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Welcome to Cartagena

Founded in 1533 as a center of the Spanish empire, Cartagena developed into a sea of colors and a UNESCO World Heritage site within the colonial walled city. City tours–by car, foot, or even horse-drawn cart–take visitors through the cobbled streets and to the famous San Felipe fortress. Focused tours shine light on the multi-cultural worlds of local gastronomy or music, or the life of locally born author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Nearby La Popa hill offers views of the old city, the harbor, and the 17th-century Santa Cruz monastery. Taking a cooking class or visiting a gold museum reveals the city's heritage, a mix of African, European colonizer, and Native American. At night, the streets of the hot and humid city fill with markets, traditional dances, and revelers spilling out of bustling nightclubs. For those who want to escape, a short boat tour brings travelers to Barú and Playa Blanca, where the white beaches and crystalline water are pure Caribbean paradise. A little further and travelers reach the Rosario Islands, a national park featuring one of the most important coral reefs in the country. To the northwest of Cartagena, the renowned El Totumo mud volcano allows locals and travelers to enjoy therapeutic massages and the natural healing properties of mud baths.

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Top 10 attractions in Cartagena

Old Town Cartagena
#1

Old Town Cartagena

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....
Totumo Mud Volcano (El Totumo)
#2

Totumo Mud Volcano (El Totumo)

Take the wooden steps up the 15-meter mud mound that is Totumo Volcano (Volcán de Lodo El Totumo) then look down to be greeted by a mud bath big enough to fit dozens of bathers. A popular day trip from Cartagena, it's said that the volcano goes hundreds of meters deep, but when you dip into the warm mud you'll find that it's so dense it's impossible to do anything but bob about at the top. While wallowing, it’s possible to pay one of the attendants for a personal massage. Legend has it that Totumo Volcano used to spew out fire and lava, but a local priest, believing such hellfire to be the work of the devil, used holy water to turn it all to mud. After the bath, everyone heads to the next-door lagoon to wash off the gloop, which local women will help you wash off with buckets of water, for a small fee, if you wish....
Rosario Islands (Islas del Rosario)
#3

Rosario Islands (Islas del Rosario)

Less than an hour southwest of Cartagena’s port is a fragile archipelago of some 30 picture-perfect islands, wrapped in shimmering white-sand beaches, and strung like rosary beads through the deep blue Caribbean Sea. They sit atop the world’s third-largest barrier reef, which has protected as Islas del Rosario National Park since 1977. Though this clearly remains a mixed-use area, the designation has helped conserve 1300 species of flora and fauna present on and around the islands. Dozens of operators offer day trips to the Islas del Rosario, which lie between 45 and 90 minutes southwest of the city, depending on the type of boat you’re on. As you cruise past Boca Chica and out into the open sea, don’t miss the 18th-century Spanish fortresses of of San Rafael and San Fernando....
Rafael Nuñez House Museum
#4

Rafael Nuñez House Museum

In Cartagena, the Casa de Rafael Núñez is a mansion that was once home to the famous politician, poet, and lawyer Rafael Núñez. The country's president on four occasions, Núñez' importance in Colombian history cannot be overstated — not only did he write the country's 1886 constitution, in effect until 1991; he also wrote the words to the Colombian national anthem. A three-minute walk from the Walled City in El Cabrero, the Caribbean-Antillean styled white and green mansion was built in 1858, and today it's a museum where you can see Núñez' documents and personal possessions including furniture, paintings, and art. Just opposite the Casa de Rafael Núñez you'll see the chapel of Ermita del Cabrero, where the ashes of Núñez and his wife rest....
San Felipe de Barajas Castle (Castillo San Felipe de Barajas)
#5

San Felipe de Barajas Castle (Castillo San Felipe de Barajas)

Cartagena’s strategic significance as Europe’s conquest of the Americas intensified cannot be overstated. Some say that if the British had won the 1741 Battle of Cartagena, that South America would now speak English. They didn’t, largely because of massive El Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the largest and most formidable Spanish colonial fortress in the hemisphere. Begun in 1536, almost immediately after the conquistadors arrived, the massive megastructure sits atop San Lazaro Hill, with flawless views across the harbor. Bristling with cannons and other armaments, it was enlarged and re-fortified in 1657 and 1763 as part of an ongoing arms race against other European powers. A marvel of military engineering, the compound’s angles and parapets offer maximum coverage, and are connected by a warren of secret tunnels threading the mountain of stone....
Convento de la Popa de la Galera
#6

