Spanish super-fort wows visitors to Cartagena, Colombia

By Bob Schulman

Castillo San Felipe cost the equivalent of 2 trillion U.S. dollars. Photo courtesy of Proexport Colombia.

It must have been an awesome sight: Convoys of treasure galleons slicing their way across the Atlantic to Spain, their sails emblazoned with the fiery red cross of the Holy Roman Empire.

Mostly loaded at the Caribbean port of Cartagena, the ships carried silver, gold, cacao (chocolate) beans, chile peppers, tobacco and other bounties of the New World from mines and plantations across Central and South America. The treasure shipments, started in the 1560s, went on for over 200 years.

Brimming over with profits from the shipping business – and from a marketplace for incoming loads of slaves from Africa – early Cartagena was an attractive target for pirates roaming the Spanish Main. It was likely the most looted port in the New World until Spain got its act together to defend the city, circling it with a seven-mile-long wall studded with gun turrets backed up by forts in key locations.

It's hard to miss the crown jewel of the defense network. It's the monster fortress of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, towering over the city atop a 130-foot-high hill. Originally built in the mid-1600s, it was rebuilt and enlarged several times  over the years to become the greatest fortress Spain ever built in its colonies.

Tourists climb the fort's walkways. Photo by Bob Schulman.

English Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon, fresh from a victory at another Spanish port at Portobelo, Panama, literally ran into a stone wall at Cartagena in 1741 when he tried to invade the city. He showed up with a force of 23,000 men and 186 ships bristling with 2,000 cannons, but Castillo San Felipe – defended by just 3,000 Spanish troops and six ships – stood off a month-long siege of the city.

The Spanish victory at Cartagena was one of the greatest defeats of the Royal Navy. Also red-faced after the battle were 4,000 American colonists from Virginia who fought for Admiral Vernon under the command of Lawrence Washington, half-brother of George Washington.

Looking much like a mountain of concrete, the fortress is in remarkably good shape. Visitors will rub elbows with thousands of other tourists climbing its walkways (it takes about 15 minutes to get to the top), scampering around its bunkers, batteries and tunnel, and posing for pictures on its cannons. From the highest level it's easy to see how sharp-eyed Spanish gunners could blast enemy ships down in the bay, and in another direction pick off soldiers trying to attack the fortress on foot.

Panoramic view of Cartagena from the fort. Photo by Bob Schulman.

Another eye-popping view from the top of the fortress is a panorama of this city of a million or so people. In one section you'll spot modern high-rise condos, in another the domes and soaring crosses of historic churches, and in another rows of glassy office buildings.

Andalusia in Colombia

Colonial homes line the lanes of Old Town. Photo by Bob Schulman.Down on the ground, visitors to Cartagena are invited to take a trip back to its colonial elegance by wandering around “Old Town” behind the city walls. You'll stroll through cobbled lanes lined with buildings painted in pastel blues, greens, yellows, reds, pinks and browns, many of them the mansions of shipping barons and bankers in the years of the treasure fleets.

Adding to the Andalusian fantasy of Old Town's seemingly endless blocks are  elaborately decorated arched doorways and balconies with flowers poking through iron railings and lattices. You'll saunter by charming al fresco restaurants, all kinds of bars, museums, churches, convents and statues of Colombian heroes. A tip: Don't miss a look at the dark side of old world Spain in the Palace of the Inquisition.

Need a rest? You're welcome to join the local folks snoozing or chatting on benches around the area's magnificent squares and parks while musicians, jugglers, clowns, mimes and the like pass by, hoping to earn tips of a few pesos.

More info: Visit Proexport, Colombia's tourism, foreign investment and export promotion agency, at www.proexport.com.co.

Staying there: Cartagena offers better than 90 tourist-class hotels in and around the city.

Statue of Cartagena's founder in Old Town. Photo by Robert W. Bone.Getting there: Nonstop flights to Cartagena are scheduled from a few U.S. airports such as New York-JFK, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Flights from other U.S. gateways often involve one or more stops along the way as well as  connections at Bogata, Colombia, or Panama City, Panama.

Musica, musica: You'll hear hip-swingin' Latin music just about everywhere you go in Colombia, from bars to barbershops. Listen close, and you'll find yourself head bobbing to Colombia's own cumbia beat plus all kinds of other Caribbean tunes. On Colombia's San Andres Island, for example, a band called “Creole   Group” at the Cafe Gourmet Restaurant plays calypso and reggae from Jamaica, soca from Trinidad, brukdown from Belize, merengue from the Dominican Republic, funji from Tortola, zouk from Martinique and salsa from Puerto Rico. A tip: brush up on the simple one-two steps of merengue and you can pretty much bluff your way through all the other Caribbean dances. Except salsa.

Historical notes:  Sailing from Cartagena with as many as 40 ships, the treasure fleets usually made it to Spain in five or so weeks depending on the weather. The voyage included a stop at Havana, where the ships from Cartagena joined similarly sized fleets heading to Spain from the eastern Mexican port of Veracruz. The latter ships carried a combination of Mexican riches and goods from Asia such as silks and porcelain shipped from Spain's trading post in Manila to the western Mexican port of Acapulco. From there, mule trains carried the shipments 450 miles across the country to Veracruz.    

The combined fleets ended their journey on the docks of Seville, Spain, where a government office controlled all ventures into the New World and collected taxes on booty from the colonies.

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