Cartagena’s monumental walls aren’t just a photogenic relic; they represent a formidable feat of military architecture that is, arguably, without peer in Latin America. Extending for 4km (2[bf]1/2 miles), the walls are the main reason that Cartagena de Indias established itself as the Spanish empire’s most important citadel. Construction began in the late 16th century after a series of pirate attacks, including a particularly zealous raid in 1585 by Sir Francis Drake, whose more common name in Latin America “El Draque,” generally uttered with a slur. By the early 1700s, Cartagena was impregnable: In 1741 it held off 186 British warships, the largest fleet ever assembled before World War II. A walk along the walls at sunset—when breezes provide relief from the suffocating temperatures—is something of a rite of passage for visitors to Cartagena. The most stirring sections of the walls run parallel to sea, where lovers kiss and children play in the shaded embrasures where Spanish cannons once aimed at enemy battalions.

There are three baluartes (bulwarks or ramparts). At the northern limit, the Baluartes de San Lucas y de Santa Catalina are known as Las Tenazas (due to their pincer-like formation). Here, you can gain insight into the construction of the city walls at the Museo de las Fortificaciones (Baluarte de Santa Catalina; tel. 5/656-0591; 8am–6pm daily; COP$7,000). At the southwest corner of the Centro Histórico, the impressive Baluarte Santo Domingo courts most tourist attention thanks to Café del Mar (tel/ 5/664-2945; 5pm–2am daily), a popular spot for a sunset cocktail. Facing the sea at the southern fringes, next to Plaza Santa Teresa, are the Baluartes de San Ignacio and San Francisco Javier, where there is another lively bar with an outside terrace.

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The city’s poster child, Cartagena’s historic Torre del Reloj clock tower was built as the main gateway to the city in 1601 following the construction of las murallas (city walls). A paradigm for military architecture, the tower’s baroque doorway features three arches carved from coral stone. Originally named Boca del Puente (Mouth of the Bridge), the clock tower linked the Old City to Getsemaní via a drawbridge over a moat. The tower’s weapons room and chapel were replaced with a United States pendulum clock in 1874, followed by a Swiss clock (which you see today) in 1937. Behind the tower, Plaza de los Coches has assumed a myriad of names and vocations over the centuries. Having transcended its inauspicious beginnings as the city’s slave market to adopt a more prosaic role as a parking lot, today the lively square is tourism ground zero. Hawkers, performers, and a flurry of tour groups orbit the square’s centerpiece bronze statue of Pedro de Heredia, the city’s founder, immortalized by Spanish artist Juan de Ávolas in 1963. Across the square, Portal de Los Dulces is a colorful arcaded walkway where you can buy traditional Colombian and Cartagenian candy.