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Cartagena On Your Own

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The 10 Top Things to do in Cartagena


Multicultural Cartagena is a great city to explore. Don't necessarily limit yourself to the following Top 10 Things to Do, as this list is by no means exhaustive. For other suggestions, check out the Activities section at the bottom of this page.

  1. Take a walking tour of the Old Town. This was the epicenter of the cultural, economic and military might of the Spanish for 300 years, and it's a fascinating place.

  2. Buy an Emerald. If you know what you're looking for, then Cartagena may be your own green promised land.

  3. See the Old Town from a Horse Drawn Carriage. The carriages are small, but the experience is quite romantic as you make your way around the Old City. Just be aware that the drivers only speak Spanish.

  4. Experience the flow of life in the Plaza de Bolivar. Buy a soda, find a seat and take in the world around you in the Old Town's "town square."

  5. Visit the Inquisition Palace. While the implements of torture are replicas, they'll still make your hair stand on edge.

  6. Shop for Colombian antiques. The dealers buy them on trips into the interior, and then bring them to Cartagena. Make sure to bargain.

  7. Enjoy a great meal. Cartagena is a tourist mecca, and there are some excellent places to experience the local cuisine.

  8. Explore Cartagena's Fortifications. If you're a history buff, then Cartagena is just your cup of tea. Take in Fort San Fernando, the fortifications of the Old Town, and the city's imposing Fort San Felipe de Barajas.

  9. Take a mud bath at the Totumo mud volcano. Mud volcanoes are fairly rare, so take the opportunity to experience one of Cartagena's oddest excursions.

  10. Buy a piece of Colombian candy. Cartagenans have a collective sweet tooth, and you'll be both fascinated and spoiled for choice when you visit El Portal de Los Dulces in the Old Town.
San Pedro de Claver
© istockphoto.com/holgs



Getting Around


Your ship will dock at the Cruise Ship Terminal, which is located adjacent to the industrial dock area. Most people going on shore excursions won't actually step into the Cruise Ship Terminal itself, instead picking up their transportation at the dock.

At the open air Cruise Ship Terminal, you'll find an ATM, a restaurant, taxis and a marketplace of vendors selling everything from coffee to locally-made textiles and handicrafts. A shuttle will take you from your ship to the Cruise Ship Terminal.

By Taxi: Taxis are generally inexpensive, and can get you from one place to another within the city for around $3,500 to $5,000 pesos (around 2 to 3 dollars). The fare to or from the Cruise Ship Terminal is more expensive, at around $13,500 to $15,000 pesos (around 7 to 8 dollars).

You'll recognize the official taxi drivers by their blue uniforms. The taxis are not metered, so you must agree on a price before entering the vehicle.

City Geography: Cartagena is a city that's comprised of a number of neighborhood districts. Each is unique, which is one reason that Cartagena is such a fun city to visit.

  • Manga: Your ship docks at the industrial pier on the island of Manga, which is also home to a number of interesting homes built from the 1880s to the 1930s. Many have been restored to their original styles. If you're going into the walled Old Town area, you'll pass through the Manga neighborhood.

  • Centro: Also referred to as "Calamari," after the Amerinds who lived here when the Spanish arrived in 1532, this area is the ground zero for many of the most important historical buildings in the walled city of Cartagena, including the Plaza de Bolivar (with the Cathedral, Gold Museum and the Inquisition Palace), the Plaza de los Coches (with the clock tower), the Plaza de la Aduana (Customs Plaza), home of the Colonial-era slave market, the Plaza de Santo Domingo (with cafes, the church and Botero's bronze reclining woman statue) and the Plaza de San Pedro Claver (with the San Pedro Claver church complex and the modern art museum). In the colonial period, the Centro district was where slaves were sold, where commerce took place, and where the nobles and officials lived and worked.

  • San Diego: Named after the Convento de San Diego, and occupying the northern and northeastern section of the walled Old Town, the San Diego neighborhood is where the wealthy merchants of the town lived in the Colonial period. It's in this area that you'll find the Las Bovedas shopping arcade, the School of Fine Arts, the Plaza de Madrid and the Sofitel Hotel Santa Clara, which was once the Convento de las Clarisas

  • Getsemani: During the Colonial period, the slaves belonging to the merchant class lived in this neighborhood. The Parque Centenario was laid out here in 1911, in commemoration of the Cartagena Revolution of 1811. Today one of the most notable features of the Getsemani neighborhood is the modern Convention Center, built on the site of a marketplace that was established in the 19th century.

  • La Matuna: La Matuna is a sliver of land between San Diego and Getsemani that hosts the city's commercial and financial district.

