I got to go on a business retreat and spent a week in Cartagena! While I did quite a bit of work while I was there, we did go out in the city and have some fun. I absolutely loved how colorful Cartagena is, and I definitely recommend wandering around the side streets and seeing all the buildings you can. If you’re looking for beautiful and colorful things to see in Cartagena, Colombia, these were some of my favorite streets and sights 🙂
Fair warning: There are lots of photos in this post because I couldn’t get enough of the pretty city 🙂 I hope they all inspire you to visit Cartagena!
Beautiful and colorful things to see in Cartagena
Staying at Hotel Don Pedro Heredia
If you’re looking for a place to stay in Cartagena, Hotel Don Pedro Heredia is centrally located and has everything you need. And my favorite part was the rooftop patio where they serve breakfast because you can get some pretty good views of the city. I loved going up at sunrise and sunset!
Tour of colorful Cartagena
We had a tour run by Scarlet Macaw Trips, and I definitely recommend taking a tour if you get the chance! It was so helpful to learn about the history of some of the beautiful buildings we saw.
For a little history on Cartagena, it’s a walled city that was established by Spanish Commander Pedro de Heredia (who our hotel was named after) in 1533 in the previous location of the indigenous Caribbean Calamarí village. It grew in importance with exporting Peruvian silver. It survived attacks, pirates, and fires throughout the years, and after a fire burned it down in 1552, it was rebuilt in stone.
The British attacked Cartagena during the Battle of Cartagena de Indias, and the Spanish ultimately won. Interesting little tidbit: George Washington’s half-brother Lawrence Washington fought in that battle! Mount Vernon was named for his commander.
The “Silver Age” began after the Spanish won, and the city expanded more. Cartagena also played a big role in the slave trade, and many slaves came through its port. It also increased its political power, and many wealthy and powerful people moved from other Colombian cities to Cartagena.
Colombia was under Spanish rule, and Cartagena was the first city to declare independence from Spain in 1811 (which I’ll get into more towards the end of this post!), but Colombia didn’t gain its independence yet. Spain still maintained control and sieged the city. It wasn’t until 1821 that the Spanish were defeated and Colombia gained its independence.
Today much of the historic part of Cartagena is made up of Spanish colonial buildings with some republican and Italian styles. It’s one of the best preserved colonial cities in the world, and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.
It’s amazing to see all the historic buildings in such great condition, and I really could not get enough of the colors! (As I’m sure you’ve noticed) I loved all the variety of colors and combinations 🙂
Palenqueras are the black women with colorful dresses and bowls of fruit on their heads that you’ll see around Cartagena. Their history originates in San Basilio de Palenque, a small village near Cartagena run completely by former enslaved Africans, and in 1691, it was the first free town in the Americas.
To make money, the women would wear their traditional African dresses and sell fruit in Cartagena. Today they make more of their money from posing for pictures than selling fruit, and their history has made them one of the national symbols of Colombia.
Iglesia de San Pedro Claver is dedicated to Saint Peter Claver, whose remains lie in the church. Saint Peter Claver was a Spanish Jesuit priest and missionary who dedicated his life to the enslaved people coming through the port in Cartagena in the 17th century.
Cartagena Independence Day parades
Remember how Cartagena was the first city to declare independence from Spain? Even though it took many years before Colombia was officially independent, Cartagena celebrates its own independence day to commemorate its declaration of independence as a free state!
Cartagena Independence Day is November 11, but celebrations start much earlier. I was there at the end of October and early November, and children started to have parades every day. Our tour guide said that different schools have different days that they have their parade, and the music and costumes are unique to the parade. There were a few days that we ran into multiple parades around the city, and they were so much fun!
Our tour guide said that the parades get bigger and more elaborate closer to November 11 (and the biggest celebration is on November 11), so if you’re looking for a time to visit Cartagena, you should definitely consider going during November!
Other things to see in Cartagena (and food to try!)
If you have time while you’re wandering around Cartagena to visit the Chocolate Museum, I recommend it! It’s free to visit the museum, and it’s pretty small so it doesn’t take you long. They have a cool gift shop with tons of different kinds of chocolates, and you can sample some if you’re not sure what you want!
There are lots of more touristy restaurants in Cartagena, but try to find some local cuisine if you can! There are a lot of smaller restaurants and food carts you’ll see when you’re walking around, and if you need a snack I recommend buying some fresh fruit from a food cart.
Cartagena has a big nightlife scene! You can’t walk around in the evening without being invited to a rooftop bar. I’m not the biggest nightlife person (I’m an early bird!), but on our last night, the group of ladies at the business retreat went to Alquimico Bar. It was a pretty cool place and the drinks were great!
So if you’ve been looking for things to see in Cartagena, I hope this has inspired you to wander around and see all the beautiful, colorful buildings 🙂 And if you have the chance to go in November to see the Independence Day celebrations, I definitely recommend it!