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General travel info

Cartagena Hotels

Cartagena crash course

Because of the beauty of this colonial city, Cartagena (officially called Cartagene de Indias) is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site, and thought by many to be a magical and fascinating place to visit. It's unuaual lay-out makes it so appealing, with a man made land bridge connecting the mailand to the two island protecting the harbour. One of the islands is natural, the other was formed by the earth removed to build the Dique Canal.

UNESCO World Heritage site
UNESCO World Heritage site
Spanish conquistadors founded it for its ideal location as the main port connecting the Caribbean to inland Colombia by a crude jungle canal 114 km. long, the Dique Canal, used to this day. Who really knows what contraban moves through similar routes, and on perpendicular trails leading to Panama. While Europeans and
Dique Canal
Dique Canal
their personal goods entered the region through Cartagena; gold, silver, and other minerals plus animals and plants, and Indian handicrafts made their way from the heart of western Colombia back to Europe. On numerous occasions, pirates saw the wealth being exported out, and looted the city. As a result, a walled fort taking 250 years in stages to complete grew to secure both the valuable merchandise being exported and the lucrative slave trade.

Cartagena today is full of beautifully restored buildings and residences, some great attractive plazas, and a beautiful fortress-covered water front that softly glows in the setting sun, a great place to discover, the tropical ambiance and sense the unusual history that Cartagena has witnessed. Cartagena has become a city known for hosting several international conventions and conferences. The Music Festival featuring classical musicians from around the globe occurs in the first two weeks of January each year. Then the South American extension of the Hay Literary Festival held in the UK takes place in Cartgena near the last of January each year. It is a place to celebrate ideas, share histories, and reflect on topics such as love, death, politics, religion, war, family and all things that make up our interesting lives. Venues are places as diverse as in theatres, bars, and on the streets from sunny breakfast to a balmy warm night under the lights and stars.

Faces from the Cartagena music festival
Faces from the Cartagena music festival

Though it was one of the two places in the Americas to barter in black slaves, it was also one of the initial places where freed slaves could find safe sanctuary. Today, the ethnic mix of Cartagena reflects this fact.

More tourists visit Cartagena than any other Colombian city. On Colombia's northern coast, it actually faces mostly west over the open Caribbean sea, with the north-east shores of Panama about a hundred and seventy miles to the west and south. Colombians love to visit Cartagena themselves especially during Christmas and Easter. There are two main places that tourists seem to go, first is the old walled city, 'ciudad amurallada', built and fortified during colonial times, filled with classy little restaurants and bars and hotels, and a history nearly half a millenium old. The other area, Bocagrande, is the newly developed strip of towering hotels and condos facing the beach. Also nice to visit is the exclusive neighborhood of Castillogrande, brimming with newly-built condos, a place to take in the sun on a tranquil beach or go for a jog around the laid back area.

Cartagena's history in brief

Named for Carthage, Tunisia, which spurned Cartagena, Spain, Cartagena, Colombia is on a group of marshy islets, near the impressive Rio Magdalena. The marshes were later filled connecting the islands and the coast. In an attempt to connect inland western Colombia to the Caribbean, one of the biggest projects ever done in colonial Latin America is the Dique Canal.

Pedro de Heredia founded Cartagena de Indias in 1533 on an island where an indian village once stood. After a serious fire that leveled the town in 1552, De Heredia made a law that all building constructiobn from that point forward be made of stone. Today this wonderful architecture is still preserved for all to see.

An attack on a galleon
An attack on a galleon

The Indians throughout South America had their riches stolen at an alarming rate, and the port of Cartagena became the principal place to load ships with valuables coming from the Pacific via the Isthmus of Panama, mixed with goods from central Colombia, then on to Puerto Rica or Cuba to fill the last of the boat's holds, before heading across the Atlantic to Spain.

Buccaneers take control
Buccaneers take control

In the early 1600s, the king of Spain granted only Cartagena and Veracruz Mexico the exclusive right to trade in African slaves, while forbidding the same trade using Ameridians.

Certain prominent people became very wealthy, and constructed gorgeous homes. Pirates noticed the wealth and acted, plundering ships laden with gold barely out of site of land. Robert Baal, a Frenchman, successfully launched the first attack against Cartagena itself, surprising the presiding governor in the middle of a banquet, and making off with over three hundred kilos of gold. John Hawkins (1576) and Francis Drake (1586) of England both made off with the city's booty, and the French in 1697 all raided Cartagena.

Sometimes Cartagena won the battle protecting their gold, usually they lost. One time in 1741, Spanish General Basco de Lezo lost an arm, leg and eye, yet rallied the Spanish troops to push back 15,000 English pirates.

Finally Spain decided to do something about it by fortifying the city with huge ramparts constructed in a large part by African slaves, and became the most protected city in South America.

