Delving into the Spanish Colonial Past
By Susan J. Young
Founded in 1533, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, was named after Cartagena, Spain, which takes its name from the ancient city of Carthage in North Africa.
Today, Cartagena is a modern city of nearly 1 million residents on South America’s northern coastline.
What entices, though, is its well-preserved old downtown (see photo at right*). Perhaps we should thank French, English and Dutch pirates for what remains.
Why? Thick stone walls were erected in the mid-1500s to protect the Spanish outpost from invaders and pirate plunderers.
Throughout the years, those have served to protect the old city, its Colonial buildings and its historic Cathedral, which remain today for visitors to enjoy.
Several fortresses also still stand guard, including the imposing, 1657-era Castillo San Felipe de Barajas situated just outside the Old City.
The Castillo San Felipe is shown above.*
Excursions for Cruisers
What can cruisers expect if their line offers a port call in Cartagena? On our recent Siversea Cruises’ voyage, cruise guests had a choice of two half-day shore excursions.
The first, "Exploring Historic Cartagena," was a 3.5 hour tour.
It included a 1.5-hour walking tour in the Old City (shown at right*) and a photo stop for the Castillo de San Felipe. Cost was $39 per person.
The second, "Cartagena City Sights," spent less time in the Old City but included entry to both the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and the 17th century La Popa Monastery.
In addition, a stop was made at the Colombian Emeralds Center. Tour cost was $42 per person.
We opted for the walking tour, which covered relatively flat ground with just a few steps and uneven pavement here and there.
In contrast, the "Cartagena City Sights" tour required climbing an extremely steep grade to the fortress and also multiple stairs to and within the monastery, according to the Silversea tour desk staff.
Tips for visitors? Most cruise ships dock at Sociedad Portuaria, the cruise area located three miles from the city center.
Taxis are not allowed inside the port. Usually, the cruise lines that call at Cartagena operate a shuttle bus to the main port entrance, where a line of cabs awaits.
Cabs operating at the port and within the city appeared to be late model small cars in relatively good condition. (See photo at left*).
When hailing a cab, always negotiate the fare before entering the vehicle! Taxis generally accept U.S. dollars.
Don’t wear flashy jewelry, watches or carry unnecessary cash in Cartagena. Use a money belt and leave valuables in your stateroom safe.
We felt safe, though, on our tour. Tourism police were spotted throughout our walking tour in the Old City.
But while Cartagena (one gate through the Old City Walls is shown at right*) is relatively safe these days in the main tourist areas, it's best to be cautious. As with any big city in the world, watch your belongings while on tour.
Cartagena is renowned for emeralds and gold jewelry creations.
If you care to shop for these jewels or local handicrafts, you may wish to forego a sightseeing tour. Shore trips usually offer limited -- if any -- time for shopping.
Talk with your ship concierge or shore desk about reputable shops and areas to visit. Consider hiring a private car and driver to take you exactly where you wish to go if shopping is a priority. If you do go off on your own, leave plenty of time to return to the ship.
Walking Through History
Before departing for any Cartagena tour, take several bottles of water. Also put on a hat and sunscreen.
Just north of the Equator, Cartagena is hot year-round. The sun is also quite intense.
An air-conditioned coach picked up our tour group dockside and motored out of the port past the Juan Valdez coffee shop (shown at right*).
Our ultimate destination was the Old City, called Centro Amurallado.
One highlight? Along the way, we viewed the exterior of Las Bóvedas, the city's old dungeons (shown above*). Built for military purposes, La Bovedas also was the site of a civilian jail after the country’s independence.
These days, the dungeons welcome tourists. Las Bovedas today houses boutiques and tourist shops
Our walking tour featured handy, personal playback units for each guest. We just placed our earpiece, adjusted our sound, and listened to the guide’s commentary wherever she went. Cruise guests didn't have to be standing close to the guide to hear what she had to say – a big plus.
Walking into the old city, we were greeted by picturesque, historic buildings, residential balconies laden with blooming floral displays and Colonial architecture.
The old city was much more enchanting than I had envisioned. Everyone felt it was a historic jewel.
(See photo of the lovely architecture at left.)
One tip? Cruise lines should tell you in advance, as Silversea did, about persistent vendors within the Old City.
Vendors will come up to you repeatedly hawking everything from jewelry to drawings of the old city, from wood carvings to presumably fake Rolexes. I must say they were always quite friendly.
Saying, “no, gracias” helped in discouraging some. Others were more aggressive, following visitors for a block or so. But the aggressiveness was far less than what I’ve seen in some Middle Eastern and North African countries. Still, be prepared for lots of vendors.
In addition, if you see ladies in colonial dresses and want to take a photo with them, expect to pay $2 minimum. The same goes for photos with vendors toting a sloth or mimes performing a trick.
My advice is to just keep doing what you’re there for – looking around, seeing the sights and saying “no gracias” with a good “no” wave of your hand, and they will eventually get the idea. People do have to earn a living.
And, of course, some of our fellow travelers, did appreciate the options and bought a few trinkets.
Our tour guide Rossio (shown at right*) was extremely eager to please and superb at the historical detail. She explained the city's history and culture in a way that made the Colonial Spanish city of the past come alive.
From Santiago’s Bastion, we followed Rossio toting a Colombian flag to San Juan de Dio Street. She pointed out the architectural features of the Colonial buildings and residences.
Some featured second floor balconies with scrolled posts and floral displays (see photos above and at left*). Others had impressive stonework.
