FANTASTIC CARTAGENA
The essential old city and walls tour
Chapter # 1
By:
Néstor Meléndez Soler
For Top Colombia Tips
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Welcome to Cartagena de Indias, the biggest prize in the Caribbean Sea for pirates; it was here, in the times of the colony (1533-1819) where most of the gold, silver, emeralds and agricultural produce like potatoes, corn, tobacco or sugar, were gathered and sent to Spain 2 times a year in a huge fleet of ships.

Cartagena de Indias was founded (1533 AC) in this specific location by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia, because it had natural defenses to stop attackers by sea and also by land.

The initial settlement was made on the terrains of a tribe called Kalamari from the Karib family. It is on the shores of a totally secluded bay that has only two entrances, Bocagrande (bigmouth) and Bocachica (smallmouth), a huge mangrove swamp embraces the territory to the north side, and the only walkable terrain is guarded by 2 mountains that give at their top 360° look of the surroundings.

But even though the natural defenses, the port was attacked; in 1568 the British pirate John Hawkins, tried to overtook the city but was repelled. Afterwards, came Francis Drake who did invade the city with his men, and got paid the ransom asked for the pirates to leave Cartagena de Indias.

In 1586, Philip II, the king of Spain orders the construction of the walls to protect the important port from the British pirates and French filibusters.

The greed for gold made Cartagena a wanted port to be taken by the many pirates sailing the Caribbean Sea from the late 1500s to mid-1700s.

Many attacks took place while the whole of the defensive walls and fortifications were built; but at the end in the most decisive battle for the supremacy in the Caribbean Sea, between Spain and the British, held in 1741, known in the history books as The Battle of Cartagena, the city resisted as the Spanish crown army led by Blás de Leso with 6.000 soldiers, defeated the British Imperial forces led by Admiral Edward Vernon with 28.000 combatants.

In that battle the Spanish commander made a military genius use of the defenses and inflicted a total defeat to the British aspirations of domain in the Americas. The Battle of Cartagena is the reason why all of Latin-America, except for Brazil, speaks Spanish.  

After independence from Spain, in 1819, the city remained as the prominent port of Colombia till the end of the century.

In this tour I am going to take you in a journey that I feel is worth for you to know, this is a personal blog-tour, so you will get information and history about the location, but also my insights, and stories attached to the streets and places you are visiting.

Ahead you are going to find the “Essential Cartagena, Inside the Walls City Tour”. Come with me and enjoy this wonderful and timeless city.

1.               TORRE DEL RELOJ:



The Torre del Reloj has been the main entrance to the city since 1631, when the walls were completed. At that time, there was a bridge in front of the opening because the walls were surrounded by water.

It was almost destroyed by the French pirate Baron de Pointis in 1697. He attacked with more than 2000 corsairs. The city surrendered to the filibuster and a ransom had to be payed. Cartagena was the richest city in the Caribbean by then.

The tower was reconstructed in 1704.

This was where much of the merchandise entered and went out of America, to and from, Spain.

Also was the door for hundreds of thousands of Africans, which were brought as slaves to the new continent.

In 1874 when Colombia was already an independent country, another modification to the tower was done and a clock made in the United States was installed. Since then is known as La Torre del Reloj.




In 1937 the clock was replaced with a Swiss-made one. It’s still the same that is timely operating today.

The Torre del Reloj had another reconstruction in 1888 with some additions, especially the Gothic style pointed tower.

At the Torre del Reloj, there are 3 doors that connect the walled city with the old port of La Bodeguita, the convention centre, and the neighbourhoods of La Matuna, El Arsenal and Getsemaní.

Go under the muralla (walls) of the tower, and instantly you are back in time as you enter Cartagena, recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, because of its well preserved old city, walls and fortifications.

Be prepared to be enchanted and to see history and stories go hand by hand, I will be telling you, some of the events that have occurred to make of Cartagena a top historic destination in the world.




2.  PLAZA DE LOS COCHES:

The Plaza de los Coches (Carriages Plaza) is the first impression that visitors have had of the city since its foundation. It had many names thru history. It was called: plaza del juez, del esclavo, del rollo, las negras, mercaderes, yerba and finally, de los coches.


