Easily, one of the best things about Cartagena is that it is one of Latin America’s best kept secrets. Headlines about Colombias problems with drug production and political unrest have done little to support Colombias struggling tourist industry in years gone by. But thanks to the efforts of President Alvaro Uribe, who when elected in 2002 declared his devotion to bring peace to Colombia, the countrys economy and security situation is fast improving.
Slowly but surely, more visitors are venturing into the Amazon to discover Cartagena and what it has to offer: some of the finest examples of architectural and cultural achievement in the region, breathtaking beaches, a buzzing nightlife and a warm tropical climate.
With old colonial mansions, churches, plazas and brightly painted colonial style buildings, Cartagena is a city of colour with a colourful past.
It was first founded as a city by Spanish explorers in 1533 when it was conquered by Don Pedro de Heredia. He set about establishing it as a port town, for traders of gold, emeralds, coffee, and later for slaves. In 1564, the first slave ship arrived from Africa. It was the beginning of a dark era of slave trade that would see thousands bought, sold and abused as they were put to work in mines, cultivating the land and serving the rich as personal attendants.
San Pedro Claver, a Jesuit Priest, who lived in Cartagena between 1580 and 1684, made it his lifes mission to protect and comfort the slaves who came to Cartagena. He provided them with food, medicine and religious solace from a life of hard labour and mistreatment. During his life he baptised thousands of them in the well inside the monastery where he lived. His compassion earned him the title of The Slave of the Slaves and he is celebrated today by African descendants all over the world.
The Chruch of San Pedro Claver and its monastery was the home of San Pedro and the other Jesuit monks who lived in Cartagena. Today, as well as the Church and Monastery, there is a museum with art and artifacts from Sant Pedros time which is open to visitors. An alter dedicated to San Pedro, containing his remains is inside the church which visitors can also view.
Being a centre of economic activity in the region, Cartagena was a prime target for pirates and foreign invasion. In 1586, Sir Frances Drake from England successfully took control of the town, and everything in it, looting many of its riches and setting fire to anything in sight.
Cartagena came under attack several times from French, British and Dutch forces, and during the 17th Century, the Spanish ordered the construction of the city walls, a barrier of defence that stretched for more than 10kms, surrounding the entirety of the old city in solid stone. Sections of the wall remains today, and are in part responsible for the preservation of the beautiful buildings within the old city.
As well as the walls, several fortresses were constructed around Cartagena as a second line of defence. El Castillo de San Filipe was the biggest fort that the Spanish constructed in the Americas, and is definitely the most impressive of the handful or so of the old forts left in Cartagena today. It was built by African slaves with concrete and red bricks and was finally completed in 1789.
Inside El Castillo there is an elaborate system of underground tunnels that were built to transport supplies and as an emergency escape route. English speaking guides can be hired for a small fee at the entrance. They can show you the best places within this huge structure and explain some of the interesting historical facts of its past.
In 1610, the Spanish also established the Spanish Inquisition of the Holy Court in Cartagena in an effort to force religious and political unity and to profit from the confiscated valuables of those that were found guilty.
The Palace of the Inquisition was where those accused of witchcraft or religious beliefs other than those of the Catholic Church, were persecuted, tortured and executed if found guilty. Completed in 1770, the palace today is a museum of torture instruments, and written records of the torture methods used and of those that died. There is also a small collection of local artifacts that you can browse amongst.
There are plenty of things to see and do within Cartagena but there are also many sights and attractions within a short distance form the city that make for some excellent day trips, allowing you to enjoy the natural beauty of Colombia, as well as its historical sights.
For a taste of real Carribean paradise, plan a trip to las Islas Rosarios. An archipelago of small islands about 2 hours boat ride from Cartagena, which will cost you about $ 12 USD to reach. The area is a National Park and offers deserted beaches and coral reefs with amazing snorkeling, SCUBA diving and sea kayaking opportunities.
There is a variety of accommodation available on the islands ranging from hotels to small beach huts. A visit to the Oceanario Islas del Rosario is highly recommended where you can visit the Museum of Marine Life and take a guided tour along a purpose built walking platform.
Playa Blanca or White Beach in English, is situated about 2 hours journey south of Cartagena. Its worth the trip to enjoy a peaceful retreat with crystal clear waters and fine white sand. You can travel there by bus, taxi or boat. There are no hotels at Playa Blanca but you can rent a hammock for the night and enjoy sleeping out under the stars.
El Volcan de Totumo is located about 60 kms north of Cartagena and can be reached by booking on with a local tour company. Decaying organic matter deep below the earths surface is heated by the earths core, producing a gas which forces the mud up towards the surface of the earth. A small volcano is formed, about 20 meters in height as the mud reaches the top of the crater and spills over the side.
There are stairs built into the side of the volcano, allowing visitors to walk to the top and enter the crater to enjoy a thermal mud bath. The mud is said to be warm, relaxing and therapeutic for the skin. You can also enjoy a massage from the locals for a small price before rinsing off in a nearby lagoon.
The best time to visit Colombia is during the dry season. It will still be hot and humid, but a little less humid during the months December- April. You can fly in to Cartagena. The airport is located just 2 kms outside the city, or you can cruise there from many destinations in the Caribbean.
You will find a range of accommodation in Cartagena. Everything from luxury hotel resorts to backpacker hostels, but the best way to enjoy the city is to rent an apartment. This way you can enjoy your privacy and some peace and quiet, as well as see what life is really like for the Colombian people in a well located residential area. Its the most affordable and hassle free option.
There is no need to be paranoid about your personal safety, but it’s wise to exercise the same common sense and awareness of your surroundings as you would in any foreign city. Don’t wander around with large amounts of cash, and keep your valuables well hidden.
You’ll find the people of Cartagena friendly and welcoming. They will be glad that you are supporting the Colombian people by visiting their country and they will be keen for you to enjoy your visit and the many sights and sounds the city has to offer.
The secret wont stay quiet for long, so get out there and experience Colombia. You’ll be glad you did!
Find More Kayaking In America Articles