Lost in Time: A Visit to Cartagena

Veronica Mendez


The main entrance to Cartagena’s old city is through the “Clock Tower Gate,” aptly named after the four-sided clock tower perched atop three arched doorways. Time becomes convoluted once past “La Puerta del Reloj” as sounds of traditional salsa blend with techno beats, sleek glass doors lead into colonial buildings, and horse-drawn carriages sit in traffic next to yellow taxicabs. It is difficult to tell what time period you are in as you walk down cobbled streets. They lead through medieval plazas and colonial houses dating back to the 16th century, as well as modern, chic hotels. Yet, this is the very essence of Cartagena’s appeal, the meeting of an old world and a new one--a modern destination born out of a rich history.


Pedro Heredia founded Cartagena de Indias on behalf of the Spanish empire on June 1st, 1533. The territory had been occupied since the 1400s by various indigenous tribes. The Spanish representatives found tombs rich with gold. Often referred to as “el dorado,” gold became a key factor into turning the Cartagena port into one of the most important commercial centers of the New World.  As the Spanish representatives sought to replace the indigenous labor force, an international trade was built on the importation of African slaves and exportation of precious metals. By the late 16th century, Cartagena de Indias had become Spain’s most important port in the Caribbean world.


It was during this period of economic prosperity that the old city was built. Much of “la cuidad vieja” is still intact. Brightly colored mansions line the roads. Street names cease to have importance as specific houses or doors become landmarks. Much of these “casas Cartageneras” have been restored and turned into museums, boutique hotels, and private residences. These houses symbolized to colonial inhabitants a strict social hierarchy, and the houses themselves, many of which are still standing, remind modern passersby of that long-gone era. Merchants used the first level as stores; servants inhabited the second floor; and European families lived on the uppermost part of the houses.



Architecture plays an important role in Cartagena’s narrative. At the height of its commercial success, the port became an increasingly appealing target for pirates looking to dominate its lucrative trade. The city suffered sieges by some of the history’s most iconic characters such as Sir Frances Drake, who held the city for ransom in 1586. As a result, the Spanish monarchy sent an engineer, Bautista Antonelli, to oversee the fortification of the city. His answer to the challenge, “la muralla,” has become one of Cartagena’s most defining characteristics.


Almost two miles long and 300 years old, it was successful in not only protecting the city from attacks but in keeping the city intact for the next 400 years. The city and its fortress were named a UNESCO heritage site in 1988. It is part of what makes Cartagena a living treasure. Much of the city's allure is the sense of nostalgia felt within the city walls. It’s as if the 300-year-old stonewall encloses the rhythmic way of life, keeping it intact, almost fossilized.



Today, “Plaza de los Coches” buzzes with activity as merchants sell fruit piled onto wooden crates, tourists carry shopping bags by the latest designers along with indigenous mochilas, and performers dressed in bright-colored dresses dance along to bachata. This plaza is where the slave market used to take place.  It served as the meeting point of three worlds—European, Indigenous American, and African—as the international trade created a process of ethnic and racial exchange. By the late 17th century, Cartagena could be described as a “globalized city” created by the intersections of various cultures. The longstanding tradition of interactions is what sets the pulse of current-day Cartagena. It is what drives its culture.


Fusion restaurants intermix flavors and boutique hotels create modern, attractive spaces in centuries-old houses. During the Cartagena Film Festival, filmmakers exhibit works that express and explore Ibero-American life through new mediums. Every January, tourists and locals alike fill the public plazas, which are transformed into concert halls during Cartagena’s International Festival of Classical Music.


Ultimately, it is the interaction between the future and the past that has made Cartagena an international destination once again. The new tourism campaign on behalf of the Colombian government is befittingly called magic realism. Promotional material reads, “[visiting Colombia] will awaken the foreigner’s curiosity to discover and live the surprises in every corner: cities where one walks in and leaves dancing, places that relate to their past and relive their time.”  The city provides a glimpse of the past—there is an aura reminiscent of different time. Lovers stroll nostalgically along the city wall. Overheard is in Spanish, French, and English. There is a constant commotion that creates a sense of spontaneity in which anything could happen in the hustle and bustle of this dreamlike city.


Highbrow Magazine


Photos: Carlos el Hormigo (Flickr); Brian Pocius (Flickr); Szeke (Flickr); Rafa ela Ely (Flickr).

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