A leisurely walk through the narrow streets of Old Town Cartagena, with bougainvillea spilling off second-floor balconies and brightly painted Colonial houses, invites visitors to escape into the past. The bustle of daily life mixes with the historical architecture of this walled city by the ocean. In addition to the beautiful boutique stores, numerous restaurants, and colorful street vendors, there are many treasures to see around town and just outside the city walls.
The leafy Plaza de Bolivar serves as a good place to start a tour in Cartagena and to see some of the local culture and buy fruit from the colorfully dressed women known as palanqueras. Next to the plaza, the free Gold Museum (Museo de Oro) displays pieces that tell the history of the Zenú indigenous tribe. The nearby Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisición) provides a rather gruesome look at Colombia’s past and the Spanish Inquisition -- some of the torture devices used on the accused are on display.
The San Pedro Claver church and monastery tells the life story of a priest in Cartagena who fought for human rights, and Cartagena’s Museum of Modern Art takes a look at art in Latin America. A short walk away is the Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj), the main entrance to Cartagena and a symbol of the city. Las Bovedas, a long series of vaults built under the city, have been alternately used as jails, munitions storage and in modern times, souvenir shops. Crafts made by indigenous tribes and bags of 100 percent Colombian coffee can be purchased here.
On a hill just outside the city is the San Felipe de Barajas Castle, which was built to defend Cartagena in the 1700s, and its tunnels are a cool place to avoid the tropical heat and find good views for photos.
To avoid the heat of the day, try getting to the Old Town earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon. Another option is to hide out during the hot hours in the shade of the Plaza de Bolivar, in an air-conditioned museum or at one of the numerous restaurants. The wide walls surrounding the city are ideal for a walk in the evening just before sunset.