes you can visit on the route home. A local favorite is certainly Mister Babilla. With a sister bar located in Bogota, this place is pure fun on any weekend in Cartagena. Here, you can expect lots of fun locals, great cocktails, and probably the cheapest drinks you have ever encountered. Converted from pesos, a bottle of Smirnoff Vodka goes for $40.00 USD and a local beer is $2.40 USD each. Needless to say, it is not uncommon for you to see revelers dancing on the tables and the party going till the sun rises from the Caribbean Sea.

If you don’t stay out all night, you will certainly want to get yourself a little breakfast the next day before the trip back to the airport. For your final taste of Cartagena cuisine, why not grab some last minute sun on the patio at Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa. The Republican Patio offers a buffet brunch, something you will certainly need after a night of living it up with the locals of Cartagena. Here, you will experience some great traditional Columbian breakfast staples while being served by their famous "palenqueras" (women dressed in the typical clothing of the region). As you enjoy your coffee and filling breakfast, let the sun touch your skin for one last time before you grab your bags and head out to the airport.

Windows down, the salty Caribbean air will waft into the cab on your route to the airport. Nobody expects you to actually do everything within 24 hours when it comes to Cartagena. With so much to see and experience, the city is certainly worth at least a week to enjoy. The history, friendly locals, and great food make this an ideal foodie destination, one you will keep returning to year after year.


Great spotlight on a beautiful city--I have recommended this great spot for years. I had one of my most memorable vacations here and this article makes me want to head back again! : )
Post Reply By Kathleen in TORONTO on 3/5/2009 1:38:56 PM

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