Cartagena de Indias is the sixth most populated city in Colombia. It’s a fun-loving coastal port offering just about everything you might be looking for in a holiday. It has a complex history, which originates within its fortified city walls and extends to the surrounding buildings and churches. It’s packed with museums and neighbourhoods full of charm, tradition and a restless, creative yet welcoming spirit. The city’s green areas, such as Bolívar Park, are also home to numerous traditions in the form of performances, dances and live music. The famous writer Gabriel García Márquez even made Cartagena the setting of one of his novels. During your visit, your bound to lose yourself in this colourful conurbation, with its pastel colonial buildings and streets. Find out which 16 attractions we absolutely recommend visiting.
- The Old Town
- San Felipe Castle
- Museo del Oro Zenú
- San Pedro Church
- Torre del Reloj
- Portal de Los Dulces
- Plaza de la Aduana
- Barrio San Diego
- Barrio Getsemani
- Plaza de la Trinidad
- Bolívar Park
- La Popa de la Galera Convent
- Caribe Jewelry Museum
- Cartagena Seafront
- Islas del Rosario
- El Totumo Volcano
The Old Town
Surrounded by a beautiful bay, you’ll catch glimpses of Cartagena’s colonial past in the old town’s narrow streets, plazas, elegant buildings and spacious courtyards, which undoubtedly make this city worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site award. You’re bound to be amazed by the city’s fortified walls, which date back to the 1500s. An immense feat of construction, work was commenced by the Italian architect Battista Antonicelli and resulted in approximately 11 kilometres of walls that took 200 years to build. Incidentally, Cartagena was one of the best situated and wealthiest ports in Spanish America. Back then, all sorts of goods were sold in the city, which also established a slave trade with other colonies.
Walking down its narrow streets, you’re guaranteed to feel like you’ve stepped back in time, to when sailing ships docked in the port and pirates waited for the right moment to attack. Several attractions in the old town are worth a visit, including the popular Plaza del Reloj and the charming Café de Mar – a bar with amazing ocean views, making it a very romantic place to watch the sun go down.
San Felipe Castle
Museo del Oro Zenú
San Pedro Church
Torre del Reloj
The Puerta del Reloj, Torre del Reloj or Boca del Puente, as it’s called, is a main gateway to Cartagena’s old town and the original entrance through its city walls. You’ll find it located between Plaza de Independencia and Plaza de los Coches. The name Puerta del Reloj (or Clock Gate, as it translates in English) originates from the clock installed in the clock tower in the early eighteenth century. The name Boca del Puente, on the other hand, derives from a drawbridge built at the foot of the ancient San Anastasio canal during Spanish colonialism. The drawbridge connected the old town to the legendary district of Getsemani and helped defend the city. It was raised during an enemy attack in order to prevent access to pirates and invaders.
The gate was also once protected by the San Pedro Apóstol and San Juan Bautista bastions. Its façade is post-classical in style and pre-dated the architectural style of fortifications built in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The Puerta del Reloj was designed by military engineer Juan Herrera y Sotomayor – founder of the Military Academy of Mathematics – and its style is reminiscent of San Francisco church, which is located in the city of Santo Domingo. Indeed, both doors feature a two-centred Roman arch flanked by two pairs of Tuscan columns. You might also will be interested to know that this door is one of the most successful examples of the Hispanic-American fortification movement and perhaps one of the best preserved in the New World.
Portal de Los Dulces
Portal de los Dulces – also known as Plaza del Juez or Plaza de la Yerba – is a triangular square located just behind Puerta del Reloj. It once hosted a slave market and is the most central square in the city. The square is named El Portal de los Dulces because once upon a time, many centuries ago, you’d find street vendors here selling all kinds of sweat treats, pastries and desserts. The tradition has somehow survived to this day, making this quite literally one of the sweetest places to explore in Cartagena. Walking underneath its archways is a very pleasant experience, and the smell of sweets and delicious food wafts through the air as you pass by.
Here, you’ll find stalls selling fruit, caramel, coconut, chocolate, almonds and all sorts of exotic delicacies you just have to try. You can choose between varieties of sweets to share with friends and family and you’ll no doubt encounter many different products to try, such as cubanito, cheese diabolín, coconut casadillas and sesame seeds, to name but a few. You can also admire the square’s ornate picturesque buildings with balconies overlooking the colonial porticos.