Among the numerous armed conflicts that have marked the city's history, two major dates should be kept in mind. The Battle of Vernon took place in 1741. It was a major battle in the War of Jenkins' Ear, where a sea to land attack against the Spanish was launched by Admiral Edward Vernon. British disorganization, the sturdy fortifications and the humid tropical climate worked against the British and helped the Spanish repel the attack. Later many of Vernon's men got quite ill with yellow fever. In 1811, Cartagena declared independence from Spain, but just four years later Spain retook Cartagena commanded by General Pablo Morillo. More than six
Simon Bolivar
Simon Bolivar
thousand people died in the battle, knocking Cartagensa's population down by a third. Simon Bolivar lead the final successful battle towards independence in 1821. Bolivar had nothing but compliments about Cartagena's ability to fend off the enemy, calling it 'the heroic city'.

The importance of Cartagena fell until the twentieth century when communications improved and an oil pipeline was laid from the Magdalena basin oil fields.

Geography of Cartagena

There are five hills making up Cartagena, dominating the seascape and lifting the city. You can enjoy two main beaches, El Portus and Cala Cortina with countless others in the outskirts. Not a part of the popular Mar Menor beaches, Cabo de Palos and La Manga have great snorkeling opportunities with excellent sea conditions and coral.

Climate

It has a privileged tropical mediterranean climate with the annual average temperature about 68 F, August being the hottest month, January the coldest.

People

Colombia in general has 58% meszitos, 20% whie, 14% mulatto 4% black, and 4% other. Because of the history of slave trading and the emancipation of slaves, Cartagena has a greater percentage of blacks than the rest of the country, and a population closing in on a million people.
Cartagena is made for tourism
Cartagena is made for tourism

Economy of Cartagena

Tourism makes up the lion's share of income generated in Cartagena, but it is quite seasonal. From May to November, you will not see many tourists. Other cottage industries like pepper sauces, coral ornaments, shrimp farming, and emerald jewelry making tend to level out the income stream on an annual basis. Be aware that there are a lot of street vendors selling everything such as be it t-shirts and hats, Cuban cigars, they will be your guide, even prostitutes who are often pimped by taxi drivers. There are a lot of slums around the outskirts of Cartagena. As of today, January 6th, 2008, 1 US Dollar = 2,035.95 Colombian Pesos.

Visiting Cartagena

Entry requirements

Nationals of some countries, including most of Western Europe, the Americas, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, don't need a visa to enter Colombia. It's a good idea to check this before your planned trip, because visa regulations change frequently. All visitors get an entry stamp or print in their passport from DAS (the security police responsible for immigration) upon arrival at any international airport or land border crossing. The stamp says how many days you can stay in the country. The maximum allowed is 90 days, but DAS officials often stamp 60 or just 30 days. Make sure you get an entry stamp or you'll have troubles later. Official money changers and banks will want to see your entry stamp, as will police if there are any problems. When departing the country, if you don't have a stamp you'll also have to pay a fine (around 60.00) and get a salvoconducto from a DAS office. Similarly, make sure you have a departure stamp or there will be trouble the next time around.

You are entitled to a 30-day extension ($25), which can be obtained from DAS in any departmental capital. The new thirty days begins from the end of the visa already stamped in your passport (so there's no need to wait to the last minute).

Getting around

A Chiva bus
A Chiva bus

Taxis are your best bet for getting around Cartagena, as they are frequent, generally safe, quick and inexpensive. It has been recommended to haggle the price before you get in, and if you are a gringo, expect to pay a lot more for the same thing. Never accept the amount the taxi driver tells you. If you don't like the deal, wait. there will be another one along shortly.

Chiva Buses

These are a great fun way to get around and see Cartagena. There are generally informative site seeing tours in the afternoons with stop-offs at the Old City, look-out points, an old monastary, a fort, a coffee factory and a market. The Chiva Party Buses are a great way to see the city at night, and get right into the culture with travelling bands, singling, dancing and clowning around as you travel through some interesting areas of Cartagena.

Places to visit

El Corralito de Piedra (The Little Stone Corral)

This is the historical zone, actually a village of colonial times surrounded and protected from outsiders by huge stone and cement walls, today grey, pitted and weathered. The main phases of construction were in 1556 and 1608.

El Corralito de Piedra
El Corralito de Piedra

There are ancient streets and buildings inside the El Corralito de Piedra with a village square is surrounded by the colonial homes with their colorful wooden balconies, while outside are several cozy little restaurants and bars.

Adjacent is the famous castle San Felipe de Barajas, several bastions and an underwater breakwall used to prevent maritime plundering.

The entire are has undergone massive remodellation, from decorating the narrow streets, to help restoring the architecture to the magnificance of colonial times for all to enjoy.

Two new hotel complexes have encouraged a change of life style from what were once were the living quarters for nuns to an area of fun and celebration day and night. Take a horse drawn carriage ride throughout to imagine reliving the grandeur, but much of the local is better explored on foot from one plaza to the next.
El Laguito
El Laguito

El Laguito

This is the real tourist region of Cartagena where the young set, or young at heart flaunt themselves in skimpy swim wear, bouncing from bar to restaurant to disco to casino, between occasional dips in the refreshing ocean.

