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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.