16th – 19th May, 2023
I arrived in Cartagena around lunchtime, following a long night bus that bled into much of the next day. For that reason – and also the sweltering heat – I decided to take it easy that first afternoon and set myself just one target: Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, which was just a twenty-minute walk from the hostel I was staying.
This is the largest colonial Spanish fortification in South America, and its construction began in the sixteenth century, following the infamous sacking of the city by Sir Francis Drake. Ever since the Spanish founded this city in 1533 – upon the grounds of a former indigenous city called Calamari – it had always been a target for pirates and corsairs, and for the Spanish, this was not just important as a centre of colonial power but also the place where they sent many of their precious metals back to the motherland.
Despite being a UNESCO site, this place is not very well preserved as it lay abandoned for decades before restorations began in the late twentieth century. It remains a shell of its former self, and most of its tunnels now lay bare. Many of them are winding and lead into dead ends, deliberately made this way to confuse any invaders that managed to get inside.
It also offers some fantastic views of the city, making it a place where one can appreciate the mixture of old and new that is present-day Cartagena.
I would be remiss if I did not mention in this blog that Cartagena played a huge part in the slave trade during colonial times. The gate into the city by the Plaza de la Aduana was where many Africans – those who survived the journey across the Atlantic – would find themselves being led when they arrived in the Americas. Some would be auctioned whilst others would be sent straight to work at the mines, where the average life expectancy is believed to be as little as two to three years. This is something that everyone should make themselves aware of when they visit Cartagena; many of its features were built on slavery and the suffering of thousands, including this fortress. I don’t think it should stop you from going – one reason being that many of the descendants of these enslaved people make up much of Cartagena’s population now, and tourism dominates the local economy – but it is something you should try to remember.
The following day, I finally crossed through the main gate and into the walls of the old city. This is a place where one can just wander for hours and hours, not only marvelling at the architecture but the embellishments by its present-day residents, who have added a lot of street art which manages to blend in seamlessly.
The Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría is very different to most of the churches I have seen in Latin America so far, many of which can be a little gaudy at times with all of the gold. Much of the interior of this place is instead clad in marble, and I found out – during my guided tour the following day – that this was because precious metals were a target for pirates.
Like much of the city, the outer walls are made from coral stone, one of the most accessible materials here (and surprisingly durable).
I then visited a few museums, most of which were free and – most blessedly – air-conditioned. The Museo del Oro Zenú was probably my favourite – featuring not only many artefacts but also lots of information about the customs of indigenous peoples – whilst the El Museo Histórico de Cartagena de Indias was based in the former headquarters of the Inquisition.
My overall favourite was probably the Museo De San Pedro Claver, home to a museum of religious art, many artefacts, and the remains of Saint Pedro Claver (or Saint Peter Claver in English).
Within this museum (and during my tour the following day), I was informed that one of the reasons that he is the patron saint of slaves was that during his years in Cartagena, he secretly freed thousands of Africans by taking them in when they were ill and then covertly liberating many of the ones he managed to restore to health (whilst claiming they died). Since then, however, I have done some reading online and discovered that this story is disputed by many historians. Many claim that he was a slave owner himself, whilst others say it is possible he only did this to save people from a worse life under other owners. Neither side of this debate deny that he attended to thousands of slaves by giving them food and medicine when they arrived after crossing the Atlantic, but it does seem that there was almost certainly an ulterior (or at least secondary) motive, as he is estimated to have converted hundreds of thousands of them to Christianity. It is also said that he often travelled around the plantations visiting those he had baptised to ensure that – as Christians – they were being treated ‘humanely’ (I am not completely happy with that term being used when they are still slaves) and when he did so, he lodged with the slaves rather than stay with their owners. I am not sure I want (or have the authority) to weigh in with an opinion on this, and I will certainly not make excuses for potential slave owners here. It seems very complicated, and many of the claims being made are unverifiable.
Visiting the museum also allows one entry into the church, including its upper balconies. There is also a lovely courtyard.
I think the thing I enjoyed the most about this place is that – unlike places such as the fortress and the Inquisition Headquarters – parts of it seem original, so you can better imagine how it used to be.
My final day in Cartagena was spent doing a walking tour. I have already referenced this a couple of times so you will already know that I revisited many of the features I had seen the previous day. It was nice to view it all in a different context, and the fact that I had already taken lots of photos the previous day meant that I could focus more on the information. My tour guide was of mixed African and indigenous heritage, and it was interesting to get his perspective. He didn’t just focus on historic Cartagena but also told us much about its present, and I was particularly interested in his thoughts on this statue.
Pedro de Heredia, the founder of Cartagena (I guess unsurprisingly) also happens to have been a mass murderer and slaver, and this has caused many of Cartagena’s residents to campaign for it to be taken down. The authorities have dithered for years over this, so there have been incidents where frustrated residents have tried to take matters into their own hands only for the police to intervene. I found this story very interesting as a resident of Cardiff, whose neighbouring city – Bristol – had the controversial statue of Edward Colston thrown in the harbour in 2020 after years of the council refusing to listen to the wishes of residents. I think those who read this blog regularly will know which side I am on with this issue, but I found this parallel interesting because the way that some people seemed so shocked and clutched their pearls over it makes me suspect that they probably don’t know that the actions taken in Bristol were not globally unprecedented. I think we will see many more of these commemorative statues taken down in the years to come as the people of today create their own histories.
After the walking tour, I went to have lunch with some of the others who attended it, and as we were eating we swapped stories – as backpackers often do – and were surprised to discover that two of them, a Dutch couple called Martine and Mara, were not only heading in the same direction as me but also booked on the same tour as me to Ciudad Perdida, leaving in two days.
For more photos from Cartagena, click here.