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A Walking Tour of Cartagena’s Old City

A Walking Tour of Cartagena’s Old City

On our cruise of the Panama Canal, we stopped in the beautiful South American port of Cartagena, Colombia.

We were all excited to visit Cartagena, known as the “Jewel of the Indies”, and the only South American stop on our itinerary. Perusing the shore excursions offered by both Princess Cruise Line and independent tour companies, we all agree that we wanted to do a walking tour of the Old City, and of course some shopping!

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Priced at $34.95 per person, the “Old City Walking Tour & Las Bovedas” offered through Princess was one of the most affordable tour options available. It featured all of the things that we wanted to do, so it was an easy choice! (Note: the stops on the tour that Princess offers have recently changed, so it’s slightly different than the one we took.)

To the city!

We met our group of about 20 people and our tour guide to board the coach. We were very thankful for the air conditioning on board because it was super hot and sunny.

On the way to our first stop, we drove through the Manga neighborhood, arriving at the San Felipe de Barajas fort. As soon as we exited the bus, we saw several women wearing brightly colored dresses with fruit-covered hats: Las Palenqueras!

The history of how these fruit sellers came to symbolize Cartagena is really quite fascinating. The village of San Basilio de Palenque, an hour-and-a-half outside of modern Cartagena, was formed by escaped slaves in the 15th century. It became the first free settlement of former African slaves in the Americas in 1691.

Having their freedom but not much in the way of resources to survive, many of the villagers capitalized on the one thing they had in abundance: fruit. Many began making the daily trek on foot to Cartagena to sell to the inhabitants of the city.

Today, the Palenqueras make most of their money from tourist photos, but you can still purchase their fruit as well.

Be careful of funny math

The ladies greeted the newly-arrived tourists and offered to pose for pictures. Our fruit lady told us that a picture would be $2, so Mr. SBC and I each had one photo snapped with her. Somehow that turned into $10 (must be some weird math). Just be warned that they may try to scam you.

A Walking Tour of Cartagena's Old City
Mr. SBC and his new Palenquera friend

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

The fort itself was an impressive structure, located on a hill not too far from where the coach stopped. We only had time for a few pictures of the fort on our tour, but I did notice people climbing the sloped walkways leading into the fort. If we visit Cartagena again, I’d like to explore this fortress.

Built in 1536 and expanded in 1657, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas was constructed on the Hill of San Lázaro to provide protection for the city from land or sea attacks.

A Walking Tour of Cartagena's Old City
The fort perched atop the Hill of San Lázaro

In 1984, the fort was listed by UNESCO, along with the Old City of Cartagena, as a World Heritage Site. A visit to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is also included as part of several longer guided tours, including the six-hour Cartagena City Full Day Tour. (This is not the tour we took, but it includes many of the sights that we saw, plus tickets to the fort.).

We enter the Old City

Back on the coach, we continued toward the Old City, taking in the gorgeous colonial architecture. Many of the buildings reminded me of the Western Mediterranean, and the bougainvillea draping from nearly every window added to the European feel.

The center of Cartagena is surrounded by seven miles of stone walls constructed to defend the city from pirate attacks. We parked just outside of the city walls near La Puerta Del Reloj (The Clock Gate).

A Walking Tour of Cartagena's Old City

La Puerta Del Reloj, the main entrance to the Old City

The Naval Museum and…dancing?

Our first stop inside the walls of the Old City was the Naval Museum of the Caribbean. We were ushered through part of the museum, and given a short time to look at some of the displays, including dioramas of battles and of the fort that we had just visited.

Almost all of the signage is only in Spanish, and much of it is very detailed, so non-Spanish speakers should hire a guide to get the most out of this museum. I don’t think our guide was knowledgeable about naval history, as this was the only stop on our tour where she didn’t narrate what we were seeing.

After a short time in part of the museum, we were brought to a small auditorium to watch a dance show. I had no idea that this would be part of our tour, and I’m still baffled as to why we were watching a dance show in a naval museum.

A group of college-aged men and women, definitely not professionals, danced for about 20 minutes to lively music. There was not only zero explanation of the context, but there was also no introduction of who the dancers were or what kind of dances they were performing. It was very strange.

A Walking Tour of Cartagena's Old City
I don’t think these folks have anything to do with the Navy.

I found out later that the naval museum is quite a bit larger than just the small part we were shown. There’s apparently an entire floor that we skipped, that features interactive displays. If you’re interested in military history and are fluent in Spanish (or hire a knowledgeable guide), you might want to set aside an hour or two to explore.

