The old colonial port city of Cartagena, Colombia, lies lazy and lethargic under a heavy blanket of pervasive Caribbean humidity. Long, labyrinthine alleyways wind between grand, multi-storey buildings coated in ivy leaves and perfumed flowers stretched across their brightly coloured faces and iron-wrought balconies.
To explore in Cartagena is to brave the sweltering heat and to be rewarded with colourful streets brimming with local vendors, restaurants hidden behind shop fronts, and tiny squares surrounded by colonial architecture. These are the best sights that the city has to offer.
Palacio de la Inquisición
The Palace of the Inquisition is the former site of the trials undertaken by the Catholic Church in the 17th Century. Today, it stands as a museum that documents the historical suffering that the Church inflicted on those they considered to be heathens or non-believers. People were trialled and tortured for crimes ranging from being Jewish, following a Christian faith that wasn’t Catholic, to suspected witchcraft.
The museum outlines the history of the Inquisition in Cartagena, and has several torture artefacts on display. The history flows between different rooms in the grand colonial building, with other rooms displaying other aspects of Cartagena history. You can walk between a courtyard containing gallows and stocks, to somber rooms detailing the victims of the barbaric Inquisition.
The museum is a fascinating experience and well-worth making the time to visit. However, the majority of the exhibits are completely written in Spanish, with limited English translations. If your Spanish is not at an intermediate level, you will struggle to get the most out of the experience without the use of a guide or translator.
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
The castle of San Felipe is outside of the old city, but is well worth the short walk up the hill of San Lázaro. It was built under Spanish occupation during the 16th Century to guard the strategically-placed port city of Cartagena. Although it used to be a fully functioning military operation, today it stands as a UNESCO World Heritage site and a chance to explore the inner workings of an enormous castle.
Reaching the castle is a steep hike up the hill, passing by a crowd of vendors hawking clothing and souvenirs. At the top, you are rewarded by the chance to explore the inner workings of the castle. A highlight is walking through the labyrinth of tunnels that run throughout. However, many are very dark, and so it is advisable to have a light with you.
There is also a room that shows an animated video on loop of the history of the castle and military operations in Cartagena. It is reasonably entertaining, but also completely in Spanish. For non-Spanish speakers, English-speaking guides and audio guides can be hired from the entrance for an additional cost.
The most well-known beach near Cartagena is Playa Blanca, which is renowned for its white sand beaches and heavy crowds of tourists. However, if black sand, kite-surfing, and smaller crowds are more your style, then La Boquilla is an equally pleasurable day trip.
The powdery black sand is dotted with deckchairs at regular intervals, which you can rent from local owners at a price. The true charm of la Boquilla lies in the lack of other tourists, and an abundance of local kite-surfers practising their craft in the waters.
The beach is perfect for just kicking back and relaxing, especially considering the local seafood restaurants across the seafront. There you can enjoy fried local fish straight from the sea, beer, or the ubiquitous Colombian soft drink Postobón. There are a multitude of beaches near Cartagena, but for the more relaxed traveller, la Boquilla has a more local feel.
Plaza de la Paz
The city of Cartagena is dotted with numerous plazas that are surrounded by museums, colonial treasures, and restaurants. Plaza de la Paz is one of the most vibrant in the city, with some of the most recognisable landmarks.
One side of the plaza hosts the landmark clock tower, with canary yellow hues that are the feature of many a photo of colonial Cartagena. It provides one of the original walkways into the walled part of the city. The space in front of the tower bustles with street vendors at any time of day or night, and is perfect for people watching or renting a horse-drawn carriage at night.
On the other side of the plaza are the vibrant red and yellow buildings that house the sweets market known as el Portal de los Dulces. A multitude of stalls sell a variety of traditional Caribbean desserts made of milk, coconut, and fruit. The entire square is always a hubbub of activity and food traffic.
Walking the walls of the old city
A unique way of exploring the historical part of Cartagena is by walking the wall that surrounds it. It allows you to view the splendour of the colonial architecture on one side, with the Caribbean ocean lapping against the shore on the other. From above, you can avoid the noisy traffic of the streets and peacefully take in the view.
A good starting point is at Cafe del Mar, which is also a popular spot for watching the sunset over drinks. The restaurant is surrounded by cannons, a giant Colombian flag, and is situated on a bastion of the wall. From there, you can walk along the wall in either direction to orient yourself around the historical part of the city.
Have you travelled to Cartagena? What was your favourite part of the old city?