The hard 400-mile slog west from Aruba to Colombia, usually en route to Panama, makes the port of Cartagena a welcome landfall in any circumstances. But as increasing numbers of cruisers are finding, this historic Spanish Colonial city is an unmissable destination in its own right. With its imposing, mainland grandeur, Cartagena is a revitalising gear change from months spent pottering around quiet island anchorages.
Packing a population of just over a million, Cartagena is one of the most important ports on the Caribbean Sea. Its influence stretches back almost 500 years. Founded in 1533 by the Spanish, it was one of the main hubs of the Europeans’ conquest of Latin America. History oozes from every brick; masonry that has been bombarded by pirates, sacked by Sir Frances Drake in 1586 and regularly peppered by canons by boats of all flags. Nowadays, the boats that anchor off the marina at Club Nautico are far more benign, and the welcome given to foreign flagged vessels equally improved.
While modern Colombia’s reputation precedes it where stories of kidnappings and piracy are concerned, Cartagena is cruiser-friendly. Yes, independent travel inside Colombia is not advised, but these fears do not apply to Cartagena. This is a big cruise ship stopover, so security is a priority.
What makes the city special is the extent to which this heritage has been preserved. The Old City or ‘Centro’ is a delight – flowers tumble from the balconies of old colonial buildings and the cool, narrow streets lead from one historic building to another.
As you’d expect in a university town, the squares and sidewalks light up at night with restaurants and bars which are cheap, tasty and lively. For a higher octane soiree, the district of Bocagrande is more touristy and modern with plenty of bars and nightclubs.
From Club Nautico, it is a 20-minute walk into the Old City, a fortified enclave surrounded by a four-mile wall. When it comes to restaurants and bars, each visitor will find their own favorite spot, but here are some of the longer-standing highlights that can be filed in the ‘don’t miss’ category:
San Pedro Claver Church
17 th Century church in Plaza de San Pedro Claver, one of the most conspicuous landmarks in the city. Houses the relics of Saint Pedro Claver and the old Jesuit school – now the site of the Maritime Museum.
La Popa Convent (El Convento de la Popa)
Towering above the old town, the convent offers a panoramic view of Cartagena, as well as a tranquil spot to relax with its calm patios.
Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisicion)
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, but there are added surprises to this macabre building. Built in 1770, the Palace houses a collection of torture instruments from the era. If this doesn’t tickle your palate, the architecture alone is worth a visit.
Gold Museum (Museo de Oro)
On the Plaza Bolivar, the museum has exhibitions about Indian communities and the ancient, pre-Colombian Zenu society.
India Catalina Monument
Built in tribute to the Carib Indians, the first inhabitants of the area. The statue is of Catalina, a female who acted as translator to Don Pedro de Heredia, the Conquistador who founded the city in 1533.
The Clock Tower
As you enter the walled city from the direction of the marina, the Clock Tower looms over the main gate. Built in the 18 th century, the clock has been keeping Cartagena on time since.
Las Bovedas Quarters
The vaulted home of the military in colonial times. Now the 23 vaults and 46 arches provide shelter for a craft market.
San Felipe de Barajas Fortress (Castillo San Felipe)
Started in 1536 and modified for the next two hundred years, San Felipe is the largest fort in the city, offering fabulous views, particularly at sunset. A tunnel system for quick escape runs underneath the structure. Never mind Colombia, this is one of the most impressive Spanish Forts from the entire Colonial era.
There are also 18 th century forts at San Jose and San Fernando, a cathedral in Plaza Bolivar, and a Museum of Modern Art at the Plaza de San Pedro de Claver.
Attractions outside Cartagena include Santa Marta, the oldest Spanish town in Colombia, where you’ll find the ruins of ‘La Ciudad Perdida’ or Lost City, an ancient Tayrona Indian city deep in the jungle.
The Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino is where South American Liberator Simon Bolivar died.
Better known are the fabulous Islas Rosarios, a coral archipelago 18 miles southwest from Cartagena. These islands, a marine park with a famous sea aquarium, are where Cartagena goes to get away from it all. By boat, obtain a permit in Cartagena first.
From the ABC islands, experts recommend staying at least 5-10 miles offshore for this downwind trek in strong currents and heavy seas.
Once off Cartagena, there are two entrances into the Bay of Cartagena: Boca Chica in the south and Boca Grande in the north. The main channel is Boca Chica. Cruisers are advised not to anchor near the entrance, where theft is a problem. Entrance via Boca Grande is in 11ft of water, and leads to the excellent Club Nautico.
Boats can either anchor off Club Nautico and simply pay $2 a day for the use of marina facilities, or take a slip. Either way, foreign flagged boats must clear in using the services of a local agent. Club Nautico’s Senor Romero at Maritima Del Caribe can take care of the paperwork while you relax on board. Total cost: $60.
The Port Captain’s Office is on the 5th floor at La Matuna, Avenida Daniel Lemaitre Center.
Club NauticoMarina, Manga Av. Tel (660) 4863, (660) 4769 has bow to stern mooring on concrete docks and is the heart and soul of the yachtie community. The charge is 25c per foot per day for monohulls with a $2 daily charge for water and electricity. Facilities at the Club include a restaurant and bar, laundry, showers, oil disposal and TV room. The docks are guarded seven days a week and entry is secure.
Cartagena ’s other marina is the more exclusive Club de Pesca Yacht Club, Tel (660) 5578. This is a private club, albeit with a flew slips available for visitors. You will need to be proposed by an existing member to access these slips. The marina includes a restaurant, clubhouse, bar and showers.
The Bay of Cartagena is not one that invites bathing, and the water is so ripe that hulls quickly develop an impressive growth. For cruisers who want to stay a while and make repairs, haulout facilities are numerous, and most bases covered where repairs are concerned. Staff at the Club Nautico are very helpful in recommending who to call up and in some cases, outside workers are allowed.
Haulout facilities are available at Manzanillo Marina, Club Bosque (up to 40 tons), Ferrocem, Albornos via Mamonal (up to 40 tons, outside workers allowed), Todomar, Albornos via Mamonal (40 tons), and the Club de Pesca (30 tons, max draft 6’5”). Ask at the Club Nautico for advice on hauling Catamarans.