The Hidden Treasures of Cartagena

The Hidden Treasures of Cartagena
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The Hidden Treasures of Cartagena – An Excerpt

Cartagena de Indias has lived and died a hundred deaths. Founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, she has been pillaged and stripped bare by pirates, besieged by the English, scouraged by the Spanish, decimated by cholera, raped by her own administration and fallen into economic neglect. Yet, each time, like a phoenix, she rises from the ashes and soars to even greater heights.

Cartagena is magical. She is multifaceted and means many things to many people. Simon Bolivar named her, ‘La Heroica’ for her valiant stance of independence against the Spanish . She is affectionately called the ‘ciudad amuralla’ or ‘el corralito de piedra’ for the more than 7 kms. of corral stone wall which still encircles most of the old city.

There is an interesting dichotomy to this seemingly stunning paradise. There exists Cartagena the rich and Cartagena the poor, Cartagena the beautiful and Cartagena the ugly, Cartagena the good and Cartagena the bad, Cartagena the living and Cartagena the dead. As well there is old Cartagena and new Cartagena, Cartagena for tourists and Cartagena for locals, secure Cartagena and dangerous Cartagena, visible Cartagena and hidden Cartagena.

Much of what is hidden is in plain sight and this is the ‘raison d’etre’ of this book. The average ‘cruise ship’ tourist is whisked through Cartagena in one day. The ‘all inclusive resorts’, while they serve their purpose to bring tourists to the city, shelter their guests in an enclave of comfort and security. Many foreign visitors view Colombia with fear and suspicion from 50 years of negative press and hence they miss the opportunity of a once in a lifetime experience in a truly marvellous, tropical setting.

There exists a plethora of coffee table tomes with spectacular photos of Cartagena. Most of them focus on the magnificent architecture of the colonial city but Cartagena is like a beautiful, mysterious Hispanic woman. While her form is enviable, to fully appreciate the experience you must embrace her, caress her, inhale her perfume, listen to her song, explore every inch of her, behold her in the morning as her cinnamon skin glistens from an early morning shower and dance with her on the ‘muralla’ in the light of the ‘Media Lune’ .


Chapter 1 – The Old City

Colombians have long considered Cartagena their national treasure and in 1984 the United Nations declared the ‘ciudad amuralla’ to be a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Standing in front of the old city gate, the Clock Tower, it is difficult to imagine that Cartagena was once an island, as was the neighbouring district of Getsemani. In colonial times only the middle archway was open and a bridge provided access to the island of Getsemani. To the right of the gate, where there now stands the mangled maze of ugly office towers , La Matuna, was water and mangrove swamp. To the left were the docks and custom’s gate where all legal products entered the city from the ships anchored in the harbour.

Walking through the gate into the old city brings one to what is now known as the ‘Plaza de la Coches’. In the late afternoon horse drawn carriages line the square waiting to escort the city’s many tourists on a guided tour of its narrow historic streets.

Cartagena Me Encanta


To truly appreciate Cartagena an unorthodox approach to tourism is more effective. Take time to sit in the plaza and watch the “opera de la calle’ unfold. You may discover the preacher, proclaiming the word of God or casting out demons.

El Rezandero

Perhaps there will be street entertainers performing their version of the history of the city.

Opera de la Calle

There are always the locals making their way home after a long day at the office or shopping for sweets at the ‘Portal de los Dulces’ under the colourful archways facing the square. As with most locales in the city, there have been many names for this plaza. One, not wanted to remember by many, was ‘Feria de Negros’ . Cartagena was the major Spanish centre for the importation of slaves into the New World and it is estimated that between 200,000 to 1,000,000 individuals were sold into bondage from this very location.

The journey from Africa was 60 to 90 days, depending on the route taken. Slaves were kept chained in the holds of the ships in unsanitary conditions and as a result on their arrival in the New Granada were in often in poor health. ‘Merchandise’ that was considered unsaleable was dumped overboard before the ‘cargo’ arrived into port.

A local priest, Pedro Claver, undertook a mission of ministering and baptizing to these unfortunate souls as they disembarked in Cartagena. The two story monastery where he lived and died (September 1654) still stands as well as the church that bears his name and his remains.

Every square is a miniature theatre in the microcosm of daily life of the Cartageneros. The stage is set, the backdrops are spectacular and the actors rotate their shifts throughout the day. Four p.m. in the afternoon is an excellent time to view the show in the square of San Pedro Claver. The street artisans appear and begin to display their goods on the already narrow sidewalks. School children gather and delight in sending the flocks of pigeons soaring into the air. Tourists hand feed these rather plump palomas maize while T shirt vendors hover like vultures waiting for the appropriate moment to descend on their prey.

Las Palomas de San Pedro


The drama continues in the park and plaza of Simon Bolivar. This well shaded site with its fountains makes it a favourite location of the locals to escape the heat of the day. The vendors perform their rounds selling short shots of coffee dubbed ‘tinto’, water and cellular phone minutes. Occassionally at lunch a preacher will make his play to the sinners in the crowd willing to enlighten their lost souls. Tourist traversing the square to the Palace of the Inquistion or the Cathedral pause for a quick picture with the statue of Simon Bolivar. If they hesitate long enough, the vendors swarm like ants from all four corners of the park and chaos ensues.

