The Colombian colonial city of Cartagena with its beautiful walled-in old city, squares, cafes, bars, and buzzing life probably will not take long to seduce you!
There are very few reasons why not, and lots of reasons why you should take a Cartagena Colombia vacation!
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Cartagena Columbia Vacation!
South American country Colombia is a lot more than dubious drug cartels and trafficking, for which the country has had unfortunate fame for decades.
The country is also known for its world-class coffee beans, exquisite emeralds, a stern party culture (especially in Cali, where the salsa dancing is fierce), and exotic fruits!
Along the northern coastline of the Caribbean sea lies the beautiful colonial town of Cartagena, super popular among travelers because of its Caribbean beaches, colonial old town, and vibrant nightlife.
I traveled here right after a five-day trek to The Lost City in the Colombian Amazone, after a good night’s sleep and ready for city life again!
Leaving northern Santa Marta in the morning hours, with the help of google maps and screenshots in the streets of Santa Marta, I found my way to the long-distance bus that was heading towards the south and Cartagena. Lucky!!
After about 6 hours of chilling on the bus toward new Columbian adventures, it is my turn to experience Cartagena.
Modern Day Cartagena
Modern-day Cartagena is a beautiful town with an incredibly charming walled-in Old City. I was super-fast smitten after I found the hostel, could dump my backpack, and had cooled down a little.
Because a Cartagena Columbia vacation is HOT!
The population of modern Cartagena is just over one million, making it the second-largest city in this region of Columbia.
In colonial times the Spanish ran this city for almost three whole centuries. One of the most important seaports for all kinds of world trade was here, including the horrible slave trade.
Cartagena today depends heavily on the tourist industry as well as maritime and petrochemical industries (if that should interest you).
Long-Haul Bus from Santa Marta To Cartagena
Columbia is a large country; we are not talking about short bus rides or a few hours here and there. The bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta is five’ish hours, and that is a short bus ride for Colombia or South America in general.
Aircondition, snacks and old-fashioned entertainment like a book makes the whole trip a breeze, so if you are into roadtrips and staring out of windows traveling, you will love this!
TRAVEL TIP: You can book a bus ticket for this distance (or other distances) online on Busbud for a budget option starting at $10, or at Pinbus starting at $40, boasting a luxury ride.
Arriving in Cartagena Old City
Getting off just outside the Old City of Cartagena I have directions from the hostel where I am going, a rather short distance it seems so I decide to load up my backpack and walk.
Of course, old cities with walls and narrow streets are not the easiest to navigate. I end up doing a scenic and very hot detour before I finally find (with a lot of help from the locals and bad Spanish) my destination.
Temperature and humidity in Cartagena are no less intense than in Santa Marta, but once inside the hostel, there is a nice chill and a wonderfully calm atmosphere!
The AMAZING Republica Hostel In The Middle Of The Old City Of Cartagena
The Republica Hostel in Cartagena I booked through Hostelworld really is a gem, with high ceilings, beautiful architecture, and large clean rooms and bathrooms.
The little pool in the inner part of the courtyard is amazing, especially at night between the stone walls with little holes in it with lights.
Right next to the pool is a bar area, and lots of café-like tables to hang around for socializing if you want. Online or offline, as the common area also provides fast wifi.
The Republica Hostel is a peaceful oasis in the center of the Old City of Cartagena, and it almost brings more of a hotel feeling to me.
I also stayed in a dorm here (single rooms are also available), as the beds are built almost as tiny little studios!
You can take refuge in them with a shelf and light charger for your phone and room for your bags. It feels private, although it is shared, and works very well I think.
I was going to stay for only a few days but ended up here for the whole week!
Mind you, this is not a hostel for couples looking for a quiet romantic time. It is very sociable, there is music, and life in the common areas and bar and pool zone.
I see in the reviews that some people are not impressed, complaining about music and noise in the evenings, FYI.
When I had caught my breath the first day, I headed out into the city searching for dance schools and Spanish schools, after a quick online research (these are “my thing” for this journey!
Just down the street, I find the Crazy Salsa dancing school where it is easy to sign up for dancing lessons. Perfect!
Five minutes in the other direction there is a renounced Spanish school as well, and after a quick chat I sign up for lessons for the week.
Also read: Best Ways To Learn Spanish (And Why Not Learn Spanish In Cuba?)
Also read: Solo Trip Planning |How To LOVE Traveling Solo!
Cartagena Must-See Places!
- The historic Center & The Walled City
- Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
- Barrio Getsemani
- The famous Cartagena Clock Tower
- Hop-on hop off bus tour of Cartagena
- Playa de Boca Grande where you find upscale hotels and resorts
- Teatro Adolfo Mejia
- Cartagena Modern Art Museum
Old Cartagena Is A UNESCO World Heritage Site
For more than 275 years, like Cuba, Cartagena was under Spanish rule. Until June 1810, when the Royal Commissioner and the Cartagena City Council banished the Spanish Governor Francisco de Montes.
