Cartagena was founded in the 16th Century by Spanish conquistadors as a port to channel the riches of Latin America to Spain. It quickly became prosperous and cosmopolitan, surviving the repeated attempts of British, Spanish and Portuguese buccaneers to loot the city. Much of the architecture from the colonial period survives to this day, and gives the city a unique and almost mystical character.

The city's full name is Cartagena des Indias, which distinguishes it from the Spanish city of Cartagena, which is also a walled port town. The city can often feel more like a cosmopolitan European city with a Caribbean climate than part of the troubled state of Colombia. The political and social turmoil exacerbated by the cocaine industry seems to have had mercy on Cartegana, and the city's safety is reflected by the fact that it is the most visited city in Colombia, and chosen by several cultural institutions to host a variety of festivals and exhibitions.


Cartagena's Ciudad Antigua (Old Town) is perhaps South America's best preserved colonial town, and a UNESCO world heritage site. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when the city was under Spanish control, it was frequently raided by pirates for its rich bounties of gold, silver and other precious goods. To protect the city and its money, the Spanish encased the city in a thick wall, and built several forts on the perimeter. Much of this architecture still stands today, and lends the city a unique historical, colonial flavour. You could spend days wandering around the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town, occasionally diving into the many shops or bars and restaurants that line them.

The epitome of Spanish colonial architecture in Cartagena is the 17th Century Castillo de San Felipe, which stands proudly overlooking the bay. The fort repelled naval assaults from Sir Francis Drake and Admiral Vernon with barely a scratch. The fortress is open to visitors from 08.00 until 18.00, and entrance for an adult costs COP$ 11,000.

Inside the old city, there are several museums dedicated to Cartagena's rich history. The Palace of the Inquisition documents the efforts of the Spanish Catholic Church to establish complete cultural dominance all over Spain's territories in Europe and South America. Millions suspected of deviating from Catholic dogma were tortured, and executed if they refused to recant. This museum is located is Plaza de Bolivar, which contains many other building of historical interest, including the newly restored cathedral. [ The Hay festival] is perhaps the world's most famous literary festival. It began as a small collection of writers and booksellers in a village called Hay in the Brecon Beacons. It now attracts 80,000 visitors a year, and has counterpart festivals in Italy and Brazil, and since last year, Cartagena. The city is an ideal location, as it has an extraordinary romantic, literary feel to it. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, perhaps the most famous living Spanish-language author lived in the city for many years and set his modern classic 'Love in the Time of Cholera' there. The 2007 festival will be held in between the 25th and the 28th of January, during which time there will be exhibitions, workshops and the creation of the 'Book of Ideas', a communal project which everyone is invited to contribute to. Cartagena's liberal and cultural ambience attracts a host other festivals; jazz, film, bullfighting, antiques and even a beauty contest. [ Cartagena's beaches] provide a relaxing counterpoint to the cultural tapestry of the Old Town. The city faces the Caribbean Sea, and the Bocagrande peninsula is surrounded by sandy beach. This is the area containing most of the city's resorts and hotels, and so these beaches are very popular, and can get quite dirty and crowded in holiday season (December is the time most Colombians take their holidays). A short distance along the coast is Playa Blanca, so called because of its sparkling white sands. This beach is much cleaner and more tranquil, as its distance from the city makes it less popular with those staying in Bocagrande's hotels and resorts.


Cartagena is full of small independent antiques shops, craft shops and boutiques containing distinctive and high quality merchandise. Las Bovedas are a set of souvenir shops built in vaults in the massive city walls. Alternatively, the Compendium in Plaz Bolivar is an attractive building containing arts and crafts boutiques. Cartagena is a very fashionable city, and consequently bargains may not be quite so forthcoming as they are in other parts of Latin America.

Nightlife and Eating Out

[ Cafe Del Mar] is probably Cartagena's most popular and trendy nightlife spot. The club is located within the walls of the old city, and the balcony commands fabulous panoramic views of the bay. The bars serve cocktails and a variety of international beers, and during the day and early evening the kitchen prepares top quality cuisine. The staff are friendly and helpful, many of them speak English, which helps the club retain its popularity among young travellers.

There is a vibrant bar scene, with a variety of establishments to cater for whatever your taste may be. The most popular areas for evening entertainments are Avienda del Arsenal and Bocagrande. Palos de Moguer, on Avienda del Arsenal opens from sunset and closes at dawn. It plays a variety of music including rock, samba and of course chill out.

Cartagena's coastal location means that many of its restaurants serve fresh fish. This is prepared in variety of ways, but usually served with rice. The cultural influences of Spain, the Caribbean and Africa can be felt in Cartagena's cuisine. There are many great restaurants secreted in various pockets of the Old Town, but the best place to start looking is Plazo Santo Domingo.

Tourist Information

  • Laguito Edificio Playa Mar Apto. 603, 100mts from The Hotel Hilton, Cartagena
  • Tel.: (57 5) 665 0515
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Cartagena is served by Rafael Nunez International Airport, which is equipped with modern facilities and well connected to the city centre.