It was here in this plaza that African slaves were brought on Portuguese ships and descended into a brutal new world. This was the place where human beings were sold as merchandise. It was also where new comers arrived and news from Europe and Colombia could be heard.

The large statue that stands in the plaza is in honour of el Adelantado Pedro de Heredia. Adelantado was a title given to Spanish nobles who worked for their King. He claimed this land for the Kings of Spain. Came to the Americas in pursuit of gold and fortune and eventually became a very wealthy man.

Like most conquistadores, he was brutal in his treatment of the indigenous tribes that inhabited the areas surrounding Cartagena.

This conquistador amassed a great fortune stealing sacred tombs from the tribe of the Zenúes, which contained gold and treasures. He was accused of not reporting all of his earnings to be taxed by the crown and was accused before the kingdom of Spain who found him guilty.

At the Plaza de los Coches you may find a very good offer on places to have a coffee, a snack, food, or a beer. Just look around to the buildings on the back of the statue. Or to the other corner at night.


At sunset the Cumbia takes the central stage when the rhythm that characterizes Colombia starts to make wonders in the visitor’s bodies. An ensemble of local kids performs every day and dance it in your eyes. Tip them, they will be happy, if you can tip them well, they will be happier.



3.  PORTAL DE LOS DULCES:

The Portal de los Dulces is a must do visit in Cartagena. It is located under the arches of the buildings in front of the Torre del Reloj.

Here the merchants bought and sold products. Information from Spain and other regions was known and slaves were traded for gold or other goods.
General merchandise, herbs, lottery, newspapers, have been sold and traded under the arches.

As the years passed it transformed into a transportation hub kind of place.

That is why it acquired the name it has today. The passengers had to wait some time to embark on carriages and, in the 20th century on the buses; one day by the end of the 1800s a lady, whose name is lost in history started selling sweet treats with traditional and family recipes. Then some other ones did the same thing and the shadow under the arches transformed into what is today, El Portál de los Dulces.


At this sweet spot there are all kind of delicious and naturally addictive local treats. You are going to find, cocadas (made of coconut) in many versions that go from my favourite one, la cocada de panela to other ones that are as good as the best thing you imagine.
I suggest to go for the mixed trays they have on offer at the many stands. Very good sweet local delicacies for everybody to enjoy.

At night it also gets going, there is a salsa bar, called Donde Fidel, at the corner that connects with the Plaza de la Aduana, our next location.

4.               PLAZA DE LA ADUANA:

This is the place where all the goods and shipments to and from Spain were gathered.

Cartagena de Indias was the most important port in South-America, and where its products were exported. Also European goods and culture were brought to this lands.


Many of the treasures acquired by the conquistadores would be shipped off to Spain by this port.

Entering the plaza de la aduana coming from the plaza de los coches you will find the statue in honour of the discoverer of America, the Genovese Christophorus Columbus, or in Spanish, Cristobal Colón.

The large colonial building that is at the back of the wall (muralla) was the Real Contaduría, these were the offices that controlled and guarded taxes and other income for the kingdom of Spain, in the territory of the Nueva Granada, which included Venezuela, Colombia, Panamá and Ecuador.

Spanish citizens in America and all other, had to pay a tax called the Quinto Real, which was an income taxation of 20% that with the years went down to 10%. It was the major revenue source for the Spanish crown.

The building serves today as the main office for the Cartagena Mayor.  

It was at the plaza, where much of the gold jewels from the indigenous tombs and sacred places was taken to Europe and out of its original land and purpose.

Also the silver brought from the biggest silver mine on earth, El Potosí, in Perú, was guarded by the always ready to fight military contingents that were a fixture in Cartagena.

At this plaza, you can imagine all the movement of a port, where products had to be legalized to go out or to come in.

From America to Spain, there went produce like the tobacco, sugar, potatoes, corn, bananas, coconuts, pineapples, kina, añil and many others.

From Spain the ships brought wines, iron, soap, oils, wheat seeds, flour, rice, coffee plants, liquors, books, guitars, musical instruments, European culture in general.

The Plaza de la Aduana, was where the main immigration to South America from Spain entered the continent. From Cartagena they went to Panamá by ship to then embark on the Pacific sea to go to Argentina, Chile or Perú.

They also made it by land and river going to Quito, Ecuador by the Camino Real a royal road made over the routes used by the local tribes.

