Cartagena’s Historic Walled City

Without doubt, Cartagena’s old walled city is its key attraction. The imposing walls were built to protect the city from pirate raids…an annoying side-effect of being a prosperous city on the Caribbean Coast of South America (I found this great aerial view online).

The city was founded in 1543, and served a key role in the organization and expansion of the Spanish empire. By the early 1540’s, had established itself as the main gateway for trade between Spain and its overseas empire.

During the colonial era, Cartagena was a key port for importing African slaves, and especially for precious metals. Gold and silver from mines in New Granada (what is now modern day Colombia and Panama) and Peru were loaded onto ships  bound for Spain, causing the city to be raided numerous times by pirates.

As a result, construction began in 1597 on a walled fortification around the city, which took nearly two centuries to complete, due to repeated damage from both storms and pirate attacks. It was finally finished in 1796, making the city virtually impenetrable.

In 1984, Cartagena’s colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The massive coral-constructed walls are 30 feet high, and 65 feet thick at their base, complete with angled bastions (sections that project out from the wall and built at an angle, to allow defensive fire in several directions), towers and cannons.

The seven miles of huge stone walls that surround the historic center are in remarkably good shape.  The wide, expansive tops of the walls now serve as walkways for visitors, providing scenic city and sea views.Another online photo, showing the extensive upper walkways.

Inside the old walls, Cartagena’s historic streets are packed with churches, plazas, shops, cafes and restaurants, and the city is bursting with color. In addition to buildings of all shades, flower stalls, local lunch spots, produce carts and shops are a rainbow of bright hues .

A popular item seen in the city’s shops are items made from reed grass and wood. After the reed is hand-dyed, it’s cut into small pieces and used to accent wooden bowls and vases with bright, beautiful patterns. I couldn’t resist them, and chose this bowl to take home.


In addition to the endless shops in old Cartagena, many street vendors line the sidewalks with vibrant items for sale as well. The colors draw you in, and make it hard not to walk by without purchasing these beautiful items.

Even donkeys are colorful in Cartagena.

Old Cartagena has a very European feel, with it’s narrow streets, quaint balconies and  many church steeples visible from the city streets; a stark contrast to the Central American locations we’d visited over the last 18 months. It was as if we’d crossed an ocean instead of having made a thirty-some hour passage on the Caribbean Sea.

Modest houses and mansions alike are adorned with overhanging balconies of all shapes and sizes, and shady patios,  most accented with bright, colorful plants.


Large wooden doors are a common sight in many of the city’s houses. We were told that the large doors were used by carriages, and that the smaller doors within the larger doors were used for servants. We also heard that the smaller doors were used to prevent a hot blast of the tropical air entering the building when the door is opened, by minimizing the size of the entryway, and the larger door is used for big deliveries. Whatever the true meaning, the historic doors are beautiful.

Doorknockers, called aldabas in Spanish, are a common sight in Cartagena. The aldabas come from a time when social hierarchies meant families were eager to display their status. The size of the aldaba was an immediate indication to the public of your social standing and wealth. It was the ultimate status symbol, and a constant reminder of your place in Cartagena society.

In addition to their size of each aldaba had a symbolic meaning. The animal shapes corresponded to the owner’s profession:

Lizards represented royalty, signifying a family’s Royal Spanish background.

A fish or mermaid referred to the merchant class, particularly those who made a living from the sea.

We were told that lions represent teachers…and also the military.

Today, the aldabas are simply decorative, and Cartagena’s many shops sell all varieties and sizes.

Cartagena’s “fruit ladies” are a fixture on the city’s streets. They sell fresh fruit at a very cheap price, and also accept a tip for photos (we paid for some, and snuck in a few others).

The women were originally from San Bassilo de Palenque, which is located to the south of Cartagena. The small town was founded during the Colonial Era by runaway slaves who claimed to be obligated to no government.

The Palenqueras were so successful, that the town was able to negotiate its freedom.  In 1691 a royal decree established the village as its own entity, making residents the first free Africans in the Americas. The town is widely considered to be one of the first “free” towns in The New World.

On two ends of the city’s walls, restaurants are located atop the bastions, providing great views of the modern city and sunsets over the water. Cafe del Mar is at one end of the city, and draws a big crowd for daily sunsets.

From our slip at Club de Pesca, we could see Casa de la Cerveza, and enjoyed several fireworks displays that were set off here during our stay.

Cartagena’s most famous landmark, the Torre del Reloj, or Clock Tower, was once the main gateway to the walled city.

Of the three arched doorways, only the central one existed originally; the other two were occupied by a gun room and a chapel. In 1874, a clock was added to the gate, brought over from the United States. It was updated 63 years later, with a Swiss clock, which is still in place.

A short, fifteen minute walk from our marina put us at the clock tower gate. We seldom ventured in during the day, as the heat was brutal. By late afternoon, the sweltering temperatures would subside, and a much welcome breeze would blow, allowing us to wander and enjoy the city as it came alive in the evening. I borrowed this online photo of Cartagena aglow at night.

Colombia was not on our list of places to see, but every cruiser friend we met who’d visited told us that Cartagena was a must-do. We are thrilled to have listened to them, as this beautiful, historic city is a gem. Here are more photos of Cartagena’s colorful walled city.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”