  • Bocagrande: The Bocagrande peninsula is the most modern area of Cartagena, and features a number of hotels, restaurants and condo projects. Originally built for foreign oil workers, Bocagrande is where you'll find the high-end neighborhoods of El Laguito and Castillo Grande. Avenida San Martin is the main street that passes through Bocagrande, and all along the street one can find fashionable shops, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs that help define Cartagena's image as a great place to visit.

Suggested "On Your Own" Itineraries


If you've been in Cartagena before and are looking for some new and unique experiences to be had in the city and the surrounding regions, or you're into something different to do in Colombia's premier tourist destination, here are a few suggestions for fun and different "On Your Own" itineraries:

  • Get down and dirty at the Totumo Mud Volcano. Never taken a mud bath in a natural mud volcano? Now's your chance to get out of the city and be one with nature. Depending on how you time it, you could even make the rounds of the walled Old Town after your mud bath...

  • Go on an Colombian Antiques and Culinary Expedition. This itinerary is a three-fer: you get to roam around the walled Old Town, shop for unique Colombian antiques, and try out some delicious Colombian cuisine to top off your afternoon...

  • Embark on a Cartagena Shopping Extravaganza. Whether you're looking for handicrafts, high fashion or something in between, you've come to the right place...

  • See the sights on a Horse Drawn Carriage in the Old Town. Does too much walking get you down? Are you a romantic? Are you looking for a fun and unusual thing to do in Cartagena? Riding through the cobblestone streets of Old Town and into Bocagrande in a horse drawn carriage is just the ticket...

  • Enjoy a Walking Tour of Old Town Cartagena. If you're leery of the madness of crowds, are an independent sort and insist doing things your own way, then this is your tour. It's perfect for those of you who can do some independent research and can read a map before you take on the sights in the walled Old Town...

  • Go back to the 18th century on a Fortifications Exploration of Cartagena. UNESCO named the port, fortresses and monuments of Cartagena as a World Heritage Site in 1984. Connect to your inner history buff and see how Spain invested several billion dollars making Cartagena impregnable from attack by pirates and freebooters...

  • Embark on a Romancing the Stone Emerald Quest in Cartagena. Do you wake up at night seeing green? Does your heart palpitate when you encounter a colored stone? Then make like Kathleen Turner and hunt for the perfect emerald; after all, you're in emerald country...

  • When all else fails, or you lost too much last night at the tables, or you just enjoy squeezing pennies, do Cartagena on the Cheap. It can be done for less than $25, and you'll experience a lot of the city...

Shopping


If shopping is your passion, you'll want to concentrate on the stores in the walled Old Town area and on the Bocagrande peninsula.

What's Special in Cartagena

Cartagena street

Cartagena is famous for its emeralds, gold jewelry, antiques, leather goods, candy and Pre-Columbian artworks. Don't hesitate to ask questions about the piece or pieces that you want to buy, or to bargain with the local vendors, as this is how it's done in Cartagena.

To see the locations of the recommended malls and shops listed below, see our Map of Cartagena Malls and Shops.

Shopping Malls in Cartagena

Caribe Plaza
This large mall--the second largest in Colombia--features 198 shops selling clothing, housewares and indigenous products of Cartagena. The plaza is geared to local shoppers, and is anchored by Carrefour and HomeCenter stores. It's located in the Pie de la Popa neighborhood, which is a short taxi ride from the Cruise Terminal.

MallPlaza el Castillo
This is the newest mall in Cartagena, having opened in January 2013. It's located at Carrera 13 and Calle 32, just a stone's throw from the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas--the Fort that overlooks the town. The mall features 120 shops, most geared to local shoppers, plus a large food court and a branch of the Chilean department store chain Fallabella. There's also a Wi-Fi zone featuring free Wi-Fi.

Pierino Gallo Shopping Plaza
This modern shopping mall is located at the Laguito (Little Lagoon) on the Bocagrande peninsula, Cartagena's modern residential, shopping and tourist mecca. Pierino Gallo is the Holy Grail for people searching out high quality Colombian emeralds from the local jewelers. Other stores in the complex sell handicrafts, leather goods, pre-Colombian artworks, coffee and cigars. Food, beverages and restrooms are available. On cruise days, the Pierino Gallo assumes a festive atmosphere; you can also take a picture (for a $4,000 peso tip) with women who dress up a la Carmen Miranda.

Las Bovedas
While technically not a shopping mall, it's more like an outdoor shopping arcade. Built by military engineer Antonio de Arevalo in the second half of the 18th century, Las Bovedas houses 23 vaults (fronted by 47 arches) that were once used as storerooms for tools and military provisions, and as quarters for Colonial troops. The facility sits between the forts of Santa Clara and Santa Catalina at the northern part of the walled Old Town. After independence came to Colombia in 1821, Las Bovedas was used as a jail. Today, Las Bovedas is a bustling marketplace, where one can find a selection of Colombian handicrafts, artworks, antiques, clothing and other goods.

