Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – Colombia chapter Caribbean Coast has to say about Cartagena’s Old Town:
Cartagena de Indias is the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast, a fairy-tale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13km of centuries-old colonial stone walls. Cartagena’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a maze of cobbled alleys, balconies covered in bougainvillea, and massive churches that cast their shadows across plazas.
The old town is surrounded by Las Murallas, the thick walls built to protect the town against enemies. Construction began toward the end of the 16th century, after the attack by Francis Drake; until that time Cartagena was almost completely unprotected. The project took two centuries to complete due to repeated damage from both storms and pirate attacks. It was finally finished in 1796, just 25 years before the Spaniards were eventually expelled.
Cartagena is a place to drop all sightseeing routines. Instead, just stroll through the old town day and night. Soak up the sensual atmosphere, pausing to ward off the brutal heat and humidity in one of the city’s many open-air cafes.
Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia on the site of the Carib settlement of Calamari. It quickly grew into a rich town, but in 1552 an extensive fire destroyed a large number of its wooden buildings. Since that time, only stone, brick and tile have been permitted as building materials.
Within a short time the town blossomed into the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast and the major northern gateway to South America. It came to be the storehouse for the treasure plundered from the local population until the galleons could ship it back to Spain. As such, it became a tempting target for all sorts of buccaneers operating on the Caribbean Sea.
In the 16th century alone, Cartagena suffered five sieges by pirates, the most famous (or infamous) of which was led by Sir Francis Drake. He sacked the port in 1586 and ‘mercifully’ agreed not to level the town once he was presented with a huge ransom of 10 million pesos, which he shipped back to England.
It was in response to pirate attacks that the Spaniards built up a series of forts around the town, saving it from subsequent sieges. The indomitable spirit of the inhabitants was rekindled again at the time of the independence movement. Cartagena was one of the first towns to proclaim independence from Spain, early in 1810, which prompted Bogotá and other cities to do the same.
The declaration was signed on November 11, 1811, but the city paid dearly for it. In 1815 Spanish forces were sent to reconquer and ‘pacify’ the town and took it after a four-month siege. More than 6000 inhabitants died of starvation and disease.
In August 1819, Simón Bolívar’s troops defeated the Spaniardś, bringing freedom to Bogotá. However, Cartagena had to wait for liberation until October 1821, when the patriot forces eventually took the city by sea.
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