The religious orders sent the priests and the nuns, thru Cartagena, to evangelize all the territories of the new continent from Panamá to Argentina.

The “Conquista” to this part of America, entered by this city, be aware that when you set foot on the Plaza de la Aduana, you are in a place where many things happened, that helped to change the world.

As a tip besides all history, there is a free Wi-Fi zone in this area.  

5.               MUSEO DE ARTE MODERNO:

The Modern Art Museum of Cartagena is located at the Plaza San Pedro Claver.

It exposes important works of art of more than 300 artists. Including paintings of Alejandro Obregón, Fernando Botero, Omár Rayo and other Colombian and Latin-American plastic artists.


The Museum is located in a really interesting house to visit. Besides the architecture of the preserved and restored mansion it additionally has an adapted warehouse that in the times of the colony serve to store many kinds of products. In here the form of the construction of the murallas (walls) can be seen as it has been maintained as they were when constructed.  

If you are an art lover the Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena is worth the visit, also if you like to know more about how this residences and warehouses were back in the time of the Conquista.

There are some complaints of some visitors as it lacks of air conditioning, but if you can deal with it, it’s not as hot as you should think.

I recommend going in and getting in touch with the Colombian art scene from the last century to now.


6.  Iglesia de San Pedro Cláver:



The Iglesia of San Pedro Claver is one of the most important sites of Cartagena de Indias. I am going to tell you why.

The city was from the 1500s till late 1800s the preeminent slave Spanish port in the Caribbean and where the biggest human slave trade happened.

There were only 2 ports authorized by the kingdom of Spain to receive Portuguese slave ships sailing from Africa.

Those were Veracruz, in the territory of The Nueva España, or how we know it today, Mexico, and Cartagena de Indias in the Nueva Granada, today Colombia.  

The number one “legal” slave port market was Cartagena by far. More than double of the blacks that were slaved and imported “legally” by Spain to America, set foot for the first time in this continent, in the port city you are walking right now.

The Iglesia de San Pedro Cláver is the shrine of a real Saint who did his miracles in life and after death.

If you believe in sanctity this story is going to really hook you up immediately.

By the other way, if you don’t have anything to do with Saints, or have an issue about it, you are still going to be amazed about what one man, with love, dedication and service, did for the black people that arrived from Africa to Cartagena as slaves, for those miserable human beings that were treated with no respect for human nature. He dedicated his life to service.

Pedro Claver (26/6/1580 – 8/9/1654) was a Spanish Jesuit priest that took his vows here at Cartagena. Painfully impressed by the treatment given to the slaves, he promised in his motto at the moment of his ordinance to the service of God, that he was going to be an “always server of the black people”. “Ethiopem Semper Servus”.

And he did so, to the extreme.

Father Pedro recruited some interpreters into the blacks that were already serving in Cartagena. When the Portuguese slave ships arrived to the port, he would sail to the bay and aboard they and then he would descend to the infernos of the galore to greet the slaves that were treated in unhuman conditions, during the long journey from Africa. With the help of the interpreters he communicated with the Africans and he would feed and treat them with dignity and respect. He even confronted the authorities and the white people demanding better life conditions for the slaves and the native indigenous, known as Indians.

He also served the lepers and went every afternoon when he was in town to the hospital. Father Pedro lived in total poverty, even though he managed to get donations and what we called today sponsorships for his humane activities, from the richest of the richest in Cartagena.

But additionally to his earthly service Father Pedro did supernatural miracles; one day a soldier who was blind at a military hospital for more than a year, was going to be expelled from the service. The blind soldier asked father Pedro, to help him get the pardon of the commander because he didn’t have how to maintain himself. Father Pedro went to the authorities and was told by the governor that they were not going to help the soldier because he wasn’t of service to the king. Then father Pedro went to the hospital and made a kind of cream and put it in the eyes of the soldier. By the other day the soldier recovered his sight and was reincorporated in service again days after, this miracle amazed everybody in the city.

Another miracle certified by the Vatican occurred to a lady who had a humongous tumor on her arm, after being touched by a religious stole of the Father, the tumor miraculously disappeared.

If some people are awarded for “doing the extra mile” Father Pedro did in around 40 years or so, more miles than all of the platinum frequent flyers of all the airlines in the world have ever made in life.


