Colombia’s sea-side resort of Cartagena used to be one of the wealthiest cities in South America when it served as a transfer point for precious metals and stones bound for Spain. And despite the passage of time, the city’s old quarter still looks as beautiful as it did some 500 years ago.
A row of towering buildings were just beginning to peak through the early morning haze as we sailed into historic Cartagena Bay where Spanish galleons once departed for the Old World filled with emeralds, silver and gold.
The modern skyline was not what my wife Gail and I had expected to see from a 500-year-old Colombian city that remains one of best preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the New World. Yet the high-rise condos that line the beaches of Cartagena’s Bocagrande quarter made a striking statement about the wonderful diversity of this spectacular city.
Once ashore, we began our bus tour by visiting the Popa Monastery, which is perched atop a hill that overlooks the entire city. The 17th-century monastery was built on the foundations of a razed Indian temple and now features a beautiful courtyard, a statue of the Virgin of Candelaria, and sweeping views of the city and bay below.
Our next stop was the Castillo San Felipe Barejas, the fortress commissioned in 1536 to protect the city from marauding pirates and English invaders like Sir Francis Drake. Since Cartagena was one of the main holding stations for South American riches bound for Spain, the King decided it should have the largest and most expansive fortress
in the New World. The result was the massive Castillo standing 41 metres above sea level that took 121 years to build.
After leaving the Castillo, our bus took us to the city’s old quarter where we found cobblestone streets filled with colonial-era mansions, grand cathedrals and balconies with bright flowers. Surrounded by a ring of stone walls that took over 200 years to complete, the city’s historic old town is so beautiful and historically significant that it has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Since it was an extremely hot and humid day, we decided to begin our tour in a horse-drawn carriage, which wound its way along the quarter’s narrow, winding streets past street artisans and colourful plazas.
We then returned to see several of the major landmarks including the late-16th century Catedral de Cartagena, the beautiful Church and Museum of San Pedro Claver built in 1580 and the stunning 450-year-old Iglesia Santo Domingo. The latter fronts onto a beautiful square where we stopped for a delicious lunch of ceviche, creole-style fish filet and fried plantains.
After lunch, we walked through Plaza Bolivar, the lovely city square dedicated to the hero who led the fight for Colombia’s independence. Then we re-boarded our tour bus and drove through the beach resort area of Bocagrande on our way for some shopping at its high-end jewelry stores.
Almost from the time of its discovery, Cartagena has been associated with emeralds
which soon became the most sought-after jewels of the Spanish Crown. The brilliant green found in Colombian emeralds comes from the high content of chromium oxide in the region’s rich soil, which makes them unique in the world. Their composition also makes them ideal for cutting, which explains why there are so many jewelry stores, emerald cutters and gemologists in Cartagena.
We were tempted by the lovely and expensive green stones, but gave them a pass in favour of some locally made replicas of pre-Columbian jewelry, the originals of which can be found in the city’s gold museum. They weren’t quite as dazzling as the emeralds favoured by Spanish kings, but as we made our way back to our ship for our sail-away to Key West, Gail convinced me that the money she had just saved me was probably enough to pay for our next cruise!