Exploring the History and Culture of Cartagena, Colombia

Have you ever wanted to explore a city that is bursting with history, culture, and natural beauty? Look no further than Cartagena, Colombia! This vibrant city offers a plethora of activities that will keep you captivated and entertained. From visiting massive fortifications like Castillo de San Felipe to indulging in delicious seafood and traditional dishes, your taste buds and senses will be delighted. Take a short boat ride to the beautiful beaches of Islas del Rosario and soak up the sun or explore the lively streets and plazas, visit the Cathedral of Cartagena, and uncover the secrets of the tunnels of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. For a unique and therapeutic experience, don’t miss out on a day trip to the mud volcano in El Totumo. Immerse yourself in the historical and cultural attractions of the Rosario Islands on a boat tour, and be sure to explore the fascinating Palace of the Inquisition. Don’t forget to visit Mercado Basurto, a vibrant market where you can indulge in local foods and support the local economy. Venture just outside Cartagena to discover the unique and captivating destination of San Basilio de Palenque, a UNESCO World Heritage site that showcases the rich cultural heritage of the region. And, of course, don’t leave without experiencing the breathtaking views and relaxing atmosphere of Cafe Del Mar while watching the sunset. With so many incredible things to see and do in Cartagena, you’re sure to have an unforgettable adventure!

History of Cartagena

Colonization by the Spanish

Cartagena, located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, has a rich history that dates back to the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. The Spanish colonizers founded the city in 1533, making it an important port for trade in the region. The strategic location of Cartagena made it a target for pirates and other European powers seeking to control the Caribbean. The Spanish responded by constructing fortifications, such as the famous Castillo de San Felipe, to protect the city.

Slave trade and piracy

During the colonial period, Cartagena became a significant hub for the African slave trade. Thousands of enslaved Africans were brought to Cartagena and sold to work on plantations in the surrounding region. The city’s economy thrived on the profits from the slave trade, but the suffering of the enslaved people cannot be forgotten.

Cartagena also faced constant threats from pirates and privateers during this time. Famous pirates such as Francis Drake and John Hawkins targeted the city for its wealth and strategic location. The Spanish colonial authorities heavily fortified the city to fend off these attacks, leading to the construction of the impressive Castillo de San Felipe and other defensive structures.

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Independence and revolution

In the early 19th century, Cartagena played a crucial role in Colombia’s struggle for independence from Spanish rule. The city was one of the first to declare its independence, and it became a center of resistance against the Spanish crown. Revolutionary leaders, such as Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Paula Santander, gathered in Cartagena to plan and strategize.

Despite its early role in the fight for independence, Cartagena faced many challenges during this period. The Spanish sought to regain control of the city and staged several unsuccessful military campaigns. Eventually, with the help of other revolutionary forces across Colombia, Cartagena and the rest of the country achieved independence in 1819.

Modern-day Cartagena

Today, Cartagena is a vibrant and culturally rich city that embraces its history while looking towards the future. The city’s well-preserved colonial architecture and historic sites attract tourists from around the world. At the same time, Cartagena is a thriving cosmopolitan center with a dynamic arts scene, gastronomy, and a lively street life.

The city’s historical significance, combined with its beautiful beaches and natural attractions, has made it a popular tourist destination. Cartagena continues to grow and evolve, while still preserving its unique identity and cultural heritage.

Top attractions in Cartagena

Castillo de San Felipe

The Castillo de San Felipe is a must-visit attraction in Cartagena. This massive fortification was built by the Spanish in the 16th century to protect the city from attacks by pirates and enemy forces. The fort offers breathtaking panoramic views of Cartagena and the Caribbean Sea, making it a perfect spot for photography enthusiasts. Visitors can explore the tunnels, walk along the ramparts, and learn about the history of the fort through informative exhibits.

Cathedral of Cartagena

The Cathedral of Cartagena, also known as the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, is a stunning architectural landmark in the city. This Gothic-style cathedral was built in the 16th century and features intricate detailing and beautiful stained glass windows. Visitors can admire the grandeur of the cathedral’s interior and learn about its historical and cultural significance.

Palace of the Inquisition

The Palace of the Inquisition is a fascinating historic site that showcases the history of the Spanish Inquisition in Cartagena. This imposing building, with its intricate carvings and ornate balconies, is a testament to the architectural brilliance of the time. Inside, visitors can explore the museum and view a collection of documents, artifacts, and artwork that provide insight into the Inquisition and its operations.

Rosario Islands

Just a short boat ride from Cartagena, the Rosario Islands are a paradise for beach lovers. These picturesque islands, with their crystal-clear waters and white sandy beaches, offer a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Visitors can enjoy activities such as snorkeling, swimming, and sunbathing, surrounded by the natural beauty of the Caribbean.

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Playa Blanca

Playa Blanca is another stunning beach located near Cartagena. This pristine stretch of white sand is perfect for relaxing and enjoying the sun. Playa Blanca also offers water sports activities such as snorkeling and jet skiing for the more adventurous visitors. The beach is lined with palm trees, providing shade and a tropical ambiance.

Mud volcano in El Totumo

For a unique and therapeutic experience, visitors can take a day trip to the mud volcano in El Totumo. This natural wonder allows you to immerse yourself in warm mud, which is believed to have healing properties for the skin. After covering yourself in mud, you can rinse off in the nearby lake and relax while enjoying the beautiful surrounding landscape.