Buying Emeralds in Cartagena

emerald

Thinking of buying an emerald in Cartagena? Before you shop, you really do have to do some research on emeralds and what to look for in a stone. Make sure to spend some time with a knowledgeable jeweler who can give you tips on buying an emerald. Here's a link to an article from the International Colored Gemstone Association.

Some of the better and most reputable jewelers specializing in emeralds include:

Centro Area:

Galeria Cano
For over four generations, Galeria Cano has carried on a tradition of crafting the finest reproductions of 18 karat gold Eldorado pre-Columbian treasures, as well as pre-Columbian styled gold jewelry, precious and semi-precious stones. In addition, Galeria Cano promotes and sells the works of indigenous and rural Colombian communities crafted in clay, wood and leather. And if you're looking for some of the finest Colombian coffee, the Galeria Cano sells bags of great java under its own name.
#33-20, Local 679, in the Plaza de Bolivar
Tel: +57 5 664-7078

Bocagrande Area:

Joyeria Nancy
Joyeria Nancy features beautifully designed jewelry known throughout Colombia for its wonderful attention to detail and craftsmanship.
Carrera 2 #6-29, Avenida San Martin
Tel: +57 5 665-0345

Pierino Gallo Shopping Center:

Adriana's Jewelry
Adriana's offers a good selection of quality Colombian emeralds and 18 karat gold jewelry. They also offer discounts to cruise ship passengers.
Shop #1-1
Tel: +57 5 665-0969

Emerald Center
Family run for over 35 years, Emerald Center offers a wide selection of jewelry pieces to fit any budget. This dealer is a manufacturer of 18 karat gold and silver jewelry.
Shop #120
Tel: +57 5 665-0248

Greenfire Emeralds
With over 50 years of experience in selling high quality Colombian emeralds and 18 karat gold jewelry, Greenfire has earned its worldwide reputation as one of one of Colombia's finest jewelers. They have a United States customer service center (located in Boca Raton, Florida), and offer a 1 year guarantee on all purchases. An on-site GIA gemologist is available to assist you in your purchases.
Shop #2-1
Tel: +57 5 665-0413

Mister Emerald
Run by American expatriate "Mister Emerald" Leland Miles, who has over 30 years experience in the emerald trade. The shop features a good selection of custom-cut stones mounted in unique designs crafted in 18 karat gold. Mister Emerald is noted for excellent prices as well as a no-pressure sales staff.
Shop #2-10
Tel: +57 5 665-0413

Antique Stores in Cartagena

Door in Cartagena

The antique stores in the Centro area are fairly close to each other, being located on or around Plaza Santo Domingo, as well as in San Diego. Recommended shops include:

La Comarca
Features a range of antiques, including items recovered from shipwrecks that have been restored and made into articles of furniture.
Calle Santo Domingo No. 3-16, in Centro
Tel: +57 5 664 9960

La Ruta de las Indias
This shop sells antique furniture, as well as replicas of colonial pieces. Look for clocks, jewelry, tea carts and tableware.
Calle 35 No. 3-16, at the Plaza Santo Domingo, in Centro
Tel: +57 5 664 3389

Leticia Moreno
Carrera 3 No. 33-101, at the Plaza Santo Domingo, in Centro
Tel: +57 5 664 2762

El Arcon
Calle 39 No. 9-46, at Calle Campo Santo, in San Diego
Tel: +57 5 664 5304

Other Shops in Cartagena

Centro Area:

El Portal de Los Dulces
Not a shop, but a candy market located under the arches in the Plaza de los Coches. For over 100 years, the vendors here have been selling their large assortments of sweets, all displayed in glass jars, to the locals and tourists alike. Expect to find coconut delicacies, rock candy, chocolates and dried fruits, to name just a few. While prices for each sweet will vary, expect to pay around $700 to $1,000 pesos for one of the delicious Cartagenan treats. The Festival de los Dulces takes place in March, and you'll find an even larger assortment of sweets that will tempt your sweet tooth.
Located on Plaza de los Coches.

Amos Cueros
Specializing in luggage, handbags, wallets and belts.
Carrera 4 #31-1, Calle San Pedro Claver
Tel: +57 5 664-2577

Gabi Arenas - Leather Shop
Specializing in designer leather jackets, vests and clothing.
Calle San Pedro Claver #31-14
Tel: +57 5 664-2577

Velez
Specializing in leather goods
Calle de las Carretas #34-47, local 103C
Tel: +57 5 664-6694

Bocagrande Area:

Bosi
Bosi is a Colombia-based chain of fashion outlets, specializing in footwear and leather accessories.
Avenida San Martin #6-123, Edificio Costamar
Tel: +57 5 665-9458

Velez
Specializing in leather goods
Avenida San Martin #6-164, local 13
Tel: +57 5 665-6837


Colombian Cuisine


Colombian cuisine is characterized by its blending of European cuisine with aspects of African and indigenous cuisine.

sapote

Regional Specialties of Cartagena Expect to find the following dishes in traditional Cartagena cuisine; click on the links for a recipe of each dish.