Late afternoon brings a new cast of players to the park. Most days a group of young musicians and dancers gather here to begin a series of evening performances throughout ‘El Centro’. Under the direction of Jhon Jairo Livington they eke out a meager living from donations gathered after each presentation.

Colombia is world renown for its emeralds. “Romancing the Stone’’, is probably the best known popular film about these jewels and Cartagena. Unfortunately most of the movie was shot in Mexico. Travelling to one of the most fashionable locales in the city, the plaza Santa Domingo, one must run the gauntlet of gemstone dealers eager to entice you into their shops with offers of spectacular deals . These of course are discounted prices from over inflated values. A pleasant respite from the pressures of these vendors is Lucy’s where there is always friendly conversation and a cool glass of water.

In the evening hours the square of Santa Domingo is more a three ring circus. The hawkers are out in full force. ‘Real’ Cuban cigars, miniature counterfeit statues of the works of Fernando Botero, hats, watches, sunglasses, bracelets, almost anything your heart or sweetheart might desire can be procured without taking a single step. The music swirls in concerts of cacophony as several different combinations of musical ensembles wind their way through the tables of diners. Add to the mix another ensemble of folkloric dancers with drums combined with the clatter of horses hooves through the cramped, cobbled streets and you have a symphony of sounds worthy of the American composer Charles Ives.

Santo Domingo

After dark the streets of the old city are a veritable carnival. One of the most charming and least obtrusive gentlemen you may encounter creating mischief in the calles of Cartagena is the mime, Jorge Martelo. Jorge is a true artist who aspires only to make people smile. His life story is worthy of any piece created by Marcel Marceau; born on the street, lives in the street and will die in the street. A smile and a few thousand pesos for supper are always politely received.

El Mimo

In the light of the Caribbean moon, Cartagena glistens like the gem that she is. The plaza Santa Teresa, in front of the Hotel Charleston, offers some respite from the chaotic activity in Santa Domingo. On weekends you can dine quietly to music from a delightful, unobtrusive quartet and later ascend the ramparts to salsa the night away on the Bastion of Santa Domingo. The Bastion of Santa Domingo is one of the oldest parts of the wall and owes its origin to the havoc wreaked upon the city by “El Draque’’, Francis Drake the English pirate in 1586.

One Night in Cartagena

A leisurely stroll along the battlements in the early morning, before the searing heat of the sun makes the journey uncomfortable, provides a unique vista of the neighbourhoods of San Pedro’s Parish and San Diego. The image you may have of Cartagena protected for hundreds of years by these massive stone bulwarks is much different than what existed in colonial times. The fortifications, for they are truly not just walls, are the results of 200 years of engineering trial and error. Construction of these mighty defenses began in 1586 but were destroyed by the storms in 1628, 1654, 1713 and 1714.

As you reach the district of San Diego, behind the Hotel Santa Clara and the School of Fine Arts , you will discover the ‘Bolvedas’ or the Spanish Barracks. Until 1789 this area was protected only by a wooden palisade as the Spanish crown did not wish spend the money to protect what was then garden plots and vacant land. As you stand looking over Avenida Santander which skirts the ocean’s edge, it is difficult to imagine that this area was once considered remote and sufficiently guarded by the sea wall and an unrelenting undertow.

On any given night, in the mystical yellow haze cast by the lights of the Bolveda, another sideshow springs to life. Colourful Chivas buses filled with slightly lubricated, rowdy, revelers converge on the parking lot in front of its 47 perfect porticoes. Spilling off the buses, they follow the Vallenato musicians like the enchanted rodents of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, winding their way to the top of the parapet. Here they merge with a sea of other merrymakers and their bodies sway in time to music whose ancestral rhythms hail from the shores of distant Africa.


One of the challenges that Cartagena endures is a lack of sufficient funding to protect its heritage. Just beyond the Spanish Barracks lie the remains of the Serrezuela. The old bullfighting ring is a perfect example of this dilemma. Built in the early 20th century, it was a proud and beautiful wooden structure that hosted many other events besides the bullfights. Under private ownership the property is now more valuable than the cost of restoration and maintenance hence the owner waits patiently while the building collapses upon itself. The structure is slowing disintegrating and will soon be nothing but a distant memory in the archives of the Fototeca. This will be a sad moment indeed for Cartagena.

La Serrezuela

A short distance beyond the old Plaza de Toros, the fortifications abruptly end. This point is the juncture of San Diego with La Matuna. In 1914 a report from an English engineering firm led to the draining of La Matuna and the destruction of the section of wall between here and the Clock Tower. Initially it commenced covertly and then with open approval of the city, the wall was quarried and the stone used to construct new mansions in Manga. The devastation continued until 1928 when a society was formed to protect and conserve this unique heritage .

Author’s note. Since this book was written, my favourite mime has faded away replaced by new white faces passing through the city. The historical society, meant to preserve the culture of Cartagena, has deadened the sound of the drums in the streets and in my opinion silenced the heartbeat of a vibrant city. Cartagena is still a wonderful place to visit but without the nightly music in the streets, at least to me, the city no longer sings.

Cy’ Tambo

David is the Chief Editor and CEO for EscapeArtist Colombia.

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