Colombian Caribbean

Cartagena De Indias: Paradise Recovered

Maria Boado

Cartagena is a mandatory destination for those seeking the atmosphere of tradition, modernity and sophistication of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

Cartagena de Indias is located along the north coast of Colombia, in the Caribbean Sea. The city, founded in 1533 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia, was built on swampy terrain with dense tropical vegetation that had to be tamed to make the place habitable. Struggle and conflict have marked its history throughout the centuries, and its citizens have endured the harshness of nature: floods, hurricanes, storms and fires, as well as attacks and sieges by pirates and buccaneers.Cartagena de Indias
The small city soon became the main trade route with the Indies given its strategic location at the north of the South American mainland. Ships filled with the greatest riches of the continent sailed towards the Spanish metropolis, which made the bountiful port a target for pirate attacks. In return, the Spanish Crown strengthen the city’s defenses, making Cartagena the most fortified city in South America and the Caribbean. Cartagena’s military architecture— fortifications, bastions, castles and walls— is one of the most amazing engineering feats of the colonial period and one of the most valuable assets of the city.But surely the most heroic chapters of its history took place during the War of Independence, which ended on October 10, 1821 with the defeat of the Spanish forces. Cartagena was besieged on several occasions for months at a time, causing famines, epidemics and high mortality. After such troubles, the city began to decline.For over a century, Cartagena did not reflect its glorious past. The memory of its former glory no longer echoed in the silent and dull buildings of the old and decaying colonial stronghold. Many of them were reduced to empty shells, their fading facades managed to keep only the old solid wood doors, and the ruined interiors were plagued with weeds.Cartagena de IndiasPoets and storytellers used this gloomy period as inspiration for the most wonderful literary tales, particularly in the voice of Gabriel García Márquez, who had spent part of his youth in Cartagena. The Colombian Nobel Laureate chose the city as the backdrop for his novel The General in His Labyrinth, and found inspiration to create fictional settings for his novels Love in the Time of Cholera, Of Love and Other Demons and The Autumn of the Patriarch.

García Márquez
described Cartagena in his memoirs: “I only had to step inside its walls to see the city in all its grandeur under the mauve light of the late afternoon, and could not suppress the feeling of having been born again”.

But the Heroic City, as it is also known, began to emerge from its slumber in the early decades of the 20th century. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984, today Cartagena de Indias is a major international cultural center with a wide selection of activities, including film festivals, classical music concerts and literary fairs, which are held annually. This beautiful Caribbean enclave has also hosted Heads of State and world leaders in international summits and conferences.

Cartagena de Indias
Charleston Santa Teresa Hotel.

In recent years, the city has been regaining its lost rhythm and has become a fashionable destination among travelers who identify with its new life, a synthesis of tradition, modernity and sophistication. Led by young entrepreneurs and designers, Cartagena is changing its outlook and appearance: many of the old colonial mansions have been converted into stylish boutique hotels, exclusive shops, and restaurants run by a new generation of talented chefs, such as Daniel Castaño, who heads Vera restaurant at the Tcherassi hotel and Juan Felipe Camacho, who runs the kitchen at 8-18, the renowned restaurant of the city Historic Center, which specializes in Mediterranean cuisine.

Visitors looking for luxury accommodations have plenty of options, from small family hotels to large resorts. Two resorts stand out for their architectural value, the quality of its services and their location in beautiful historic buildings. One is the Charleston Santa Teresa Hotel, located in a former 17th century convent within the city walls. The other, also located in a former convent, is the Santa Clara hotel, which marked a turning point in the history of modern Cartagena when it opened in 1995. This luxury hotel was recently chosen by the World Luxury Awards as the best place for weddings in all of South America. The hotel also received a score of 100 out of 100 in the Fine Hotel and Resorts Program by American Express.

Cartagena de Indias
Santa Clara Hotel.

A leisurely stroll around the center of the walled city will allow you to discover the colorful and bustling street life: convents, churches and old houses with rustic clay roofs, multicolored facades and wooden balconies decorated with flowers, street vendors selling their wares to passers—from fried fish and coconut water to tobacco— and the famous palenqueras, women who carry on their heads baskets of fresh fruit for sale.

You need time to get to know Cartagena, for there is much to see in this sensually luminous city. Among the most beautiful buildings that deserve a visit are the Palace of the Inquisition with a baroque facade decorated with railings and balconies, the Church of Santo Domingo, the oldest in the city, the Church of Santo Toribio, with its magnificent altar made of wood and gold in Churrigueresque style, and the recently restored Adolfo Mejía Theater.

Cartagena de Indias
Cathedral of Cartagena de Indias.

From the Convento de la Popa, located on Cartagena’s highest point, you can enjoy amazing sunsets in all their splendor: you will have the Caribbean sea in the background and will face magnificent views of the skyline of the walled city, steeples and high stone towers, from where the ancient inhabitants scanned the horizon for the arrival of ships from the Spanish metropolis. As night falls, the city lights are reflected on the bay while inland, colonial mansions shine under the starry sky.



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