Hotels in Cartagena, Colombia
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Cartagena – A Rich Colonial Treasure Trove
Once a magnet for ravaging pirates, looters and rival colonial fleets, the lavish Spanish port of Cartagena now attracts cruises packed full of tourists. These days you can clamber over the ancient city walls and impregnable fortress in peace. You’ll also enjoy a warm, friendly welcome as you amble through the cobbled streets and admire the vibrant colonial buildings of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most popular visitor destination in Colombia, Cartagena, is one of the most beautiful cities in Latin America, a veritable trove of architectural gems that you will want to plunder again and again.
A Living Colonial Museum
Cartagena, the fifth-largest city in Colombia with around a million citizens, may at first sight look like a typical chaotic South American urban sprawl. However, tourists are drawn predominantly to one part – its beautiful old town thanks to its impeccably preserved colonial heritage. This is, not surprisingly, where most of the best hotels in Cartagena are found.
The port was founded by the Spanish in 1533 and named after Cartagena in mainland Spain and went on to play a central role in the Spanish Empire. Trading in slaves as well as precious metals such as gold and silver, Cartagena flourished. As a consequence, it attracted the unwanted attention of marauding Caribbean pirates, who would regularly raid and loot it. The city was also coveted by the French and English, going on to be seized by Sir Francis Drake in 1585. Drake and his men set sail after just two months with a handsome ransom and plenty of booty; leaving a ransacked town behind. It was only after this wake-up call that the Spanish built defences of any consequence. Work started on their famous city walls Las Murallas and the fortress Castillode San Felipe de Barajas was completed in the 17th century. This made Cartagena an impregnable stronghold, and enabled it to hold off a colossal sea assault by British and Colonial American troops in 1741. The 13 kilometres of ramparts, however, were only finished in 1796. Just 25 years later the Spanish were expelled.
Nowadays you can clamber over the immaculately preserved city walls, pretty much as they looked two centuries ago. The cobbled streets, packed with colourful colonial houses and adorned with the vivid hue of Bougainvillea seem to contain ancient churches, monasteries, plazas and palaces around every corner. The old town of Cartagena is a delightful place to stay, perhaps in a quaint boutique or upscale hotel or traditional inn with an overhanging balcony or charming patio.
Just wandering around the town, lined with lovely shops and restaurants, is a pleasant enough experience in itself. Visitors usually feel pretty safe here, despite the hordes of street vendors. You will be inundated with requests to purchase souvenirs, but for the most part they are respectful and will leave you in peace if you refuse their advances.
The must-see attraction in Cartagena is the impressive fortress, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, where you’ll get some stunning views over the city and port that it protects. The most fun part of the visit is exploring its complex network of eerie tunnels, which so helped communication when the castle was under attack.
It may surprise you though to find out that the fort isn’t located on the highest point in the city. For even more outstanding views you’ll need to visit Convento de la Popa on top of a 150-metre-high hill. The convent, with a beautiful cloister, contains an image of the Virgen de la Candelaria and a harrowing statue of a speared priest Padre Alonso Garcia de Paredes.
Other sights in the town include the bright yellow 16th-century cathedral, partially destroyed by Sir Francis Drake’s Canons, and the 17th-century Convento de San Pedro Claver. The convent was named after a Spanish monk, who famously ministered to African slaves. His remains are kept in a glass coffin in the alter along with his skull, clearly visible.
The other unmissable ‘attraction’ is The Palacio de la Inquisicion, shining light on a dark chapter of Cartagena’s past – The Inquisition. There are many blood-curdling instruments of torture on display here that were used to eradicate heresies, such as witchcraft, magic and blasphemy.
Outside the Old Town
The walled old town, however, isn’t the only desirable district to stay in Cartagena. The chic Peninsula of Bocagrande offers a selection of luxury hotels and condominiums and is filled with fashionable upscale cafes, boutiques, restaurants – and a beach.
The best beaches though are outside of Cartagena. One of the most popular being the white sands and mangroves of Playa Blanca on Isla Baru. Isla Baru, which also hosts the Parque Nacional Natural Corales, can be easily accessed by bus and ferry or by boat. The coral reef around here and the Islas del Rosario is great for diving or snorkelling.
Another popular place to relax is the Volcan del Totumo, a mud volcano 45 kilometres north east of Cartagena, where you can wallow in thick mud-baths and bathe in a lagoon.
After you’ve captured the abundant treasures on show in Cartagena on camera and sheltered in one of its charming inns or hotels, you will certainly depart for home with a stash of souvenirs and a wealth of golden memories.
Price rangefrom S$14to S$267,641
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