Individual tickets are 6000 pesos ($2 USD) for adults and 3000 pesos (1 USD) for children. English-speaking guides may be hired at the museum for $12 USD. The museum is open daily from 9 AM to 7 PM.

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The Apostle of the West Indies

We stopped at San Pedro Claver Plaza, which consists of a church, cloister, and museum.

San Pedro Claver was a Spanish Jesuit priest and missionary. Born in 1580 in Verdú, Catalonia, Spain, San Pedro arrived in Cartagena in 1610 to begin his missionary work. He was so disturbed by the treatment that he witnessed of the African slaves who had been brought to the colony, that he devoted his life to working for better conditions for them.

San Pedro is the patron saint of Colombia, and the country’s Human Rights Day, September 9, was declared in his honor.

A Walking Tour of Cartagena's Old City
This 2001 bronze of San Pedro Claver helping an Angolan slave was sculpted by Colombian artist Enrique Grau.

We headed through the peaceful cloister to the museum, appreciating the cool shade. As we were pressed for time on this short tour, we were unable to spend a lot of time inside. Our guide gave us a brief overview as we walked through the small museum dedicated to the life and ministry of San Pedro, who lived and died in this complex of buidings. The museum also houses a small collection of paintings and religious art from the early history of the city.

Continuing on to the church, our guide told us that San Pedro’s bones are on display in the front of the church, behind one of the altars. As church services were being conducted when we were ushered through the building, we were unable to spend much time looking at the architecture. We obviously couldn’t make our way to the front of the church to visit his resting place, but it’s allowed when there are no services. (If you would like to see his resting place, I found a picture here. Don’t click if you’re scared of bones!

If you would like to visit independently, the sanctuary is open Monday through Friday, 8-6, and 8-5 on the weekend. Tickets are 13,000 pesos (a little over $4 USD).

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Our next stop was the Inquisition Museum (Museo Historico de Cartagena de Indias). Much of the early history of Cartagena was shaped by the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1478 and wasn’t officially abolished until 1834. So, we thought that a visit to this small museum would be key to our understanding of the city.

The museum is housed in the Palacio de la Inquisición, which was the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Cartagena. It’s considered to be one of the finest buildings in the city, and is constructed in the Spanish Colonial style with baroque elements. Architecture buffs should check it out, even if you don’t choose to go inside.

The museum used to house many instruments of torture, but most of these were removed in 2015 before Pope Francis visited. What remains is very sparse, and there are definitely not enough exhibits and information to justify spending a long time inside.

This museum is best visited with a guide, unless you have a good understanding of Spanish. Most of the signs explaining the exhibits are in Spanish, although there are English translations of some things. Our guide was able to give us a narrated tour, so we were able to move much faster than we would if we were stopping to read every sign.

One of the fascinating things that she shared with our group was that for a time, the women of the city were weighed against a stone that was supposed to be the “correct weight” for adult females. Women who weighed less than the stone would be accused of witchcraft!

If you do choose to visit on your own, tickets are 20,000 pesos (a little over $6 USD). If you have cellular data (which most foreign tourists do not), you can download an app that can serve as a guide.

A little free time

Despite our rushed pace, we were given a short period in which we could explore on our own. We wandered for a bit in the square, until my daughter spotted a street vendor selling empanadas. Having volunteered for a summer in Belize, she considers herself a worthy judge of this snack. She declared that it was the best empanada she’d ever eaten. I wasn’t hungry, but I’ll take her word for it.

A Walking Tour of Cartagena's Old City
The streets of the Old City were crowded, but very beautiful!

Last stop: shopping!

The last place we went on our tour was to visit Las Bovedas (The Vaults), a shopping area housed in an eighteenth-century former munitions storehouse. The building was the last to be constructed in the Old City, and rumor has it that it was used as a prison during the Colombian Civil War.

The building itself makes for a very interesting looking shopping center, with its 47 archways and 23 domes. The coach dropped us right in front, and we were told we had 20 minutes for our shopping and to use the public restroom if we needed to.

I had a mission (I wanted to find some simple emerald studs, as Colombia is known for its emeralds), so I skipped the restroom break. I later heard some of our group complaining that they had missed the shopping because there was only one restroom and a long line.

My daughter has a tradition of choosing a piece of local art, usually a watercolor, by a local artist to remember her trip. I found a jewelry store right at the entrance, and she poked around, looking at the unframed pieces by local artists they also had for sale.

