An often visited port on Southern Caribbean and Panama Canal itineraries, Cartagena, Colombia has been able to reverse a reputation of narco-terrorism in its Andean regions and in recent years has experienced a surge in safety, credited to tough measures by President Alvaro Uribe after his election in 2002 and by his successors in recent years. This has resulted in a resurgence of tourism with an increase in cruise calls.Though normally called, simply Cartagena, the city's full name is Cartagena de Indias (Cartagena of the West Indies), as the Spanish wanted to distinguish this, one of their empire's most important Caribbean ports in South America, from the city of Cartagena in the region of Murcia by the Mediterranean in southeast Spain.
Cartagena, Colombia, founded in 1533 by the Spaniard Pedro de Heredia has more than one million inhabitants and its culture is a mixture of Indigenous, Spanish, African and Caribbean influences. Its highlight is the 16th century walled city, with its compact historic core, a UNESCO World Heritage site with well-preserved colonial buildings that make it an open-air, living museum. A must-see here is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, one of the most imposing fortresses built by the Spanish in the 17th century to protect Cartagena from pirate attacks. Visiting the fortress, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its impressive fortifications and labyrinth of tunnels, it is easy to imagine having time-traveled to the era of the real "Pirates of the Caribbean."
One usually gets the same feeling just simply strolling along the old city's streets, flanked by colonial houses with ornate, overhanging balconies, and seeing such points as Las Bovedas, constructed in the 18th century to serve as military dungeons but now housing boutiques and cafes. Other points of interest include the cathedral, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the city's oldest church; the colonial Casa del Marques de Valdehoyos, the home of a wealthy Spaniard who made his fortune in slave trade (South American Liberator, Simon Bolivar once recuperated from an illness in this house); the Teatro Heredia, on Plazuela de la Merced 5, considered among the most beautiful theaters in South America and dating from 1911; the well-preserved Palace of the Inquisition, an excellent example of colonial architecture that served as headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition in the 17th and 18th centuries; and the Church of San Pedro Claver, honoring Claver, a Jesuít priest who ministered to slaves.
Still other points of interest include two squares, Plaza Bolivar, named in honor of Simon Bolivar and a great place for a stroll, people-watch and sightsee (it is surrounded by the cathedral, the Palace of the Inquisition and the Museo del Oro y Arqueologia or Gold Museum); and La Plaza de los Coches (Coach Square), the old slave market. An interesting museum well worth a visit is the Gold Museum, fronting the Plaza Bolivar and across from the Palace of the Inquisition, with exhibits of pre-Columbian pieces.
Popular excursions sold onboard ships, in addition to walking tours, horse and carriage excursions and combination bus and walking programs in and around the old city, include a tour to the Botanical Gardens in the village of Turbaco, programs to the mud baths at Totumo mud volcano, culinary tours featuring a cooking class, and full-day excursions to the Rosario Islands with opportunities to swim, catch some rays and enjoy a typical Colombian lunch.
Local flavors not to be missed include such Colombian dishes as "tortilla de huevos criolla" (a delicious omelet with ham, cheese, chopped onions, tomatoes and corn), "ajiaco," a chicken stew with potatoes, peas and carrots, and, of course, Colombian coffee -- the one that "Juan Valdez" picks -- it is delightful to sample while in Cartagena and also pick up a few bags to take home for gifts and good souvenirs. Other excellent souvenirs of a visit to Cartagena include handicrafts, embroidered tablecloths and other items, and leather goods, not to mention, if your budget allows, beautiful emeralds.
Cruise lines that visit Cartagena include Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Star Clippers and Windstar.
IF YOU GO For additional information on Cartagena, visit www.cartagenainfo.net.