Plaza de la Aduana
This is one of the larger and more elegant squares in Cartagena de Indias. Cartagena’s founder, Don Pedro de Heredia, once lived in the customs building, which runs alongside the square. In fact, Pedro de Heredia and his brother Alonso, once resisted a ferocious attack by the French pirate Roberto Baal here on 25 July 1544. Like most city squares, Plaza de la Aduana has had several names over the years, which are linked to its history. The square was originally known as Antigua Real Contaduria, back when the royal offices were located in the customs building.
In 1790, the customs authorities was set up and the square was renamed Plaza de la Aduana (or Customs Square). To celebrate the discovery of the Americas, a statue of Christopher Colombus was erected on 12 October 1894. The marble sculpture, which is still in place to this day, shows Colombus stood next to an indigenous woman on a base decorated with ornate reliefs of his three Spanish ships: the Pinta, the Niña and the Santamaría. The event caused the authorities to change the square’s name to Plaza Colón, but the people of Cartagena continued to call it Plaza de la Aduana.
The city council later decided to rename the square Plaza de Rafael Núñez after the four-time President of the Republic, who was born in Cartagena. But once again, popular opinion prevailed over official provisions, and it was still referred to as Plaza de la Aduana. Once upon a time, you’d find the Portal de los Moros here, an archway filled with shops and workshops owned by members of the Muslim community, who arrived in Cartagena in the early seventeenth century. Today, the square is dominated by the customs office, an imposing colonial building, where employees of Cartagena town hall now work.
Barrio San Diego
You’re bound to fall in love with this part of the city, which feels like something out of a film. This particular neighbourhood really makes an impression and it’s the little details that make all the difference. It’s one of the more elegant and refined areas of town and has maintained its colonial feel. Wandering through its colourful streets is a wonderful experience and you can’t really go too far wrong because this part of town – which was one of the most majestic and exclusive areas of colonial Cartagena – encircles the splendid Plaza de San Diego. This square is a great place to enjoy a relaxing drink and you can take your pick from one of the many restaurants featuring beautiful terraces.
The plaza is also surrounded by fortified city walls armed with bastions that look like they’ve been suspended in time. In this area, you’ll also find Plaza de Las Bóvedas, Santo Toribio Church, Plaza Fernández de Madrid, local horse-drawn carriages, and narrow, picturesque streets lined with brightly coloured houses, huge windows and beautiful flower-filled balconies.
This is a very characteristic, animated neighbourhood filled with colours and a maze of streets. Barrio Getsemani will wow you with its markets – which preserve Colombia’s spirit – and colourful houses adorned with hanging flags. As well as endless photo opportunities, you’ll find plenty of bars and restaurants with a somewhat vintage feel serving the best traditional fare in town.
And what’s more, after dinner, locals love to join in a series of salsa shows and dances, which are guaranteed to help you lose track of time and let your hair down. Meanwhile, the district’s local plaza will surprise you with its luxuriant vegetation. Every street has a story to tell, including the road named after Cuban craftsman Pedro Romero, who organised the resistance movement for Cartagena’s freedom. Among the best known streets in this area is perhaps Calle del Guerrero or Calle Tortuga (lit. Warrior or Turtle Street), which is characterised by a series of wonderful murals. Here, you’ll find bars, shops, hotels and restaurants on practically every street corner. There’s no doubt that this area of the city has left its dark past behind and is now a popular meeting place for locals and tourists. Every brick contains a part of Colombia’s history and the local residents are always upbeat and incredibly welcoming.
Plaza de la Trinidad
La Popa de la Galera Convent
Boasting a wonderful sea view, La Popa de la Galera Convent is one of the most interesting attractions in Cartagena. The Spaniards discovered its location back in 1510, almost by chance, after spotting what looked like a huge stern jutting out from the sea, which explains the name Galera (or Stern, in English). The picturesque colonial church and convent were built between 1606 and 1611 atop a large hill. The convent’s cloister was one of the most beautiful in the colonial city of Cartagena and one of the most admired in all of Colombia.