Convento de la Popa de la Galera

Gleaming white in its vantage point, high above Cartagena’s protected bay, the Convento de la Popa is visible from almost anywhere in the city. Though it’s a bit of a chore to get here—you’ll need to hire a taxi (to avoid walking through poor, rather unsafe neighborhoods) or book a city tour—it’s worth the effort. The convent itself is quite pretty, particularly the flower-filled interior courtyard of graceful stone arcades. It was founded by an Augustian order in 1607, after Father Alonso de La Cruz Peredes received a divine message to build the chapel in honor of Cartagena’s Patron, Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria. Her lovely gold altar also worth a look. But you’re really here for the grand views over the city, from atop a 150m (500ft) hill above the bay. You can see almost everything, from the the delicate strand of skyscrapers rising from slender Boca Grande, to the dusty reds of tejas tiles topping the old walled city....
Santo Domingo Church (Iglesia de Santo Domingo)
#7

Santo Domingo Church (Iglesia de Santo Domingo)

Iglesia Santo Domingo, founded in 1534, is the oldest church in Cartagena and one of the first in the hemisphere. The original stone structure, finished in 1551, was so badly damaged by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 that a new church needed to be built; the current incarnation was finally completed some time during the 1700s. The cool, spacious interior, with its imposing central nave lined with massive stone columns and inspiring marble altar are unusual, and certainly worth a look. Most travelers will spend more time on Plaza Santo Domingo, right out front, the spot to enjoy a little rest and relaxation of a premium-priced beverage. Surrounded by some of the city’s finest architecture, and filled with umbrella-shaded café tables, the plaza is also a magnet for souvenir vendors. Be sure to bargain....
Las Bovedas
#8

Las Bovedas

At the northeastern corner of the old walled city is Cartagena’s grandest arcade, stretching with imperial purpose from Santa Clara to Santa Catalina Fortress. Behind the 47 painted archways are a string colorful souvenir shops, well stocked with all the emeralds, Botero knockoffs, hammocks, hats and molas that your coworkers and catsitters might desire. These unusually proportioned alcoves are interspersed with equally cramped bars, galleries, and other businesses. It’s a fun place to shop and photogenic spot to enjoy, but the rather oppressive barrel ceilings that overarch each vault (boveda) come with a bit of history. The vaulted alcoves were originally built into the massive sea wall between 1792 and 1796, and at first used to store provisions. They were repurposed during the early 1800s as an incredibly uncomfortable prison....
Cathedral of San Pedro Claver (Iglesia de San Pedro Claver)
#9

Cathedral of San Pedro Claver (Iglesia de San Pedro Claver)

Cartagena’s Catedral de San Pedro Claver, so close to the sea wall, seems unduly imposing for such a sanctified site. Begun in 1575, when this was a very rough neighborhood, its unfinished fortifications were destroyed in 1586 during a tiff with Sir Francis Drake and his pirate crew, and rebuilt by 1602. Its namesake, San Pedro Claver Corberó, did not arrive until 1610. The Spanish-born priest arrived in Cartagena, then a slave-trading hub, as a novice priest. Horrified by the treatment of African captives, sold to a motley crew of middlemen on what’s now Plaza de los Coches, the young man became an activist, writing in his diary, “Pedro Claver, slave of the slaves forever (3 April 1622).” Pedro would not only baptize newly enslaved arrivals right in the cathedral’s courtyard well (which was already controversial), but he would then explain to the newly saved that they deserved all the rights held by other Christian citizens of the Spanish Empire....
Bolivar Square (Plaza Bolivar)
#10

Bolivar Square (Plaza Bolivar)

This shady park, centered on a trickling fountain and statue of Simon Bolivar, is a more local hangout spot than the upmarket cafes taking over Plaza Santo Domingo. The benches are full of pensive-looking old men, and wandering baristas make their rounds, selling sweet sips of “tinto,” black coffee, for a few pesos. The afternoon entertainment might well be an itinerant preacher saving souls for centavos. Of course, it’s a fine place for travelers just looking for a shady spot to relax. The square is surrounded by some of the city’s prettiest buildings, and you’ll be able to buy the same shell jewelry, woven hats, beautiful watercolors, and Botero knockoffs from Plaza Bolivar’s vendors as you would anywhere else within the city walls....

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How to Spend 2 Days in Cartagena

How to Spend 2 Days in Cartagena

How to Spend 3 Days in Cartagena

How to Spend 3 Days in Cartagena

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