Walking the Streets of Cartagena
I had just a few days in Cartagena and wanted to make the most of it. As such, I walked about every square inch of the Walled City along with most of GetsemanÍ in order take in the culture and history of the city. I tried visiting virtually every plaza and along the way enjoyed window shopping, people watching, dining, and seeing what the vendors had for sale.
The History of Cartagena
Cartagena, founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, is named after Cartagena, Spain. Strategically located between the Magdalena and Sinú Rivers on Colombia’s northeastern, Caribbean coast, the city became a very important trade port for Spain. During the colonial era (1533-1717), the port was used to export Peruvian silver and to import African slaves.
The city’s increasing importance subjected it to attacks from the French, English, and Dutch. Still a city without walls, it briefly fell to the French in 1544 until a ransom was paid. At this time a defensive tower was built, but its battery had limited range, and the city was ransacked again in 1569 and soon was destroyed by fire. Seventeen year later, Francis Drake took over the city until another ransom was paid.
Soon, Spain prepared a master plan to defend its Caribbean ports. As part of the plan, by 1610, the Spanish established the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Cartagena and consequently punished many for crimes such as heresy, blasphemy, bigamy and witchcraft. Thereafter, the construction of protective walls and batteries continued for 200 years.
Despite the city being surrounded by bastions and a connecting curtain and being protected by the fortress Castillo San Felipe de Barajas atop San Lazaro hill, it suffered another blow in 1697 during the Nine Years’ War. It took the next 14 years to rebuild the city along with slow and steady reform to trade practices.
The city and its San Felipe de Barajas withstood a massive siege by the English in 1741. Beginning in 1750, the city expanded substantially with much immigration from all cities of the Viceroyalty. During this “Silver Age”, the inhabitants of the walled city were the richest in the colony. Cartagena’s economic and political growth came to an abrupt end in 1808 with the general crises of the Spanish Empire (more specifically the Mutiny of Aranjuez).
In 1810 the Spanish governor was removed and two political parties were formed; one representing the aristocrats and one representing the common people of Getsemani. By the end of the year, a Declaration of Independence was signed proclaiming Cartagena “a free state, sovereign and independent of all domination and servitude to any power on Earth.”
The city fell under siege two more times in 1815 and 1820 by Spain and the patriot army, respectively. With virtually all the royalist ships destroyed, the governor surrendered in 1821 and Simon Bolivar the Liberator bestowed the title “Heroic City” to Cartagena.
The Plazas of the Walled City
Plaza De La Paz
Plaza De La Paz is likely the first plaza many visitors to the Walled City will see as it is located at The Clock Tower entrance. The Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj) is Cartagena’s most famous landmark. It used to be called Boca del Puente as it linked GetsemanÍ to the Old City via a drawbridge over a moat. Of the three arched doors at the entrance, only the center is original, the other two were occupied by a gunroom and chapel. Aside from finding many tourists snapping photos of the clock tower, many locals sell selfie-sticks, hats and other souvenirs here.
Plaza de los Coches
This plaza is just on the inside of the Clock Tower entrance. It is home to a statue of Pedro de Heredia, the founder of Cartagena. One side of the plaza is lined by an arcaded walkway, home to the Portal de los Dulces. Here in the shade, vendors sell homemade Colombian sweets. Many tours also meet here next to the clock tower.
Plaza de la Aduana
This plaza is the oldest and largest in downtown. It is lined by banks and government buildings including the old Royal Customs house which has been converted to City Hall. A Statue of Christopher Columbus marks the east end of the square. The square isn’t exciting though being the biggest, it serves as a parade ground.
Plaza San Pedro Claver
This is a nice plaza with lots to see. Eduardo Carmona’s metal statues depicting life of Colombians dot the plaza. In addition, there is a large bronze of San Pedro Claver with a slave. San Pedro Claver was a Spanish Jesuit priest who was an advocate for the many slaves brought to Cartagena for trade. The church and its convent, named for San Pedro Claver where his remains lie at the altar, lines one side of the plaza. The view of the church from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas at sunset is spectacular.
Plaza de Santa Teresa
This plaza is in front of the Museo Naval del Caribe and across from Baluarte de San Francisco Javier which provides a wonderful location for getting the popular coconut lemonade drink and watching the sunset.
Plaza de Bolivar
This is a nice shaded plaza with many benches and pigeons. According to the signs, there was free wi-fi available, though my phone couldn’t find it. In fact, many plazas displayed this sign, so it’s worth a try. The palace of the Inquisition of Cartagena borders one side of the plaza and on the other side is the gold museum.
The gold museum is free and if nothing else is worth a visit for the A/C and the bathrooms! But the displays which include old gold jewelry and other items were quite nice.
Plaza de la Proclamación
Once called the Plaza de la Catedral upon the completion of the Catedral of Cartegena, it was renamed in 1811 after being the place of gathering for the signing of the Declaration of Independence. On the corner is a statue of Pope John Paul II to commemorate his visit in 1996. The open-air plaza is lined with vendors on one side and the church on the other.
Plaza Santo Domingo
This is a busy square located across from Church of Santo Domingo. Several good restaurants are in the area including Cevicheria Trattoria donde Wippy where we ate dinner. This was a cozy restaurant that filled up quickly and was quite good. Other cafes around the square place tables outside for visitors to enjoy their meals. Also in the square is “The Fat Lady” sculpture by Fernando Botera. Tourists love to take pictures with it and more specifically while grabbing her boobs!
Plaza de la Merced
There is really nothing exciting about this tiny triangular area located in the hot sun next to the main road except to see the Teatro Heredia which is quite beautiful. It’s hard to go inside without a tour, but even the outside is worth a view. It was designed in 1911 by Luis Felipe Jaspe, the same architect who designed the clock tower.
Parque Fernandez de Madrid
This park is named for the statue that stands in its center. It is very quiet during the day and offers a few trees for shade. At night, however, it is more lively with several cafés around the area.
Plaza de San Diego
I bot my hat here. I thought I was being smart coming to a slightly more out of the way area to pick out a hat, but later I realized the plaza is located across from the posh hotel Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena, that used to be a convent. The vendor provided me such a high price for the hat, it caught me off card that I’d need a credit card, and I failed to negotiate! I got completely ripped off, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. He needed the extra money more than I did. This plaza is shaded with trees too, which is nice for a rest in the warm climate.
The bar at the hotel is a perfect place for a mint lemonade. In the middle of it is a fenced, yet unlocked area which leads to the crypt. The story goes that in 1949 a reporter named Gabriel Garcia Marquez saw various crypts being emptied. Inside one was a red colored mane (60 feet long) clipped to a child’s skull. This later inspired the Colombian Nobel Prize winner to write his novel “Of Love and Other Demons” about life in a convent during the colonial times. It was cool to go inside of the crypt to take a quick peek.
The bar’s restroom is inside the hotel which is a good way to get a glimpse of the nice court yard and amazing pool as an outsider since only guests are allowed inside.
Plaza de las Bovedas
The vaults (or las bovedas), built as dungeons, are attached to the city wall. The cells now house shops and the top of the structure provides lovely views of the Caribbean Sea.
By the end of the day, in combination with walking all of GetsemanÍ as well as to the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, I walked around 16 miles! I’m certain I missed a few streets and I walked down other blocks three times as I zig-zagged around the city, but I definitely covered the historic city! A few scenes along the way…ETB
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