It would appear that the convent also once featured a clandestine shrine during colonial rule, where African slaves worshipped a deity known as Buziriaco or Cabro Urí, who supposedly looked like a goat. Legend has it that construction on the church and convent took much longer than expected due to continued ‘divine sabotage’ in the form of thunder, lightning, rain and storms.
The convent stood empty from 1822 to 1963 after being confiscated by civil authorities. Friars were subsequently able to recover the building, which is dedicated to the Virgin of Candelaria and patron of Cartagena. Her image, which features in the chapel’s golden altarpiece, is venerated by Catholics from the city and nearby towns. Pope John Paul II canonically crowned the Virgin on Sunday, 6 July 1986 during an apostolic visit to Cartagena.
Caribe Jewelry Museum
The Caribe Jewelry Museum is one of the best places to visit in Cartagena. It’s a unique attraction housing a collection of refined artefacts and emeralds. Visitors to the museum are free to explore its several exhibition halls, one of which holds its largest emerald, Petra, which was found in Polveros Mine in Muzo The emerald weighs over 107 kilograms and measures 70cm in length and 53cm in width. It’s the only one of its kind in the whole of Colombia.
The museum also houses a collection of rare emeralds from some of the most important mines in the world, as well as a replica of a vertical tunnel typically found in Colombian mines. Among the other artefacts you can learn about is beryllium, along with its origins and how it’s formed.
Islas del Rosario
A mix of beauty and nature that guarantees its visitors maximum relaxation, the 28 islands that make up the Rosario archipelago belong to Bolívar Department and consist of a small area of coral formations. The Corales del Rosario was turned into a national park in 1977 in order to safeguard the area’s natural and marine heritage. The park essentially consists of an underwater collection of ecosystems and communities inhabited primarily by coral. Here, you can encounter fish and marine animals that are all sorts of shapes and sizes, from crustaceans to molluscs, to anemones, sea urchins and starfish. The park is home to over a thousand protected species, as well as a number of different sea birds, including pelicans. The islands are located about forty kilometres from Cartagena, and you can join a daily tour if you wish to make the trip.
Isla Grande is the place to go if you’re looking for crystal clear waters and soft sand, making it the perfect place to go snorkelling or swimming in the calm sea. You can also explore its local mangrove forests and internal lagoons. San Martin de Pajarales island is home to an aquarium and luxuriant vegetation if you’re in the market for some much needed shade. Before the park was founded, the wealthy families of Cartagena built holiday homes in this idyllic part of the world. The government allowed them to keep their properties as long as they paid an annual fee and agreed to respect the rules preserving the islands’ ecosystems.
El Totumo Volcano
A tourist attraction and an absolute must-visit. In Galerazamba, about 40 kilometres from Cartagena, you can climb a 20-metre wooden staircase to the mouth of El Totumo volcano. Once at the top, get ready to descend into a crater filled with dense, grey mud, which is just big enough to fit 10 people. Believe it or not, swimming and floating in a small pool of mud is exactly what brings so many tourists to this part of the world.
This particular attraction is considered an exotic, natural wonder, and is about forty metres high. The hot, dense mud flows all year round but it’s impossible to sink too far into it. After climbing the old wooden staircase to reach this mud pool, you’ll reach the volcano’s highest point, where you can enjoy a range of mud treatments and massages. Visiting El Totumo volcano is a very fun experience and we recommend going with friends and family. According to legend, it was a priest who transformed the volcano, which had erupted and was therefore considered demonic, into a miniature volcano filled with mud, supposedly dousing it in blessed water.
Marvel at the Beauty of Cartagena with Costa
It’s famous for its beaches, but few people are aware that its historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Having long left its difficult and troubled past behind, magic shines through the streets and neighbourhoods of Cartagena. A city that knows how to bring opposites together in a series of incredibly elegant, refined and tourist-friendly neighbourhoods, such as Barrio de San Diego. Cartagena does, however, also have a fervent spirit, and you’ll catch glimpses of its more full-blooded character in the markets and small shops in Barrio Getsemani. You’ll also no doubt be enraptured by the colourful artworks adorning the city’s walls and plazas. Gabriel García Márquez once said that everything in Cartagena is different, starting with ‘the immense sensation of having arrived.’ Why not experience it for yourself on your next holiday?