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Cartagena de Indias, Cartagena for short, is the fifth largest city in Colombia, a hot spot for tourism, and a historical city by nature—you can find historical significance everywhere you look in this city. So, where does all this history begin?

Cartagena de Indias was officially founded and settled under the Spanish Empire in 1533, by Don Pedro de Heredia and took its name from the Spanish city of Cartagena. Before the Spanish conquest, several different indigenous groups that now have descendants in other areas of Colombia and South America inhabited this land—they had abandoned Cartagena before the Spanish arrived. When word spread that gold had been found in the tombs of indigenous leaders, many people began arriving to Cartagena, allowing the area to grow from a village to a city.

In 1561, the Spanish crown codified all transatlantic sailing and named Cartagena as a major port. With this important decision, Cartagena began receiving funds from the Spanish crown that served to improve the city’s defences  Because of the new influx of wealth to the city, it became a hot spot for pirates, especially French and English pirates.

View of the historic city centre of Cartagena - Uncover Colombia

View of the historic city centre of Cartagena – Uncover Colombia

One of the first pirates to “attack” Cartagena was the French pirate Robert Baal. After he robbed the city of a hefty amount of gold, the Spanish crown ordered the construction of stone walls to protect the city—these are the same walls you can see today in the historic area of the city adequately called la ciudad amurallada—“the walled city.” Even so, some of the most famous pirate attacks happened during the construction of these walls.

In 1568, English pirate John Hawkins attempted to occupy the city. After trying to attack from afar, Hawkins moved his ships into the bay area of Cartagena. While unsuccessful in his attempt to occupy the city, Hawkins did show the city was still vulnerable. Thus, in 1586 the infamous English pirate Francis Drake pillaged Cartagena and left it in a bloody mess. Drake destroyed the new built cathedral (the restored Catedral de Cartagena) as well as almost ¼ of the city before asking a pricey ransom. In the end, the then governor of Cartagena as forced to pay Drake’s price in order to recuperate the city for the Spanish Crown.

Cartagena Walls - Uncover Colombia

Cartagena Walls – Uncover Colombia

After almost half a century the walls were finished and Cartagena became one of the best-protected cities in the Spanish Empire. Even so, in 1697 the English, again, breached the walls with the Baron of Pointis who worked with local slaves looking for freedom. This would not be the last attack by pirates in Cartagena.

Due to its continuing importance in the Spanish Empire, in 1610 a tribunal for the Inquisition was established in Cartagena and the Catedral de Cartagena was restored two years later. After the tribunal was established, monasteries were built all over the city and new churches were constructed to strengthen and spread the Catholic faith. One of the most famous was the Iglesia de Santa Cruz (the Church of Santa Cruz) that sits atop the city’s most well known hilltop, la Popa.

Four years after the Inquisition tribunal was established, a new fortress was begun—it was named San Felipe to honor the new Spanish monarch, Philip III.  The purpose of the new fortress would be to protect the bay area.

View of Cartagena - Uncover Colombia

View of Cartagena – Uncover Colombia

Over the years, Cartagena continued to be an important port city in the Spanish Empire. In the mid 1800s when Colombia gained independence from Spain and the nation of Nueva Granada was formed, Cartagena experienced some financial woes, as the new nation did not have the same financial funds as the Spanish Crown to maintain a royal port city like Cartagena. It wasn’t until Rafael Nuñez, a cartagenero, became president that Cartagena began to receive better funding, and recuperate its status to become the beautiful coastal city that it is today.

We hope you liked this short historic background of Cartagena, We believe it should add an extra dimension to your experience of the city when you visit, and perhaps entice you to include Colombia in your future travel plans.

Comments are welcomed below (as usual).

Happy Travels!

The Uncover Colombia Team

Historic facts are based on the following reference:

Marley, D. (2005). Historic Cities of the Americas : An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.

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