I have to admit, I was a little nervous about visiting Cartagena after we received the security warning the night before we docked. The note didn’t say anything we didn’t already know, and the things they suggested should be standard procedure when you’re traveling. Don’t flash wads of cash, don’t wear lots of jewellery and be sure what you do wear isn’t ostentatious, try not to look like a tourist, look after your belongings and keep track of your handbags, cameras and other accessories.
We do that most of the time anyway – neither of us are big jewellery people, we never carry big wads of cash (at home or away), and whenever possible, I try to avoid carrying a purse or handbag (both at home and when I’m traveling – I hate having my hands cluttered up with stuff). We carry wallets in places it’s hard for other people to get to (or at least places that would look and feel really odd for some stranger to be groping into), and if we have the camera with us, it’s constantly in our hands.
But no other place had prompted the ship to issue a warning to us about potential problems in the places we visited, so I was a bit nervous. We were on an excursion, so I assumed we probably wouldn’t be assaulted or attacked outright (safety in numbers and that sort of thing) and we weren’t trying to get around the city on our own, either. Which actually turned out to be a good thing, since we docked at the container port, and as far as I knew, there were no really good ways to get into the city itself.
I was a bit more . . . cynically amused about the advice to try not to look like a tourist – I mean, really! That’s what we are. How can we not, when we’re not native to the place and don’t know the accepted dress or deportment? How can we not, when most of us are paler (or a lot redder) than the inhabitants, and what was most evident in Cartagena, we don’t sweat like them? Really. That should have been a dead giveaway to anybody wanting to prey on poor innocent tourists. It was amazingly hot that day, and within five minutes of walking anywhere, most of us were soaked with sweat – we looked as though we’d been trying out for wet T-shirt contests. Our guide and the local people around us were sweaty, yes, but it was dew on their faces, and the usual underarm circles, not like they’d just climbed out of the pool! Kinda hard not to look like a tourist when we’re dripping salty water everywhere we go!
I didn’t worry much about it once we’d met our guide and were on the bus heading into town. The trip was a historical tour through a city that was over three hundred years old by the time Victoria was settled by the Hudson Bay Company in 1848. Cartagena was founded in 1553 by the Spanish and before they figured out that maybe they needed some protection, the British managed to capture the city at least once (they tried tricking the governor out of it in 1568, but he didn’t fall for it). Sir Francis Drake took it in 1586, and the local governor ended up paying a humiliatingly large sum of money to get it back. Its location, value as a port and magnificent harbour ensured that Drake was neither the first, nor the worst of the city’s attackers.
So, they built San Felipe de Barajas Fort. It’s also known as a “castle” but it’s not really – I suspect that’s a misunderstanding. Yes, it’s Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, but not in the sense that we understand castle. This was pure and utter military defense.
Unless they were soldiers assigned to the place, nobody lived here – even the governor lived in the walled city itself. It’s built on a hill that overlooks the town (or the town as it was when it was built)
The old city – the part the fort was designed to protect is to the left of the large island in the middle foreground of the map. The island is known as Bocagrande (big mouth) because of the large opening to the harbour on its right. (The small opening on the left of Bocagrande is now built over by roads.)
and is riddled with tunnels designed for defense and to get from one part of the fort to another without the enemy seeing or knowing you’re there.
Attackers who tried to negotiate the tunnels ended up facing a barrage of gunfire with no ability to respond.
Can you imagine being an attacking soldier and having to go into that?
That tunnel slopes down. Defenders stand at the top of the stairs, firing down. When you’re in the tunnel, you can’t see the end of it, so can’t fire on the defenders.
Several of the tunnels had side gaps, kind of internal guard houses where defending soldiers would stand. If you had no light (we had electric lights, but I can imagine how dark it would be with candles or lamps) you would be shot dead without ever knowing what hit you.
There was a stretch in here with no light. I had to feel my way along, and just as the wall disappeared, our guide spoke from directly beside me. Had I been an attacking soldier, I wouldn’t have been aware of anyone there, or of the shot that killed me.
The view from the top of the fort is magnificent,
and I figure it’s only surpassed by the view from the monastery on the mountain further inland. (Still functioning as a monastery, by the way).
After spending part of the morning climbing, ducking through tunnels and generally having a wonderful time, we boarded the bus for a trip to the oldest part of the town, the part that the fort had been designed to protect.