This post was originally written for Colombia Eco Travel.
Cartagena is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colombia, and a walk through its historic center (an UNESCO World Heritage Site) will easily explain why. The romantic and beautiful colonial architecture makes visitors swoon, and vivid colors and historical sites are around every corner. But as a I wandered through the Old City surrounded by the centuries-old stone walls, I wondered how this city became known as the “jewel of the Caribbean” and at whose expense.
The myth goes that in 1533, a Spanish conquistador named Pedro de Heredia traveled with an interpreter named Catalina who was kidnapped as a young girl and raised by the conquistadors. There are rumors that Heredia and Catalina were lovers, but she later married his nephew and testified against him in his trial for thievery and mistreatment of indigenous people, so either it's a rumor or that was one breakup. Regardless, it was Catalina who helped Heredia take the village Calamari by force, the site of the now Cartagena. And now, if you search "Calamari Village Cartagena" on Google the first thing to come up is in fact not this story but a boutique hostel of the same name.
After the city was settled by the conquistadors, it became one of the wealthiest ports in the Americas. One truth left out of the typical narrative for tourists is that this port's biggest business was slave trade. It's estimated that over one million Africans were forcibly taken to Cartagena de Indias and sold, creating the booming economy. It was also a major port for shipping the gold brutally stolen from the Inca Empire back to Spain, as well as the gold of the local indigenous Zenú people of the coast. Therefore the city was often filled with gold and precious stones.The reputation of wealth became dangerous as it quickly became a target for pirates in search of booty, which of course led to Spain building the infamous walls of the "walled city." But despite the walls, the city was attacked several times by pirates, and throughout the attacks, much of the city was destroyed for huge ransoms.
And it wasn’t just pirates either; the British also attacked the city several times in an effort to take it from Spain. Most recently in 2014, Prince Charles visited Cartagena and unveiled a plaque to commemorate the lives of the British sailors who died in the attack of 1741. According to Colombia Reports, “The new plaque has riled up disgust and anger from local residents and historians alike. Colombians argue that the plaque honors yet another dark blot in the country’s painful and bloody history of colonization. Eventually, Cartagena declared its independence from Spain in 1811 and became one of the first cities in Colombia to do so, but it came at a cost. There was a merciless four-month siege, and 6,000 residents died of starvation and disease. It wasn’t until 1821, when Simón Bolivar took the city by sea and named the city, La Heroica, the Heroic City.
During this time, slavery continued, but many slaves escaped to create free villages, called palenques. In these communities, former slaves retained and celebrated their African roots and culture. In 1851, Colombia abolished slavery, 14 years before the United States. The only surviving palenque is right outside Cartagena, San Basilio de Palenque. It was the first free city in America dating its founding to 1713. To this day, the people speak the unique language of Palenquero, a combination of Spanish and languages from West Central Africa.
Today, you can still walk along the walls, tour a castle built by Spain (San Felipe), visit San Basilio de Palenque, and visit the Palace of the Inquisition, now a museum housing the Inquisition’s bloody tools of torture and some pre-Columbian artifacts and artifacts that survived colonization and the battles for independence. It’s still a city of contradicting perspectives and cultures, and remains a city with deep income inequality, one of the starkest in Latin America. It’s a city that will inspire every traveler to contemplate the different sides of history and look beyond the walls at the stories behind them.
History-inspired and socially-conscious tours of Cartagena can be arranged by Colombia Eco Travel.