Connecting flight took off early from Bogota. Arrived Cartagena 20 minutes ahead of schedule. All equipment arrived after having been checked baggage in Letica. Taxi to center Cartagena took only 10 minutes. First went to the Mamallena hostel because I’d had a good experience in Panama City, Panama with a hostel run by the same folks while on my eighteen month motorcycle adventure from NH to Argentina.
This being Semana Santa (Holy week), Cartagena is loaded with tourists. Mamallena was full as were three others. Lugging equipment around a strange city at 11PM is an odd experience. Found a vacancy at the MamaWaldy hostel in Getsemani district. Only two spaces left.Hostel entrance is directly at the corner
MamaWaldi hosts mostly 20 to 30 something international travellers as is typical of most South American hostels. My dorm has 6 bunks. I was lucky to snag a lower berth. Lots of chicas from Germany, Denmark, Australia, Brittain, and US and a few Colombianas. Hard to keep myself from ogling. This is a hot climate and so a minimum of clothing is worn. I am the only male in my dorm. Tough duty, I tell you.
Next morning after coffee I had a shower and went out to have my first look at Cartagena in the daylight. I had read James Michener’s book ‘Caribbean’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caribbean_%28novel%29) many years ago while living on the island of St. Croix and working on the Hess oil refinery there. I therefore, had an idea about what I wanted to see. Michener’s descriptions of the fortifications have been rolling around in my mind a long time.
I am always interested in the history of people and places. Being aware of past histories is the only method I know that affords a glimmer of understanding regarding the way people, places, and institutions got to be the way they are now.
Cartagena: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartagena,_Colombia) is one of the oldest fortified settlements in the ‘new world’… which was not new at all to the millions of humans who had lived here long before the arrival of the Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch, French, or Brits.
Imagine being one of the men who sailed across the mysterious ocean in small wooden boats to a land that had only been ‘discovered’ a few years prior.
Your mission was to claim the land for your king and/or queen, to force your religion on those who knew absolutely nothing of your views about anything AND to steal as much gold and other goodies that you could and send them back to the folks who put up the dough to build your boat and outfit you and your crew. That is a fairly accurate description of what the first Spanish ‘conquistadores’ were really all about.
You needed a pretty heavy duty fort if you were going to be able to hang on to the the gold that you stole from the Incas. Why? Because not long after word went out that gold had been looted and REALLY existed, there were other young lads called pirates who were willing to risk life and limb to steal your stolen gold from you.
There was another group known as ‘privateers’. A privateer is a kind of sanitized version of a pirate. A privateer worked for the king or queen of a different country. A privateer was ‘officially sanctioned’ to steal the booty in the name of the opposing nation. A privateer’s vessel was bought and paid for and outfitted with funds directly from the king or queen of some other nation.
Francis Drake was one such fellow. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Drake) You may notice that he dressed well and Queen Elizabeth even gave him a few fancy titles. She bought him a nice ship and paid for the equipment and crew for Francis. Why?
Well, the deal was that he was to attack those evil Spaniards and steal the gold that they had stolen from the Incas and bring it back to merry old England. Drake was an ‘official representative’ of England. So, he wasn’t really actually… er, ah, stealing. He was just ‘warring’ with the bad guys. And he was really good at it.
Human history is kind of funny once you get past being offended by all the high sounding twisted truths that are inserted in the official history books and begin doing a bit of your own thinking about the situation(s).
Cartagena was a strategic position. From Cartagena ships could be dispatched to any part of the Caribbean, including what is now Panama (The Spanish Main) to pick up the Incan gold transported from Peru and across the isthmus to the counting house in Portobello. From Cartagena ships could also set a course to the Atlantic and South to Asuncion.
That is how Cartagena came to be arguably the most heavily fortified city in the Caribbean. If you could take Cartagena, you had a chance at putting a dent in the Spanish domination of South America, and hence, have a shot at grabbing the gold.
The clocktower of the walled (old) city of CartagenaThe walls are made of carved coral rock and are 12 feet thick and 16 feet high. The wall encircles the old part of town. This rampart faces NW toward the Caribbean. The young ladies were visiting from Cucuta
Francis Drake captured Cartagena in 1586. A continued effort was made to build higher, stronger, more strategic defenses.
One such effort manifested itself in the form of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castillo_San_Felipe_de_Barajas)
Amazing is the only way to describe it. If you want to get a different view of the place, get a dvd of the movie ‘Romancing the Stone’ (1984). It is a light romantic comedy with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088011/) The big showdown between the good guys and the bad guys happens in a place that looks just like this place.
The slaves who built San Felipe probably did not find much to laugh about. It is said that the stones were splashed with their blood. Cartagena was a major slave port. It is also known for being the first place to begin freeing African slaves.
An even more strategically important location for the protection of Cartagena sits at the only entrance to Cartagena’s harbor. It sits on a long island called Terrabomba. Took a boat to the island specifically to visit this spot. Received an impromtu history lesson about the fort from a local fisherman who spoke excellent English. He had been to the US and had traveled to many islands in the Caribbean.
The man informed me that Lawrence Washington (George Washington’s older half brother) had visited this very fort the name of which is now called Castillo San Fernando De Bocachica. Astonishing, what you discover about history, sometimes when you least expect it. Lawrence Washington accompanied a Vice admiral Edward Vernon to Gran Colombia in 1740. The fort protects the entrance to Cartagena. Any ship wishing to sail to Cartagena city must pass this spot.
The British (Washington and Vernon) did take the fort which was then called Fort San Luis De Bocachica. Same location. The new fort (SanFernando de Bocachica) was built with the remnants of the old one.
Thus, the British won that fort but they lost the battle. The battle of Cartagena de Indias (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cartagena_de_Indias)
It is now believed that Mount Vernon, the Virginian estate of the Washington family was named ‘Vernon’ for a reason relating to the Battle of Cartagena de Indias. Lawrence Washington was so impressed with the military valor of Vice Admiral Edward Vernon that he named the family spread in his honor