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Must See Plazas in the Walled City of Cartagena

DINKtravelers has prepared for you a tour around the plazas in the Walled City of Cartagena de Indias, whose buildings and history are full of surprises.

Built in different times and in different ways, walls have always been defensive and protective fortifications throughout history. Nowadays, there still are places where we can see some of them, built centuries ago. In DINKtravelers we have introduced you to the iconic Chinese Wall, and to walled cities such as Ávila, in Spain, and Campeche, in Mexico. This time, we invite you to discover the Walled City of Cartagena de Indias through some of its main plazas.

Why to Visit the Walled City of Cartagena

Cartagena de Indias was a very important economic and commercial hub in colonial times. For this reason, a defense system with walls and bastions surrounding what in the past was all the city was created.

This walled city was left almost intact, and it was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Its interior houses the remains of colonial structures such as the following iconic buildings we present next.

In each of the plazas of this city you’ll find several museums and monuments. Moreover, each of them has something unique about them since, as time went by, their names changed depending on the political events that happened in them or how people used them.

#1 Plaza de los coches (Car Square)

In DINKtravelers, your world travel guide, we recommend you enter the walled city through its original gateway in colonial times, the one known as Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower). Since the 18th century the entrance was meant to have a clock tower, but it was built only until the 19th century due to economic reasons.

The first thing you’ll see when you cross the gateway will be the Plaza de los Coches (Car Square), whose name has changed over time. First it was named “The Judge”, since the first judge in Cartagena lived at the corner of the plaza. Then, its name changed according to the commercial activities taking place in it. Finally, in the last decades of the 19th century, cars, which were actually horse-drawn carriages, were allowed by the Town Hall to be parked beside the plaza. For this reason, the name Car Square remained in the inhabitants’ memory until today.

The plaza’s commercial activity is one of its main characteristics. That’s why there are many places where you can buy different kinds of products, especially if you’re a sweet tooth. You’ll find panelitas, melcochas, suspiros, and cocadas. All of them are typical sweets from the region that we are sure you’ll love. Moreover, another characteristic feature of plazas is that they have statues or plaques that commemorate famous people in the community. In this case, north of Car Square, you’ll find the statue of Pedro de Heredia, the city’s founder in 1533.

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#2 Plaza de la aduana (Custom House Square)

The tour continues towards the Plaza de la Aduana, where commercial activity was also very important. The Custom House was located next to it. Nowadays, this plaza is the largest in the city. When you visit it, you’ll be amazed at the size of the Custom House, which is as big as one side of the plaza. Moreover, it preserves its colonial features.

Nowadays, the house is Cartagena’s mayor’s office. In colonial times, it was inhabited by Pedro de Heredia. They tried to change its name many times. The most important was when a statue of Christopher Colombus, which stills stands there, was inaugurated to commemorate the discovery of America. It is a marble sculpture representing Colombus and an indigenous woman, and in whose pedestal you can see a representation of Colombus’ three ships: Niña, Pinta, and Santa María. This is how the plaza came to be known for a while as “Plaza Colón”. However, people kept calling it “Plaza de la Aduana” until today.

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#3 Plaza San Pedro Claver 

Next to the Plaza de la Aduana, you’ll find the Plaza San Pedro Claver, where a church and a convent with the same name are located. The church was built in the 17th century. Its most outstanding feature is its current chapel, which was added in 1921. You’ll be able to distinguish it due to its size and yellow color, which contrasts with the church’s brown color. This combination is so contrasting that it makes the church stand out, so it can be seen from the sea and from other points of the city.

Moreover, the church houses the remains of Pedro Claver, advocate of slaves’ rights. We invite you to visit the chapel and convent, where you’ll have the chance to relax under the shade of a tree.

At the other side of the plaza you’ll find what today is the Museum of Modern Art (MAMC). Its main collection is about Latin American art of the 1950’s. The museum consists of two colonial buildings. The first one is part of the Custom House, and the second one used to be its storehouse. This is evidence of the Custom House’s large dimensions. Don’t miss the chance to visit this impressive building full of modern art. It is open Mon-Fri from 9 to 12 h, and from 3 to 19 h; Sat from 9-13 h, and Sun from 16-21 h.

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#4 Plaza Bolívar

This plaza was the heart of Cartagena in colonial times. Many of the buildings housing the offices of the city’s main powers were located here such as the ecclesiastic, in the Cathedral, and the civil, in the Cabildo (Town Hall), where the Inquisition Tribunal was also established by orders of Phillip II.

At the center of the plaza there’s an equestrian statue of Simón Bolívar, hence its name. It was previously known as Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Plaza) o Plaza de la Inquisición (Plaza of the Inquisition). Apart from visiting these iconic buildings, we suggest you to visit the Museum of Gold. It has a collection of gold and ceramic pieces of the Zenu culture, which inhabited a large part of what is now Colombian territory. The museum is open Tue-Sat from 9-17 h, and Sun from 10-15 h.

The History Museum of Cartagena (MUHCA) is also located in Plaza Bolívar. At its lateral façade, you’ll find the “ignominy mailbox”, which was a window with a little cross.    It was used to leave anonymous denunciations or information. Furthermore, the museum has many rooms dedicated to several historical times in Cartagena, as well as a historical archive. It is open Mon-Sat from 9-18 h, and Sun from 10-16 h.

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Bastions of Cartagena

Last, but not least, finish your tour visiting the structures that have preserved the development of these plazas. We are talking about bastions, which are a perfect excuse to walk around the wall. Bastions were built at the wall’s strategic points.

Some of them faced the sea, and others surrounded the city. The latter had views of the lake and of what is known today as the Ciénaga de la Virgen (Swamp of the Virgin).

Bastions were not only used to have a better view of what happened outside the city, but also to defend it from any attack. That’s why they had cannons, which still stand and which you can see when you visit any of the city’s bastions.

The main ones are: San Ignacio’s, near Plaza San Pedro Claver; Santo Domingo´s, which was the first to be built, and which was important to continue the wall’s construction; San Francisco’s, famous for constantly playing a role in the defense of the city; and Santa Catalina’s and San Lucas’, which protected the city northeast.

In previous articles we’ve already invited you to discover Colombia through its beautiful Caribbean beaches, literature, and gastronomy. So wait no longer, pack your bags, and begin your journey to discover the colonial past of this South American country in the Walled City of Cartagena de Indias.