Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia: A Colorful 490 Year Old History Behind Bulwark Walls

Cartagena is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colombia. A walk through its historic center (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) will easily explain why.

Visitors will discover beautiful Spanish colonial architecture which makes for picture worthy moments.

Clock Tower, Cartagena, Colombia

Historical sites are around every corner. But, as a I wandered through the Walled City surrounded by the five century-old coral walls, I wondered how this city became known as the “Jewel of the Caribbean,” and at whose expense.

Cartagena’s Conquest

Pedro de Heredia Statue, Cartagena, Colombia

In 1533, Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia, traveled with a indigenous interpreter named Catalina who was kidnapped as a young girl, and raised by the conquistadors.

There are rumors that Heredia and Catalina were lovers. She later married his nephew and then testified against him in his trial for thievery and mistreatment of indigenous people, so either it’s a rumor or was one hell of a break-up.

Regardless, it was Catalina who helped Heredia take the village of Calamari by force. It then became the site of what is now Cartagena de Indias. Named after the port city of Cartagena in Spain.

After the city was settled by the conquistadors, it became one of the wealthiest ports in the Americas. It was also a major port for shipping the gold from the Inca Empire back to Spain, as well as the gold of the local indigenous Zenú people of the Colombian coast. Therefore the city was and still is, filled with gold and precious stones – including coveted Colombian emeralds.

One truth left out of the typical narrative for tourists, is that this port’s most lucrative business was centered around the slave trade. Figures by historians and researchers, estimate that over one million Africans were forcibly taken to Cartagena de Indias and sold, creating a booming economy.

Cartagena & Pirates

Walls of Cartagena

With a well-earned reputation for wealth, it quickly became dangerous as a target for pirates in search of booty – which led to Spain building the infamous reinforced walls of the “old walled city.”

In spite of their efforts, the city was attacked several times by pirates – including Sir Francis Drake, and due to these attacks, much of the city was destroyed, or threatened in exchange for huge ransoms. 

It wasn’t just pirates either. The British also attacked the city several times in an effort to take it from Spain. Recently in 2014, Prince Charles visited Cartagena and unveiled a plaque to commemorate the lives of the British sailors who died in the attack of 1741.

According to Colombia Reports, “The new plaque has riled up disgust and anger from local residents and historians alike.

Colombians argue that the plaque honors yet another dark blot in the country’s painful and bloody history of colonization. Eventually, Cartagena declared its independence from Spain in 1811, and became one of the first cities in Colombia to do so.

But, it came at a steep cost, and eventually failed. There was a merciless four-month siege, and 6,000 residents died of starvation and disease after being blockaded.

Plaza Simon Bolivar, Cartagena, Colombia

In 1821, Simón Bolivar took the city by sea and named the city, La Heroica, the Heroic City. During this time, slavery continued, but many slaves escaped to create free villages, called palenques. In these communities, former slaves retained and celebrated their African roots and culture in yearly celebrations which endure to the present.

In 1851, Colombia abolished slavery, 14 years before the United States of America. The only surviving palenque, is right outside Cartagena, San Basilio de Palenque. It was the first free village in America, dating its founding to 1713. To this day, the people speak the unique language of Palenquero, a combination of Spanish and languages from West Central Africa. 

Palenquera, Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena Today

Today, you can still walk along the walls, tour a castle built by Spain (San Felipe), visit San Basilio de Palenque, and visit the Palace of the Inquisition, a museum housing the Inquisition’s bloody tools of torture and some pre-Columbian artifacts that survived colonization and battles for independence.

Walking Getsemani, Cartagena, Colombia

Today it’s a city of contradicting perspectives and cultures. It remains a city with deep income inequality, one of the starkest in Latin America. Hopefully, it will inspire every traveler to contemplate the different sides of history, look beyond the walls, and discover for themselves, the stories behind them.

From the travel journal of Ashley Peak: Ashley Peak is a writer, adventurer, and educator. Ashley left her home in Washington state for a teaching job in Colombia and spent 2 years exploring South America and falling in love with Latin American culture. In addition, she has traveled extensively in North America, Europe, and Africa. She writes for travelers seeking authentic and meaningful experiences and is currently based out of Spokane, WA.

Leave a Reply