Cartagena, Beyond The UNESCO Heritage Walls
June 28, 2011 By Trevor Bach
CARTAGENA DE INDIAS, Colombia — In recent years Cartagena has gained worldwide renown as a chic tourist destination. Elegant colonial streets and leafy Old World plazas; bright pastel hues and gracefully decaying facades; lazy tropical afternoons and sultry Latin nights.
In 1984, the city’s most iconic features — the well-preserved historical walled center and nearby fortress — were declared an UNESCO Word Heritage site, and it’s this part of the city, along with the beaches of nearby Bocagrande, that serves as the focus of a robust tourism industry. According to government statistics, in Cartagena received over 63,000 foreign visitors in 2009, second only to the capital Bogotá.
Yet as vital as the historical center is to Cartagena’s economy, taken alone it can offer only an incomplete representation of the city’s identity. The surrounding wall may be a famous landmark, but it’s also a physical barrier: Originally designed as a military fortification, the wall now effectively segregates the city, inevitably concentrating touristic activity — and its associated economic benefit — in the finite space within its borders.
It’s beyond the walls — away from the stylish black horse carriages and throngs of sweating vacationers — that a different Cartagena is revealed, where the famously aesthetic city reveals a decidedly less refined, more populist face.
Tourists walk along a section of the historical wall. According to Cartagena’s Executive Tourism Secretary Annie Beltrán, tourism has always played an important role for the city’s economy, but it’s in the last five years — since the United States lifted its travel advisory on Colombia — that the number of American and other foreign visitors has surged.