Colombia contains a wealth of centuries-old colonial cities. Some go as far back as the early 1500s, making them amongst the oldest European settlements in the Americas.
Take Popayan, founded in 1537, during the very early stages of Spanish expansion across the South American continent. At the time the entirety of this vast, unknown land mass (of South America) was referred to as the Kingdom of New Granada.
Popayan was a strategically important city as it fell between the Spanish ports of Quito, Lima, and Cartagena. The gold recovered by the conquistadors in Peru transited through Popayan on its way to Spain.
Popayan maintained its political importance over the years, rearing no less than 17 Colombian presidents, as well as giving birth to notable poets, painters, and composers. La Casa Museo Guillermo León Valencia (shown in picture above) is the home of the much acclaimed poet Guillermo Valencia (whose son went on to become president).
Villa de Leyva
Not all Colombia’s colonial cities are historically significant. Villa de Leyva, for instance, was founded in 1572. Its claim to fame is having one of the largest town squares in South America.
And then there is Barichara, founded in the 1700s, which is famous for… not a whole lot actually. These days the town is often used as a film set for Colombian telenovelas (television dramas).
And the nearby town of Guane, which has no particular notoriety, apart from being one of the sleepiest towns in existence.
But for colonial charm nothing matches that of Cartagena, also known as Cartagena de Indias, situated on the Caribbean coast.
Cartagena has a long, fascinating history, full of bloodshed, weighed down with gold, and overflowing with pirates.
Founded in 1533 (making it the second oldest city in Colombia, after Santa Marta, which was founded in 1525), Cartagena went on to became a major trading port. Its most profitable goods were gold and silver (plundered from the tombs of the Zenú people, and quarried from the mines of Peru and New Granada). Cartagena was also one of the few cities in the Americas authorised to trade in slaves.
The city’s wealth made it a prime target for pirates, many of whom were in fact English privateers, and French corsairs, and thus heroes in their own countries. The most famous pirate to attack Cartagena was Francis Drake (who was awarded a knighthood by Elizabeth I of England for his efforts).
Francis Drake attacked Cartagena in 1574 and quickly took control of the city. He received a ransom equating to US$200 million in today’s money to hand it back. Drake’s attack set into motion the prolonged reinforcement of the city’s fortifications that would continue for the next two centuries. When completed, in 1756, Cartagena had city walls that extended for 11 kilometres, and which included twenty mini forts, the pinnacle of which is Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (pictured below).