When Pope Leon 13th beatified Pedro in 1850, he said in his argument that "No life, except the life of Christ, has moved me so deeply as that of Peter Claver"

There is a museum on the side of the church, where visitors can learn more about the life of this saint and his service to humanity.

He would do the undoable and love the unlovable.

Saint Peter Claver is the most important Saint for black Catholics all around the world, and many black Catholic communities have churches in his name everywhere in the planet. The human rights movements and institutions also honor the life of Pedro.

Saint Peter Claver “the slave of the slaves”. 


7.  PLAZA DE BOLÍVAR:

The Plaza de Bolívar is the most relevant plaza of Cartagena. It has the name of the Libertador (liberator) Simón Bolivar.



He's the leader figure of the Colombian independence from Spain and is considered to be the father of the nation. He led the armies that accomplished the mission of liberating Colombia, Panamá, Venezuela, Ecuador, Perú and Bolivia.

The sculpture on the centre of the plaza was made by the Venezuelan sculptor Eloy Palacios. Around the base of the statue, there are some of the phrases that made Bolívar an immortal man.

Feel free to walk around the Plaza, or sit in one of the chairs, under the tree shadows.

One of the things that Cartageneros love to do is come here and just relax a while. This plaza has a long history. It used to be called Plaza de Armas, and was where the major military events took place.

Then the name was changed to Plaza de la Inquisición. This was when the Inquisition came to Cartagena and settled here on one of the sides of the square.

Very important buildings are built in the surroundings of the plaza de Bolívar. Some of them are: the Cathedral of Cartagena, The Proclamation Palace, which used to be the city hall in the colony, as well as the Government Palace for the department of Bolívar, after the independence till 2016. Its currently being reconstructed to become a cultural hub.

The Museo del Oro Zenú, the gold museum. Is another landmark located at the plaza.

The offices of the Miss Colombia beauty contest that is held here in Cartagena, every year are located in one of the sides of the plaza de Bolívar.

Under the arched building you can see the photos of the various queens from the last 50 years.

Additionally there is the Inquisition Palace, el Palacio de la Inquisición, possibly the most magnificent house in the city.


8.  PALACIO DE LA INQUISICIÓN:


The Inquisition Palace is considered one of the most significant architectural examples of the Spanish colonial period in the city. It was finished in 1770.



The court of the holy office had been judging witches and heretics in this location since 1610.

The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, La Inquisición Española, was established in 1478. La inquisición was very strict in Cartagena. It judged 767 people .It went after heretics, witches, Jews and Muslims. Torture was used by the inquisitors as a way to extract confessions from the indicted.

The door is made in a baroque style and it has the seal of the king at the top of it.



There is a museum in the interior of the Palacio de la Inquisición, where you can learn more about this part of history. You'll also be able to learn about some of the history of Cartagena de Indias.

By the side of the street there is a small window, its la Ventana de la Denuncia, and it’s where the citizens denounced acts against the Catholic faith, such as witchery.


9.  BILIOTECA BARTOLOMÉ CALVO:

The biblioteca Bartolome Calvo Its built in the Republican style and is one of the public libraries of Cartagena.

Feel free to go inside .It was built in 1907 and was originally a bank. It’s been a library since the 1950s. You can find a vast selection of books, specially history of Cartagena. There is cold AC and free Wi-Fi.

This was one of the favourite spots for the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel literature prize award recipient in 1982.

Cartagena was always an inspiration for Gabo. He began his career here in 1948 when he worked at El Universal, the leading newspaper of Cartagena. He wrote one daily article. These were compiled in the book Textos Costeños. He also got inspiration in these streets to write Love in the Time of Cholera, as well as Of Love and Other Demons. One of his houses is located in this historical city.  

This is chapter # 1 for the Essential Old City and Walls Tour.

You can have a private free tour with me making the reservation at

This are some of the Top Colombia Tips for Cartagena de Indias.  

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Thanks for sharing and following my blog. Remember, traveling makes you a better person.

Check chapter #2 of this tour at
https://tousrcolombia.blogspot.com.co/2018/02/top-colombia-tips-essentialcartagena.html


Journalist.
Néstor Meléndez Soler


















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