38 things to do in Cartagena


That is almost IMPOSSIBLE!

Check out - or better still, print out - this quick list of things to do in the most beautiful city in the Caribbean...

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.(see photo at the top of this article)

21.Watch the Cabalgata. This equine festival is held every year. Horse riders descend on Cartagena from the towns and villages all around and trot through the streets from Bocagrande to Centro and up to the Convento de la Popa, bearing candles. The date is usually 2 Feb, in memory of Nuestra Señora de Candelaria. Time: one afternoon.

22.Cartagena comes to a standstill in November during National Beauty Pageant , or Reinada Nacional de Belleza. The whole week is a holiday in Cartagena, and the contestants parade along Avenida Santander on the back of floats and also travel by boat around once in Bocagrande, all the time being cheered by crowds of thousands. Tickets to the judging and testimonial dinners are sold out months before, but you can get a table at a disco like Mr Babillas and watch it live on TV which is nearly as good. There are many preliminary contests in the smaller towns and suburbs that start much earlier in the year.

23. Go for a walk along Avenida Santander and the fortified city wall. You can walk on top of the wall most of the way, with the beautiful Caribbean on one side and colonial architecture on the other. If you start at the statue of La India Catalina, near the eastern corner of the wall, you will pass the following attractions: the old wooden bullring, las bovedas, the Hotel Santa Clara, Gabriel García Márquez residence, Plaza de Tejadillo, Teatro Heredia, then, rounding the coner at the Baluarte de Santo Domingo, pass the Plaza de Artillería, the Hotel Santa Teresa, where you must cross a foot bridge and descend the wall which ends at the Naval Museum. If you go under the bridge, cross Avenida Santander and continue, you will pass some monumental anchors donated by the Colombian and Spanish Navies. Here also you will find a monument to` Gabriel García Márquez literary masterpiece Relato de un Naufrago - Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor - immortalized in the form of a giant concrete model of his book. Continuing along this route you will come to Bocagrande in about 15 minutes. Time: 2 hours.

24. See the Mapale dancers in Parque Bolivar, Plaza Santo Domingo or the Plaza de las Coches. These troupes, usually accompanied by a couple of drummers, perform a stunning dance that can trace its origins via the slaves back to Africa.

25.Watch the best films from Latin America and elsewhere during the Internacional Festival de Cine. Stars from all over the continent can be seen wandering the streets, and cinemas suspend their normal showings to participate. Even the old Luis Felipe Jaspe-designed Teatro Colon, Cine Bucanero and Cine Calamari, all closed some time ago, re-open to screen the films. These cinemas are adjacent the Centro de Convenciones, which shows the majority of the films, and hosts the judging, usually the week before Easter.

26.If you like chess, have a game at the Liga de Ajedres, or Chess League, housed in an open room on the corner of Plaza Bolivar. You will see about a dozen tables and chairs set up under a painting of a wizard-type character gazing over a chess set. The room is in a beautiful colonial building with a large stone arch. Time: depends how good you are.

27.Visit the Casa de Nuñez. Just a short walk from Centro, this is the historic house of one of Colombia most famous sons, 4-time President of the Republic and composer of its national anthem. Adjacent to the museum is a small park with a chapel where he is buried, and a group of huge, oversize bronze busts of other notable locals (including Carex the Native Indian leader), under a circular arrangement of roman columns which is the Homenaje de la Constitucion.

28.If you like art, visit the Museo de Arte Moderno in front of the Cathedral, open Mon-Fri 9-12, 3-5pm, Sat 10-12. There are occasional art exhibitions held in the Museo Naval, and other locales, and at Christmas there is and exhibition of large murals hung o­n the inside of the wall, illuminated at night by floodlights. They are situated along the Paseo de la Muralla, to the left of the Café Libre, facing the Conjunto de Santo Domingo.

29.Go sunbathing at one of Cartagena's beaches. There are several to choose from: Bocagrande, Bocachica, La Boquilla, Islas del Rosario, Isla Baru, Tierrabomba and Playa Blanca. Wandering vendors sell ice cream, fresh fruit and juice, trinkets, or offer their services as masseurs or will plat and bead your hair. At Playa Blanca you can rent a beach hut and string up your hammock for the night. The Isla beaches are only accessible by boat, but all beaches can get crowded on weekends and during the vacation period. Some boat opeartors include lunch and a visit to the Fort at Bocachica.

30.Go and cheer for Real Cartagena , Cartagena's first division soccer team. Home games are played at Estadio Pedro Heredia, about ten minutes by taxi or 20 minutes by bus from Centro. Catch any bus marked Turbaco, Arjona or Turbana. The way they have been playing lately, they need all the encouragement they can get! There are also professional baseball and basketball leagues in Cartagena.

32. Go and see a bullfight. These are held in January, in the bullring adjacent to Estadio Pedro Heredia, ten minutes by taxi or twenty minutes in a bus. Catch any bus marked Turbaco, Turbana or Arjona. In 2002 a group of professional Mexican matadors, all of them "enanitos" or dwarfs, entertained sell-out crowds. Not for the squeamish - severe gorings and even fatalities are possible.

32.Get your PADI diving certificate and dive in the Caribbean observing tropical fish and reefs, and the odd shipwreck.Cartagena is o­ne of the cheapest places in the world to get your PADI certification.

33. Learn Spanish with your own personal tutor. There are many language schools in Cartagena, offering classes in English, Spanish and a host of other laguages. Sometimes people on the street will offer you a deal such as an hour for an hour, ie you help them with their Spanish for an hour in return for their hour of Spanish lessons. Such lessons are usually only good for beginners, however, and formal classes with qualified teachers and textbooks soon become necessary.

34. Talk to some sailors or look at some beautiful boats at the yacht clubs. Cartagena's two yacht clubs, Club de Pescaand Club Nautico, are both located a short walk from the center of town in Manga. Both have waterside bars and Club de Pesca has a nice restaurant and is located inside Spanish fortified walls.

35. Visit Cartagena for the Semana Cultural, or Cultural Week. This is usually held during Easter, known as Semana Santa in Spanish. Events include free concerts, roller-blades races through Centro, street theatre and art exhibitions.

36.Get your photo taken with a boa constrictor at Villa Babilla. Just a few minutes drive from Cartagena, near Campestre on the road to Turbaco, this nature farm has eco-tours that feature sloths, monkeys, turtles, iguanas, caimans, horses, ducks and parrots. Tour groups catered for.

37. Go on an eco-cruise of the manglares. The mangrove swamps around Cartagena have recently been promoted as a tourist attraction. Catch a taxi out to La Boquilla and ask for a guide called Ferny Hernandez. He will take you on a canoe through mangroves teeming with all sorts of animals.

38. If it is raining, read the article #25 tips for Cartagena tourists for pointers on how to avoid being ripped off.

Did we miss anything? Feel free to post your comments right below!

List compiled by Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' is available from Trafford Publishing.

Casa Roman in Manga: One of Cartagena's lesser known attractions!

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short