  • Arepas: a traditional cornmeal bread stuffed with cheese or other fillings. They vary by region, and are very inexpensive. In Cartagena, you can find sidewalk vendors selling arepas throughout the town.

  • Sancocho: a traditional soup or stew made with almost any kind of meat along with large pieces of potato, yucca and plantains and/or other vegetables, depending on the region.

  • Arroz con Coco (Coconut rice): a typical side dish for fish. It is made from white rice cooked in a base of coconut milk and combined with shredded coconut meat, water, salt, raisins (optional) and sugar.

  • Fritanga: a set of dishes that can be likened to barbecue that is fried in oil in a deep saucepan. The meats used in Fritanga usually includes beef and chicken, pigs feet, leg of lamb, ribs and sausages such as morcilla, chorizo, longaniza and chunchullo (fried cow intestines). Fritanga is typically accompanied by small potatoes and sweet corn arepas.

  • Pipian: a thick paste made of crushed boiled potatoes, onion, tomato, garlic, red pepper, achiote, ground peanuts and chopped hard-boiled egg. It is typically served as a filling in empanadas or tamales.

  • Tropical Fruit: Colombia is home to dozens of unique tropical fruits that are rarely seen elsewhere. You can find several varieties of bananas including a very small, sweet version. Others include zapote, lulo, uchuva, borojo, curuba, guayaba, manzana and many others. As is typical in South American cities, fruit and juice stands can be found throughout Cartagena.

Cartagena Cuisine

In Cartagena, the local cuisine features fresh seafood, a myriad of sweet tropical fruits, coconut milk, corn and corn-based products and rice. The dishes generally eschew fiery spices and heavy seasonings. The chefs here seek to attain a harmony of flavors in their dishes, "letting the true flavors of the main ingredients shine through."


Restaurants


Recommended Restaurants in Cartagena

Ceviche

To see the locations of the restaurants listed below, see our Map of Recommended Cartagena Restaurants.

El Bistro
German
El Bistro's features an extensive a la carte menu, featuring a variety of breads and delicious pastries and desserts, as well as pastas, salads, sandwiches and drinks. Warning: it's not air-conditioned. Breakfast is served starting at 8:00 am; lunch begins at noon. Breakfasts run around US$8.00; lunches around US$10.00.
Located on Calle de Ayos #4-46, two blocks from Plaza Santo Domingo, in Centro

La Cevicheria
Colombian Seafood
Serves a great selection of hot and cold ceviches. Anthony Bourdain ate here on his visit to Cartagena and was transfixed. Ceviches cost under US$10.00 each.
Located in Plaza de San Diego, on Calle Stuart, opposite the Sofitel Hotel Santa Clara.

Restaurant El Santisimo
Caribbean
This highly recommended and popular restaurant serves Caribbean cuisine in a romantic courtyard setting. Try the lobster or calamari, and pair it with a glass from their extensive collection of wines. Accepts Amex, MasterCard and Visa.
Located on Calle de Torno #39-76, in the Plaza San Diego

Cafe San Pedro
International
Delicious Asian-inspired cuisine served by attentive wait staff. The wines are overpriced, but the location cannot be beat.
Located at the Plaza de San Pedro Claver

Restaurante Casa Suiza
International
Great food at a great price. The Swiss-trained chef offers a daily lunch menu starting at US$4.00 that includes a fresh fruit juice, soup, mixed salad, main dish, and coffee. Open Monday through Saturday, 8:00 am to 4:00 pm. Closed on Sunday.
Located at Calle de la Soledad #5-38, in Centro

Club de Pesca
Seafood
Since its opening in 1956, the Club de Pesca has been a fixture on the Cartagena restaurant scene. The modern, fresh cuisine focuses on seafood, and its location on the water in the old fort makes it special. Great wine list. Entrees run around US$25.00. Open daily, from noon to 11:00 pm.
Located at the Fuerte del Pastelillo, in Manga

Restaurante La Fragata
Seafood
Housed in a yellow mansion in the El Cabrero neighborhood, just outside the walls of the Old Town. Great views of the Old Town and the San Felipe fortress. International dishes complement the delicious seafood specialties. Open daily, from noon to 11:30 pm.
Located at Carrera 2 #41-15, Calle Real del Cabrero

La Olla Cartagenera
Seafood
Here you can dine on a shady and cool tropical patio and enjoy some of the best local, Middle Eastern and international dishes. A local favorite. They also have an air-conditioned room. Open daily, from noon to 11:00 pm.
Located at Avenida San Martin #5-100, in Bocagrande

