The best cities in South America
12th July 2021
One step into the magical colonial town of Cartagena, and you’ll feel as if you have plunged into a Garcia Marquez novel. Wooden balconies covered in drooping flowers adorn the city’s wonderfully preserved, colourful and vibrant architecture. Meandering the town’s enchanting streets is an overwhelming sensory experience and truly a feast for the eyes. Street sellers balance wide bowls of fruits on their heads, and abundant food stalls sell enormous ripe avocados, fresh mango slices and fried local delights. Open-air cafés and restaurants allow you to enjoy a relaxing drink and delicious fare in the heart of the action. Dance troupes break out into spontaneous performances in the squares and live music can be enjoyed on every corner. The feel-good music of Colombia also features in many of Cartagena's numerous eateries, where many people lose their inhibitions and get up to dance. It is unsurprising that this enchanting place is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, for it is brimming with culture and historical sites. Here we will give you some insider knowledge to get to know the old city of Cartagena.
Cartagena is a city steeped in colonial history. The old walled town was founded in 1533 by the Spanish Commander Don Pedro de Heredia, as a way of protecting the Ciudad Murallada against potential invaders and attackers who were after its treasures. Prior to the Spanish conquest, indigenous groups settled here, and they left behind valuable riches - for example, the ancient leaders were buried with gold in their tombs. When word spread that this town was flourishing, it suffered a series of invasions by the British and the French.
Cartagena got its name from the first Spanish settlers that arrived in the city, who came from the Spanish Cartagena. The British unsuccessfully tried to invade Cartagena in the War of Jenkin’s Ear (1739-1748) - named due to the severing of British captain Robert Jenkin’s ear - and although they gained control of the walled city, a series of problems arose. Improved defense systems and the spread of various infectious diseases inevitably forced them to retreat. Had the British been successful in their conquest, English could have been the official language of Colombia. Following a 10-year period of gruesome battle, Cartagena de Indias finally gained its independence from the Spanish empire in 1811, whose influences are still very much present in the Cartagena we see today. Much of the city’s architectural charm is the result of the Spanish conquest, when beautiful monasteries and churches were built around the city to spread Catholicism. Visiting the city of Cartagena will give you a taste of its fascinating history.
If you are seeking live music and dancing, then look no further. Cartagena is known for its music scene, kaleidoscopic styles, and intoxicating atmosphere, all of which combine to make you want to dance. Genres to expect include champeta, (afro-colombian pop/folk music), cumbia, and salsa. For traditional live champeta music, head to Bazurto Social Club, situated just off the main street of Medialuna. Located just outside of the walled city in the Getsemani district lies Café Havana, known for its fantastic, vibrant salsa nights. Grab a drink and watch some incredible salsa dancers, or join in yourself to let off some steam after a day of sightseeing. Equally close, but also situated outside of the walled city in Getsemani lies the Quiebra-Canto salsa bar, a haunt for locals and tourists alike, loved for its Caribbean feel and cheerful salsa dancing. These vibrant venues contribute to Cartagena's unbeatable nightlife.
Colombian cuisine combines a fusion of flavours, encompassing influences from Spanish, Indigenous and African foods. Inside the walls of Cartagena, there are many charming restaurants to dine in. The town squares are littered with bustling eateries, and tables spill into the streets.
The hum of chatter, background of salsa music and the soporific humidity of the air make for a wonderful atmosphere. Foodies will be spoilt for choice whilst wandering its colourful passageways and sampling some of the city’s sumptuous street food. Make sure that you try patacones con queso costeño, a traditional savoury snack that combines crunchy, soft fried plantains (patacones) with a salty, gooey cheese. Arepas are also a must if you are in Cartagena, a maize, doughy food that is popularly filled with cheese - arepas con queso - or minced meat - arepa de choclo con queso. If you are in the mood for a traditional, hearty meal in a local restaurant, try a Mojarra, which consists of coconut rice, fried patacones and salad. Colombia is also renowned for its fantastic selection of fruits, and street sellers in the old walled town make fresh juices and sell sliced mango in small bags, in both ripe and unripe form. Although it may sound bizarre, unripe, crunchy mango with salt is a popular snack, and extremely refreshing in the strong heat of the Colombian sun.
For delicious ceviche, head to La Cevicheria, a small but charming restaurant, known to have the best ceviche in town. This restaurant is unpretentious and down to earth, with wonderful food to try. For more of a “fine dining” experience, head to Carmen, for delicate fish, tasty risotto, ceviche and good wine - its contemporary menu is creative and innovative. The restaurant’s elegant interior, tropical courtyard, and friendly service, make for a memorable experience. Take an early evening walk along the city walls to admire the sea and breathtaking views. To watch the sunset with a drink in hand, head to Café del Mar, which is located right on the walls of the town. Or alternatively, buy a couple of beers and head to one of the cubby holes in the walls as the skies turn orange and pink. A walk along the walls will open your eyes to the diverse architecture of Cartagena - the “old meets new.” The old city starkly contrasts with the newly built high rise buildings of the Bocagrande neighbourhood, which tower over the city.
The old walled city of Cartagena is also a cultural hub, with an accolade of things to do and see. There are stunning historic churches to visit, and a collection of interesting museums to discover. Located on the Plaza de San Pedro Claver, The Modern Art Museum of Cartagena is set in a former 17th century customs house. Founded in 1959, the museum is made up of two buildings: one that was constructed in the second half of the 17th century, and the second in the latter half of the 19th century. The museum’s brick walls, high ceilings and mood lighting make for a striking setting for its exhibitions. Two of the painters that predominantly feature here are Colombian artists Alejandro Obregón and Enrique Grau. Some of Obregón’s most renowned artworks seek to tell the story of Colombia’s tragic past using bright colours and jarring imagery. Visitors can also appreciate a range of interesting sculptures. The NH Galeria showcases Colombia’s local talent, predominantly featuring Colombian artists and contemporary artworks. Another museum worth visiting to learn about Colombian history is the Zenú Gold Museum, which holds a wonderful collection of gold and pottery belonging to the Zenú people, an Amerindian tribe in Colombia.
Chocolate lovers should head to the recently opened Museo del Cacao to learn about one of Colombia’s most important exports. Entry is free, and you will be able try various samples, and buy some tasty souvenirs to take home. Visit the Convent and Church of San Pedro Claver to learn all about the life of Spanish priest and missionary Pedro Claver, widely celebrated for his charitable actions. He was known as the “Apostle of the Blacks,” as he looked after the enslaved when they arrived in the Americas. The Museum houses paintings, beautiful Haitian art, drawings and belongings that tell the story of the extraordinary life of Claver. Another worthy visit is a trip to Santo Domingo, said to be the oldest church in the city. It was originally constructed in 1539 in the Plaza de los Coches, but following a fire, the church had to be rebuilt in 1522 in the Plaza de Santo Domingo, where it currently stands.
These local tips and cultural insights only skim the surface of things you can do in Cartagena, the perfect destination for foodies, history enthusiasts and lovers of salsa.
If reading about Cartagena has inspired you, be sure to get in touch with our local experts who will be more than happy to organise your dream trip to Colombia. Alternatively, give the TravelLocal office a ring on +44 (0)117 325 7898.