With its imposing city walls and massive Castillo San Felipe Fortress, it’s obvious the Spanish wanted to protect Cartagena. However, these were the last lines of defense. The first line of defense was a series of fortifications at the entrance to the bay at Bocachica. These lesser known, but well-preserved forts are easily visitable if you know how to get there. If you’d like to see these interesting examples of colonial fortifications, read on for a complete guide to how to visit the fortifications of Bocachica.
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Why Visit the Forts of Bocachica?
A walk atop the colonial era city walls of Cartagena and a visit to the imposing Castillo San Felipe Fortress are must dos during a visit to Cartagena. However, those interested in military history, colonial fortification architecture, and understanding more about the city’s history shouldn’t stop there. A visit to the forts in Bocachica will give you a deeper appreciation of the defenses of Cartagena and the massive effort and expenditure that went into it.
*See also: Must Do Activities in Cartagena
There are 3 excellently preserved forts in Bocachica, the Castillo San Fernando, the San José Fort, and the Angel San Rafael Fort. These were meant to be the first line of defense of the city and if not outright stop, at least delay any enemy fleet from making its way towards the city in the inner bay.
Admission to all 3 forts is always free.
Below, I’m going to give you a brief history of the forts. Ok, as a history teacher, I have a tough time being brief. If you’d like to learn about their constructions and importance to Cartagena’s colonial defenses read on, or if not, skip down to how to get there.
History of the Forts of Bocachica
In 1586, Francis Drake led a successful attack on Cartagena. After taking the city, he and his men looted it, burned many of its buildings, and only left after receiving a hefty ransom. This prompted the construction of fortifications to protect the city from future attacks.
This construction included the city walls and a fort on a hill outside the walls that was later expanded to be the massive Castillo San Felipe. However, these were meant to be the last lines of defense. There were also fortifications built in the bay to prevent an enemy fleet from entering and getting close to the city in the first place.
*See also: Visitors Guide to the Castillo San Felipe
First, a short geography lesson. There are two channels entering Cartagena’s bay on either side of the island known as Tierra Bomba. The larger, and most commonly used one was known as Bocagrande (literally big mouth) and today lends its name to the nearby neighborhood. Too wide to easily defend, the city’s defenses focused instead on protecting the inner bay.
Meanwhile, the smaller channel, known as Bocachica (literally little mouth) is located between the other side of Tierra Bomba and a small key off the coast of Barú. It was originally rarely used due to the smaller width and less favorable winds.
However, sediment began to build up in the Bocagrande Channel, and in 1640, 3 Portuguese ships ran aground. This only sped up the process, and within a few years, a narrow strip of land with mangroves spanned the entire Bocagrande channel, blocking it.
For the defense of the city, this proved to be a stroke of luck. The narrower Bocachica channel was more easily controlled. Ships had to pass in single file and cannon fire could cover the entire width of the channel.
The Castillo San Luís de Bocachica was the first fortification built on the island between 1647 and 1661. It was destroyed by the French privateer Barón de Pointis in 1697. It was reconstructed between 1719 and 1725.
At this time, the fort of San José was also built on the key on the other side of the channel to create a crossfire at the entrance of the bay. A floating chain also ran between the two forts.
Pointis had landed on the island outside the range of the fort and attacked it over land. Three small fortifications were built to prevent a future land attack. However, they failed to stop Edward Vernon’s massive fleet from following Pointis’s example and landing and marching on San Luís, destroying it and San José.
Fortunately, the forts had at least partly served their purpose and delayed Vernon’s entrance to the bay. The time he took to take them contributed to the onset of yellow fever and other diseases among his men. When they tried to assault the city itself, they were too weakened and Vernon was forced to sail away.
*See also: History of Vernon’s Attack on Cartagena
Still, Vernon’s attack had been too close of a call. Reconstruction, renovation, and expansion of all of Cartagena’s defenses occurred in the late 1700s. This would include new forts on Bocachica.
However, another shift of water flow in the bay had caused the Bocagrande Channel to reopen. However, the strategic defense value of the narrower channel of Bocachica was too great an advantage. An underwater wall was constructed to keep Bocagrande closed permanently. Even today, boats more than a few feet deep are unable to pass.
This assured that the rebuilt defenses would be to protect the Bocachica Channel. Fort San José was rebuilt with a wedge shaped wall looking out to sea and a slanted line of cannons the designer called a “water flower” running along the water line in the channel.
On Tierra Bomba, a new fort named Castillo San Fernando was built as a semicircular fort with two rectangular batteries on either side to help prevent land attacks.
There were worries this new fort could still fall prey to the same attack from a land force. Therefore, the Fort El Ángel San Rafael was constructed atop a hill overlooking the land approaches.