Crepes & Waffles
Snacks/Ice Cream
If you're looking for a refreshing treat, and to get out of the heat and humidity of the city, just head to one of the three branches of Crepes & Waffles in Cartagena. This Colombian chain restaurant serves up great ice cream, crepes (both sweet and savory), pizza, salads and waffles. Inexpensive and filling. Open daily.
Located in Centro on Calle Baloco, just 1 1/2 blocks toward the city wall from Plaza de Bolivar;
Located in Bocagrande, on Avenida San Martin #8-205;
Located in the Mall Plaza el Castillo, in Centro; and
Located in the Caribe Plaza shopping mall, in Pie de la Popa


Activities


Private Tours of Cartagena

Cartagena building

Destination Cartagena arranges private tours of the city, whether by private car, van or bus.

Cartagena Tours, with Dora De Zubiria Dora will customize a tour of Cartagena or the surrounding area, and meet you at the pier. She comes highly recommended.

Diversitours offers three two-hour guided tours of Cartagena, led by "the Professor," a local academic who will tailor a tour to your specific interests.

Historical Buildings Outside of the Walled Old Town

La Popa hill

La Popa Convent

The La Popa Convent stands almost 500 feet above the city of Cartagena on Cerro La Popa (La Popa Hill). The Spanish word "Popa" doesn't refer to the Pope, but is translated as "stern," because of the hill's resemblance to the stern of a Galleon.

The original convent, built in 1607, was commissioned by the city fathers for the church members who assisted in the clearing of the area. This convent, known as the Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria, was constructed out of wood, and was administered by Augustine fathers. The wood structure was later replaced by a stone church, and an inn was built to receive visitors and pilgrims.

During the revolution that led to the expulsion of the Spanish in 1821, the church was used as a fortress and as headquarters for the insurrection. Yet after the Colombians gained their independence, the church's subsidies from the state ceased, and the facility was abandoned. Restoration of the Convent began in 1964 by the Augustinian order.

Today, you will find a monastery, a chapel and a museum. The chapel contains an ornate 22-carat gold foil altar, and respite can be found in its flower-filled courtyard. The views of Cartagena, the Caribbean and the surrounding areas from the Convent are quite spectacular.

Location: on the Cerro La Popa
Visiting hours: Daily, 8:00 am to 5:30 pm
Admission: Adults, $6,000 pesos; Children and Seniors, $4,000 pesos

San Felipe de Barajas Fortress (Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas)

With a dominating position on the Cerro de San Lazaro (San Lazaro Hill) overlooking the city of Cartagena and Cartagena Bay, the San Felipe de Barajas Fortress has been called the utmost achievement in military fortification built by the Spanish in the New World. In 1536, the Spanish Crown commissioned the design and construction of the initial fort. Originally named the Castillo de San Lazaro, the first structure built was known as the Bonete, which is a triangular structure at the highest point of the hill.

After the infamous siege and attack on the city by the French Baron de Pointis in 1697, the fort was expanded and reinforced by Spanish military engineer Juan de Herrera y Sotomayor during the period 1717 to 1730. Additional collateral batteries were added to the fort, now named the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, by Spanish engineer Antonio de Arevalo after the 1741 siege of the city by British admiral Vernon. All of the original construction of the fortress, as well as the later additions, relied on slave labor.

Location: on the Cerro de San Lazaro
Visiting hours: Daily, 8:00 am to 6:00 pm
Admission: Adults, $12,000 pesos; Children and Seniors, $7,000 pesos

Fort San Fernando (Fuerte de San Fernando)

Originally, the mouth of the Bocachica Strait was defended by four coastal batteries that protected the only entrance to Cartagena Bay. These batteries--including the Chamba, San Felipe and Santiago Batteries, located on Isla Tierra Bomba, and the San Jose Battery, located in the center of the Strait--were constructed between 1718 and 1730. A larger fort—the Castillo San Luis de Bocachica, located at the very southern end of Isla Tierra Bomba--provided crossing fire. The Castillo and the four batteries suffered severe damage during the 1741 British siege of the city.

After the siege, the Chamba, San Felipe and Santiago Batteries were abandoned. From 1751 to 1759, the San Jose Battery was rebuilt as its defenses improved, while the Castillo San Luis was replaced by Fort San Fernando, on which construction began in 1753. The Fort is surrounded by a moat, and its many tunnels are inhabited by bats. As part of the port's defenses, a giant chain was hauled across the Bocachica strait, from the fort to the San Jose Battery to the opposite side, to prevent unwanted ships from entering Cartagena Bay. In later years, it was used as a prison.

