With the pulse of Salsa beating through the cobbled streets, noise and color assault your senses. Ochre, yellow and dusty pink buildings, with elaborate balconies covered with flowering bougainvillea, epitomize the heart of this magnificent city. Old colonial buildings, churches, plazas and parks meet with urban development. Steeped in history, this vivacious metropolis has shed its turbulent past and is fast becoming the jewel of the Caribbean.
Cartagena, located on the north coast of Colombia, was founded by the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Hereia in 1533 and named after Cartagena in Spain, where most of his sailors came from. Quickly growing into a major trading port, the city became an important part of the Spanish Empire. Today, Cartagena has shaken free from recent civil unrest and drug cartels and opened its arms to tourism and is a popular spot for cruisers and tourists alike.
The first thing you notice as you approach by sea is the incredible high-rise skyline. The monument of Mary and Child stands in shallow waters guarding the port. Anchoring off Club Nautico in the nitrogen rich mud offers you moderate holding. As an alternative to anchoring, Club Nautico and Club dePesca are both marinas. Nautico is a more cruiser orientated hangout, while the up-market dePesca is privately owned with a few visitor slips. Both fall within the safe and prominent Manga neighborhood. A supermarket and a number of small shops are within a short walking distance of the marina. The Old City itself offers plenty of variety, everything from groceries to hardware stores.
The best way to see this vibrant city is to take a walking tour. Our guide 'Duran Duran' took us to see churches, forts and around the old town, our tour included the San Felipe de Barajas Castle. A monumental fort with a maze of interconnecting tunnels, sentry boxes and massive cannons, it was an engineering masterpiece in its time. The fort was commissioned by the Spanish after the city became a constant object of plunder from pirates as far away as England and France. The fort took some 200 years to complete and ended with 11km of wall surrounding the city and several massive fortifications to defend the Spanish colony. In 1984 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Palace of Inquisition on Plaza de Bolivar was ordered by the Spanish monarchs in 1610 to stamp out witchcraft and other heretics. Today it is a museum retaining many of the original features including a stretching rack and a stockade. The calm, shady balm of the courtyard belays the gruesome tales of the guillotine and gallows standing innocently in the corner.
The Naval Museum of the Caribbean is located in the 16th century area of the walled city. It is an interesting stop that invites you to learn about the military naval history of Cartagena, navigation and the Colombian Navy. Of course a tour of Cartagena would not be complete without a visit to one of the many emerald stores. All but one of the emerald mines are controlled by the government and it is said that the finest emeralds in the world come from three of the Colombian mines in Muzo, Chivor, and Cosquez. Many of the stores do tours of their workrooms before luring you into their shop to help you part with your money.
Dining in Cartagena is superb, from low cost lively cantinas where the locals eat, to the finer establishments with outdoor seating in courtyards and plazas, where the evenings come alive with musicians and dancers.
One of the best times to be in Cartagena is for the lead up to Christmas. At night the Christmas lights decorate everything from the visiting tall ships, to the naval boats and the elaborately dressed houses. Every year a competition is held and a party given for the best 'dressed' street. Colorful buses tour the festive displays and locals welcome you into their homes to see their neon Santa's, reindeer and nativity scenes.
Cartagena is a magical fairytale city a world apart from your average Caribbean destination. It's the real emerald city; it's the heroic city that has stood the test of time. So slip on those red Dorothy shoes and walk the yellow brick road. If you do nothing more than sit back in an open air cafe in one of the historical plazas and sip strong Colombian coffee, you will be soaking up the essence that this city has to offer.
Rosie Burr and her husband, both from the UK, have cruised the Caribbean and North America for the last six years on Alianna their Corbin39.