De Montes was suspected of sympathizing with the French emperor and the French occupation forces which overthrew the king.
Finally, in November of that year, a Declaration of Independence was signed proclaiming “a free state, sovereign and independent of all domination and servitude to any power on Earth.
In 1984 Cartagena’s colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A Little History Of Cartagena De Indias
Cartagena, which was known in the colonial era as Cartagena de Indias, is both a city and a major port on the northern coast of Colombia in the Caribbean Coast Region.
The city was founded in 1533, but settlements by indigenous people date back to 4000 BC.
Under a contract with Queen Joanna of Castile, the Spanish commander (explorer and conquistador) Pedro de Heredia entered the Bay of Cartagena with three ships in 1533. A lighter, 150 men, and 22 horses according to historic notes, on 14 January.
After doing some exploring (and warring) Cartagena was founded on 1 June 1533 by Heredia in the former location of the indigenous Caribbean Calamarí village.
The town was named after the port city of Cartagena in Murcia, southeast Spain.
During the Spanish colonial period, Cartagena had a super-important role in the administration and expansion of the Spanish empire and was a center of political and economic activity.
The super-strategic naval location made it the main port for trade between Spain and its overseas empire which at the time also included Cuba.
The Creation Of Cartagena Historic Center
During the colonial era, Cartagena was also a key port for the export of Peruvian silver to Spain, AND for the import of enslaved Africans under the so-called asiento system.
Because of the city’s strategic maritime location, Cartagena has been attacked many times over the centuries.
After several devastating attacks and pillages from enemies of the Spanish empire, the walled city and fortresses were finally built to protect it from naval attacks.
The construction began in 1586, and a beautiful job they did.
Walking around the Old City today it is spectacular; buildings and details on facades and doors and windows and street design all are like pieces of art.
The Spanish Inquisition
Do you remember anything about the Spanish Inquisition from your history lessons at school?
Here is a short brush-up, it was a large and very violent movement within the Catholic church. The Spanish part started in Spain in the 15th Century, and its sole mission was to remove heresy from society.
Now, heresy means “the belief in faiths or opinions that differ from the generally accepted belief of society”. And the crimes the Inquisition saw fit to address in this term, included those of blasphemy, bigamy, and of course – witchcraft.
In Cartagena, the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established In 1610, and the Palace of the Inquisition was completed in 1770 (yes, they had their own palace).
A total of 767 persons were sentenced in Cartagena by the Inquisition. The horrible punishments range from fines, wearing a Sanbenito (a piece of clothing showing everyone that you were punished), life imprisonment, or death.
The inquisition was particularly famous for being creative in developing new and painful torture techniques to make people confess (or die denying) their crimes.
The system was not abolished until its independence in 1811 when Cartagena was the first Columbian city to declare independence from The Spanish Empire.
The incredibly Sad Caribbean Slave Trade History
The first slaves were brought to Cartagena by Heredia, a guy who was an explorer, a conqueror, and the founder of Cartagena.
They were brought to work as “macheteros”, which was the term for people clearing the underbrush in the jungle.
As the slave trade grew, by the 17th Century, Cartagena had become an important New World slave market, and Europeans began to bring slaves from Africa.
Like Cuba, Cartagena Was Run By The Spanish Empire For Centuries
Spain was the only European power that could not establish factories in Africa to purchase slaves (slave factories were a thing back then).
Therefore the Spanish empire relied on the asiento system, awarding merchants from other countries the license to trade slaves to their overseas territories. Cartagena was an important port for this business for Spain.
The slave history of Cartagena has caught the interest of UNESCO, which has a project here called The Slavery Rout in Cartagena de Indias. This is a dark but important part of the history of the world, and you can read more about it HERE if you like.
FAQ’s Cartagena Colombia
Is Cartagena Colombia Worth Visiting?
Cartagena is, at least the Old City, quite the little gem with well-kept old houses, flowers everywhere, squares, and little beautiful spaces throughout the city. It is hustling and bustling with life, people, and tourists alike.
Modern architecture is not very prominent in the city picture, most of the buildings are built in the old colonial style, with bright colors and all the houses seem to be decorated with flowers wherever it is possible.
In the evenings, there are lots of bars, restaurants, and clubs around where you can dance and party as much as your heart desires.
Also, there are lots of rooftop terraces where you can go dancing for hours after dark if you want to – and I hope you do!
Staying in a hostel is very good for socializing if you are traveling alone. There is always someone to talk to, go on adventures with or go out for dinner and dancing.
Friendships somehow form quickly when you are in travel and adventure mode. People are easygoing and always looking for a good time.
So yes, from my point of view, Cartagena Colombia is well worth your time and money! So much history, and vibrant city life, including nightlife, restaurants, and bars. Ans close to stunning beaches!
Wrap-Up Cartagena Colombia Vacation!
Although not a very big city, the population is just under a million, Cartagena de Indias is an amazingly charming city with lots of beautiful architecture and history and a stunning historic center within the walled old city.