To get to Fort San Fernando, head to the Muelle de los Pegasos, a wharf across from the Clock Tower in front of the Plaza de los Coches. Local boats leave during the day every 30-45, and the ride to Bocachica takes about 15 minutes. Guides will try to sell you expensive "all inclusive" trips to Bocachica, but you should pay just the local fare--$5,000 pesos one way. Once you ask for the price it will get more expensive.

Plazas in the Walled Old Town

Horse carriage

Plaza de los Coches: Situated directly in back of the Puerta del Reloj (Clock Tower), the Plaza de los Coches was the first square visitors encountered when they made their way into the walled city. In Colonial times, the plaza was used as a marketplace for the selling and bartering of slaves. Here you'll find a statue of Pedro de Heredia, the city's founder, in the old slave market. Under the arches on one side of the plaza you'll find El Portal de Los Dulces, a marketplace where the vendors sell candies from tall glass jars. You'll also see some of the horse-drawn carriages awaiting their fares in the plaza.

Plaza de la Aduana: The oldest and largest plaza in Cartagena, the Plaza de la Aduana once served as the center of commerce in Colonial Cartagena, when ships' cargos were offloaded and stored in the adjacent buildings. Today, it's used as a parade grounds on festival days. You'll see a statue of Christopher Columbus in the center of the plaza. There are a few banks and ATMs located on the square.

Plaza de Bolivar: This square is truly the center of the city. Surrounding the leafy park you'll find the Inquisition Palace on one side and the Gold Museum on the other. The Cathedral is located in a corner of the square. In the center of the square is a statue of Simon Bolivar, astride his horse, that was made in Germany. It's a good place to sit and do some people watching. Inexpensive fruit and food stalls can be found around the square, and the Plaza de Bolivar is one of the sites in the city where young buskers put on a frenetic Mapale dance for the pleasure of the onlookers.

Plaza de San Pedro Claver: Directly in front of the Iglesia San Pedro Claver, the Plaza is a very popular place for the locals to kick back and relax. In the plaza you'll find a series of modern metal sculptures depicting the everyday life of the modern residents of Centro. In addition, you'll find the Modern Art Museum and several trendy restaurants that spill out onto the plaza.

Plaza de Santo Domingo: One of the more pleasant plazas in Cartagena, the Plaza de Santo Domingo is named after the church, the Iglesia Santo Domingo that fronts the plaza. Here you'll also find a number of cafes that spill out into the plaza, boutiques, antique shops, as well as the magnificent Fernando Botero bronze statue Mujer Reclinada (reclining woman).

Plaza de San Diego: This is a small square in the San Diego neighborhood, which is often viewed as the classiest and most sophisticated parts of Cartagena. Around the square you'll find a number of restored houses that have been transformed into luxury hotels and high-end dining establishments.

Historical Buildings Inside the Walled Old Town

Church in Cartagena

Inquisition Palace (Palacio de la Inquisicion)

On February 5, 1610, King Philip II established the Inquisition Holy Office Court in Cartagena. The purpose of the Inquisition was to ensure the religious unity of the Spanish monarchy. The jurisdiction of the court encompassed today's states of Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

The original Inquisition Palace was located in a house on the Plaza de Bolivar at the Actuary's Portico. Construction on the current facility, with its Baroque entrance, was completed in 1770. Its facade, the grates of the first story and the balconies on the second story are characteristic of many of the Colonial houses built during the 18th century. Around the corner from the building's front entrance is a small window adorned with a cross. It was from this window that the sentences of the accused were announced to the public. Records indicate that approximately 780 people were found guilty and put to death.

One reason for the establishment of the Inquisition in Cartagena was the diversity of religious beliefs of the slaves imported to the city, which they continued to practice after their arrival in the New World. Typically, the accused were alleged to have engaged in blasphemy, sorcery or witchcraft, and had to undergo a series of "tests" to ascertain their culpability. The accused were also weighed—often to see if they weighed more than a feather—after which they were tortured and killed.

The Inquisition Office remained active in Cartagena until the revolution of 1811. It reappeared in 1815, under the stewardship of Pablo Morillo, and was once again active until 1821, when the Spanish were finally expelled from the country. Upon the departure of the Spanish, enraged citizens of Cartagena mobbed the hated Palace, removed the torture devices and burned them.

On the first floor of the Inquisition Palace you'll find replicas of a number of torture implements used during the Inquisition, including a rack and a scale used to weigh the accused. The second floor is a small museum dedicated to the history of Cartagena, with models depicting the urban evolution of the city and finely detailed dioramas of several of the city's famous sites. You'll also find a step-on map showing the routes that the Spanish Galleons took on their voyages to and from Spain.