Cuisine of Cartagena

Traditional dishes

Cartagena is known for its flavorful and diverse cuisine, reflecting the city’s Afro-Caribbean and Spanish heritage. Traditional dishes include bandeja paisa, a hearty plate of rice, beans, plantains, meat, and avocado; sancocho, a delicious soup made with various meats and vegetables; and arepas, savory cornmeal cakes that can be filled with cheese or meat.

Seafood specialties

As a coastal city, Cartagena is famous for its fresh seafood. Local specialties include ceviche, a dish made with raw fish or shrimp marinated in lime juice and served with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro; fried fish, often served with coconut rice and patacones (fried plantains); and arroz con coco, a flavorful coconut rice dish typically served with shrimp or fish.


Ceviche is a must-try dish in Cartagena. This refreshing and flavorful seafood dish is made with raw fish or shrimp marinated in lime juice, mixed with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. The acidity of the lime juice “cooks” the fish or shrimp, resulting in a tangy and delicious dish. Ceviche is often served with crispy plantain chips or tostadas.

Local fruits and snacks

Cartagena is abundant in tropical fruits, and visitors should not miss the opportunity to try them. Some popular fruits include mangoes, papayas, guavas, and lulos. You can buy these fruits from local vendors, known as palenqueras, who roam the streets with baskets of colorful fruits on their heads. In addition to fruits, you can also sample local snacks such as arepas and empanadas, which are delicious savory pastries filled with various ingredients.

Exploring Cartagena’s Streets and Plazas

Horse-drawn carriage rides

One of the best ways to experience the charm and beauty of Cartagena’s streets is by taking a horse-drawn carriage ride. These romantic and traditional tours allow you to explore the narrow streets and picturesque plazas of the city in a unique way. The carriage drivers often share fascinating stories and insights into Cartagena’s history and culture, making the ride even more enjoyable.

Vibrant street life

Cartagena’s streets are alive with activity, vibrant colors, and the sounds of music and laughter. Strolling through the streets, you can encounter street vendors selling local snacks, musicians playing traditional music, and artists showcasing their crafts. Exploring the streets of Cartagena offers a chance to immerse yourself in the lively and vibrant culture of the city.

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Mercado Basurto

For a taste of the local food culture, a visit to Mercado Basurto is a must. This vibrant market is a culinary paradise, offering a wide variety of delicious local foods and tropical fruits. You can sample traditional dishes, purchase fresh ingredients, and experience the bustling atmosphere of a traditional Colombian market. Mercado Basurto provides a glimpse into the rich culinary heritage of Cartagena.

San Basilio de Palenque

History and significance

San Basilio de Palenque is a small town located just outside of Cartagena with a fascinating history and cultural significance. It was the first free town of escaped slaves in the Americas and has maintained its unique Afro-Colombian heritage to this day. The town played a crucial role in the fight against slavery and is considered a symbol of resistance and freedom.

UNESCO World Heritage site

In recognition of its cultural and historical importance, San Basilio de Palenque was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005. The town’s distinctive language, music, dance, and traditions have been recognized as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. A visit to San Basilio de Palenque offers an opportunity to learn more about the town’s rich history and experience its vibrant culture.

Exploring the town

Exploring the town of San Basilio de Palenque is like stepping back in time. The streets are filled with colorful buildings, and the air is infused with the sounds of traditional music and Afro-Colombian rhythms. Visitors can visit the town’s museum, which showcases artifacts and exhibits related to its history, and interact with the friendly locals to gain a deeper understanding of their way of life.

Cartagena’s Natural Beauty

Islas del Rosario

Located just off the coast of Cartagena, the Islas del Rosario are a group of beautiful islands and coral reefs that offer a stunning natural beauty. This archipelago is a protected national park known for its crystal-clear waters and vibrant marine life. Visitors can enjoy activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming in the turquoise waters, surrounded by colorful coral reefs and tropical fish.

Beaches of Cartagena

Cartagena is blessed with beautiful beaches along its coastline. From the popular Bocagrande and Castillogrande beaches to the more secluded Playa Blanca and Playa Azul, there is a beach for every preference. Whether you want to relax, swim, or engage in water sports, the beaches of Cartagena offer a tranquil and picturesque setting.

Boat tours

Exploring the waters around Cartagena is a popular activity among visitors. Boat tours allow you to enjoy the stunning coastline, visit the nearby Rosario Islands, or venture further out to discover hidden beaches and coves. Whether it’s a leisurely cruise or an adventurous trip to remote islands, a boat tour offers a unique perspective of Cartagena’s natural beauty.

Cafe Del Mar

Located on the city walls, Cafe Del Mar is a popular spot to relax and enjoy panoramic views of Cartagena and the sea. It’s particularly famous for watching the sunset, as the sky transforms into a spectacular display of colors. The cafe offers a wide range of drinks and snacks, making it a perfect place to unwind and soak in the atmosphere.


Cartagena, with its rich history, cultural attractions, and stunning natural beauty, is a destination that has something for everyone. Whether you’re interested in exploring historical sites, indulging in delicious cuisine, relaxing on beautiful beaches, or immersing yourself in the vibrant street life, Cartagena offers a unique and unforgettable experience. From the colonial fortifications to the vibrant plazas, Cartagena’s charm and allure are sure to captivate you.