I’ve only visited Cartagena de Indias once, but it cast an enduring spell on me. I arrived in the old walled city after dark. Wandering past colourful Spanish colonial houses, their balconies overflowing with bright pink bougainvillea, I was seduced by the music echoing through the cobbled streets. Like the city itself, the music was a fusion of cultures: the dancers below the statue of Simón Bolívar (Venezuelan leader, and president of Gran Colombia from 1819–30) moved to the sounds of African drumbeats and South American pipes.
Standing beneath the statue of India Catalina – outside the city wall – it’s hard not to be reminded that indigenous peoples inhabited this area for some 5,000 years before the Spanish arrived. Catalina was the daughter of a Kalamari chieftain, and was captured in 1509. She was baptised and learnt Spanish, later acting as a translator for Pedro de Heredia when he founded the city in 1533. The help she gave this conquistador, who plundered the wealth of her people, still divides opinion as to whether she should be remembered as a heroine or a traitor.
Cartagena became one of the richest trading ports in Spanish America – gold and silver mined from across the continent was loaded into galleons here en route to Spain. It was also one of two ports authorised by the Spanish crown to trade in enslaved Africans. At the peak of the trade, at least 1,000 slaves were sold in the triangular Plaza de las Coches – now a popular tourist hub, lined with sweet stalls – every month.
Saint Pedro Claver (1581–1654), the self-proclaimed ‘perpetual slave of the Ethiopians’, who ministered to newly arrived captives with his team of multilingual African interpreters, is still widely celebrated in the city. Just a short walk from the Plaza de las Coches is a statue (below) of him helping an enslaved Angolan – it stands outside the eponymous church where his remains can be found in a glass case set within its high altar. Head to the church museum for artwork and information about the saint.
Canonised in 1888, Claver worked in Cartagena for more than 30 years after his ordination in 1622, baptising more than 300,000 slaves.
From 1610 Cartagena was one of three Inquisition tribunals in the Americas. The Palacio de Inquisition, which was finished in 1770, has an instructive, if gruesome, display of the torture equipment deployed to weed out heretics and witches. Don’t miss the small window with a cross on top, just around the corner from the entrance. This was where people were denounced as heretics by their enemies.
Cartagena’s riches made it a prime target for pirates. In 1586, Sir Francis Drake sacked the city and extracted a ransom of 110,000 ducats, having seriously delayed the completion of the cathedral with his cannonballs. The building was finally finished in 1612 and is well worth a visit.
In 1697, French commander Bernard Desjean’s attack on Cartagena left him rich enough to impress even Louis XIV. But English naval officer Edward Vernon was not so lucky. In 1741 his large-scale assault on the city ended in failure when Admiral Blas de Lezo successfully drove away the English fleet. Known as the ‘Half-Man’, De Lezo only had one arm, one leg and one eye. He lost his other leg in this action, dying shortly afterwards.
Blas de Lezo’s statue stands before the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the most impressive part of the city’s fortifications, which have gained Unesco World Heritage Site status. Gazing at this fortress, one can see just how much it took to keep pirates at bay.
Cartagena declared independence from Spain on 11 November 1811 and after a decade of warfare, the city’s freedom was secured. Simón Bolívar wrote his Cartagena Manifesto here in 1812, and went on to launch his invasion of Venezuela with the city’s backing the following year. As recorded in an inscription below his equestrian statue in the leafy Plaza de Bolivar, he later remarked: “If Caracas gave me life, Cartagena gave me glory.”
Over the last century, the magic of Cartagena has inspired resident artists such as Alejandro Obregon, and writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who called Cartagena a place of “amethyst afternoons and nights of antic breezes”. As you inhale the city’s air, scenes from his novels will waft around you.
What I love most about Cartagena is that it is a place where the past intermingles with the present; where anything can happen. It’s a place that inspires chance encounters. I met a local historian in the street who took me on a tour of the city, which ended in a cigar-rolling factory with a glass of whisky!
The framed sketch of a galleon docking in Cartagena, bought in the street for a few pesos and now hanging on my wall, entreats me to return one day.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Cartagena is a typically Caribbean average of 28°C year-round, but is drier between December and April. Head there on the last weekend of January to catch the Hay Festival (hayfestival.com/cartagena/en-index.aspx), in mid-March for the International Film Festival (ficcifestival.com/?idi=en), or 11 November for Independence Day celebrations.
Flights to Rafael Núñez International Airport, Cartagena de Indias go from London via Bogotá. It’s a short ride by taxi from the airport to the city centre. If you have time, make Cartagena part of a longer exploration of South America, but remember it’s safer to arrive there by air than by road.
What to pack
Comfy shoes for walking and dancing. And a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera or Love and other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
What to bring back
Cigars. Colombian coffee.
Visit the Museum of the Inquisition. Horrifying instruments of torture in a charming little house.
Be sure to see the walled city, San Felipe’s Fort, Rosario’s Islands