Cartagena de Indias is introduced by Lonely Planet as « the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast, a fairy-tale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13km of centuries-old colonial stone walls. Cartagena’s old town is a Unesco World Heritage site – a maze of cobbled alleys, balconies covered in bougainvillea, and massive churches that cast their shadows across plazas.
But then there is the outer town, full of traffic, the working class, and a chaotic nature that can leave you dazed and confused in minutes. It is here that Cartagena becomes a typical workhorse South American city. To the south, the peninsula of Bocagrande – Cartagena’s Miami Beach – is where fashionable cartagenos sip coffee in trendy cafes, dine in glossy restaurants and live in the upscale luxury condos that line the area like guardians to a New World.
Cartagena is a place to drop all sightseeing routines. Instead, just stroll through the old town day and night. Soak up the sensual atmosphere, pausing to ward off the brutal heat and humidity in one of the city’s many open-air cafes »
Well, unbathing is inevitable if you go to Columbia, but you can find plenty of others things to do… let’s find out together the perfect things to do if you spend two weeks in Cartagena !
1.Visit the Convento de la Popa.
Established in 1607, it was once the site of a devil-worshiping and goat sacrifices by runaway slaves. It was occupied by George Washington’s brother Lawrence Washington’s troops during Admiral Vernon’s seige of Cartagena in 1741. There is a small chapel with photographs commemorating the Pope’s visit to the convent in the 1980’s. The 360 degree view is astounding, and the architecture inside absolutely beautiful. The Convento de la Popa is Cartagena’s number 1 tourist attraction. Allow 2 hours.
2.Bathe in the Volcán de Totumo, or nearby Arboletes.
These are mud volcanoes. Totumo looks like it jumped straight out of the set of a Steven Spielberg movie, and is the tallest mud volcano in the world. Time: half a day.
3.Visit Teatro Heredia.
This stunning theatre, designed by Luis Felipe Jaspe, rivals any in the world for its ornate gold-leaf interior, and leaves the more modern Centro de Convenciones for dead. Notice the unique Cartagena main stage curtain. Try especially to see anything by the local ballet company. Tickets can be bought from early afternoon at the theatre entrance. Time: one evening.
4.Try and see a corralejas…but only if you aren’t squeamish.
The bulls aren’t killed, but the humans who torment them sometimes are, accompanied by live music and watched by crowds drinking rum and aguardiente. They are held in the bullring on the outskirts of Cartagena, on the road to Turbaco (you can’t miss it from the road – its the bullring made of reddish-brown bricks alongisde the main football stadium). They are also held in Arjona and surrounding towns at different times of the year, according to the patron saints; days. The ring is ten minutes by taxi from Centro or 20 minutes by bus. Catch any bus marked Turbaco, Turbana or Arjona. Time: they usually run from midday to sundown, followed by the Fandango dance.
5.Visit the fort at Bocachica.
This strategic fort saw a lot of action, is surrounded by a moat and is riddled with tunnels that are inhabited by bats. There was once a thick chain that ran under thge water across the bay entrance, to stop any pirate ships from entering. Hidden underwater escolleras, or breakwaters were built for the same reason.You can get there in a water-taxi that leaves from the Muelle de Pegasos, the wharf in front of the clock-tower for around US$6…though you must bargain hard. The boats usually stop at a lot of smaller fishing villages en route. There are several restaurants in the nearby village where you can buy drinks and food. Allow three quarters of a day.
6.Pop inside the Cathedral de San Pedro Claver.
Dating from 1575, the building had to be rebuilt after Sir Francis Drake partially destroyed it in 1586. San Pedro was a Spanish Jesuit who baptised hundreds of thousands of African slaves. The room where he lived the last of his days can be seen adjoining the cathedral, along with the Saint’s actual bones, encased in a glass coffin under the main altar. Look for the beautiful stained-glass window and the dramatic series of paintings that depict his life, specially commissioned to inform the illiterate. Time 2 hours.
