Cartagena History and Culture

The History and Culture of Cartagena

Cartagena has played a major part in the history of Colombia, fending off invasions and battling pirates lured by incredible riches in the city. With its massive and well-preserved Spanish-built walls and fortifications, Cartagena is the only walled city in South America. Also, it is one of the most historically significant cities in the Americas.

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Castillo San Felipe, Cartagena
The walled city, Cartagena

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The city of Cartagena was founded in June 1533 by Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Heredia, who took over an abandoned Amerindian Caribbean pueblo known as Calamarí and built a new settlement. The first Spanish settlers were sailors from Cartagena in Spain seeking a new life. They named their new settlement Cartagena de Indias to distinguish it from its Spanish counterpart. A fire in 1551 destroyed much of the original settlement of Cartagena. However, the city was rebuilt in stone and continued to grow rapidly and prosper.

Cartagena soon became the holding point for the riches the Spanish stole from the indigenous. Spanish galleons would then transport the stolen treasure back to Madrid. Fortunes came from all over South America in gold, silver, and emeralds excavated by the enslaved indigenous and much more. Spanish greed was then shipped back home from Cartagena.

Naturally, where there is a treasure, there are pirates. Cartagena was under constant attack by pirates and buccaneers, one of the most famous being Englishman Sir Francis Drake. Fortunately, he did not raise the city in a 1586 raid, accepting instead the princely sum of 107,000 Spanish pesos in the form of pieces of eight (silver) that he made off with back to England.

At the end of the 16th century, it was determined that there was a need for additional city protection by increasing fortification. Then during the 17th century, the King of Spain decreed Cartagena to be a slave trade nucleus, further adding to the city’s riches.

The city emerged as a major point of entry for African slaves, a fact that is unfortunately often overlooked or annotated over in the history of Cartagena. It is believed that at least a million slaves entered the port of Cartagena. Slaves were sold in the Plaza de los Coches, just inside the city gates where the Clocktower and the Statue of Pedro de Heredia are located today.

In 1741, Cartagena became the focus of the war between England and Spain. The English forces, led by Edward Vernon attacked every Spanish port to try to take the country for themselves. The Battle of Cartagena was toxic for both sides, resulting in a Spanish victory.
After the powerful encounter, Cartagena was further fortified making it the most safeguarded port in South America.

In 1811 Cartagena was the first city to declare independence from Spain. However, this initial attempt eventually failed and the city was taken back by the Spanish under General Pablo Morillo. A decade later, during the War of Independence, the city was once again the first to declare independence from Spain.

Today Cartagena has expanded rapidly and is now a city of more than a million people. It remains the largest port in Colombia, specialising in petrochemicals. Despite all the attacks and invasions, the walled Old City remains unaffected, with the colonial architecture and historic buildings standing tall.

City Tour, Cartagena
Old City Cartagena

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Colombia has had a turbulent history marked by the appropriation of indigenous land by Spanish invaders, slavery and political instability, civil war, and drug-related violence in more recent years. Despite this, the largely harmonized culture is a rich artistic blend of Spanish customs, indigenous heritage, and Afro-Caribbean traditions.

Archaeologists believe humans existed along the coast since before 4,000 bc, the earliest known inhabitants being from the Puerto Hormiga civilization. They were later superseded by the Zenú society, which derived from the Carib, Malibu, and Arawak language families who lived along the Colombian Caribbean coast. These tribes survived until European colonization many centuries later. While the indigenous people of Colombia did not build great empires like the better-known Inca or Aztecs, they still had vibrant cultures.

The statue of India Catalina, just outside the city wall, is a reminder that indigenous people inhabited this area for over five thousand years before the Spanish arrived. Catalina was the daughter of a Kalamari chieftain and was captured in 1509. She was inducted into Catholicism and learned Spanish, subsequently acting as a translator for Pedro de Heredia when he founded the city in 1533. The help she gave this conquistador, who plundered the wealth of her people, still divides opinion as to whether she should be remembered as a heroine or a traitor.

Statue India Catalina, Cartagena

During this period, the Andes were occupied by a number of indigenous groups that ranged from socialized agricultural chiefdoms to tropical farm pueblos and nomadic hunter-gatherer groups. The social structures of these groups were destroyed during the Spanish conquest, as the indigenous people were forced into slavery to exploit the natural riches of the country.
European arrivals led to the rapid deterioration of the indigenous populations of the Americas due in large part to diseases bought by the Europeans wreaking havoc on their inhabitants, along with subsequent conquest and the aforementioned enslavement.
Their culture was based around the Sinú River in the present-day departments of Córdoba and Sucre and they were expert goldsmiths. It was this gold that lured so many Spanish to what is now Colombia.

