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Cartagena Old Town is a Photographer’s Dream

Beautiful, mysterious, and unique, Cartagena's Old Town has no trouble getting attention. Its narrow streets and gorgeous architecture have made it one of Latin America’s most coveted and popular destinations.

Old town Cartagena is a photographer's dream

I first heard about Cartagena when I saw the action-adventure movie Romancing the Stone back in 1984. In the film, Kathleen Turner arrived in Colombia to save her kidnapped sister and drafted Michael Douglas to help her get to Cartagena. Years later, I realized that she had mispronounced the city’s name throughout the adventure. I also learned that Cartagena is quite a popular tourist destination and that no, I don’t need to worry about being kidnapped there.

What the movie didn't tell me was how special Cartagena really is. We didn't learn that until our weekend escape to the city for a visa run.

Palenqueras are a Cartagena icon

What makes Cartagena so enchanting

Officially known as Cartagena de Indias and named after a town in Spain, many things work together to make this Colombian city a perfect destination: delicious seafood, a rich history, lively Afro-Colombian culture, incredibly friendly locals and a nightlife that will keep you dancing to dawn.

Restaurant in Cartagena

Cartagena buskers after dark

And yet, it’s really the astonishing architecture that brings Cartagena together and endears it to anyone who visits it. Day or night, the gorgeous riot of color permeating the streets of the city adds an air of elegance and exuberance that makes it irresistible. Cartagena's Old Town is a walled enclave that enchants its visitors with its brightly colored houses, intricately decorated doors, and plants and vines that gracefully twine through charming wooden balconies overlooking its cobblestone streets.

Colorful buildings in Cartagena

Balcony on pink house in old town Cartagena

Vibrant architecture in Cartagena Colombia

As breathtaking as the vibrant architecture of the district is on its own, it becomes even more impressive when you take into account the history that shaped it. Throughout the city, its iconic weathered stone walls, old forts, centuries-old churches and ancient cannons poised ready for battle promise a fascinating story.

City wall of Cartagena

Cannon in Cartagena Colombia

Cartagena street with church spire in the background

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Cartagena is a curious blend of old and new.

The story of Cartagena Old Town

With the largest bay in the Caribbean, Cartagena’s strategic location at the top of South America made it one of colonial Spain’s three most important ports (along with Havana and San Juan). The city became an indispensable center of commerce and Spain's gateway to the precious goods that were being plundered in the newly conquered continent.

Horse and buggy on a street in old town Cartagena

All this success earned unwanted attention when pirates – including Sir Francis Drake – repeatedly attacked it to ransack its wealth. In self-defense, the Spanish decided to build fortified walls around the city. They also constructed a system to control the entrance of ships in the harbor and limited the networking of streets in town. By the time everything had been completed, a century later, Cartagena had become the most protected city in South America and the Caribbean.

Inadvertently, the Spanish officials and European pirates had worked together to create a maze-like town now known as the “ciudad amurallada,” or “walled city.” As one of the best preserved colonial cities in the Americas, UNESCO has named Cartagena a World Heritage Site, saying “the city of Cartagena de Indias boasts the most extensive and one of the most complete systems of military fortifications in South America.”

Cannons still stand ready to defend Cartagena

Cartagena fort

Cartagena today

Wherever you go in this historic Old Town, yellow and red will dominate the streets and contrast beautifully against the azure sky that covers the sunny city throughout the year.

Yellow house with balcony in old town Cartagena

Still, Cartagena’s architectural charm goes far beyond its historic Old Town era. It follows the path of Colombia’s history through Republican architecture and Spanish influences and finally adopts a more British style. As time progressed columns came to replace arches and bright colors made way for neutral tones. Tall, massive buildings now decorate the shoreline with the after-dark glow of hundreds of windows.

Cartagena is a city with a vivid past and an even brighter future.

Cartagena at night

You can find Pinterest-worthy photos sprinkled throughout this post. Save them to your travel boards for reference and inspiration.

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages has inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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24 thoughts on “Cartagena Old Town is a Photographer’s Dream

  1. Looks like some really good photo opportunities. Looks like a great adventure. I always try and spot great picture opportunities when I get the chance. Sometimes we take for granted what beauties lie before us (and around us).

  2. I had a flashback to Romancing the Stone, such a fun movie. But it did leave that kidnapping idea. haha What a beautiful city! Your photos reflect it’s old world vibrancy. Awesome. I love history also. Would love to visit there! Thanks for sharing!

    1. I loved that movie too, Rob. I might even watch it again, if it’s being offered on an overnight flight. It would be fun to see it from the viewpoint of having been there.

  3. One of our church friends just came back from Cartagena and she couldn’t stop telling us how beautiful it was. After reading your post and seeing your pictures I’d very much love to go visit it myself too. I’d love to photograph those buildings in the Old Town! The only problem is that I am not sure how safe Colombia is nowadays. Some people say it is, others advised us to mind our business. Whom should we believe?

    1. Well, I would assume that Colombia is just like any other country: Some places are perfectly safe, while others are better avoided. I had always heard that Los Angeles is a dangerous city, yet I know many people who live there and never have an issue. We certainly never felt unsafe in Cartagena.

  4. Love, love your photos of Cartagena! It is difficult to think of a more beautiful colonial city in the Americas (Old San Juan is great too). I really need to convince my husband to visit Colombia. I would like to start by visiting Bogota and Cartagena.

    1. We visited Old San Juan before this website started. You are so right, both are beautiful colonial cities. We don’t know much about Bogota but we hear Medellin is a great destination.

  5. Omigosh! These photos are stunning. I love the dilapidation and the colors. Cartagena would definitely make me feel like a traveler. I want to go!

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