Note: We’re back from our trek on the Salkantay! During the next few days we’re resting in Cusco, so I’ll put together a map and day-by-day of our hike and post it here. Until then, more backlogged posts.
On the hill just outside of Cartagena’s walled city sits the hulking lithic form of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Begun in the year 1536 and expanded several times, this fortress stands as a tribute to the value Spain placed on Cartagena as a strategic location and trading port. The Spanish constructed the Castillo in seven independent sections, whose range of cannonfire overlapped. Any enemy who managed to take one section of the fortress found themselves under fire from at least another two sections, making capture of the whole fortress nearly impossible. The design was so effective that in 1741 a garrison of only 3,600 Spanish soldiers stationed at the fortress were able to repel a British force more than 7 times their number (27,000 soldiers and 186 boats). The soldiers at Castillo San Felipe sank 70 boats before the British gave up.
Visiting is a must if you’re in the city for two reasons: the Castillo’s preservation is impressive (it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and it offers great views of Cartagena. You can find hours and prices here, but there are also discounts for students and Colombian citizens. Depending on your walking speed and interest, you could spend anywhere between 1 and 3 hours at the Castillo.
Prep and getting there:
Holy blazing tropical suns, it’s hot at the Castillo during the day and the only shade is in the network of tunnels within the fortress. To prepare, we’d recommend bringing the following things to deal with the tropical sun: at least 1 liter of water for two people, a hat, sunscreen, and a light long-sleeved shirt to block the sun.
In terms of getting there, try to arrive when it opens and avoid noon-2 pm, which are the hottest parts of the day. To get there, walk 5-10 minutes out of the Walled City along Calle 30—this area of the city is safe during the day, and even in the evening we had no problems traveling as a pair. You can also take a taxi, but try not to pay more than 8,000 pesos (as of 2016) from the Walled City to the Castillo.
Things to see while there:
In the morning start with the outside of the castle, from the turrets to the massive Colombian flag over the city.
Visit the ramparts where the cannons still stand, the small bastions in the Castillo’s corners now full of graffiti, and the chapel-and-snack-shop to get a feel for how insanely huge the fortress is. The higher ramparts offer great views of Cartagena on a clear day.
Then as the sun heats up, dive down into the tunnels within the fortress for some relief.
Many of the short ones (for the storage areas) will look similar, but there’s a set of tunnels that will take you around the perimeter, then out to near the entrance. We’d also recommend the barracks tunnels because they dive deep into the fortress before meeting a fairly eerie dead end.
This section of the tour is of course not recommended for claustrophobic people, or for the matter very tall people; at tallest, the tunnels accommodate someone roughly 5’8”, and some places the tunnels shrink to as short as 5’. But it’s amazing to imagine that soldiers moved, worked, slept, and lived within these tunnels hundreds of years ago.
It’s not street food, but once you’re done at the Castillo you can head to the nearby mall Plaza El Castillo (complete with air conditioning and all you can tolerate shopping) for a bite to eat. The food court there has all the grilled meats your heart can desire, as well as vegetarian options and our beloved Don Jediondo. The restaurant chain Crepes and Waffles also offers vegetarian options and a beautiful range of decadent desserts and ice cream, as well as lovely views of the city.