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November 11, 1811, the day that Cartagena declared its independence from the former Spanish colonizers. This marked the first Colombian city, and second Latin American city (after the Venezuelan capital Caracas) to successfully declare independence from the Spanish Empire. Cartagena is the most popular tourist destination in all of Colombia. The intricate beauty and lively spirit of the city continue to draw people from all over. However, behind every thriving cultural city is a rich and complex history. Cartagena is no different. With the recent celebration of Cartagena’s independence on November 11, we are reminded of the trailblazing status of the people as the first Colombian city to break from Spanish rule.

In this week’s blog, we are going to share a couple of facts about Cartagena’s history to better prepare you for your Caribbean adventure!


Indigenous History

The indigenous people of the region where Cartagena is now found were wide and varied. The region underwent many changes and is thought to be one of the first inhabited regions of the Colombian landmass. For the most part, the people belonged to the broader group of people inhabiting the Caribbean area of the West Indies, classified as the Caribes. It was the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the subsequent development of the Latin American world with colonization that changed the development and flourishing of these peoples and their rich and colorful culture. One of the groups of people flourishing in the region was the Zenú people in the Morrosquillo Gulf in the region south of Cartagena. The Zenú culture placed a large importance on fertility, as can be seen in the relics and art textiles from their times. To find out more about the Zenú people and the Caribbean Indigenous cultures more generally, make sure to check out our tour of Indigenous Heritage here.  We've made a video as well in collaboration with our sister NGO Collective by Impulse that you can check out right here!



The Development of the Colony

Along with Santa Marta, Cartagena was one of the first colonial cities created by the Spanish in the South American continent. It was founded officially as Cartagena in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, a noble Spanish explorer. Initially established as a port for shipping plundered gold and silver back to Spain, Cartagena quickly grew into one of the most important cities in the Spanish Empire due to its strategic location and natural harbor. The city flourished as a center of trade, commerce, and naval defense. Its fortified walls, built to protect against pirate attacks and foreign invasions, still stand today as a testament to its colonial past. Cartagena also became a major hub for the transatlantic slave trade, with thousands of Africans forcibly brought to the city to work on plantations and in the construction of its infrastructure.

Culturally, Cartagena became a melting pot, influenced by African, indigenous, and European traditions. This rich cultural heritage is evident in its architecture, cuisine, music (such as cumbia), and religious festivals. In the 19th century, Cartagena played a key role in Colombia's struggle for independence from Spain. It was the site of several battles and negotiations, including the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1811. After gaining independence, Cartagena continued to be an important economic and cultural center in Colombia.


The fortification and rising of the Pearl of the Caribbean

Throughout the 16th century, Cartagena grew to be one of the most important ports of the Spanish Empire due to its strategic location. With a prime access point to the Andes, it became a gateway to a large portion of Latin America for trade paths. As with any colonial city, the influence of trade and influx of Spanish elite passing through the city’s walls, the town itself became more enriched. From these developments grew the historical center of Cartagena, the city’s most thriving tourist district. The maintenance and at times restoration of this district is a reflection of this era of rapid development, allowing you to step into a historical past.

The need for fortification of a strong naval metropolis led to the formation of a walled city, fortified by thick concrete walls, protecting the inhabitants and their riches. The walls are still intact after years of bombardment and natural attrition and were eventually recognized for their patrimonial importance by their inclusion in the world heritage lists of UNESCO since 1984, as well as Colombia’s national heritage list in 1959. Hence the existence of South America’s largest colonial fort in Cartagena, the ever-photographed Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The Fort is emblematic of Cartagena, both as a tourist monument or a symbol of Cartagena’s rich history. The winding paths of the Fort intercept the bricked walls like a maze, weaving their way around the perimeter of the enormous base.

The Walls of Cartagena form part of the World and National Heritage

One of the favorite photo spots perched atop the Fort's walls


The imperial attacks for the conquer of Cartagena

The wealth of Cartagena in the 16th century made it an alluring spot for pirates navigating the precarious waters of the Caribbean. It was for this reason that the Spanish Empire first commenced work on the San Felipe Fortress in 1536.    

The Castillo of San Felipe was developed even further across the centuries with various expansions and renaming of the monument, often in response to the various raids and sieges from foreign naval forces and pirates of the Caribbean. The first fall of San Felipe was to the French in the late years of the 17th Century. 

But one of the most awe-inspiring tales of resilience and heroism in military history unfolds at the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741. At its heart stands Admiral Blas de Lezo, a Spanish commander renowned for his strategic genius and unyielding spirit, despite having lost an arm, an eye, and a leg in previous battles. Facing a massive British invasion force led by Admiral Edward Vernon, Blas de Lezo orchestrated the defense from the formidable Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This fortress, perched on a hill overlooking Cartagena, became the linchpin of resistance against the British armada, which boasted 186 ships and over 27,000 troops.

