Cartagena is one of the hottest, most vibrant and beautiful cities in South America, combining as it does superb weather, a sparkling stretch of the Caribbean and an abundance of tropical fruits. Nuggets of history can be found around every corner and in every palm-shaded courtyard of this most romantic of places. With exquisitely preserved colonial mansions, excellent museums and fine dining, it’s a place not to be missed.
Cartagena is colonial Spain’s finest legacy in the Americas, impressive in every respect. Spend several days here as there is so much to see. It is also the best base for visits to the Caribbean coast and the islands: check out the beaches and the watersports available. Beaches along the coast and on the offshore islands can be visited, as can the strange mud volcanoes nearby.
The full name of Cartagena is Cartagena de Indias, a name that is quite frequently used and a reminder that the early Spanish navigators believed they had reached the Far East. It was founded by Pedro de Heredia on 13 January 1533. The core of the city was built by the Spaniards on an island separated from the mainland by marshes and lagoons close to a prominent hill, a perfect place for a harbour and, more important at the time, easy to defend against attack. Furthermore, it was close to the mouth of the Río Magdalena, the route to the interior of the continent. In 1650, the Spaniards built a connection to the river, 145 km long, known as the Canal del Dique, to allow free access for ships from the up-river ports. This waterway has been used on and off ever since, was updated in the early 19th century and it is still used, mainly by barges, today.
The great Bay of Cartagena, 15 km long and 5 km wide is protected by several low, sandy islands. There were then two approaches to it, Bocagrande, at the northern end of Tierrabomba island – this was the direct entry from the Caribbean – and Bocachica, a narrow channel to the south of the island. Bocagrande was blocked by an underwater wall after Admiral Vernon’s attack in 1741, thus leaving only one, easily protected, entrance to the approach to the harbour. The old walled city lies at the north end of the Bahía de Cartagena.
Cartagena declared its independence from Spain in 1811. A year later Bolívar used the city as a jumping-off point for his Magdalena campaign. After heroic resistance, Cartagena was retaken by the royalists under General Pablo Morillo in 1815. It was finally freed by the patriots in 1821.