Cartagena (or Cartagena de Indias to give it its Sunday name) is home to one of the most extensive fortifications in South America. The city is divided into 3 areas - San Pedro with its cathedral and Andalucian-style palaces, San Diedo where the merchants lived and Gethsemane. The wikipedia entry on Cartagena is very good and can be read here.
Arriving in Cartagena
To understand the process of arriving here, first consider this map.
Cartagena City is at the top of this map on the edge of a large bay. There is an island in the centre of the bay and therefore entrances on both sides of the island. Historically, this makes Cartagena one of the best shipping ports on the northern (Caribbean) side of South America.
We approached our final port of Cartagena coming in past the bottom of the island in the centre of the bay. As we did so, we passed Forte San Fernando which was built to manage entry to the bay from that side.
There are a number of smaller islands across the bay entrance
and these would have forced ships to sail within cannon shot of the fort thus making it a very defendable place.
The old maps of Cartagena Port did not have the cartographic accuracy of today
but they show the same principal of defence
as is stated by this map dated 22nd May 1741.
Then the high-rises of Cartagena come into view
which are built along the promontory at the bottom left of this harbour map.
The three distinct sections of Cartagena were now visible
High Rises on the left, Old Town in the middle, Port on the right.
The Port is already home to one large cruise ship and there will be more before the day is out.
Arrival is graceful and slow
with a light line being thrown onto the quayside
to which is attached the mooring line. Soon we are moored and as far as we are concerned, it is “Finished with Engines” some 1600 miles (1389 Nautical Miles) from where we started.
City Tour and Walk
Discover historic Cartagena de Indias – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and architectural jewel! Previously known as the ‘stern of a galleon’, La Popa Monastery stands at the top of a hill and can be seen from any point in Cartagena. Used several times as a military fortress, the 17th century monastery, still inhabited by monks is the perfect vantage point from which to understand Cartagena before starting your exploration. A chapel dedicated to the Virgen de la Candelaria – Cartagena’s patron saint is also visited. San Felipe de Barajas stands outside the walled city. The monumental fort is considered to be the most outstanding feat of Spanish military engineering in the New World with its construction beginning in 1656 and lasting for 121 years. A labyrinth of tunnels exists under the sun-soaked fortification, which seeps tales of old for every traveller. Its tunnels and ramparts are a living breathing history book. Your guide will unlock intriguing tales of failed invasions by the British and other enemies held by the fortress. It took 194 years to complete the ramparts that enabled Cartagena to defend herself from the attacks of marauding English pirates. Inside the walled city the Spanish colonial architecture is some of the most impressive and best preserved in South America. A guided walk through the narrow streets takes you past imposing merchant’s houses, flower bedecked balconies, stunning civic buildings and beautiful churches. Dungeons within the walled city ramparts were originally built to store provisions for troops. Today they are home to a high quality handicrafts market selling brightly decorated cloth, woodwork and woven bags made by Colombia’s indigenous peoples.
La Popa Monastery is the highest point in the area and it is also the coolest. The temperature today is 33C and it is humid so we are grateful for the cooling breeze on top of the hill.
Here it is seen on the top of the hill from a viewpoint in the City Fort (more about this in due course).
Lined up in the harbour now are three cruise liners looking a bit like the three bears. Obviously we are the Little Bear on the left.
In this picture, the fort of San Felipe de Barajas (our next stop) is on the far left middle of the photograph
and here it is in the middle right of the photograph with the old city across the river and to the left of it.
In the other direction, the city suburbs continue past the airport and along the coast. This is a typical city of nearly 1 million people although with slightly worse traffic jams than you might encounter elsewhere.
The La Papa Monastery is a 400 year old monastery dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, one of the city's patron saints. Its Ccurtyard is absolutely delightful
being full of flowers, shade and quite cool.
In the Chapel, the Altar is covered with gold leaf and was moved here from a convent in the old city.
Whilst we were looking over the city out of one of the windows, a plastic bottle on a pole appeared and there was a faint shout of “dollars”.
Looking through another window we could see an enterprising boy
had cut a hole through an awning below
and was begging for and retrieving any coins or notes put into his bottle.
The view from the hill is well worth the effort although you are recommended not to walk up because the road passes through “an area where the poor people live” (as our guide put it).
Outside of the monastery are the usual tacky Tourist Stalls including:
Why you might want to have your photograph taken behind this outside of a monastery is a bit of a puzzle to me.
San Felipe de Barajas Fort
Tourists tend to follow a well worn trail when visiting Cartagena and the next stop was the Fort.
Tickets are obtained from a rather chaotic booth at the entrance and then you start walking up a long slope. If you had forgotten to purchase a hat on this very sunny and very hot day, then plenty were available about half-way up the slope.
all for prices which required a determined haggle.
Building work started in 1536 and continues for over a hundred years with a major extension in 1657.
Since then, it is been captured, liberated, and recaptured many times by most of the big players in the history of South America. Its design meant that it was reasonably impregnable and it was a "capture it all or capture none of it” fort because the design enabled its defenders to easily attack anyone who had taken part of the lower levels.