Rossio also took us inside a Colonial building to see a traditional interior courtyard.
(See photo of cruise guests visiting this courtyard at right*).
Next, we headed out to view the exterior of the “Palacio de la Inquisicíon” or, in English, the Palace of the Inquisition on the Plaza Bolivar.
Built for the Spanish Inquisition Tribunal in 1770, this Colonial Baroque building (see photo at left *) is one of the more impressive buildings within the Old City.
It features overhanging balconies, cloisters and patios. The stonework over the main entrance doorway is shown below.*
After a few snapshots of the Inquisition’s façade, we continued our walking tour into the cool, tree-covered Plaza Bolivar.
Many friendly locals sitting on benches greeted us. They seemed genuinely happy to see foreign visitors and were quite proud of their city's attributes.
We enjoyed strolling through the walkways amid the natural vegetation and fountains (see two photos below*). It was a welcome respite from the hot sun.
Plaza Bolivar, not surprisingly, is home to a large statue dedicated to Simon Bolivar, the liberator and architect of Colombia’s independence from Spain.
The attractive Simon Bolivar statue is shown at right.*
Some guests on our tour were reluctant to leave the plaza without making a visit to the Spanish Inquisition building, even though the tour literature accurately stated there would be no visit to that site.
Still, guests – once viewing the façade -- wanted to visit, saying that this was truly something unique they wished to see.
So, when most of our group toured the Gold Museum (Museo de Oro y Arqueloguía) on the opposite side of Plaza Bolivar, these few guests backtracked to the Inquisition Museum.
They paid their own entry fees, and met us back near the gold museum later on. What did they see? They reported back that the Inquisition Museum featured the obvious instruments of torture from the Spanish Inquisition, as well as pre-Columbian, colonial and independence-era art.
Most guests on our tour enjoyed the gold museum’s impressive collection of gold and pottery of the Sinú culture.
If you go to the gold museum, you must navigate one flight of stairs to reach the museum artifacts; there is no elevator.
Not far from the gold museum we also visited Cartagena’s Cathedral (shown above*)
Our guide rented the cathedral's English commentary recording and played it back through our individual earpieces.
The fortress-like Cathedral is massive, yet the interior is pleasantly simplistic, not ostentatious.
See the cathedral's ceiling and simple chandelier in the photo at left. The cathedral's entry door is shown at right.*
Cathedral construction began in 1575. However, the new building was partially demolished by Sir Francis Drake's cannons. The cathedral was finally completed in 1602.
We then continued walking to the old port area – to Customs Square.
The square's two primary highlights are a statue of Columbus and the Palacio Municipal.
While alas, Columbus never landed at Cartagena, he did sail by in 1498.
At left, cruisers from the our Silver Shadow tour group stroll through Customs Square. Below is the square's statue of Columbus.*
Next we headed for Plaza San Pedro Claver. Here cruise goers viewed the exterior of San Pedro Claver church.
Revered as a patron saint of Cartagena and defender of the slaves, Claver’s remains are entombed in a glass coffin at the high altar.
While we didn't visit inside the church, we did view its exterior (shown at left*).
In addition, the plaza boasts an impressive statue of Claver helping a slave (shown below); note the mimes on either side of the statue.
In the plaza in front of the San Pedro Claver Church we encountered a series of modern, metal sculptures.
These sculptures depict the everyday life of modern residents in the Old City. One is shown above left.*
The plaza in front of the San Pedro Claver Church seemed to be a popular place for local residents to relax and chat.
One young Colombian boy at right simply had fun chasing the pigeons.*
Next, our group strolled to the Naval Museum.
Inside this 17th century building (shown below right*), we perused ship models; naval drawings; and models of the fortifications that protected the city over the years.
Here you'll also find maritime artifacts – such as old cannons and a huge anchor (shown below*).
A model of a Spanish galleon is shown at left, while the old anchor shown at right rests in the museum's courtyard.*
Just as our energy was tapped to the max from the walking and the heat of the day, a Colombian folkloric group appeared to re-energize us with their creative and frenetic dancing.
Then it was time to reboard the mini-bus, which was blessedly air-conditioned.
Additional scenes of the Old City of Cartagena are shown below.*
A photo stop was made at Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (shown below*). It was late in the afternoon so the sun bathed the sides of the fort with Mediterranean-like coloring.
After seeing the steep graded walkway up to the top of the fort, I was happy I chose the easier Old City walking tour.
Still, having a chance to view this fortress was a highlight of my half-day trip.
Construction on the fortress began in 1639 but was not completed for 150 years. If you visit the fortress, definitely visit the interior tunnel system meant to facilitate supply and evacuation of the fortress.
Standing guard at the front of the fort is the monument to (shown above*) Don Blas de Leso. He was a Spanish governor of Cartagena. Despite lacking one eye, one arm and one leg, he courageously defended the city.
For the final part of our half-day tour, our mini-motorcoach navigated through streets of the residential Manga district. It's home to exquisite mansions from the late 19th and early 20th century.
Then it was back to the ship. The general consensus was that our "Exploring Historic Cartagena" tour, while a bit tiring in the heat, was definitely worth the effort.
Almost all the Silver Shadow guests loved the walk through the Old City, viewing the impressive fortress (shown at right*), perusing the city walls and learning about Cartagena's Spanish Colonial past.
Cartagena today is much more than just historic battlements and its Colonial Old City. Below are a few photographs to show parts of the more modern city.*
*All photos are owned and copyrighted by Susan J. Young. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos.