Cartagena – Romancing the Stone Wall

Old Cartagena

Cartagena, Colombia

It was 1984 when I saw Joan Wilder travel to Cartagena Colombia to rescue her sister from kidnappers. With the help of Jack Colton, Joan has an adventure in Colombia that is worthy of the protagonist in the novels she writes. Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas and a cast of characters first introduced me to the port city of Cartagena in the movie, Romancing the Stone. No other movie has enticed me to visit a foreign country like this movie did. I did not think I would ever see Cartagena until my wife, Lynn, and I started planning a Panama Canal cruise.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Cartagena, at the top of South America, to be the first stop on our way from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. In typical cruise ship fashion, our stay there would only be a single day. What could I see in a single day that would provide the essence of this centuries old port city? Should we find our way to town and take a random tour operator, hope they could speak English well enough to give me a tour of historic sites? Should we get on a cruise ship recommended tour bus, ride around the city and listen to the canned narration of a bi-lingual tour guide, eventually to be dropped off at the local tourist marketplace for guided shopping? Should we get advice from someone as to where to find the heart of historic Cartagena, find a random taxi driver to take us there, and wander around taking photos, hoping that we would find our way back to the ship in time for our 4:00 PM departure?

I dislike bus tours because I like to be able to take photos as I go. While the narration is interesting, the view outside tinted bus windows is not conducive to good photography. Yet, with only a few hours available, we really didn’t have many options. We decided on a short bus tour, culminating in a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. We would get some historical background via the narrator on the bus, and then ride through the Ciudad Amurallada (Walled City) in an open air carriage. Though there would be no stops for photos, however, at least in the open air carriage, there would be no bus windows to detract from the color quality of the photos.

There is much architecture that attracts the eye of amateur and professional photographers alike.

With so little time on shore, and on our first visit to the South American continent, a snapshot view of the city would be the best we could do. I submit for your approval, my photo essay of historic Cartagena, Colombia.

Cartagena is an old city, founded in 1533. The village grew quickly as it was in an opportune location for the Spanish to stopover in a protected bay, after plundering and pillaging the South American natives. The town grew rich and became a target for those ne’er-do-wells that flew the Jolly Mary skull and crossbones flag.

Sea Wall
The wall, more than six miles long, and wide enough to support buildings in many places. Many people walk along the wall enjoying the sea on one side and the city on the other.

The wealthy residents, seeking protection from pirates, built a wall around the city. Apparently the residents didn’t take kindly to having their plunder plundered.  From the inside, the wall doesn’t look very formidable, but it protected the city quite well. Openings in the wall allowed for cannon and other weapons to protect the city.

Modern Cartagena rings the entrance to the bay. Hotels and restaurants populate the area known as Bocagrande.

Today’s Cartagena is a mixture of old and new. Skyscrapers hug the beach in the area known as Bocagrande (Big Mouth), at the edge of the bay. Traffic in the city was bustling and the sights and sounds of a modern metropolis were all around us as we traveled by bus to the old city to rendezvous with our horse and carriage.

Muralla del Mar
The Muralla del Mar (Sea Wall), built in the 18th century, marks the boundaries of the old city.

 Riding through the city on the carriage allowed for a slow and relaxing tour. Though it was very warm and humid, thanks to provided water, generous application of sunscreen and hats, we were comfortable enough to enjoy the tour. It would not be as pleasant a trip in July. Cartagena is north of the equator, so it is Spring in April, not Fall.

This gentleman clown entertained us for a small fee at the beginning of our carriage ride.

Shortly after departing, a friendly clown hopped on board our carriage. He posed for photos and then, of course, expected a tip. His whistle-voice and friendly manner earned him a couple U.S. dollars. Other clowns that tried to hop on later were politely declined.

As we rode along, horseshoes clip-clopping on the pavement, we enjoyed the fragrant flowers that lined the balconies facing the narrow streets. The majority of homes that we passed were well cared for and their exteriors were painted in bright, vivid tones. Cars seemed to be out of place and horse-drawn carriages fit right in.

flowered balcony
Live flowers covered balconies. The Walled City is a beautiful place to visit in the Spring.
Colorful building
Buildings in the heart of the city were mostly very well kept and attractive.

We passed several squares, and the entrance to the downtown area, Plaza de los Coches (Carriage Square) is overseen by a large clock tower, the Puerta del Reloj.

Puerta del Reloj
The clock tower marks the entrance to the downtown central plaza.

 Further along our route, we passed Plaza de la Merced. The centerpiece of the plaza is Teatro Heredia, a beautifully designed theater.

Teatro Heredia
The inside of this theater is more beautiful than its outside. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the interior in person.

The Walled City is a showpiece of architectural beauty that helps to attract the many conventions and festivals that are scheduled throughout the year.

Wall Openings
The automobile has changed the Walled City. Roadways now lead to the heart of the city through relatively recently made openings in the wall.

 The wall, once contiguous, is now broken up with many gates and openings to allow traffic into and out of the city. As we headed toward the exit, in only a few moments, we were sorry the bus would be waiting to whisk us away to the obligatory souvenir mall for 30 minutes of “shopping” before we headed back to the ship.

Lynn and Costumed Lady
In the marketplace, many costumed actors plied for tips by photo-hungry tourists. My wife, Lynn, posing with a beautifully costumed woman.

 John Steiner


  1. […] Cartagena, Colombia is an old city on the seaside trade routes of merchants and pirates. After becoming a wealthy seaport, the residents drew tired of pirates looting and plundering their city. A seawall constructed to protect the city still stands, though today it has many more openings and gates than it did originally. You can read more about our visit to the walled city here. […]

  2. […] Openings in the wall were protected by huge wooden gates and guarded; you could call Cartagena an early “gated community.” Today the gates are gone and roads freely pass through the openings as can be seen in the background of the photo above. Modern-day Cartagena has long since outgrown the confines of the walled city and modern defenses protect the city these days. But the wall still remains, a historical symbol of a time when pirates ruled the seas. More photos of our visit to Cartagena are here. […]

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