Cartagena, or Cartagena de Indias (Cartagena of the Indies) as it is officially known, is the jewel in Colombia’s cultural crown. Perched on the Caribbean shore with its Spanish-era fort and walls protecting it, Cartagena is one of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere and an important part of the country’s booming tourism industry.
Renowned for its history, cuisine, culture, and a unique South American/Caribbean vibe, Cartagena blends old with new and city hustle and bustle with smooth relaxation — all in a sensual atmosphere rivaling that of Rio and Buenos Aires.
Much of the Old City of Cartagena retains its 16th and 17th century architecture and charm, along with 11 kilometers of fortified walls. These extensive fortifications were built to protect this vital port in Spain’s New World empire. Within the walls are the three main neighborhoods of the historic Old City: Centro, where the Cathedral of Cartagena, the Government Palace, and mansions for the wealthy are located; San Diego, a middle-class enclave where merchants and craftsmen lived; and Getsemaní, a suburban district where artisans and slaves toiled and lived. Be sure to check out the fortress Castillo San Felipe de Barajas to the east, which protects the isthmus of Cabrero. A popular activity is to join the families and young lovers perched upon fortress walls at sunset enjoying the Caribbean breeze along with a refreshing drink
Cartagena may be Colombia’s fifth largest city, but many consider it first when it comes to food. Blending Spanish, African, and native influences, Cartagena’s cuisine is a cultural carnival for the taste buds. Head to any of the city’s plazas and you’ll find empanada vendors serving up these meals on the go morning, noon, and night. But Cartagena’s cuisine is way more than street food. Being a coastal city, Cartagena serves up some of the best ceviche in the Western Hemisphere. Many restaurants here have their own twist on this Latin American favorite, using cooked shrimp in place of raw. And then there’s the coconut rice. Arroz con coco, as it is known, is more of a rice pilaf, golden brown in color with chunks of coconut. Often served with fish and plantains, it’s a must-try.
Located atop the highest point in the city, La Popa Monastery affords panoramic views of the area and is perhaps the most-visited site in Cartagena. Built in the early 17th century, the monastery has served intermittently as a religious sanctuary as well as a military outpost due to its strategic location. Within its walls you’ll find a chapel dedicated to the city’s patron saint, the Virgen de la Candelaria, as well as a museum and gift shop. The best way to get there is by taxi.
A giant in 20th century literature and a Colombian literary icon, Gabriel García Márquez drew much inspiration from Cartagena for his magic-realism novels. He loved the city so much he kept a house here, though he spent much time in Mexico City during his most formative years. Walking tours take visitors to sites featured in novels such as Love in the Time of Cholera, Of Love and other Demons, and The General in His Labyrinth. The house he kept in town is also a prominent stop on these tours.
Create your own Cartagena experience with a Panama Canal cruise from Holland America Line.