Cartagena: The Most Heroic City in the Caribbean
Three sides of the same coin
Cartagena de Indias is a city with many sides—all of them remarkable.
In the Old Walled City, colorful colonial-style buildings line the streets and balconies overflow with bougainvillea. The nearby neighborhood of Getsemani is a story of resilience and transformation. Once known as a dangerous part of town, Getsemani now offers some of the best hotels, nightlife and street art, while still being home to many Cartageneros. Bocagrande, on the other hand, is the posh beachfront part of the city that gives off serious Miami vibes with its skyscraper-filled skyline.
Together, these very different neighborhoods capture the essence of Cartagena: a lively Caribbean city where history and modernity collide and beauty can be found in both the natural and the manmade.
The real pirates of the Caribbean
Jack Sparrow has a cute story, but he’s nothing in comparison to the real pirates that attacked Cartagena for centuries. As the main Caribbean port city between South America and Spain, Cartagena was rich with (stolen) treasures. This made the city a prime target and motivated Spain to build extensive fortifications, which still stand today.
These forts came in handy in 1741 when a fleet of 186 English ships and 25,000 soldiers descended upon Cartagena. Spanish officer Blas de Lezo, who had already lost an arm, a leg, and an eye in previous battles, somehow managed to fend them off with just 2,500 poorly trained and barely equipped men. There's a statue of him, wooden leg and all, in front of the San Felipe Fortress, the largest of the city’s Spanish fortifications.
The Heroic City
On November 11, 1811, Cartagena became the first Colombian city to declare its independence from Spain, setting in motion the movement to gain freedom for the entire nation. This brave act earned Cartagena its nickname of La Heroica (the Heroic City), and is celebrated throughout the month of November.
Traditions include throwing cornstarch and foamy water at friends, as well as firecrackers known as buscapies (feet finders) and matasuegras (mother-in-law killers...not literally, of course). On Independence Day, people head to the city center in colorful costumes to watch the parade and party. On the way, pranksters cover their clothes and bodies in paint and demand spare change—with the threat of a hug that’ll ruin your clothes—but it’s all in good fun.
Brains and beauty
Colombia takes its beauty pageants seriously, and with good reason. It’s one of only ten countries that has won the Miss Universe pageant more than once. For decades, Cartagena has hosted the Miss Colombia pageant during the same week that it celebrates its Independence Day.
A photo display in the city center honors all of the Miss Colombia winners in front of the building where many of them trained before gracing the pageant stage. Although Colombia has technically won the Miss Universe title only twice, many people will tell you it’s actually three times, counting the two minutes of glory before the Steve Harvey debacle of 2015.
The coconut cuisine that cures everything
Sitting on the palm-filled Caribbean coast, it makes sense that seafood and coconuts are a big part of Cartagena’s cuisine. A typical lunch here, especially if you’re on the beach, consists of a whole fried fish, fried plantains, salad, and heavenly coconut rice. For the full Cartagenero experience, wash it all down with coconut limeade—the ultimate alternative to an overly sweet piña colada.
If you’re struggling the next day after a night of partying, Cartagena has a recipe for that, too. You can sweat out any hangover with sancocho, a thick soup often prepared with fish and sometimes coconut milk. Or fill your belly with a traditional arepa.
Hide your kids, hide your...husbands?
Back in the day, witches apparently (*sarcasm intended*) had a bad husband-stealing habit that the Spanish Inquisition could not possibly tolerate. The solution: They designed exaggeratedly pointed corners on the tiled roofs covering their windows or balconies. Cartageneros believed this design stopped flying witches from landing on their homes and ultimately swooping in to steal their men. The original home security system!
Today, the former Inquisition Palace educates visitors on the history of this not-so-pretty time period and even displays the torture instruments used in the Inquisition.
The fruit sellers who made history
If you see smiling women beckoning you to take a photo as they balance fruit baskets on their heads, you’ve officially met a Palenquera. They’re often thought of as the quintessential Cartagena photo op, but there’s much more to their story.
San Basilio de Palenque was founded in the 16th century by Africans who had escaped slavery and created this hidden town on the outskirts of Cartagena—in 1603 it became the first free Black settlement in the Americas. When slavery ended, the fiercely independent women of Palenque began selling fruits in the city to earn a living. The Palenqueras of today are the descendants of these women.
Which came first, the chicken or the art?
With buildings painted in color combinations that only the most daring artists would pair together, Cartagena is already an art lover’s dream. Throughout the city, and especially in Getsemani, impressive murals both big and small line the streets. They range in style and subject matter from social commentary to celebrations of Cartagena culture.
One of the sillier works of art belongs to the graffiti artist known as @elpolloctg. His distinctly styled cartoon chickens are all over the city in large-scale paintings, as well as some more hidden and unexpected places like street lamps and stop signs.
Music so sexy it was almost illegal
If you were entertained by some of Shakira’s sexier dance moves at the 2020 Super Bowl, you can thank Cartagena for that.
Champeta is a musical genre with its own dance style, all originating from Cartagena’s Afro-Colombian community. The genre was born in the 1970s, blending typical Colombian music with sounds from West Africa. The government deemed it too sexual and unsophisticated, and even tried to ban it. It wasn’t until the 2000s that champeta began making waves outside of Colombia’s coastal cities. Now, it’s topping charts alongside reggaeton.
For a taste of champeta, check out this music video from Mr. Black, one of the city’s most popular musicians.
The original pandemic love story
Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez is one of Latin America’s most famous authors. But before the world learned his name, he started his writing career at a newspaper in Cartagena.
As a master of the magical realism genre, Márquez used what he learned on the job to spin tales full of intrigue, symbolism, and universal themes. Love in the Time of Cholera and Of Love and Other Demons are just two examples of his novels directly inspired by Cartagena. Though Márquez passed away in 2014, Cartagena’s impact on him—and vice versa—is everlasting. His home still stands in the city center.
The birds that saved the city
It may seem odd that a simple, crow-like bird is one of the symbols of Cartagena, but the legend behind them explains it all. Known as Maria Mulatas, they were once colorful songbirds that lived in harmony with the Cartageneros. One day when the city caught fire, the people found themselves trapped and called out for help.
The Maria Mulatas flew in and carried the people out, but their feathers turned black in the fire and have stayed that way ever since. The only remnants of their once colorful plumage are the shimmery blue undertones that still shine through in the sunlight.
Who’s the boss?
Cartagena’s street performers are like no other. Wandering freestyle rappers roam the streets dishing out customized rhymes about the tourists they encounter. They usually travel in pairs or groups, hyping each other up, beatboxing and rapping unbelievably fast. Their favorite line: “You are the boss! You are the boss!”
It’s all a part of the lively culture of Cartagena. Every day is a reason to enjoy life—even when you’re hustling hard like these raperos. That’s the Cartagenero spirit.
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Published October 21, 2023
Last updated December 19, 2023
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