Cartagena de Indias, Colombia: A Quick Guide to an Amazing City
My first real taste of international travel was with the program Semester at Sea which takes University students on a round-the-world trip aboard a “floating campus” (an old converted cruise ship). It was easily the most influential time of my life. In fact, I doubt I would have ever moved to Colombia or met Jaime if not for the program. It opened my eyes to the world and showed me how similar we all are and how the world is far from the scary place they show us on the nightly news.
Well, it has been a couple of years since I did the program but I still keep up with where and when the ship is traveling. Incredibly, after booking my plane ticket back to Colombia (I was home for Thanksgiving), I found out that the ship would be arriving in Cartagena, Colombia just two days after I arrived. It is actually in between semesters so the ship was visiting on an Enrichment Voyage, which can be booked and sailed by alumni, friends and family of alumni, and the general public.
I immediately posted to the Semester at Sea Facebook page and contacted anyone and everyone I knew who worked on the ship, offering up my services as a amateur tour guide for the city I had come to call home. Two groups from the ship took me up on the offer for a walking tour of Cartagena.
It was great to show people around Cartagena de Indias, a city that changed my life. I know it’s a beautiful city but showing it to someone new reminds me of how lucky I am. Well, besides the horribly hot, humid heat…
The city has a number of sections but most tourists are interested in the old historical sections of El Centro, San Diego, and Getsemaní. Hundreds of years ago, these three sections of the city were protected from pirates by the enormous city walls (Las Murallas). The walls have survived 400 years of pirate raids, battles, and city development with nearly every inch still intact. Walking along the wall is a great way to see and experience the city while enjoying the refreshing ocean breeze. In addition to the wall, a great fort ( Castillo San Felipe de Barajas) was built just across from the old city. The huge, mountain of a fort can be toured, though I wouldn’t suggest trekking up on a hot, sunny day.
Back within the walls, El Centro was the heart of the city and where the wealth of Cartagena (one of the richest cities in the New World) was centered. The homes in this section are huge, grand mansions and the churches are even bigger! It is also the area of the city where some of the best restaurants, hotels, and bars are located. And don’t forget to stop in Plaza Santo Domingo for a picture of the Mujer Reclinada statue by the famous Colombian artist Botero.
San Diego is my favorite part of the city. Calmer and quieter than El Centro, San Diego is home to more locals and a few really high end hotels. There are a number of nice little tree covered squares and picturesque homes along every street. San Diego was originally home to the city’s middle class and the homes are quite a bit smaller than in El Centro. One of the most impressive building in this area is the Convent of the Nuns of the Order of Saint Clare, now the Hotel Santa Clara. Getting a room is out of my budget but you can also have lunch in the hotel which is a nice way to see the beautifully restored architecture.
Getsemaní is separated from the other sections of the old city but a commercial area and park. This neighborhood was originally separated from El Centro and San Diego by a canal. It was filled in many years ago and gave the old center much needed room for a few modern office buildings. Getsemaní was home to the working class and poor of old Cartagena. The homes are smaller and many are in need or repair. This neighborhood though is one of the best in the city due to its lively, local feel. Every night Plaza de la Trinidad fills up with people drinking, laughing, and just hanging out. Music pours out of nearly every home and people sit on their front steps, chatting with neighbors all day. It is a piece of the real Cartagena that you don’t get in the beautiful, but touristy, El Centro.
I love this city and I’m so happy to call it home. It’s a shame more people don’t visit. If you ever come to Cartagena, contact me, and I promise I’ll show you around!
* Special thanks to Marjolein Veerman for some of the beautiful pictures.