Bocagrande

This is the large bay that seen in its entirety displays the view of all al Cartagena around its edges. There are many calm, tranquil areas within.
Rosario Islands
Rosario Islands

The Rosario Islands

Only an hour boatride from the Cartagena Bay are the Rosario Islands, surrounded by crystal clear water and soft sandy beaches. Spend a night to catch the sunset, later the sea of stars and the layed-back island lifestyle. The open-water aquarium has dolphin presentations, different varieties of sharks, giant leatherback turtles, and several varieties of tropical reef life. Because the islands are actually coral formations, you will find excellent snorkeling and diving nearly anywhere. Tour operators offer waterskiing, canoeing, and wind surfing equipment. Or just catch a few rays and cool off in the wonderful salt water.

The city center

Puerta del Reloj
Puerta del Reloj

From the moment you arrive, you will be thrown back in time.

Puerta del Reloj (The Clock Gate)

Representing both Cartagena and Colombia in many cases, the Clock Gate was once the only entrance into the Walled City, from it you take a bridge over the water to Getsemani the Walled Village. Inside the Walled City were the munitions depot and the chapel.

La Plaza de los Coches
La Plaza de los Coches

La Plaza de los Coches

This is the historic place where tousands of slaves were bought and sold, and today stands a monument to the founder of Cartagena, Pedro de Heredia.

Plaza de la Aduana

This is the biggest square in the city, made of wonderful colonial-style architecture, and was once the home office of the mayor and municipality.

BolĂ­var Square

This square is well treed, with a huge sculpture of Simon Bolivar and a lovely fountain.

Other Old City attractions

There is the old customs house located at the gate where all goods entering and leaving the city were taxed.

The former home of the Viceroy, the Premio Real House displays its Andalusian architectural style with a terra cotta roof and overhanging wooden balconies.
Saint Peter Claver
Saint Peter Claver

Stroll through the Museum of Modern Art, filled with beautiful pieces from contemporary artists.

The Plaza San Pedro Claver is a tiny square headed by the sanctuary, museum and the Saint Peter Claver church and has a gorgeous dome. Saint Peter Claver was an early human rights defender, and known to many as the slave of slaves.

The Naval Museum has amazing models of some of the ships during the colonial period, miniatures of several Cartagena forts surrounded by waters, and ifo on the navy of Colombia. If you are into pirate history, this is the place to check out.

Convento de la Popa
Convento de la Popa

San Francisco Javier is a huge defensive wall with a great open-air restaurant atop with great views of the distant Cathedral.

High on a hill overlooking Cartagena is the Convento de la Popa, a place of worship dedicated to the vision of the Virgin Mary.

The Gold Museum contains a priceless collection of nationally-owned, finely hand-crafted gold jewelry plus several hundred pre-Columbian indigenous artifacts, much displayed with descriptions in English.

The Inquisition Palace was used during colonial times as the court of tribunal that tried persons the church felt were heretics. Torture instruments are still on dosplay as well as papers documenting the inquisition, paintings, and so forth. The sentences were announced from a tiny barred window to the public. Check out the large intricate entrance.

Typical beach scene
Typical beach scene

The beaches

There are nineteen kilometers of wonderful beaches right in Cartagena where people frolic and enjoy themselves. The major beaches all called Bocagrande (Big Mouth), Bocachica (Little Mouth), Marbella (Beautiful Sea) and Bahia del Castillo Grande (Big Castle Bay).

Personal safety in Cartagena

No country in the world has more kidnappings than Colombia, but generally they occur during transportation travelling between urban areas. Colombians and foreigners can be kidnapped, meaning nmany Colombians are afraid to travel outside urban areas. Dress like a poor backpacker, they seldom have problems. Also things are getting safer as government security forces are slowly winning out over the guerillas.

To avoid problems, don't get paranoid. Don't let safety fears ruin your visit to Colombia. Just take buses during daylight hours, or fly between cities. Kidnappings seldom occur in urban areas. Get local safety advice from people who know the area. Use a hidden moneybelt to detract pickpockets. Do not walk alone at night, but rather, use taxis that your hotel calls for you. Leave your passport in your room safe, and just carry a photocopy of it and take only what you will need as far as money is concerned.

Visit Colombia Safety.

Excellent safe travel advice

If you are new to travelling, or even if you have travelled the globe for years, I strongly recommend you check out the following link for some very interesting and informative reading about safe travelling in Colombia, and the Third World in general. It is an accumulation of original thoughts and experiences of several worldly travellers, just go to Safely Travel. It was written with the Third World in mind, where travelling disasters are around every corner, and a pre-emptor to what we may all expect someday in the First World as populations increase and desperate people become more brave and sophisticated in their survival techniques. It will make you aware of all sorts of scams, how to check into a hotel, advice for single lady travellers, advice for single men travellers, rip tides, credit card scams, driving in a foreign land, kidnapping, street people, you name it. It is an essential read for anyone travelling, and the most comprehensive discussion I know of!