While Frank and I were in Cartagena last month one of the coolest things that we did was take a tour of Cartagena Bay that was offered by our hotel, Casa La Fe. In the morning we met our boat captain, J, in the lobby and Frank and I walked with him out to the marina about ten minutes away. Since we were coming from Centro we started our journey in Bahía de las Animas, a bay north of Bahía de Cartagena (Cartagena Bay). The three of us hopped on the small boat and we were off. As we left we had a beautiful view of Iglesia de San Pedro Claver from the water.
J was incredibly friendly and spoke a bit of English, but the bulk of the tour was done by an audio player that we listened to as we stopped at different places.
Along the way we learned a lot about how the Spanish defended and built fortifications for the city. Being one of Spain's most important and richest ports in the New World, Cartagena was an attractive target for attack. Notable attacks included Sir Francis Drake destroying about a quarter of the city in 1586 and demanding an exorbitant ransom to leave as well as a 1697 raid by the French who plundered the city. To protect their city the Spanish poured incredible amounts of money into building walls and fortifications to defend Cartagena.
From Bahía de las Animas we headed east past an old fortification (now a nightclub, according to J) into Laguna de San Lazaro.
From the lagoon we could see the immense Castillo San Filipe de Barajas. Begun in 1536, the fortress was expanded several times over the next 200 years. From its location situated on the Hill of San Lazaro the canons of the fortress could protect the whole bay. Frank and I visited Castillo San Filipe to explore it a few days later on our trip.
Heading back out of the lagoon we proceed south into Bahía de Cartagena passing one of Caragena's first forts, San Sebastián del Pastelillo. Built in the 16th century it is quite small and now home to the Club de Pesca Restaurant. It also has a small marina and we made a quick stop for bottled water there.
As we continued on we had some nice views of the skyscrapers in the Bocagrande area of Cartagena. We also passed a statue in the water of Virgen del Carmen, patron saint and protector of fisherman and sailors.
Bahía de Cartagena has two entrances from the Caribbean, Bocagrande (big mouth) in the north and Bocachica (small mouth) in the south. As we looked out to the Bocagrande channel it appeared to be a great place for ships to enter the bay. Looks can be deceiving, however, and the channel was blocked by the Spanish as part of the city defenses, first by sunken ships which were then later fortified by boulders.
We sped south along the Bay for a while, heading to the southern end of the island of Tierra Bomba to visit the defenses that Spain had built to guard the Bocachica channel. With Bocagrande up north blocked, Bocachica was the only way into the bay and it was vital to guard the entrance.
Our first stop was to visit the hilltop fortification of Batería del Ángel San Rafael. We docked the boat in the small town along the water.
It was a very hot day and as we walked with J through town most people were taking cover in the shade from the blistering sun. J seemed to know everyone in town chatting with everyone we passed.
As we got a little higher up, we had a lovely view back over the town and water.
As we got closer to the battery, the pathway was lined with pretty mosaics depicting scenes in Colombia.
After a finally summiting the hill, we reached Batería del Ángel San Rafael. The battery had a small number of cannons pointed across the Tierra Bomba plain to help defend Castillo San Fernando de Bocachica down below.
Looking back toward the bay and little town we had some beautiful views overlooking the water.
At the point we learned about the coolest thing regarding the fort: the tunnel system underneath it. The structure in the center, which I hadn't paid much attention to previously, actually covered the ramp to enter into the tunnels.
The tunnels were really cool to wander around in and J showed us around with his flashlight.
Inside the tunnels were tons of tiny fruit bats. It was a little surreal to be walking in the tunnels and then have a bunch fly right at you because you accidently scared them. Frank got a few videos of them which were really neat.
The tunnels design included a trap for invaders. The idea was that they would enter the tunnels which would end in them exiting into a dry moat where they would be ambushed by Spanish soilders.
As we walked back through town, J pointed out a few old entrances down into the tunnel system of the battery.
We got back on the boat and made the short trip to the nearby Castillo San Fernando de Bocachica. We had some great view of the fort from the water as we passed by.
We had a wet landing a few hundred feet away from the fort on a little beach covered with palm trees.
We were hungry so we decided to have lunch before touring Castillo San Fernando de Bocachica. Many of the locals were excited to try and sell some souvenirs to us while we were sitting down and I ended up buying a lovely shell necklace and bracelet.
While we were relaxing in the shade and chatting with some of the locals, someone noticed that the boat had gotten loose and was heading out into the rocks. J ran out to the water, swam to the boat and rescued it just in time.
While lunch was being prepared we had some delicious small oysters that had been harvested right from the bay.
Our lunch of fresh fish and plantains was excellent. Frank and I each had a different type of fish and we tried a bit of each others.
Rested and full, we headed off to see Castillo San Fernando de Bocachica. One of the locals, S, came with us to be a guide to the fortress. He had spent a few years living in New York and had some vestiges of a New York accent when he was speaking in English.
Inside Castillo San Fernando de Bocachica the fort was laid out in a large circular pattern.
At the very center in the ground was a hole filled with water. S said that it was used like a PA system by the Spanish. If you yelled down into the water it helped amplify the sound across the fort. He tried it to show us and it worked pretty well.
We headed through one if the many interior doors to a landing that we saw from the sea.
I was really impressed with the huge mechanism and out on the landing we had a nice, close up view of the outside of the fort.
Back inside we spent time touring around all the the passageways and rooms on the first floor. Everything was built with teardrop shaped rooflines for stability. There was no power so some of the areas were completely dark and we just had to feel our way through. Luckily S knew the fort inside and out and did a great job of guiding us.
We then proceeded up the ramp to check out the batteries on the upper level at Castillo San Fernando de Bocachica.
From the high vantage point we had a great bird's eye view overlooking the inside of the fort.
We also had a fabulous view overlooking the bay and could even see the small fishing town we had walked through earlier.
In the middle of the channel we had a view of Fuerte Bateria de San Jose. It was built at the beginning of the 17th century. It was designed to cross fire with Castillo de San Fernando to prevent invaders from entering the Bay through Bocachica.
We continued walking around the battery enjoying the beautiful day.
As we continued around we had a view back toward our landing spot. The turret looking structure on the right housed a steep spiral staircase.
We descended down the spiral staircase back to the main level of the fortress.
As one last stop before we left, S wanted to show us the bathroom. Not only were the holes from the original latrine for the fort there, but there was also a port-a-potty for the modern visitors to use. I thought it was funny and fitting that they had done that.
After a wonderful tour we left Castillo San Fernando de Bocachica.
We returned back to our landing spot where J and the boat were waiting for us.
We sped back to Cartagena, passing by many of the sights we had seen on the way out. Before we knew it we were approaching Centro.
We thanked J for a wonderful day, said our goodbyes and headed back into the city.
It was a really wonderful day and seeing how several of the various fortifications fit together to defend Cartagena in person really made it come together for me in a way that just reading about it or seeing it on a map would not have done. We also really enjoyed our time chatting with the locals at Bocachica and getting to understand them a little better. If you find yourself in Cartagena I would definitely recommend it!