Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa, Cartagena

The convent’s scenic lookout

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Though most tourists who visit Cartagena come here either for the fine-sand beaches or the walled historic center, the city has far more to offer than just its overcrowded attractions. Overlooking the entire city and its Caribbean coast, Cerro de La Popa treats visitors with sweeping panoramas while receiving a mere fraction of the crowds. Perching atop the mount is Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa, a centuries-old monastery whose tumultuous history tells the story of the city bellow.

Standing out amid Cartagena’s exceedingly flat topography, La Popa Hill is by far the city’s highest point, soaring 139 meters above sea level. The wooded mount is named after its stern shape, and renowned for its sweeping views of Cartagena and the surrounding ocean. It is also here where an ivory-hued cloister has been standing for more than 400 years, during which deadly incursions and conflicts have left their mark on its walls.

 

In pre-Christian times, Cerro de La Popa was crowned by a pagan shrine, where indigenous people and African slaves worshiped Buziraco, a goat-like creature with supernatural powers. Local lore recounts a dream in which Friar Alonso de la Cruz Paredes, the founder of the monastery, was visited by the Virgin Mary, who then guided him to erect a church on the hilltop with the goal of purging the malevolent spirits that resided there, referring specifically to the caprine deity.

 

Shortly thereafter, in 1607, a small wooden chapel was constructed atop the hill, which was later expanded into a cluster of buildings, including a friary and a hermitage. Throughout its existence, the place was home to a group of Augustinian friars who lived a life of community, prayer, and service as outlined in the Rule of St. Augustine.


In the next hundreds of years, the place incurred the ire of the pirates, invading armies and rebels, all of whom marred the friary with their ever-evolving weapons and tactics. Consequently, the convent underwent multiple cycles of destruction and reconstruction, becoming more fortified with every passing year. It is precisely for this reason that following Colombian Declaration of Independence and the ensuing war, the Augustinians were expelled in favor of a military stronghold, where Simón Bolívar and his regiment stood firm against the Spaniards.

 

In 1961, more than 150 years after their banishment, the friars managed to regain control over the premises, reviving the time-worn convent.

 

As of today, the complex welcomes visitors who can in turn explore the monastery and revel in the breathtaking vistas from the adjacent balcony. The main building is centered around a verdant patio, where one can find an ample collection of religious art.

 

The convent is accessible through a winding road, yet take note that due to the area’s dubious reputation, it is not recommended for pedestrians, making Uber or taxi the only viable option of getting there.