Despite overwhelming odds, Blas de Lezo's leadership and the robust fortifications of Cartagena held firm against multiple British assaults over several grueling weeks. The invaders, plagued by disease and logistical challenges, suffered staggering casualties. Blas de Lezo's strategic brilliance and unwavering resolve earned him admiration and respect, solidifying his place as a legendary figure in Spanish military history. The Battle of Cartagena de Indias culminated in a resounding victory for the Spanish, thwarting British ambitions and affirming Spain's dominance in the Caribbean. Blas de Lezo's heroic defense remains an enduring symbol of courage and defiance against overwhelming adversity. You can see his Statue beneath the imposing San Felipe's Castle a must visit site during your trip to Cartagena.

Explore our Cartagena City Tour and tailor-made your guided tour with a visit to San Felipe Castle with us!

The famed Castillo San Felipe

The Era of Slavery

Cartagena's history, marked by the colonial era's grandeur, is also deeply stained by the brutalities of the slave trade. As one of the most significant slave ports in the Americas, Cartagena was a focal point for the arrival of thousands of enslaved Africans, who were sold and forced into labor across the continent. The wealth and development of the city were built on the backs of these enslaved people, whose suffering and resilience are inextricably linked to Cartagena's growth.

This dark past is crucial to understanding the city's present. While the colonial architecture and vibrant culture attract tourists, it's essential to recognize the human cost of these historical achievements. Museums and tours across Cartagena offer a sobering look into this violent history, providing evidence of the atrocities endured by slaves and indigenous communities. A visit to Cartagena thus becomes a poignant reminder of the dual legacy of its colonial splendor and its human suffering.


To explore Cartagena's history of slavery and colonialism, visit these key sites:

  1. Palace of the Inquisition: This museum delves into the brutal methods used during the Spanish Inquisition, providing insights into the oppression faced by enslaved and indigenous people.

  2. San Pedro Claver Church and Museum: Named after the patron saint of slaves, this site highlights the life and work of Saint Peter Claver, who dedicated his life to aiding enslaved Africans.

  3. El Portal de los Dulces: Once a slave market, this area now serves as a bustling square. The stark contrast between its past and present underscores the city's complex history.

  4. Castillo San Felipe de Barajas: This fortress, built by enslaved labor, offers tours that recount the harrowing experiences of those who constructed it.

  5. Museo Histórico de Cartagena: Housed in the former Royal Customs House, this museum offers exhibits on the city’s colonial and slavery history.

These sites provide a comprehensive understanding of Cartagena's tumultuous past.

Our regular Cartagena City tour and Grand City Tour of Cartagena includes visits to some of these sites and you can tailor-made them according to your interests and needs.

The time of the Independence

With growing discontent throughout the early 1800s across Latin America and the successful overthrow of power in Caracas, Venezuela, the Spanish misunderstood the legitimate efforts of Latin American people, leading to the Cartagena Declaration of Independence in 1811. This marked a significant step in the region's struggle for freedom. Walking through the city’s historic walls today, you’ll encounter a striking mix of architectural styles from different eras, alongside features of modern 21st-century life, offering a true journey through the ages.

Following a period of intense sieges, battles, and widespread bloodshed due to civil instability, Cartagena de Indias was finally liberated in 1821. This was significantly influenced by Simón Bolívar, who played a pivotal role in the liberation of New Granada, which includes present-day Colombia (read more about Bolivar in our blog). The city’s liberation laid the foundation for the nation we see and cherish today. Cartagena's resilience and transformation from a colonial stronghold to a symbol of independence is palpable in its vibrant culture, rich history, and continued evolution.

The architecture takes you on a journey through the ages

Modern days

Cartagena today stands as a vibrant, bustling city known for its stunning colonial architecture, beautiful Caribbean beaches, and rich cultural scene. The city's historic walled center and fortress, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, attract tourists from around the globe, contributing significantly to its economy. Modern Cartagena also boasts a thriving nightlife, diverse cuisine, and numerous festivals that celebrate its Afro-Caribbean heritage. The city's port is one of the busiest in Colombia, playing a crucial role in trade and commerce, while ongoing urban development projects aim to improve infrastructure and enhance the quality of life for residents.

However, Cartagena faces significant challenges alongside its advantages. Economic inequality remains a pressing issue, with stark contrasts between affluent areas and impoverished neighborhoods. The rapid growth of tourism has led to concerns about environmental sustainability and the displacement of local communities. Efforts to balance economic development with social equity and environmental preservation are crucial for ensuring that Cartagena's progress benefits all its residents while maintaining its unique cultural and historical identity.


Hopefully, this blog has enlightened you to a few little known facts about Cartagena and prepared you for your trip into the exuberant Caribbean sun with succinct background knowledge. 

Go check out our various Cartagena tours to find out how you can get the most out of your stay in Cartagena, with some immersive travel experiences.

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