Don't Miss in Cartagena (Colombia)
Plaza de Bolivar: If this is your first visit and time is at a premium, it's the heart of the Old Town -- the prettiest part of old colonial Cartagena -- that you'll want to see. Go through the second gate and head left toward Plaza de Bolivar. You'll hear the tinkling fountains in this lovely little park before you get there, and you'll know you're in the right place when a gigantic bronze statue of South America's liberator, Simon de Bolivar, rises above the treetops.
Getsemani: Between Old Town's first main gate and its second, you'll find yourself in an outer area called Getsemani, which circles the Old Town and is home to lively, low-cost cafes, shops and bars.
Museo del Oro y Arqueologia: At one corner of the square is the Museo del Oro y Arqueologia or gold museum (free admission) and a jewelry store heavily promoted by sellers who rove outside trying to usher in customers. If shopping's your thing, this is a good place to bargain for rubies, emeralds and gold. Also worth seeing is Cartagena's 16th-century cathedral, which lies nearby and was once bombarded by Sir Francis Drake.
El Centro and San Diego: A simple stroll through the narrow streets of the two Old Town districts of El Centro and San Diego is a pleasure in itself. Cartagena is full of colonial churches, monasteries and palaces, and even its ordinary houses are a delight, with wrought iron balconies crammed with pots of vivid geraniums and cascading with rich red and purple bougainvillea.
Las Murallas: If it's not too hot, a stroll around Las Murallas, Old Town's dense walls, will reveal striking sea views. If you prefer some shade, enjoy the tranquil dappled courtyard of the 17th-century Convento de San Pedro Claver, which lies in the street of the same name. Its small museum charges a nominal fee to enter. Next door, the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver has a fine Italian marble altar.
Palacio de la Inquisicion: If history, atmosphere and the darker side of human nature are of interest to you, head to Cartagena's most remarkable attraction, the Palacio de la Inquisicion (Plaza de Bolivar, free admission). This wonderfully spooky museum will certainly cast a chill over the sunniest Caribbean afternoon. Just inside the door lurks a figure swathed in black, topped off with a pointed executioner's hood. The main exhibition room contains pillories, a rack and a variety of rusting torture implements so bizarre that their use almost defies the imagination. Outside, a sunny, tree-lined courtyard contains a gallows and a chopping block, and other small exhibits show the type of paraphernalia involved in witchcraft. If you see one thing during your stay in Cartagena, make sure this is it, but be sure to allow yourself about an hour to go through it all. Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas:
The entire Old Town is one giant fortress with still more fortifications outside its gates. The most notable exterior fortress is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, which was first called for in 1533. Construction started in 1639, and it took 150 years to complete. When it was finished, the fortress proved completely impregnable, to the chagrin of various marauding hordes. You'll have fun roving the battlements and exploring the warren of underground tunnels, which were designed to amplify the faintest footfall so that enemies could not creep through. Tip: This is not the place to wear steel-tipped stilettos.
Seaside Area: To the south of the walled Old Town is an L-shaped peninsula broken into three districts -- Castillo Grande, El Laguito and Bocagrande -- that make up the "seaside resort" of Cartagena. Filled with high-quality hotels, bars, shops and restaurants, this area is a magnet for vacationing Colombians and international tourists. Scuba enthusiasts can get equipment and tours at a number of dive shops in Bocagrande; book in advance to be sure you'll have plenty of time to explore the underwater attractions. If you don't mind looking like a tourist, take a horse-drawn carriage ride. They run along the waterfront from Bocagrande to Old Town.