Cartagena – The crown jewel of the Caribbean coast
Bathed in sun, fringed with beautiful beaches and laden with both indigenous and colonial history, Colombia’s Caribbean coast has the power to capture (and hold) the attention of travelers.
Cartagena de Indias is known as the crown jewel of the coast and it is easy to see why – it is stunning to look at and even better to wander. The beautifully preserved colonial section of town, bursting with buildings of vibrant color, is still encircled by the 13km of original stone walls, which provide a heavy dose of historical atmosphere. When strolling within their walls, the narrow streets and the bougainvillea-covered balconies suddenly combine to frame some rather majestic views of towering church spires in distance. These streets spill into open airy plazas, each bordered by palms and magnificent architecture, and strewn with monuments to the colonial period.
These plazas are not only a preserved piece of the past but provide a look into the present day. Plaza de San Pedro Claver is dominated by grand centuries-old edifices of the church dedicated to the square’s saint, but it is also where you’ll find numerous metal statues from the adjacent Museo de Arte Moderno. The juxtaposition is a striking one and very welcome to a photographer’s lens. Also fascinating is the Palacio de la Inquisición, which houses some gruesome displays relating to the inquisition itself, as well as some pre-Colombian artifacts. Its facade is particularly beautiful, with sweeping balconies and a large baroque gateway made of stone and topped by the Spanish coat of arms. There are a handful of other rewarding museums and many churches that are worth some time, such as the cathedral, which was completed in 1612 (it was partially destroyed by cannon balls from Francis Drake in 1586).
Outside the old town’s thick walls is another impressive set of fortifications, those of the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Started in 1657 and expanded greatly in the mid-18th century, it remains the most formidable fortress ever built by the Spaniards in the New World. Even larger in scale, and in complete contrast on all imaginable fronts, is Bocogrande, a slender peninsula to the south that is surrounded by beaches and piled high with modern skyscrapers – Cartagena’s version of Miami Beach, complete with cafes, restaurants and luxury flats.
There is no better way to end a day in Cartagena than back in the old city, sitting atop the storied walls and watching the sun slowly set into the Caribbean. The aptly named Café del Mar is an ideal place to witness this timeless scene play out.