7.Be scared out of your wits in The Palacio de Inquisicion.
Facing Plaza Bolivar, this large building displays Indigenous, Colonial and post-independence exhibits. The Palacio also houses the Cartagena Historical Archives. Be sure to see the rack in the Spanish Inquisitions Torture Chamber. (note; the Palacio closed in Jan 2002 for a period of restoration, check to see if it open)Time 2 hours.
8.Take a stroll and a seat in Plaza Bolivar.
Recently restored at great cost, it once again is a pleasant place to sit and admire the massive statue of Simon Bolivar made in Germany, or the many street performers who wander through. The Palacio de Inquisition faces this plaza. Time: one hour.
9.Visit the Museo Naval.
Situated behind the San Pedro Cathedral, adjacent to the Santa Teresa Hotel. Time 1 hour.
10.Step aboard the tall ship Gloria.
This historic sailing ship can be toured free of charge simply by asking at the Colombian Naval Base in Bocagrande.
11.Explore Las Bovedas. These former dungeons now house varied stores of Colombian souvenirs. There are more than a dozen of them and no two are the same. Just the place to go to buy a Costeña doll or Guajiran hammock.
12.Have a drink in Plaza Santo Domingo on a Friday or Saturday night.
Once a place where slaves were auctioned off, the plaza is the home to Botero’s `gordita (the fat lady statue), Pacos, and the beautiful Santo Domingo Church.
13.Equally picturesque is Plaza San Diego,
also once an auction area for slaves. It is surrounded by many restaurants and the beautiful Hotel Santa Clara, just a short walk away from Gabriel Garcia Marquez post-modern residence.
14.Visit Cartagen’s Gold Museum, (Museo de Oro).
It is situated facing Plaza Bolivar, opposite the Palacio de Inquisicion, marked by a large sign. It also houses pre-Columbian antiquites. Open Tues-Fri 8-12 and 2-6pm, Saturdays 9-5pm, closed Sun-Mon. (beware of imitators: at least one nearby jewellery shop has a large poster saying Museo de Oro beside its entrance, but if you read the small print you will see that the poster is for the Bogota Museo de Oro).
15.Climb and explore San Felipe de Barajas.
This massive fort took years to build and was used by Don Blas to thwart Vernon’s attack of 1741. Entry is free on the last Sunday of each month (other days US$3). Half a day.
16.Wander Manga’s Cementerio de la Cruz.
If you are interested in ornate old graves, this is just the place to be. The many gravediggers who work there would be happy to tell you the history behind the graves, though none speak English. Time: 2 hours
17.Catch a ride on a horse-drawn carriage.
The men who drive these coaches are very knowledgeable about Cartagena history, but don’t speak English. Its probably better to go at night when the traffic is not so hectic, and the coach drivers use candles inside glass lanterns to illuminate the path ahead. They can be hailed in many parts of Centro and Bocagrande. Rates are negotiable, depending on the time taken, but it is a good idea to agree on the price and route before you climb aboard.
18.Drink, sing and dance the night away on a Chiva tour.
These tours are popular with both Colombian and foreign tourists. The tours include live music, unlimited rum and Coca-Cola, some snacks, a stop at Las Bovedas, and free entry and one complimentary drink at the La Escollera disco in Bocagrande. The bus will usually wait for an hour before taking you back to your hotel, or you can party on in the disco till the wee hours.
19.Walk down Calle Arsenal on a Friday or Saturday night.
This street is crammed with bars and discos, and really starts to come alive after 11pm. Parallel Calle Arsenal has many bars too, but is a little more sedate.
20.Check out the Casa Roman.
A unique and very colourful arabesque building. To view it just continue down the street that runs off to the left of the Convention Centre, Calle Larga, cross the bridge, and keep walking for a block or two, looking to the left. It is adjacent the Colegio Montessori. If you walk, allow 2 hours. Not open to the public, but well worth the walk, you can take photographs through the picket fence.
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