Cartagena, Colombia 2020

Cartagena or Cartagena de Indias, as it is also called, is the capital of the department of Bolívar, in the South American country of Colombia. With a population of approximately 1,079,000, it is the second largest city in the region and the fifth in the country. The whole of Cartagena is a bustling metropolis, but the heart, history and global intrigue comes mostly from the walled city, or old town, which is instantly recognizable by the surrounding stone fortress.

Geography and climate of Cartagena

Aerial view of Cartagena, Colombia.

Cartagena is located in northern Colombia, on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. It is sandwiched between the Central American country of Panama to the west and the neighboring South American country of Venezuela to the southeast. The climate is tropical, oscillating between a wet and dry period. The rainy season is between May and June, then from October to November. It is exceptionally dry between January and March. The average annual temperature is a pleasant 83 degrees Fahrenheit, ranging from a low of 75 degrees to a high of 89.

History of Cartagena

Cartagena, streets of Colombia
The streets of Cartagena lined with old buildings.

Cartagena was founded as a major port for the Spanish colony in the early 16th century. It therefore has a colorful and complicated but globally celebrated history. For starters, the area has gone through several names over a short period of time. In 1501, Spanish explorers first named the site ‘Bahia de Baru‘ (Baie de Baru), changing it soon after to ‘Bahia of Cartagena,’ to reflect the resemblance to Cartagena, Spain. In 1533, the Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia officially founded the town, giving it the name ‘Cartagena from Poniente‘ (West Cartagena), which was later changed to its current official designation, ‘Cartagena de Indias‘ (Cartagena de Indias).

Shortly after its establishment, Cartagena’s population began to explode as the site solidified itself as a major trading post. The port mainly facilitated the export of ransacked Peruvian money to Spain and the import of enslaved Africans under the asiento system (i.e. trading rights granted by Spain to external intermediaries). The city’s wealth led to repeated pirate attacks in the mid to late 16th century. These episodes provided the impetus for the construction of the city wall, which was Spain’s largest fortification project on the entire continent.

In 1650 the Canal del Dique was also built, which connected the bay of Cartagena with the Magdalena River (i.e. the largest in Colombia). This firmly established Cartagena as Spain’s most important outpost in South America.

Cartagena changed hands a few times in the early 1800s, alternating between Spanish rule and the emboldened Colombian people, only to be reconquered again by the Spanish. In 1821, Simón Bolívar helped liberate the people of Cartagena permanently from Spanish invaders.

In 1984, Cartagena was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the walled city is a melting pot of eclectic cultures and enthusiastic tourists, all of whom gather to soak up centuries of rugged history.

Population and Economy of Cartagena

Cartagena’s million people are split fairly evenly between male and female and across the ethnographic spectrum of Black, White, and Mestizo, or Mulatto/Mestizo (Note: terminology differs by region and source) . Due to its history with the Spanish slave trade, Cartagena’s modern population can generally be described as Afro-Caribbean. Christianity (mainly Roman Catholic) is the dominant religion.

Cartagena’s economy relies heavily on tourism and hospitality. More people visit Cartagena than any other Colombian city. The Canal del Dique is still heavily used and ensures that Cartagena remains an important hub for commerce.

Visit Cartagena

Rafael Nunez International Airport (CTG) is located just north of the city, which offers tourists the opportunity to fly directly to Cartagena. Other major airports nearby include Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Medellin. Most visitors will focus their attention on the Old Town, as the 8-mile city wall offers plenty of appeal within its dense circumference. Here are a few attractions to get you started.

Horse-drawn carriage from Cartagena
Horse-drawn carriage in the streets of Cartagena. Editorial credit: Chrispictures /

1. Take a walk or ride a horse-drawn carriage around town. The colorful colonial architecture, cobblestone lanes lined with flowers, the smell of tantalizing cuisine, formal and urban art exhibits, street performances and the energy of the global community will immerse your senses in a state of reverie. . As with any popular destination, there are tourist traps to watch out for. A simple “No, gracias” will help you to continue exploring unhindered.

2. Once you’ve had a wandering overview, try a formal walking tour to better understand the ins and outs of the area. There’s an abundance of street art that you couldn’t catch without a local expert. Bookworms might also want to join Gabriel García Márquez’s afternoon tour, exploring the many settings that inspired some of his most acclaimed novels.

The people of Cartagena
Beautiful fruit sellers in Cartagena. Editorial credit: Jacek Sledzinski /

3. Then, keep the momentum going with a tour of the famous Stone Wall and watch a picturesque sunset at Café del Mar, which overlooks the Caribbean Sea. You’ll be in good company, so be sure to arrive early. Once the sun goes down, vibrant nightlife will flood the city.

4. The next day you might want to delve into the history outside the walls. Just east of the old town is the important fortress of Castillo de San Felipe. Wear a good pair of walking shoes and be sure to pack water and sunscreen.

Baru Beach.  Paradise just an hour by car from Cartagena.
Baru beach near Cartagena.

5. Finally, you can decide to venture to some of the neighboring islands of Isla Tierra Bomba, Isla Múcura, Isla Barú and the protected archipelago of Islas del Rosario. Visiting these tropical islands will take a bit more time and planning, but it will be worth the taste of paradise outside the city.

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