Location: at the Plaza de Bolivar
Visiting hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm; Sunday, 10:00 am to 4:00 pm; closed Mondays
Admission: Adults, $11,000 pesos; Children and Seniors, $8,000 pesos

Cartagena Cathedral (La Catedral)

Also known as the Basilica Menor, the Cartagena Cathedral traces its history back to 1537. The first church was built out of wood and cane, and was destroyed in a terrible fire in 1552. Twenty three years later, construction was begun on a new cathedral, designed by Simon Gonzalez. During his 1586 raid on the city, Francis Drake's cannons destroyed half of the building. Afterwards, Gonzalez continued his work directing the construction of the building until its completion in 1612.

The cathedral features a large doorway opening into a narrow, simple interior with thick white columns and large arches. The gilded 18th century wood altar is complemented by a pulpit comprised of marble, mosaics and monstrance. The building underwent a restoration in 2007.

Location: adjacent to the Plaza de Bolivar
Visiting hours: Monday to Saturday, 10:30 am to 7:30 pm; Sunday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
Admission: Adults, $11,000 pesos; Children and Seniors, $7,000 pesos

Santo Domingo Church (Iglesia de Santo Domingo)

The Iglesia de Santo Domingo is perhaps the oldest church to be found in Cartagena. It was founded in 1551, and was located in the Plaza de los Coches. After a fire destroyed the original building, the church was relocated to the current site. Construction of the building began in 1579, but funding problems delayed its completion for almost 120 years. The church is notable for a steeple that is crooked; it is said that the steeple was twisted by the devil. Inside the building you will find a Baroque altar with a 16th century wooden carving depicting an image of Christ, as well as an image of the Virgin Mary with a gold and emerald crown.

Location: at the Plaza de Santo Domingo
Visiting hours: Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 8:00 pm
Admission: Adults, $11,000 pesos; Children and Seniors, $7,000 pesos

Convent of San Pedro Claver (Convento de San Pedro Claver)

The Convent of San Pedro Claver complex is located on the Plaza San Pedro Claver, in the southern end of the walled city. The complex includes the church, the cloister and a museum. The convent was founded by the Jesuits in the early part of the 17th century, when it was known as Convento de San Ignacio de Loyola. The name was changed to that of San Pedro Claver in honor of his work as the "slave to the slaves."

Born in the Catalonian city of Verdu in 1580, Pedro Claver took his vows at the age of 22. He arrived in Cartagena in 1610 and immediately took up his work to minister to the more than 10,000 African slaves that were brought to Cartagena each year. It is said that as soon as a slave ship entered the port, Claver moved into its infested hold to minister to the ill-treated and miserable passengers. He provided them with medicines, food, bread, brandy, lemons and tobacco. With the help of interpreters he gave basic instructions and assured his brothers and sisters of their human dignity and God's saving love. During his 44 years is Cartagena, he is said to have baptized over 300,000 slaves. Pedro Claver was beatified in 1850, and canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII—the first person from South America to have been given this honor.

The complex includes the Cloister courtyard, with large trees shading the well where Pedro Claver baptized the slaves. The adjoining museum features artwork, drawings and other treasures commemorating the life and times of Pedro Claver. The San Pedro Claver Church (Iglesia de San Pedro Claver), erected in the early part of the 18th century, contains the remains of Claver in a glass coffin in the altar.

Location: at the Plaza de San Pedro Claver
Visiting hours: Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 5:30 pm; Saturday and Sunday 8:00 pm to 4:30 pm
Admission: Adults, $6,000 pesos and Children, $4,000 pesos

Heredia Theater

Constructed in 1911 in commemoration of the Centennial of Cartagena's independence, the Heredia Theater was designed by Colombian architect Luis Felipe Jaspe. It was built on the ruins of the Church of the Mercy, built in 1625. During the 20th century, the theater, named after the founder of the city of Cartagena, fell into disrepair.

The theater was restored in 1998 under the direction of Cartagenan architect Alberto Samudio Trallero. Today it is used as Cartagena's center of performing arts, with productions including ballet and theater. The intimate U-shaped theater features an ornate gold-leaf interior, with stairs and sculptures of Italian marble. The ceiling features artwork painted by the acclaimed Cartagenan artist Enrique Grau. If you're visiting the theater, it's hard to miss the beautiful Cartagena-themed curtain.

Museums

Grau painting

Gold Museum (Museo del Oro y Arqueología)

Cartagena's Gold Museum is one of several museums owned and operated by the Banco de la Republica, Colombia's central bank. The museum focuses on artifacts created by the Sinu people, a pre-Columbian culture that inhabited the regions surrounding Cartagena.

The Sinu built an extensive system of waterways that was used for more than thirteen centuries to drain off the floodwaters. Farmers, fishermen, traders, goldsmiths and weavers were organized in towns that were governed by local lords who paid tribute to regional chieftains like Finzenu, who ruled over the River Sinu. Agriculture, fishing, hunting and the bartering of raw materials and manufactured products (such as ceramics, gold objects and woven baskets) formed the basis of the Sinu economy.

