“I have to get to Cartagena!” (Who said that?)
“My sister’s in trouble in Cartagena! She’s been kidnapped! I have to get there!” (Who said that?)
If I use the words Romance and Stone…. does that help? Kathleen Turner? Michael Douglas? Danny DeVito?
Well, now YOU are going to Cartagena….so let’s learn a bit about that city, as well as the country in which it’s found.
This city of about a million people was founded in 1533, named after a seaport in Spain, and became a major center of early Spanish settlement in South America. Today, it’s a popular tourist destination. Which is why we’re here.
Its history is some fun. It was wealthy because all the stuff from the New World on its way to Spain came through Cartagena into the Caribbean. There roved those wonderful Pirates of the Caribbean. I’ll throw a few names out to whet your thirst…Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth of England’s favorite “legitimate pirate,” and his own near-relative John Hawkins were two of the English privateers. Drake, who landed at night to conquer the city at dawn, burned houses and destroyed part of the Cathedral. Drake forced the authorities to pay him 107,000 ducats, took some jewelry and 80 artillery pieces. In 1568, Hawkins besieged the city for seven days. In 1697, a fleet of French soldiers and pirates tried to take Cartagena.
To fight off these repeated attacks, the Spanish Crown hired prominent European military engineers to carry out the construction of fortresses, which today mark one of Cartagena’s signs of identify. The construction took 208 years. But, the port still attracted pirates.
In 1741, the city was attacked by English troops in a fleet of 186 ships and 23,600 men against 6 ships and 3600 men. After weeks of intense fighting, the siege was repelled by the Spanish who inflicted heavy casualties on the English troops. (Check out the War of Jenkins’ Ear or the Battle of Cartagena, but I like the first title better…and it’s the one I know about the battle.)
As if there wasn’t trouble enough, the Catholic King Phillip of Spain established the Inquisition Holy Office in Cartagena and ordered built the Inquisition Palace, which was finished in 1770 (when we were just starting our… uh…dispute with England for our independence.) And it’s still there with original colonial features. When Simon Bolivar invaded to free Colombia from Spain, the Inquisition disappeared again. (In case you’re interested…during its two centuries of existence, some records show that the court carried out 12 autos-de-fe, 767 defendants were punished, six of them burned at the stake.
Finally, 250 years after the Spanish conquered it, Cartagena declared its independence in 1811. It’s called the Heroic City.
With tropical location, the climate changes little…ranging from low of 76 F to high of 89 F. About 40 inches of rain per year…rainy season is in October.
Let’s look at the town itself. The Rafael Nunez International Airport is about ten minutes from downtown. In that area, downtown, there’s a Centro Historico, or Walled City, where you can find information on the history of the area. This is the real heart of the city, with a mixture of architectural design, mainly of colonial style, but there are some Italianate buildings, like the Cathedral’s bell tower.
The official entrance to downtown is through the Clock Gate, which leads you into the Plaza de los Coches (Square of the Carriages). Then the Aduana (customs house), then the mayor’s office. And the Museum of Modern Art.
Also nearby are the Plaza de Bolivar and the Palace of the Inquisition, then the government Palace, across from which is the Cathedral of Cartagena. (Remember how the Spanish designed towns: a mid-place square (Zocolo in Mexico City, plaza in other cities, where one side there’s a church, one side has the government building, and often a type of lodging on another side. A museum is often on the fourth side of the square. Always the church and the government building.) Stop to admire the restored Santo Domingo Church, decorated with a famous sculpture, Mujer Reclinada (Reclining Woman), by a famous Colombian artist Botero.
The Teatro Heredia (Heredia Theater) is an architectural jewel located in front of the Plaza de la Merced. A little further on in the University of Cartagena. The Claustro de Santa Teresa (cloister) has been remodeled into an upscale hotel. Several other convents also have been remodeled into beautiful hotels.
Inside the Old City, you can go to Las Bovedas ( The Vaults) from where you can see the Caribbean Sea.
The commercial and financial area of the city is the Matuna, where you can find nice hotels and good restaurants. It’s one of the most representative areas in Cartagena where African people brought here as slaves used to live. More churches and convents are here also.
Bocagrande (Big Mouth) is the most modern area of the city. Shops, restaurants, nightclubs and art galleries are here; a little farther on are the beaches and nightlife.
Today, Cartagena has focused on heavy urban development, particularly skyscrapers. Hollywood loves the atmosphere of Colombia, although Romancing the Stone was filmed in Mexico. But, another movie, The Mission, was filmed in Cartagena and Brazil, as was the movie Love in the Time of Cholera. Cartagena shows up in some novels as well.
But don’t you fail to get out and walk around the downtown. Maybe you’ll recognize some scenes you’ve seen or read about. Just know you’re seeing a town with a history that’s beyond colorful and exciting. May you find some color and excitement here, as well.