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Cartagena has always attracted visitors. In its early years, most of the visitors were unwelcome. The frequent attacks by pirates forced the Spanish, who used the city as a key port for shipping Inca gold to Spain, to fortify the city. In 1741, during the war between England and Spain, British Admiral Edward Vernon assembled a fleet of 180 ships and over 28,000 men with the intention to take the city. Don Blas de Lezo was in charge of the city defenses, but with only 3,000 men under his command, his efforts seemed doomed to failure.

De Lezo, a man who had lost an eye, an arm and a leg fighting for the Spanish crown in Europe, was a master of siege tactics. He retreated to the inner walls and forced the British to advance. Vernon’s assault resulted in the death of 800 of his men, and the capture of 1,000 more. Meanwhile, malaria, cholera and dysentery decimated the remaining British forces. After 36 days of siege and the loss of half of his men, Vernon retreated and de Lezo was acclaimed as the savior of Cartagena.  

Nowadays, this city of 750,000 inhabitants on the northwest coast of Colombia welcomes visitors from all over the world. The walled city, once filled with taverns and soldier quarters, is now one of the most exclusive spots in the city. Most of the architecture is from the Spanish colonial period, dating to approximately 100 years after the Vernon siege, with colorful fronts and balconies adorned with flowers. In the Santo Domingo Plaza, visitors can enjoy a meal in one of the many restaurants  and admire “La Gorda Gertrudiz,” one of the sculptures donated to the city by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Motorized traffic is not allowed inside the walls of the city, but a ride in a horse carriage or a walk on its cobblestone streets make exploring the city a romantic journey.

The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, where de Lezo directed the resistance, has been restored. Visitors can walk through the dark and narrow passages of the castle (not recommended for people suffering from claustrophobia or a heart condition) and learn about its history and architecture.

Cartagena was also, by decree of King Felipe II, the South American outpost of the Inquisition Holy Office Court. It is now a museum, where you can see authentic instruments of holy torture. And you thought no one expected the Spanish Inquisition.

The modern city expanded outside the wall. The neighborhoods of El Laguito and Bocagrande house many hotels, restaurants and nightclubs that feature local rhythms from the popular Champeta, Vallenato and Reggaeton to the traditional Salsa and Merengue intertwined with electronic and dance music.

Visitors looking for sun and beach can go to Islas del Rosario, a group of islands 15 to 20 minutes in boat from Cartagena. Pristine beaches and coral reefs are the main attraction, but visitors can also enjoy the aquarium and the seafood restaurants around the island.

Unfortunately, the only place you can’t visit in Cartagena is the tomb of Blas de Lezo, the defender of the city who died a few months after defeating the British and was buried in an unknown location. However, his legacy is honored with a statue in front of the walls he defended.

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