Located on the southern rim of the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena de Indias is one of Colombia’s most active tourist destinations. The city has a rich history as a former hub of the Spanish empire in the 16th Century, an important shipping port of the wealth from the New World to Spain, a base for the slave market in South America and the Caribbean region, and an Inquisition center of the Catholic Church.
The Old Town, surrounded by massive stone walls, encloses several blocks and hundreds of charming colonial homes, churches, plazas and parks. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
The newer areas include modern high-rise hotels, a Convention Center, trendy shopping centers and a great variety of restaurants ranging from local and Caribbean fare to Arab and international cuisine. The sector of Bocagrande, El Laguito and Castillo Grande offer all the amenities that demanding international travelers may want from a progressive destination, everything at a very close distance from the historic center, the Old Town, several Museums and the traditional Getsemaní neighbourhoods.
Cartagena de Indias was founded by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia in 1533. The town was named after Cartagena in southeast Spain, the origin of most of Heredia's sailors. Prosperity and wealth soon came to the town and made it very attractive as a preferred plunder target for pirates of many nationalities. The French corsair Jean-François Roberval and the British privateer Francis Drake took turns to besiege, burn and destroy the developing town, its main public buildings and recently built cathedral.
The Spanish took those threats so seriously that they worked for more than two hundred years to construct a huge, 11-kilometer wall surrounding the town and several massive fortifications to defend the colony. One of those forts is The Castillo of San Felipe de Barajas. This fortification was designed to protect the city from attackers coming from inland and was completed in 1657. It was equipped with 63 cannons, sentry boxes, and buildings for water, food and weapons storage. There were compartments for resting the troops and taking care of the injured, and an intricate web of underground tunnels. During the XVII Century, San Felipe de Barajas became the best Spanish military structure in the New World.
In 1741, the strength of the fortifications and the strategic defense of the colonial port, made possible the defeat of British commander Edward Vernon and his fleet of 186 ships and almost 27.000 men. Admiral Vernon’s siege to Cartagena lasted for 67 days. The defense of the city was commanded by the Spanish admiral Blas de Lezo (nicknamed “Half-man”), who despite lacking one eye, one arm and having lost a leg in previous battles, achieved in Cartagena his greatest victory. The fortress of San Felipe de Barajas is today one of Cartagena's most important features.
The city also has several outstanding religious buildings from colonial times. Among them, the most impressive is the Cathedral of Cartagena, also known as the Church of Santa Catalina de Alejandría, which construction started in 1535; the Church of Santo Domingo, dating from 1549 and the Convent of La Popa, located on top of the tallest hill in the city, built between 1609 and 1611.
The city of Cartagena de Indias also has an important place in world literature. Although the location is not specifically mentioned in the book, there is no doubt that journalist and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera
, is set in Cartagena. The celebrated author of the magic fantasy masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude
moved from Bogotá to Cartagena in 1948 and left after a couple of years. However, he owns a house in the Old Town where he spends some time in the winter. This brings a sort of love-hate feeling from the locals who are proud of their prestigious and celebrated novelist, but resent García Marquez’s distant relationship with the city that boosted his writing career.