Discover Colombia’s hidden gems on our specially designed group tours for travelers over 50, and don’t miss our blog featuring highlights from our Caribbean tours.


Colombia is the only South American country that has coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.  With hot, humid, tropical weather, living by the coast means evening sea breezes make the nighttime temperatures slightly more palatable.
Cartagena itself has a tropical savannah climate. This is characterized by both high temperatures and high humidity all year round.
There are two rainy seasons with most precipitation being recorded in April and May. After this Cartagena has a mostly dry time, and then in October and November precipitation figures are high once more. Aquaceros (downpours) are common during rainy months. Given its fortunate location, there is only a small risk of hurricanes.
Cartagena, right in the middle of the Caribbean coast, sees an average high of 32c/90f for most of the year.
The sea temperature is very pleasant all year round, varying from 26c/79f to 30c/86f

Get all the information you need to start planning your trip to this magnificent destination, check the weather and climate facts of Cartagena here!


Walking tour
The best way to see the Old City of Cartagena is on a walking tour with a knowledgeable local guide. It is possible to pass several enjoyable hours meandering along the city streets. Learn about its fascinating history and marvel at the amazing colonial architecture. Why do some door handles have lizards while others have a lion?

Colorful streets of the colonial walled city of Cartagena de Indias

Indigenous people
Gain a unique perspective of Colombia with a tour from a Zenú indigenous guide. These indigenous people were forced out of their homes over the centuries and now survive selling coffee and handicrafts on the streets of Cartagena.
Few visitors even know about the Zenú. Not only will you see the city in a different light as your guide narrates the story of Cartagena from an indigenous perspective, but you will learn about their struggles for justice and acceptance.
They have exceptional expertise when it comes to craftsmanship. Visit their workshop to see how caña flecha is woven into the famous Colombian hat, the sombrero vueltiao.

Sombrero Voltiao

Ciudad Amurallada
Located right in the heart of Cartagena, there is an incredible array of bars, restaurants, shops, and some stunning (make that rather expensive) hotels. Despite it being in the very center and so busy, this historic corner of the city has retained all of its charms.


San Felipe Castle
This is a famous landmark in Cartagena. Built in 1657 to protect against pirates and swashbucklers looking to make off with the silver and gold treasure that was bound for Spain.
Wait until the cool of the day to explore the maze-like tunnels and enjoy the views of the city to one side.

Castillo San Felipe, Cartagena
Castillo San Felipe, Cartagena

Museo del Oro Zenú
Although it is only small, the Museo del Oro Zenú hosts a fantastic collection of the gold and pottery of the Zenú, also known as Sinú, who inhabited the departments of Bolívar, Córdoba, Sucre and Northern Antioquia prior to the Spanish Conquest.

Street art with beautiful flowering shrubs adorning charming colonial houses make this the most attractive of neighborhoods.
There are many quaint shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars. The main square gets busy at night with a mixture of visitors and locals enjoying some of the finer things in life – street food and good company.

Getsemaní Art-house

Mercado de Bazurto
Noisy, busy, and somewhat overwhelming, but for those looking to experience the real Cartagena, a visit to Mercado de Bazurto is a must. This food market sells everything from fresh fruit to cooked seafood. The sheer array of produce and food on offer at Mercado de Bazurto will amaze you.

Guided Fruit tour, Bazurto

Island hopping
One of the most popular things to do in Cartagena is to take a boat tour of the Rosario Islands. This archipelago is located about 100 km offshore and is a national park. The park was created in order to protect one of the most important coral reefs in the Caribbean. Powdery white sand and turquoise water await you. Any amount of water sports or just be lazy. If just a day is not enough you can stay overnight to really relax and enjoy this special place.

Rosario Islands Sealife
Rosario Islands Sealife

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Cartagena has large and diverse options for accommodation, ranging from party hostels all the way up to all-inclusive resorts and everything in between.
Deciding where to stay in a new place can be challenging as safety, convenience, and nearby attractions are all key factors.

Centro area is the best overall location in Cartagena
. That said, the historic city center is divided into several different barrios, each with a different feeling and charms. Moreover, some attractions as well as the most popular beaches, are located elsewhere away from the center.

