Situated on the northern coast of Colombia, on a sheltered bay facing the Caribbean Sea, the city of Cartagena de Indias boasts the most extensive and one of the most complete systems of military fortifications in South America and due to the city’s strategic location, was also one of the most important ports of the Caribbean.
Situated on the northern coast of Colombia on a sheltered bay facing the Caribbean Sea, the city of Cartagena de Indias boasts the most extensive and one of the most complete systems of military fortifications in South America. Due to the city’s strategic location, this eminent example of the military architecture of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries was also one of the most important ports of the Caribbean.
The port of Cartagena — together with Havana, Cuba and San Juan, Puerto Rico — was an essential link in the route of the West Indies and thus an important chapter in the history of world exploration and the great commercial maritime routes. On the narrow streets of the colonial walled city can be found civil, religious and residential monuments of beauty and consequence.
Cartagena was for several centuries a focal point of confrontation among the principal European powers vying for control of the “New World.” Defensive fortifications were built by the Spanish in 1586 and were strengthened and extended to their current dimensions in the 18th century, taking full advantage of the natural defenses offered by the numerous bayside channels and passes.
The initial system of fortifications included the urban enclosure wall, the bastioned harbor of San Matías at the entry to the pass of Bocagrande, and the tower of San Felipe del Boquerón. All of the harbor’s natural passes were eventually dominated by fortresses: San Luis and San José, San Fernando, San Rafael and Santa Bárbara at Bocachica (the southwest pass); Santa Cruz, San Juan de Manzanillo and San Sebastián de Pastelillo around the interior of the bay; and the formidable Castillo San Felipe de Barajas on the rocky crag that dominates the city to the east and protects access to the isthmus of Cabrero.
Within the protective security of the city’s defensive walls are the historic center’s three neighborhoods: Centro, the location of the Cathedral of Cartagena, the Convent of San Pedro Claver, the Palace of the Inquisition, the Government Palace and many fine residences of the wealthy; San Diego (or Santo Toribio), where merchants and craftsmen of the middle class lived; and Getsemaní, the suburban quarter once inhabited by the artisans and slaves who fueled much of the economic activity of the city.