Its formal name is Cartagena de Indias, but to the inhabitants and visitors alike just “Cartagena” is usually enough when referring to this coastal landmark of centuries past. Approaching the outskirts of old Cartagena today from its outer perimeter that fronts the southern Caribbean, and the first-time visitor is introduced to a vast legacy of architecture and edifices.
This intricate urban landscape stretches well beyond its outer protective walls into narrow streets of transformed public and private buildings that allow a contemporary purpose while preserving their essential structure and character.
Founded in 1533 by Spanish explorer Pedro de Heredia, the greater Cartagena of the 21st century is home to over a million residents. While more recent nearby high-rise neighbourhoods soar over the Bay of Cartagena, the original historic enclave exudes its own distinct energy.
Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1984, this Cartagena retains much of its small-scale density with its lower-lying architecture that lines the avenues and squares. In diverse encounters with city and people through its structure, art, foods and local events, what emerges is the tale of a community that remains true to itself even while transforming to new purpose.
To be sure, survival was at times challenging for Cartagena. The city would come under siege no fewer than five times during its early existence, including one occasion when Sir Francis Drake himself came to pillage on behalf of the English crown. Thus, solid fortifications were both a matter of foresight and necessity in the wake of lethal attacks which required expansion along with repair.
The most notable reminders of the Spanish determination to defend Cartagena are the impressive mass of the Castillo de San felipe de Barajas that looms top San L√°zaro hill, and also the smaller Baluarte San Ignacio that defends the Animas Bay, located in front of the La Bodeguita dock and open to visitors.