The walls are built out of Red Brick (originally used as ballast on the ships which sailed from Europe to here), limestone from the local hills and coral from the reefs in the area.
The Battlements are quite impressive and there are numerous tunnels under the fort (here the entrance to one of them).
Also there are lots of cannons around the fort.
This is the view which a cannoneer would have had overlooking the river and the city walls.
Visiting the fort is well worth the effort although the insides are rather sterile.
We were then taken to the Dungeons to buy Tourist Souvenirs. We did not feel that either the Dungeons or the Souvenirs were worth reporting and would advise other visitors to try to avoid this stop. They are designed specifically to liberate money from tourists!
The Old City of Cartagena
The old city is surrounded by “Las Murallas” which are thick walls built to protect the city within. Work on the walls started around the late 1500s after Francis Drake attacked the city and finished in 1796 - almost two hundred years from start to end. They are almost complete with only one gap. We were wandered around the city behind our guide who seemed to have his own agenda which did not match with ours.
So this record is around a number of themes, firstly Street Signs:
I have always found street signs of interest, simply because of the beauty inherent in their design and manufacture. Here we have many signs which are not the 21st century machine jobs we see today, these were made individually and show great care in their manufacture.
When the Dominicans finished building the Church of Santo Domingo in 1559, they found that the church foundations were sinking so they built buttresses to hold it up and the street
running alongside the church was renamed, Estribos meaning “Buttress” or “Support”. One of the buttresses can just be seen in the centre of this photograph (which was taken because of the flowers rather than the church).
The Inquisition came to Cartagena in 1610. Their office “The Palace of the Inquisition” was in the Plaza de Bolivar / Calle de la Inquisicion.
In this latter street was the mailbox (a small window with a cross above it) into which whistleblowers anonymously left their information. Witchcraft was the accusation most commonly pursued. This picture is taken from Google Earth and shows what we would have seen had this window been pointed out to us by our Guide.
Every city of any size has a Plaza de Bolivar. As well as the Palace of the Inquisition, in the square there is also the Cathedral, Town Hall, Gold Museum and more.
In the early 1900s, Carlos Velez Danies was one of the largest livestock traders and involved in the creation of a number of city banks.
All I know about this street is that it was close to the city walls. Perhaps the reason for its naming has been lost in time.
Cartagena is a city of flowers and balconies
and as you walk about the old city, there are balconies everywhere.
Some are simple, some made from cast iron
and many covered with flowers
which make them almost gardens in the sky.
The combination of flowers and architecture is most attractive.
Thirdly: Door Knockers and Doors
One street seemed to specialise in artistic door knockers and interesting doors.
An Iguana on this door
a door with a lion knocker
a rather nice door with flowers above but an unknown shape of knocker
a fish knocker
and a rather nice set of metal gates.
These are / were the doors to the Offices of the Inquisition, now the doors to a museum about the Inquistion.
On either side of the doors are matching balconies which overlook the Plaza De Bolivar.
This is the door to Santo Domingo Church referred to earlier in the Street Signs section. It is said to be the oldest church in the city and was originally built in 1539 in Plaza de los Coches, but the original building was burnt down (possibly by Sir Francis Drake) and this is the 1552 rebuilt version. It was built with a wide central nave but because of the weight of the heavy roof, cracks started to appear. Buttresses had to be added to the walls to support the structure and prevent it from collapsing.
This is a “Republican Style” building but it still has balconies, this time of stone,
as has this one
and this one.
This was a close as we were allowed to get to the Cathedral, perhaps we will go back one day and see the city properly.
In the Plaza de Santo Domingo is the sculpture of Gertrude Gorda (the fat woman) - a reclining nude in bronze by the contemporary Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero (born 1932). The sculpture has two well-worn parts due to the story that anyone who touches the sculpture’s buttocks will get lucky and that if you touch the sculpture's breasts, you ensure a long romance with your partner. It is also believed that also ensures your return to the city of Cartagena. There are lots of statues / sculptures scattered around the city.
This is the church of San Pedro Claver. Pedro Claver was a Jesuit who devoted his life to ministering to the thousands of slaves who came through Cartagena in the early to mid 1600s.
This statue of Pedro Claver talking to an Angolan Slave is outside San Pedro Claver Church was created by the Colombian sculptor Enrique Grau and was unveiled in front of the church in September 2001.
And just to ensure you take a memory home with you, Tourist Souvenirs are on sale by one of the City Gates.
We enjoyed what we saw on this tour of the city but were annoyed that we were forced to spend time in the Dungeons where the rubbishy tourist souvenirs were and were not allowed to go to the Cathedral. Also during our post cruise research, we have discovered many things about the city which we were not told about or shown, the most astonishing of which is the Mailbox in the wall of the Offices of the Inquisition. We would strongly advise other visitors not to go on an organised tour but to do their own thing.
We would love to come back here one day and spend more time in the City. We suspect it is even better in the evening after most of the tourists have departed.