Located within the city walls and home to the Cathedral, the Santuario de San Pedro Claver, and the Museo Naval, Barrio de San Pedro is the historic heart of Cartagena. This ancient quarter finds some of the most fabulous boutique properties in the city, many of which are located in former colonial palaces and mansions.

North of San Pedro, yet still within the buttresses, lies San Diego. This attractive area, in days gone by, was home to the affluent classes and wealthy merchants. Today the area provides a quieter alternative to the city center and has many of the top hotels.

Getsemaní is just outside the city walls to the east and is a beautiful neighborhood with delightful architecture. Unobtrusive but popular, Getsemaní is one of the very best places for salsa music. Lively nightlife with lodgings for all budgets.

The more modern sector with some of the most popular beaches in Cartagena. This contemporary area is also where many well-known chain hotels provide resort hospitality.

Old city of Cartagena, looking towards the modern Bocagrande
Old city of Cartagena, looking towards the modern Bocagrande

Need some inspiration for your trip to Colombia? You can check our designed multi-stop packages and our modules that can be easily customized for you!


The food in Cartagena differs from other parts of Colombia, with spices and seasonings playing a significant role in adding flavor to dishes, reflecting the Afro-Caribbean heritage. There is obviously a great emphasis on seafood and tropical fruits compared to other regions in Colombia.
All in all, Cartagena’s cuisine is a delightful mix of coastal and Afro-Caribbean influences that make it a great destination for food lovers.
Traditional dishes of freshly caught fish, locally grown fruits, and vegetables with basics like rice and plantain make up many of the recipes.

Every street has small stalls and mobile kitchens where culinary artisans proudly display the most amazing street food.

, grilled or fried cornmeal patties, are common all over Colombia. In fact, they date well before the Spanish conquest. However, there is a unique spin on the arepa on the Colombian coast. Before being cooked, the arepa is stuffed with ground beef and then an egg is added. The finished product is golden brown, crunchy, and delicious.

The arepa de huevo is perfect for a quick breakfast on the go or an afternoon or late-night snack. They can be found at stalls all around Cartagena.

Ceviche is popular all over South America as it utilizes a one-dimensional cooking process with just citrus juices. Ceviche is now so popular that it has become something of a national dish. The most common types of ceviche found in Cartagena are:
• Ceviche de Pulpo (Octopus)
• Ceviche de Camarones (shrimp)
• Ceviche de Pescado (fish)
These are chopped into bite-sized bits mixed with salt, lime juice, fresh onions, peppers, and cilantro. Typically, served with either saltine crackers or fried green plantains.


Pargo Frito
As the name implies, this dish is simply fried fish. Pargo, in Colombia, refers to red snapper or a local alternative, mojarra.
This is the favorite dish for locals and visitors alike, who enjoy all the Caribbean flavor in every bite. Nobody can resist a crunchy fried fish, quickly cooked whole in hot oil, served with coconut rice, fried plantains, and salad.

Arroz Con Coco or Coconut Rice
Coconut rice is a ubiquitous Caribbean side dish found all over the islands as well as along the Latin American coastline. In Cartagena, it makes appearances on the menus of the finest restaurants as well as street vendor carts in small fishing pueblos.
Of course, as with all good recipes, there are variations on the theme. Most use a base of rice, coconut milk, salt, and sugar. Raisins, butter, and coconut pieces are at times added.

Cazuela de Mariscos – Seafood Casserole
A true delicacy, cooked with a variety of seafood, including lobster, prawns, shrimps, fish, clams, and squid. The aroma is intoxicating. A true treasure from all things local, a mix of flavors to savor from beginning to end.

The seasoning in this Caribbean region has no equal. Sancocho is another flagship dish, especially in the nearby pueblos. Whether you prefer beef, chicken, or fish, they are all perfectly seasoned and boiled in big pots on an open fire with potatoes, yucca, and more. Sancocho will always be one of the favorite dishes of the area.

The array of tropical fruits here is staggering. Enjoy them as juices, ice creams, or on their own. Among those to try are lulo, nispero, grenadilla, papaya, mango, mora, corozo, mamoncillo, and many, many others.

Palenquera selling fruits in Cartagena
Palenquera selling exotic fruits in Cartagena, Colombia

At BnB Colombia, we can arrange all of these tours as day tours or as part of a larger package that includes them and lots of other things to see in Bogotá and the rest of ColombiaFill out the form here to get some help planning your trip.