The prices for the jewelry didn’t seem like an amazing bargain, but they did have an enormous selection, so I was able to choose exactly what I wanted. The saleswoman was open to a little haggling on the price, and I found a pair that I loved, set in sterling, for a reasonable cost.

My daughter was torn between two paintings by the same artist, but I had told her that she had to pick just one. Another passing salesperson mentioned that the two pieces complement each other, and she offered to give us a generous discount if we bought both.

Purchases in hand, we made it back to the coach with thirty seconds to spare! If you visit Las Bovedas looking for souvenirs, be sure that you have enough time to look around. We barely scratched the surface in our short trip there. Try to bargain on price; this is a tourist destination, so prices are a little inflated.

Back to the pier

We still had a couple of hours before we had to reboard our ship, so not really enough time to do something else in Cartagena on our own. (Sailaway was early, at 3 PM, so we could reach the Panama Canal by 6 the next morning). There was a large souvenir market set up at the pier, so we decided to investigate it before we called it a day.

Most of the offerings were on the junky side, and some of the vendors were a little aggressive, so we headed back on board to have lunch.

What did we think of our visit to Cartagena?

  • I had heard that Colombia was a dangerous place to visit, but we felt very safe in Cartagena. It’s known as one of the safest cities in Colombia. Just as in any city, use common sense and don’t make yourself a target.
  • Our tour was too short. At $34.95, it was a bargain, considering all of the stops that we made. But we felt very rushed at all of the sites we visited. I would have gladly paid more for a longer tour to have more time at each stop.
  • Our guide was knowledgeable about a lot of Cartagena’s history, including San Pedro Claver’s impact on the people and the horrors of the Inquisition. I would have liked more narration at the Naval Museum.
  • The dancing was a waste of time (and I love dancing). A better option would have been the folkloric dancing show at the Heredia Theater, by a professional dance troupe. This show was offered by several other group tours, and we heard from fellow passengers that it was fantastic.
  • I’d love to go back and spend more time in Cartagena. We only had a short time, and there’s so much more to do and see in this lively city.

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Have you visited Cartagena? What did you think of the Jewel of the Indies? Let me know in the comments below!


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Georgina

Friday 6th of March 2020

What a beautiful, colourful city in the Caribbean Coast of Colombia. I would love to visit this city if I ever get to be in that part of the world, and not too bad for $34.95!

Carrie Ann

Saturday 7th of March 2020

Cartagena is just gorgeous - hope you're able to see it for yourself!

Angela

Thursday 27th of February 2020

South America is on mine and hubby's wish list. Once he retires we are planning on spending 3 months travelling around it. Cartagena looks like a great place to explore. We will add it to our list.

Carrie Ann

Saturday 29th of February 2020

Angela, that sounds like it could be an amazing trip! I highly recommend a visit to Cartagena if you can add it to your itinerary.

Lisa Dorenfest

Wednesday 26th of February 2020

Colombia is definitely one of my favorite countries on the face of the earth and you’ve captured Cartagena beautifully. We were lucky to visit in the off-season, so we missed that sea of humanity that you witnessed on the streets. I loved your framing of the San Pedro statue! Brought out the emotions of the backstory so beautifully. I do hope you get back for another visit to explore Cartagena more deeply and visit the interior of the country.

Carrie Ann

Saturday 29th of February 2020

Thanks so much, Lisa! Cartagena is so lovely, and I'd love to go back. Hopefully I'll have time to see more of Colombia as well. A visit during the off-season is a great idea to avoid the crowds!

Corinne

Tuesday 4th of February 2020

I have yet to make it to Colombia, so I really appreciate your advice. It seems you were able to see quite a bit on your one day excursion, but like you, I would love to have more time in a place. The fortress and Spanish Inquisition Museum sounded fascinating. After reading this, I'm adding a few things to my Cartagena list. Thanks.

Carrie Ann

Friday 7th of February 2020

I hope you get to spend some time in Cartagena. I know I'm looking forward to getting back there!

Wendy Lee

Wednesday 22nd of January 2020

Cartagena looks like a beautiful city. I haven't been to Columbia, but when I do I would certainly make this one of our stops. Thanks for all the great information about your tour.

Carrie Ann

Thursday 23rd of January 2020

Thanks for reading! Cartagena was so pretty, and I'm itching to go back and spend more time there.