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Note: from the staff of www.cartagenainfo.net
This popular Travel Guide is published in Montréal Québec, Canada.
For more details, visit their website at: www.ulysses.ca

It is appropriate to note that the cover of their current Ulysses Colombia Travel Guide features a famous symbol of Cartagena de Indias, the Catedral Santa Catalina constructed between:1575-1612. Photographs of the Catedral, and the Puerta del Reloj (Clock Gate), are featured on many national and international publications, in-flight magazines, etc.

The extensive section covering Cartagena contains noticeably more pages (35) than any other city, including the Capital, Bogóta!

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Cover of Current
Ulysses Colombia Travel Guide

Cartagena de Indias - Colombia - South America

One of the most beautiful cities in Colombia, with almost a million inhabitants living right on the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena de Indias, or simply, Cartagena, was named after the famous Spanish City of Cartagena which, in turn, takes its name from Carthage, the great merchant city that once rivaled Rome itself. Carthage, the exalted city of antiquity, was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th. century BC in North Africa, in what is Tunisia today. The conquistadors had a tradition of naming a new colony for one of the cities that had sponsored their expedition, in order to honor their patrons. Thus, the names of the great monarchs of the time appear again and again in the names of places in the New World, since they were the ones to finance most of the voyages. Louisiana, for example, was named after King Louis XIV.

Cartagena was built on several islands located at the end of a bay on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, not far from the majestic Rio Magdalena. The marshes that originally surrounded these islands were later filled, in order to link the latter to the coast. The city, nestled in the bay, extends onto an L-shaped peninsula called Bocagrande. At the end of this stretch of land are two large islands that appear to be guarding the mouth of the bay: located at the entrance to the bay is Isla Tierrabomba, a natural one, while Isla Barú was created when the Canal Del Dique was dug. This gigantic waterway is 114 kilometers long, and was completed during the colonial era with the aim of linking the Río Magdalena to the sea. The Barú peninsula was thereby cut off from the mainland and transformed into an island. This was one of the largest enterprises of its kind ever to have been carried out in the Spanish colonies, and is used by many boats to this day.

The Del Rosario archipelago lies off the western extremity of Isla Barú. Made up of a multitude of little islands, it has lovely white sand beaches and magnificent coral. Fans of marine life claim that this is one of the most beautiful places on the Colombian coast.

Just south of the downtown area is another island, known as La Manga, which is a residential area for well-off Cartageneros. Several ridges provide access to and from the island, and one of these leads directly to the old city. A number of lagoons separate the suburban areas from the old city, whose centre is surrounded by magnificent ramparts. The only elevated points on the horizon are the Castillo San Felipede Barajas at the gates of the city, and the Convento de la Popa facing the island of La Manga from its perch atop a 100-metre-high hill.

Thus admirably protected, Cartagena has managed to preserve its military buildings, as well as its lovely upper-class homes and colonial churches. Today, it is one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in South America, and it is not surprising that UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site.

A Brief History

Founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia (see p 28), Cartagena de Indias was built on the site of an abandoned Amerindian village, known as Calamarí, located on a small island of the same name. Born into a noble family in Madrid, this illustrious figure left Spain suddenly because of a duel, staying first in Santo Domingo (capital of the present-day Dominican Republic), and later, upon arriving in New Grenada, settling in Santa Marta, where he took up trading with the native inhabitants. After becoming governor, he established himself in the village of Calamari and founded Cartagena. The little village quickly prospered, with the discovery of numerous treasures in the region, including those in the tombs of the Sinús, an Amerindian people who customarily buried the dead with all their possessions. In 1552, however, a fire reduced the village (whose buildings were made of wood at the time) to ashes, and Pedro de Heredia ordered that all structures be made of stone from that point onward. In a way, this directive enabled the city to preserve its lovely architectural heritage up until the present day.

As the Spanish continued colonizing South America, they discovered and pillaged the fabulous riches of various Amerindian nations including the Incas. The port of Cartagena, well protected in a bay, benefited greatly from all of this plundering. Ships loaded with precious cargo arrived from Ecuador and Peru by way of the isthmus of Panama, and stopped at the city's port to be loaded with other goods from the interior of the country, most of which were brought to the port on the Río Magdalena. Afterward, the ships would continue on their way to Cuba or Puerto Rico, where other merchandise was added to their precious cargo. Finally, fully loaded, they would sail to Spain, the mother country.

Another factor that enabled the city to develop rapidly was the slave trade. In fact, at the beginning of the 17th. century, the king of Spain granted the colony a monopoly on this "commerce." It is important to remember that at the time, the Spanish crown had forbidden the enslavement of Amerindians, but granted certain markets and key figures in its new colonies the right to deal in African slaves. Cartagena thus received the dreadful but highly coveted right to be an official slave-trading centre. Veracruz, Mexico was the only other centre of this kind.

All of these activities made it possible for prominent locals to amass enormous fortunes and build superb residences, which still account for some of the town's charm today. Thus, within a few years, Cartagena reached a level of prosperity that aroused the interest not only of other colonial powers, but also of the numerous pirates crisscrossing the seas.

Cartagena´s reputation as a flourishing city spread quickly, and the Jolly Mary-the black pirate flag with a skull and cross bones-was seen often, hoisted before the Spanish galleons loaded with gold were attacked. In 1543, a Frenchman by the name of Robert Baal launched a successful attack on the city. Surprising the governor in the middle of a banquet, the pirate managed to extort 310 kilos of gold from the city. And that was only the beginning of a long list of attacks by pirates of all different nationalities. They included Englishmen John Hawkins (in 1576) and Francis Drake (in 1586), as well as Frenchmen Jean-Bernard Desjeans and Jean Ducasse (in 1697).

Cartagena managed to fend off at least one attack, mounted by the admiral Edward Vernon sent by King George II of England, along with 15,000 troops, to overthrow the Spanish in 1741. The English, however, were in for a surprise since the small garrison, led by General Basco de Lezo, managed to drive them back to sea. This brave general continued to fight even after losing an arm, a leg and an eye in the battle. No doubt his abilities on the battlefield were somewhat handicapped, but he set quite the example for his troops!

Irritated by the loss of capital to the privateers, the Spanish crown finally decided to fortify the city and its surrounding area. The scale of the project soon made Cartagena the most well-protected colonial city in all of South America. There was one very unfortunate cost though the shameful exploitation of black slaves.

Among the numerous armed conflicts that have marked the city's history, two major dates should be kept in mind. The first is 1741, the year of the famous Battle of Vernon (see p 168), the second is 1811, when the city was the first to declare its independence from Spain. However, the city came back under the Spanish yoke in 1815 upon being recaptured by General Pablo Morillo. More than a third of the population perished in the fighting-a total of 6,000 people! Later, during the final war of independence led by Simón Bolívar, Cartagena was once again among the first to declare its independence and obtained its liberty once and for all in 1821. Moreover, the Libertador nick-named Cartagena Ciudad Heroica (the Heroic City) for its bravery and ability to defend itself.

Note: Other sections relating to Cartagena, appearing in
the ULYSSES Travel Guide to Colombia, include: