Cartagena’s Color, Culture, and Castles
Explore the vibrant history and culture of this unique Colombian City
Felicity—a 20-something travel lover—has teamed up with her friends from around the world to provide readers with local, insider knowledge of today’s most awe-inspiring destinations. Through writing, photography, and video, they’ll share the best tricks and tips for experiencing a place authentically and getting off the beaten path.
When I think of my trip to Cartagena, color is the first thing that comes to mind. This is a city unlike any other I’ve visited, one that thrums with an electric array of art, culture, music, and people. In one way or another color is everywhere, from the vibrant spray of blooming flowers to baskets of tropical fruit sold near houses of yellow, pink, and purple. I was overwhelmed by it all—in the best possible way—and was endlessly hauling out my camera.
Here are five colorful reasons why you too should visit this incomparable Colombian city:
The Art, Music, and DancingI love getting to know a city through its street art, and Cartagena has plenty—there are even tours available! The best neighborhood for this is Getsemani, an eclectic area filled with both visitors and locals.
Take a stroll with your camera to check out the murals both big and small, then settle into one of Getsemani’s sweet little cafes for a Colombian coffee, an empanada, and some alfajores. That’s alfajores plural, of course; it’s impossible to eat just one of these caramel sandwich cookies.
If you love music and dancing as much as I do, you’ll be at home amongst the people of Cartagena. There are plenty of opportunities to hear live music, as well as to experience salsa, cumbia, and champeta, the latter two of which were previously unknown to me. Champeta is specifically Colombian, originating as a genre of folk music and dance on the country’s northern coast. Check it out at Bazurto Social Club, or head to Quiebra Canto and Cafe Havana to get your salsa on.
Tip: Be sure to dress up. Cafe Havana, for example, doesn’t allow shorts.
If you’re down to see some dancing but solely as a spectator, Carnaval de Cartagena is a good choice. It’s held annually in late February/early March during the leadup to Ash Wednesday, and is a true spectacle of elaborate costumes, dancing, and music. Even bigger and brighter is the one held in Barranquilla, just a few hours away also before Ash Wednesday.
Tip: The best time of year to visit is between January and March.
Cartagena was founded by Pedro de Heredia in 1533, and its stunning colonial architecture is worth the visit alone. The Old Town—which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984—is surrounded by a whopping 6.8 miles of fortified walls. They’ve stubbornly remained standing for centuries, and have done their job protecting the history within.
Take your time wandering throughout the Old Town’s narrow alleys, gates, 400 year-old homes, and impressive churches. As if to remind you you’re in the Caribbean and not Europe, many of these buildings are painted punchy colors and adorned with flowers that thrive in hot weather.
I particularly loved the bougainvilleas; they crept up the sides of buildings, and sometimes formed garlands across the lanes.
The HistoryThe term “colorful history” could not suit Cartagena better. As a former slave hub and port for Spain’s riches, it’s a place with a wealthy, storied, and often tragic past—truly a destination for history buffs. One must-see feature is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, which was built to protect Cartagena’s slew of riches from invading pirates, the French, the British, and others.
It’s the most ambitious colonial fortress Spain ever built, and not once did an enemy manage to overtake it; I highly recommend a tour through its ingeniously constructed tunnels.
While you’re there, ask a guide to tell you the story of the infamous Battle of Cartagena de Indias. In 1741, the severely outnumbered defenders of Cartagena managed to ward off the British under the command of Admiral Blas de Lazo. In previous battles he’d lost an arm, a leg, and an eye, leading to the nickname “half-man.” (These people were intense.)
You’ve likely seen images of these iconic ladies before—they’re feature prominently in photos from Cartagena. Dressed in beautiful traditional dresses with large skirts, these fruit vendors travel an hour into the city each day from San Basilio de Palenque. This UNESCO-recognised village was the Americas’ first freed slave settlement, and even has its own distinct language.
While these ladies sell fruit from baskets balanced expertly on their heads, they are also a favorite subject of photographers. They deserve to earn their living, too, so don’t forget to ask their permission to take their photo, and tip them generously after!
I’m hoping I’ve convinced you to get to this remarkable, color-filled city soon. Be sure to pack a wardrobe to match!