Fortunately for Cartagena’s colonial residents and us today, no other enemy ever tested Cartagena’s formidable defenses. That means these forts are still intact and can be enjoyed in all their 18th century splendor today. Read on to learn how to get to the forts in Bocachica and what to see at each.
How to Get to Bocachica From Cartagena
There are not any tours that I know of that take you to the forts in Bocachica, but they can be reached independently fairly easily.
To get to Bocachica:
- Go to the docks at El Muelle del Bodeguita on the waterfront in front of the wall just up from the Clocktower.
- Enter at entrance number 3.
- The first boats should leave around 6 am and leave as they fill up throughout the day.
- The cost should be 5,000 pesos (last updated May 2019).
The boat is technically only for locals, but they shouldn’t give you a hard time if you say you are going to see the forts, although it’s best to have exact change and hand it to them like you know what you are doing.
The boat will make several stops along the way. You will want to get off at the last one. They may be willing to take you all the way to the dock outside of Castillo San Fernando, but you may have get off in town. For us, that was the third stop. If in doubt ask someone, as they should be nice about it.
If they do take you all the way to the fort, or even if they don’t for that matter, be aware there may be guys hustling you for guided tours at the docks. It is up to you if you want to do that, but in my experience there’s a fair bit of pseudo history and exaggeration that goes into these. Either way, don’t be afraid to give your best and most insistent “No, gracias” if you don’t want a guide. And if you do, be sure you agree on price before.
What to See at the Forts in Bocachica
Fort Ángel San Rafael
I would advise visiting this fort first. It is about a 20 minute walk through town and up a hill.
Hardly ever visited, you’ll likely be all alone. The fort is extremely well preserved. You will cross a little bridge over the 10+ foot tall dry moat and into a small semi-circular fort overlooking the forested land in front.
Once inside, you can see a row of cannons facing out towards that land and the ocean beyond. Be sure to walk to the edge of the walls and look down into the dry moat. I would not have wanted to had to climb down then back up that moat after climbing the hill.
While atop the wall, be sure to take in the view out towards the ocean. It makes it easy to understand the fort’s strategic importance and how it could control the land approaches to the other fort. You can also get some great views of the bay and the high rises of Bocagrande beyond off to the right.
If you’re feeling especially adventurous, there is a tunnel from the center of the fort that runs about 100 meters underground and comes out near the waterfront in town. This tunnel was to be a means of escape in the event the fort’s defenders had to abandon it.
If you want to explore the tunnel, be sure to bring a flashlight, and be aware there are some bats. Susana was having none of the bats when we visited, especially with no flashlight, but it would be neat to follow it through to the exit below.
Fort San José
After Ángel San Rafael, we walked through town to the beach and toward the Castillo San Fernando. At the beach we asked a couple guys with a boat about taking us across the channel to see Fort San José.
San José can only be reached by boat. The guys we asked charged 30,000 pesos to take the three of us across and wait for half an hour or so while we walked around and saw the fort.
If you don’t see boats on the beach, you could also check the dock beside the Castillo. The 30,000 is what they said to us first and we thought it was fair, but you could try to negotiate using it as a reference point.
When we went, the main courtyard was quite muddy (it was rainy season), but you can sneak in a cannon opening on the left side to avoid the wetter main entrance. Downstairs you can see the covered cannon casemates. Upstairs, you can get a great view out to sea and of the Castillo San Fernando across the channel.
When engineer Antonio de Arévalo was tasked with rebuilding San José after Vernon’s attack, he included small holes under each cannon emplacement to allow water from incoming waves to wash in to the fort. The idea was that as the water drained out it would reduce the impact of the next wave, slowing the deterioration of the stone fort. You can still see these simple but ingenious 18th century valves today, and they surely have helped the fort stand the test of time and tide.
Outside the main fort, you can see the “water flower” battery that runs parallel to the channel. The cannons of the main fort were meant to damage ships’ masts, sails, and riggings, while the lower cannons were meant to strike their hulls. Walking along the cannon emplacements that were designed to fire one by one as a ship passed, you get an idea how difficult it would have been for an attacking fleet to blast its way through to the city’s bay.
Castillo San Fernando
Next we went to the Castillo San Fernando, the best known of Cartagena’s forts in Bocachica. If you choose not to go over to San José, then head left facing the beach to find San Fernando.
The entrance is at the corner where the the ocean runs into the channel. You’ll notice the semicircular fort with its two rectangular batteries on either side to help protect the land side from attack. Cross the bridge over the wet moat and into the entrance of the fort.
