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Cartagena, Colombia – A Charming City Steeped in History

Updated: Jun 13

Although Cartagena was founded back in 1533, making it one of the oldest colonial cities in South America, archeologists estimate its real beginnings date back to 4000 BC.  Today, it’s a fascinating mix of beautiful colonial architecture, stories of pirates including an amazing fortress, and a vibrant, modern charm.

San Pedro Claver Church in the walled city of Cartagena

When we first arrived at the port, we were incredibly surprised to be greeted by a multitude of beautiful peacocks, Toucans, parrots, ducks, and even a bunny! All of this wildlife happily make their home at this award-winning sustainable port oasis. They even have iguanas, howler monkeys and other regional animals. I’ve certainly never seen so many gorgeous peacocks in one place strutting their stuff!

Amazing wildlife in the Cartagena Port Oasis

We were also very pleasantly greeted by our wonderful guide, Kike, pronounced ‘kee-kay’.  He was delightful and very well-versed in Cartagena’s history. He guided us on a fabulous tour starting with the Convento de la Popa, that gave us a tremendous vantage point at the top of Mount la Popa overlooking the city of Cartagena. From here we could see our cruise ship and get a bird’s eye view of the city. The site of this convent dates back to 1607 when legend has it that the Blessed Virgin appeared to Friar Alonso de la Cruz Paredes and told him to build a church on the hill near Cartagena.

View from the Fort of Convento de la Popa on Mount la Popa

View of our ship (enlarged) from Convento de la Popa

Courtyard at Convento de la Popa

Alter of Our Lady of La Candeleria

Next, we headed to the imposing San Felipe Fortress built in 1536 during the colonial era. This fortress was involved in several battles between the 17th and 19th centuries involving the European powers of the day including Spain, France and Great Britain. It’s located just outside the old walled city of Cartagena’s historical district. It was the largest Spanish colonial fortification on the mainland of South America. It was successful in preventing an invasion of Cartagena’s riches back in 1741 by the English.

After the fort tour, we ventured into the walled city and felt like we were transported back in time with the wonderful old buildings and narrow streets. We stopped at a lovely gem of a place called Asona Vida and had the most delicious ‘coconut limonada’ non-alcoholic drink that was incredible! It was so refreshing after our rigorous walking and climbing all over the fortress in the sweltering heat of the morning.

Asona Vida Brunch & Coffee Spot in the Walled City

The incredibly refreshing Coconut Limonada

Following our brief respite, we carried on touring the Walled City, also referred to as the old town. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site with buildings dating back to Colombia’s colonial days. The walls themselves were built between 1614 and 1796 and surround the historical center for almost 7 miles.  Kike shared many great stories with us as we wandered through the streets amongst the beautiful old buildings.

Kike, our fabulous guide, explaining the significance of the door knockers

UNESCO World Heritage Site - Walled City of Cartagena

A special request by one of my clients was to see a sloth since we missed them in Panama City with our busy schedule.  We ended up visiting Centenario Park that sits in between the old center and the famous Getsemani neighborhood. Sure enough, we saw plenty of titi monkeys, iguanas and yes, a few sloths were also spotted – hurray!

Titi Monkey in Centenario Park

The Elusive Sloth in Centenario Park

Next up was the vibrant, colorful, iconic Getsemani Barrio that did not disappoint!  This place is the most authentic neighborhood that originally started with craftsmen, freed slaves, and merchants and has since become the “hippest hood” in Cartagena. From the colorful street murals to Plaza Trinidad, it’s the liveliest place for people watching.

Getsemani in the Walled City of Cartagena

Our final stop before venturing back to our lovely cruise ship was for lunch in the very busy, crazy Bazurto Market. Thankfully, with Kike as our guide, we had the most authentic lunch, at Yo Amo Bazurto, specializing in the freshest seafood and the most intriguing experience since the menus were not in English and ultimately there was very little English spoken by anyone except our trusty guide.

Our Authentic Restaurant for Lunch

An outstanding home-made Margarita - YUM!

The Bazurto Market

Later that evening, on the cruise ship, we were treated to a wonderful performance by some local talented dancers who came aboard the ship, and it was truly a memorable experience for us all. Cartagena, Colombia is definitely a fascinating place to visit with so much to see and do and I know we barely scratched the surface of it with our private excursion here. It’s steeped in history, culture, and plenty of very interesting options worth experiencing as I know I’ve heard Colombia as a country has so very much to offer curious travelers. One of these days, you might want to visit the "land of a thousand rhythms", if you haven't already?

The amazing, vibrant dancers from Cartagena on board Explora Journeys Explora I

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