Falling in Love with Cartagena, City of Romance
Cartagena (pronounced with a Spanish h-Cartahe-ny-a) loves its title, the City of Romance.
Long before the classic film, ‘Romancing the Stone’ immortalized Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in an action-packed romantic adventure in the Colombian countryside (though filming took place in Mexico) the city has claimed to enchant couples to fall in love.
The beautiful 16th century city protects and celebrates its ancient palaces, convents and monasteries inside a historic walled Old Town. The city encircles squares, cobblestone streets and lovingly restored Colonial architecture. Named after Cartagena in Spain, the city gained independence in 1811 and thanks to impressive monuments and an abundance of historic sites, the city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Located on a picturesque bay on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, a tropical climate produces gentle breezes and temperate weather all year round.
Disembarking from a Norwegian Cruise Line ship at the terminal on Manga Island, a pathway overflowing with bougainvillea winds beside the dockside and leads through Harbor Zoo, complete with a noisy welcoming committee of pink flamingoes, parrots, peacocks and spider faced monkeys.
Cartagena, a fishing village, is renowned for its excellent beaches, historic Old Town and Spanish colonial architecture.
Notwithstanding its past dangerous reputation, a legacy of the criminal gangs and drug cartels who had taken over the country, these days it is claimed to be one of the safest locations in Colombia.
Bocagrande beach resembles a mini version of Rio’s Copacabana with its jumble of high rises, chain hotels, uneven sidewalks, fancy shopping malls and casual beach cafes.
La Boquilla beach is prettier and despite high levels of new construction and down-market vendors, attracts wealthy local Colombians.
Cartagena, the ancient capital of Colombia, stands majestically on the coast 400 miles north of Bogota, the present day capital. Caribbean color and a tropical climate mixed with a European heritage produces a cultural vibrancy that bursts from every street of the city and its fine museums, iconic fortresses and impressive monuments.
Flower decked squares and charming balconies celebrate the colonial architecture of the Monumento Torre de Reloj and showcase the famous four-sided clock at Clock Tower Gate, a main entrance to the historical part of Cartagena.
In the Plaza Santa Domingo, a spectacular bronze statue of a voluptuous naked lady, entitled ‘La Gordita Gertrudis’ by internationally acclaimed Colombian sculptor Botero, attracts much attention.
Inside Plaza Santo Domingo, a bustling thoroughfare named after the Church of Santo Domingo, quiet places of sanctuary can still be found. Built in typical 18th century colonial style, this building functioned as the court of the Holy Office, as well as jail and torture chambers during the time of the Inquisition.
The building’s outstanding features include its balconies and main entrance, created in the baroque style, while the equipment used for torture is also an impressive (albeit gross) ‘attraction.’
Plaza de la Aduana, the largest square in the Walled Town, is crowned by a statue of Christopher Columbus.
The city revels in its strange and intriguing history and tourists are encouraged to visit the old slave markets and worship at the church of the Patron Saint of Slaves, Saint Peter Claver, the first black saint.
By climbing the walls of the city it is possible to enjoy breathtaking scenery out to sea and a bird’s-eye view of the area’s magnificent buildings.
Architectural masterpieces, the fortress Castillo San Felipe de Borgas, was built in the 17th century on the Hill of San Lazaro to deter pirates and foreign armies.
The Convent de Santa Cruz de la Papa, was built on the highest hill in the city by Augustinian monks in the 16th century. The buiding and courtyard have been lovingly restored and preserved.
Cartagena’s wealth is built on emeralds, platinum, oil and timber, and of course, coffee. The past is still gloriously alive and revered.
The legendary Museo de Oro – Museum of Gold – is to be found in Plaza de Boliva nestled in a tranquil flower filled grotto with white marble statues. Exhibits include a collection of gold pieces made by the indigenous population known as the Zenú, who inhabited the region prior to the arrival of the Spanish colonizers. Jewelry here features nose rings and earrings as well as carved utensils and pottery.
The colonial part of the city stands proudly behind historic walls untouched by the centuries that have passed since their creation.
The Spanish colonial houses – many of them 400 years old and painted in vibrant colors — bear testament to an enduring legacy of religion, culture, government and wealth.
Cartagena, is acknowledged as The Emerald Capital of the world and sparkling emporiums entice visitors to buy the precious stones.
One of the most prestigious and reputable jewelry stores in town offers a Museum of Emerald Mining and a mock-up of a working mine complete with pick wielding miners.
Mountains of emeralds in every shade from palest mint to deepest forest green are on sale.
But, Buyer Beware. Urban myth has it that cruise passengers have returned from shopping expeditions to the Emerald City, flashing emeralds that turned out to be cut and polished from the green glass of Heineken beer bottles!
No such problems of authenticity in the Museo de Arte Moderno. A grand gallery housed in a 17thcentury customs house and 19th-century warehouse.
Home to a permanent collection of Latin American art, the museum displays the spectacular ‘Panoramica de Cartagena’ painted by Colombian artist Enrique Grau. He also painted the ceiling fresco depicting the nine Muses of the Arts and a magical surrealist stage curtain in the Teatro Adolfo Mejia which opened in 1905.
The Teatro still hosts glittering events, stage productions, film premiers and classical music festivals.
Art is everywhere in the city, even the wooden framed chiva buses are decorated with landscapes of Cartagena. Once used as public transport, now tour buses, what the chivas lack in comfort they make up for in enthusiasm as they bump and grind their passengers along potholed streets.
Artesian shops and galleries line the route with intuit vendors in traditional yellow, blue and red dresses selling Colombian made bags, scarves and shoes all in joyful garish colors: rainbow hued beaded jewelry, leather goods, papier mache masks and miniature paintings of local scenes.
The main artists’ quarter of Getsemani is covered in street art, murals and graffiti and the whole neighborhood is alive with the creative endeavor of painters, poets and writers. At sunset the narrow streets transform into a fashionable nightlife of fine dining restaurants, cafes where rumba is danced all night long and live music venues.
Sunset is also the time when locals and visitors flock to the outdoor restaurants and bars high on the city walls overlooking the sea to celebrate the end of another day and be serenaded as they stroll in the moonlight.
Carthaginians know their City of Romance is enchanted. It casts its spell and falling in love is almost guaranteed, if only with the City.