The Port of Cartagena in Colombia was among the most strategic Spanish cities in the New World. It was considered so important, in fact, that the Spanish built not one but two of their largest colonial fortresses here: Fort San Felipe De Barajas and Fort San Sebastian De Pastelillo. From the 17th century onward these two fortifications and the fleets based at Cartagena allowed the Spanish to guard the eastern approaches to the Isthmus of Panama, and therefore to protect the vast wealth being plundered from the former Incan lands of Peru and Ecuador. The city of Cartagena and its fortifications are among the greatest architectural legacies left behind by the Spanish Empire in South America. The two fortresses are now a national symbol of Colombia and among the tourism highlights of that country.
Cartagena was founded in 1533 as the southernmost lynchpin of Spanish ports surrounding the Caribbean. The same year Spanish forces conquered the Incan Empire in western South America, and soon afterwards great shipments of gold and silver began pouring out of Peru and Ecuador. The easiest way to bring this wealth to Europe was by ship, with a brief land journey across Panama. This immediately made the Panama/Colombia region a prime target for pirate ships as well as the navies of Spain’s colonial rivals.
This vaulted the new colony of Cartagena to a position of major strategic importance. Realizing this, the Spanish invested heavily in the city, building massive walls and fortifications, possibly the best in the New World at the time. Unfortunately, Cartagena and the Panamanian sea routes were too tempting a target, and the city was assaulted on many occasions, and was conquered more than once. Among the notables who led attacks against the place were the English Captain John Hawkins and the pirate Francis Drake.
By the time the 1600s rolled around, the Spanish crown had had enough, and poured massive funds into Cartagena to make the city impregnable. The results were the fortresses of San Felipe de Barajas and San Sebastian de Pastelillo. These did the job admirably, and the city was rarely seriously threatened again. In proof of this, in 1741, the greatest English armada ever assembled and sent against the Spanish possessions in the Americas landed over 20,000 men outside of Cartagena but were easily repelled by the city’s garrisons, which totaled no more than 3,000.
The Spanish Empire in the Americas lasted for just over three centuries. However, beginning in the early 1800s, the Spanish colonies began to secede from the Empire, helped along in many places in South America by the forces of Simon Bolivar. Colombia and Cartagena became independent of Spain in 1821. As the balance of power in the Caribbean became established in the 19th century, and pirate activity settled down, Cartagena’s forts became increasingly less relevant, and were essentially decommissioned after the American conquest of Panama.
Fort San Filipe de Barajas is Cartagena’s main fortification and primary advance defensive position. It sits on a hill towering over the city to the west and part of the harbor to the south. The immense stone structure is believed to be the largest and strongest colonial fortress built by the Spanish anywhere in the world. Although it was built during the gunpowder age, in construction it is more like a traditional European castle rather than a 16th century-style fortification with sloped ramparts and diamond-shaped bastions. The fortress has been kept in good repair and is in excellent visitable condition.
Fort San Sebastian de Pastelillo is a more typical colonial fortress. Built on a small island south of the city, its primary purpose was to guard the entrance to the harbor. Built directly at the water’s edge, San Sebastian features a broad, simple design surrounded by the harbor on three sides. Its walls are lined with the garrison buildings surrounding a large open courtyard, with battery positions located all around the perimeter. This fort is now adjacent to and partially used by a local marina.
The city of Cartagena itself is enclosed by a wall, and is one of the largest walled citied in the Western Hemisphere. The main wall faces the Caribbean Sea and encloses most of the city’s Centro and San Diego districts. The secondary wall faces the lagoon/bay and encloses the Getsemant and La Matuna districts. Cartagena’s walls are in excellent shape and add a distinct colonial charm to this beautiful Caribbean City.
Fort San Felipe de Barajas is located to the east of Cartagena and protects the landward side of the city. Fort San Sebastian de Pastelillo is on an island to the south and protects the harbor. As of this writing, there was no visitor information available. Web: www.cartagenatravel.com (official tourism website of Cartagena).
Caragena is well protected by several other forts, and is itself a walled city. The Bay of Cartagena is largely blocked off by the island of Tierrabomba, which is protected by the city’s next greatest fortification, Fort San Fernando de Bocachica. Cartagena was also the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas, and most of the fun took place at the Palace of the Inquisition in the heart of the city.