The museum's collection consists of 89 art objects made of gold and ceramics. It is suggested that visitors begin their visit on the second floor.

Location: at the Plaza de Bolivar
Visiting hours: Tuesday to Friday, 9:00 to 11:45 am and from 2:30 to 6:00 pm; Saturday, 9:30 to 11:45 am; Sundays and holidays, 9:30 am to 12:30 pm.
Admission: Free

Naval Museum (Museo Naval del Caribe)

With exhibits highlighting Colombia's naval history from the Colonial to the Republican periods, the Naval Museum was established in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World. The museum features an exhibition hall that contains naval artifacts and scale models of Spanish Galleons and other ships that were part of Cartagena's naval heritage, as well as a theater where folkloric dancers perform. The building was originally built as a Jesuit school that was part of the San Pedro Claver church.

Location: at the Plaza de Bolivar
Visiting hours: Daily, 10:00 am to 8:00 pm
Admission: Adults, $6,000 pesos; Children, $3,000 pesos

Rafael Nunez House and Museum

Rafael Nunez, a lawyer, judge and poet, was elected four times to Colombia's presidency. Known as El Regenerador, Nunez was twice elected as the president of the United States of Colombia (1880 to 1882, and 1884 to 1886), and twice again as the president of the Republic of Colombia (1887 to 1892, and 1892 to 1894). Nunez was a leader of the Liberal Party and served as one of the authors of the constitution of 1886; he also wrote the words to the Colombian National Anthem.

Nunez was born in Cartagena and spent much of his life there, rising to a number of city and state political positions before his involvement in national politics. He lived in his Cartagena residence from 1888 until his death in 1894.

The Nunez House museum, constructed of wood, is a mansion located just a short 3-minute walk from the walls of Los Bovedas. The museum contains several of Nunez's personal artifacts and documents. His ashes are interred across the street, at the Emertia del Cabrero chapel.

Location: In the El Cabrero neighborhood, a 3 minute walk from Las Bovedas
Visiting hours: Monday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm
Admission: Adults, $6,000 pesos; Children, $3,000 pesos

Modern Art Museum (Museo de Arte Moderno)

The Modern Art Museum, located on the Plaza San Pedro Claver next to the church and convent, was established in 1979. It was begun with a grant from the Organization of American States, and its initial collection consisted of Latin American paintings from the 1950s. Since its founding, the Museum collection has been enlarged. The facility's permanent collection is housed in Room 1.

The museum is housed in two buildings of note. The main building was constructed in the second half of the 17th century as the first Customhouse in Cartagena. The second building was built in 1875 as a weapons storage facility (Sala de Armas). Later, the building became a shop where artillery pieces were constructed and repaired.

Location: at the Plaza de San Pedro Claver
Visiting hours: Tuesday to Friday, 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and 3:00 pm to 6:30 pm
Admission: Adults and Children, $3,000 pesos

Enrique Grau Museum

Enrique Grau was a Colombian artist, renowned for his depictions of Amerindian and Afro Colombian figures. He was a member of the triumvirate of key Colombian artists of the 20th century which included Fernando Botero and Alejandro Obregon.

Grau was born in 1920 in Panama City, Panama, and raised in Cartagena. A self-made artist, he was influenced by the Colombian Masters Ignacio Gomez Jaramillo, Santiago Martinez Delgado and Pedro Nel Gomez. Grau studied at the Art Students League in New York, in the early 1940s. He later toured Italy, where he learned etching and fresco techniques before returning to the city of Cartagena.

Grau won the Salon de Artistas Colombianos award in 1957, launching a well-established career in the arts. His associations of white, black and indigenous figures and objects such as masks, eggs, fruit or cages brought him international fame, with exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Paris Museum of Modern Art. Grau donated 1,300 works of art (including some by other artists) to the city of Cartagena; these were used to establish the Enrique Grau Museum, located in a Republican House owned by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation. The museum opened in 2004.

Grau died in Bogota in 2004 at the age of 83.

Beaches in Cartagena

Bocagrande

The Bocagrande peninsula features a long brown sand beach along the Caribbean side of the peninsula. The beach is narrow, and heavily populated. Vendors are a pain in the neck on the beach, selling everything from beverages to massages.

Punta Arena, a fishing village on the island of Tierra Bomba, has probably the nicest beaches close to Cartagena. Punta Arena is accessed by boats ("lanchas") that leave from the Muelle de los Pegasos (a wharf in front of the Clock Tower in Centro) or by boats leaving from Laguito, next to the Hilton Hotel on the Bocagrande peninsula. The boat ride takes about 10 minutes. In Punta Arena you'll find several restaurants serving food and drinks. Punta Arena is a good place to kick back and enjoy a day hanging out under palm trees with a fantastic view of the skyline of Cartagena.


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