There may be guided tours on offer inside the fort, which should be more reliable than any hustlers offer you outside the fort. We didn’t do a tour or ask about the price.
Inside is a large, U shaped central courtyard with a ramp up to the main ramparts. Just inside the entrance to the right there is also a hidden winding staircase that takes you up to the top of the fort.
Top side, you can get some great views of the ocean, the bay, and the Fort of San José across the channel. You can also see a powder magazine with an adjacent stair that lets you climb up on top of the walls.
Only some of the downstairs vaults are open to visitors and you may see some bats hanging out in the passageways. You can see the bathroom, nothing more than holes in the stone that vented out into the sea. In a nice twist, the portapotty facilities are located there today. You might not complain as much about stinky portajohns if you imagine being stationed here in the late 1700s with round holes in the stone for your bathroom.
The highlight of downstairs is walking out on the little dock in the channel where you can see San José across the way and take in the Castillo’s walls.
Other Things to See in Bocachica
Battery Santa Barbara
Just outside across from town, you can see the remains of the Battery Santa Barbara, a platform for cannons built into the water, meant to support the forts and fire on any ships that made it past them.
Battery San Felipe
Located to the right facing the beach, you can see the ruins of the Battery San Felipe, one of the batteries attacked by Vernon in 1741. There isn’t much there now and it is a bit of a hike to get there.
Remains of El Horno del Gran Diablo
The hill that Ángel San Rafael is built on was known in colonial times as El Horno (the oven) because of the many kilns that covered it. The largest was known as El Horno del Gran Diablo (oven of the devil). The kilns in Bocachica were used to make the limestone that was used in the construction of Cartagena’s fortifications, many of its buildings, and even the facade of the San Pedro Claver Church.
You can find the front wall of El Gran Diablo still standing in the backyard of a local resident on the way to the beach from Ángel San Rafaael. It stands as a silent testament to the hard labor of the island’s residents’ ancestors. You can learn more about it and the other historic kilns around Cartagena in this article (Spanish).
Chill Out on the Beach
After visiting San Fernando, we hung out on the beach for a while. We enjoyed some cold beers after lots of walking, and a good, and moderately priced, fish lunch.
The waters are calm and good for a swim as well, so you may want to bring along a bathing suit to go swimming. The beach also rarely gets crowded, so its perfect for a relaxing afternoon after a morning of exploring the forts.
How to Get Back to Cartagena
We were able to get a boat back to Cartagena from the beach itself for 7,000 pesos, just a bit more than the normal price. If there aren’t boats at the beach, you may have to walk back to the main dock in town, where you should be able to get one.
The last boats from Bocachica back to Cartagena leave from town around 4:30, but they could be full, so you may want to go earlier to be sure you get back.
Practical Tips for a Visit to the Forts of Bocachica
- Remember entrance to all three forts is always free.
- They should be open from 8 am-5 pm.
- There are not any ATMs in Bocachica, so make sure you have sufficient cash on you for the boats and if you plan to have lunch.
- Be sure you bring along sunscreen, shades, and/or a good hat as the sun can get hot.
- Don’t forget to bring along a flashlight if you want to explore the tunnel from Ángel San Rafael.
- Be wary of the “tour guides” hustling when you get off the boat as well as any other vendors.
- Make sure you arrange for your transportation back to Cartagena by 4:30.
Want to learn more about Cartagena’s fortifications?
One of the only downsides of the forts in Bocachica is none have any real display information about their history. Therefore, without knowing some context, it’s hard to know what you’re seeing besides some cool, old stone work.
I highly recommend Rodolfo Segovia’s book The Fortifications of Cartagena: Strategy and History. It gives a detailed overview of all the city’s fortifications, their strategic importance, and their histories. It is a fascinating read and I used it to help me write the section on history in this post. Check out my full book review to learn more. You can also order it for yourself on Amazon or pick it up at local books stores in Cartagena.
You can also learn more about the forts and visiting them at the Fortifications of Cartagena Website.
There you have it, a complete guide to visiting the colonial forts of Bocachica. If you decide to go, I hope you enjoy and this helps you plan your visit.
Cheers and Happy Exploring!
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You may also be interested in the following posts:
Visitors Guide to the Castillo San Felipe Fortress
Visitors Guide to Cartagena’s Naval Museum
A Comprehensive History of Cartagena (long read) or A Primer on the History of Cartagena (short read)
A History of Francis Drake’s Raid on Cartagena
A History of the 1741 Battle of Cartagena
Planning your trip to explore Cartagena?
Check out the following posts to help plan:
Insider’s Guide to the Best Areas to Stay in Cartagena
Complete Packing List for Cartagena
Top Things to Do in Cartagena