Colorful Cartagena: a fort, a market, and the palace of the Inquisition

March 26, 2017

We arrived in Cartagena, Colombia early this morning. The shore excursion we had signed up for was to meet on the pier at 7:45.  After getting up with an alarm and having breakfast delivered to our room, we were ushered to group #10’s bus. Our guide’s name was Roque and the bus driver was Fernando.

We had signed up for a highlights tour of Cartagena with “less shopping.” Our first stop was San Felipe Fort. We only had five minutes there – disappointing because I would have liked to explore it.

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Founded in 1543, Cartagena was attacked and sacked by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, leaving the city impoverished. It is the 5th largest city in Colombia and its major port. Tourism is its most important industry, second only to coffee. There are three cruise ships in port, including ours, here right now. By the time we left, another had arrived.

Because of this, there were tons of tourists all descending on Cartagena’s old walled city center, following group leaders holding up flags with tour numbers on them. It is the custom here  for the tour guides to provide each group member with a sticker with the guide’s name on it, so people filed by with “Benny” or “David,” etc. stuck on the front of their shirts.

There were also lots of vendors milling around where tourists were taking pictures, and they were quite aggressive.  All of them spoke enough English to get their point across.  I kept telling them, “No, gracias,” and if I showed no interest, they’d leave me alone. Even the slightest interest would have them following me, trying to bargain.  Dale saw some magnets and asked how much they were.

“Three for ten dollar,” said the vendor.

Solo queremos uno,” I told him.  But then Roque was calling us back to the bus.  The vendor followed us. “Five dollar!” he called.

I waved him away, saying, “No tenemos tiempo,” as we made our way back to the bus.

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This is Don Blas de Lezo, a Spanish admiral who in 1741 led a successful defense of Cartagena against an attack by British troops.


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Interesting that Don Blas led a battle against the British, yet on the side of the statue’s base is this plaque!

Since we had other destinations to get to, I didn’t have time to find out more about the history of the fort and why this plaque is on the base of the statue!

Our next stop was Las Bóvedas (The Dungeons) which is now a shopping area with vendors selling native goods. There were a series of bright yellow arches forming a loggia, with stalls that were once prison cells, flanked by bright red gates. Each stall had its own number painted overhead, above which were small grated windows. The stalls overflowed with brightly colored clothing and purses, postcards and artwork. I am not sure how these dungeons were used in the past – for slave pens, prisoners, or what? We were given 25 minutes at this place. It was quite picturesque but seemed a lot of time for a tour with “less shopping.”

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Dale and I climbed on the old city’s wall and walked around but eventually came down and looked at the shops. Although I bought one shirt at the last minute, I was more interested in taking pictures of the colorful stalls and the adjacent streets.

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KODAK Digital Still Camera

KODAK Digital Still Camera

From there we went to the Palace of the Inquisition, a museum about the history, complete with gruesome details, of the Spanish Inquisition in Colombia. Cartagena was one of three centers during colonial times that maintained this horrific policy – the other two were Peru and Mexico.



“Denunciation window” – here people could denounce others that they believed were heretics, yet remain anonymous. 



Entrance to the Palace of the Inquisition

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This policy arose from the expulsion of Jews and Moors from Spain, some of whom were able to stay by “converting.” Some probably genuinely did, but others became conversos (converts) in order to maintain their residence and personal property in Spain, and continued to practice their own religion in secret.  The leaders of the Catholic Church in Spain, including the ruling monarchy feared that the conversos were not genuine converts and the Inquisition was their way of rooting out heretics.


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Tomas de Torquemada became the Grand Inquisitor of Spain. He was particular zealous in this role due to his fear of the Moors and the fact that he was believed to have “conversos” among his ancestors. He was responsible for having 10,000 people burned at the stake.

Most of the accused were killed or tortured to death. For example, 3,000 people were “denounced” in Mexico but only 43 condemned to death. However, Roque told us that virtually all the condemned died, because they were either tortured or worked to death. One man he told us about was sentenced to two years of rowing – day after day with only short breaks and little food. He lasted 6 months.



“Confession or Torture” – these pictures depict various scenarios that befell those who were accused of heresy.



Instruments of torture were on display including one for tearing off women’s breasts with a hot metal contraption that was fitted over the breast and was then tightened. I assume these were used on women condemned as witches.

In a green courtyard were two scaffolds, one with a noose and a guillotine atop the other. The guillotine was for the lucky ones – it killed instantly.




Painting of incarcerated condemned. The fate of these prisoners may or may not have yet been determined. 


Another courtyard was lush with tropical plants, including the oldest known bonga tree, 220 years old.

From there we walked to San Pedro Claver Church. It struck me as ironic that we were seeing a church right after touring a museum about the Inquisition. Perhaps if we had toured the church first, I might have been more interested in the religious relics housed in a small museum there.  20170326_102851 Roque told us this was the most beautiful church in Cartagena, but it was nowhere near as elaborate as many Latin American churches I’ve seen. He took us into the church’s museum of religious relics, where he pointed out an interesting painting showing priests and other clerics in Hell because of their abuse of power (like the Inquisition! I thought). That painting was done after the Inquisition!20170326_104728
On the way back to our ship, Fernando took a scenic route along the most well-known beaches. All beaches are public, Roque told us, but the properties alongside are very expensive. Some condos cost up to $700,000. The few houses in that area are worth a million dollars. We passed a handsome house designed in Arabic style with arches, decorative tiles and repeated patterns. This house was custom built and is worth $1.5 million. It belongs to the owner of the Coca-Cola Company in Colombia. Roque told us his name, which I can’t remember but it sounded Arabic.

Panama Cruise C 245He pointed out another beautiful house, considered the most beautiful in Cartagena, that would fetch a similar sum.

We came into view of the cruise ships and made a short photo stop. From this spot we could see the entire curve of Cartagena Bay with its tall white high rises lining the beachfront avenue. Panama Cruise C 216

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