Cartagena’s colonial city wall is one of the things the city is most well known for. Cartagena’s walls, much of them stilll in tact, is the best preserved example of colonial fortifications in the Americas. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in part due to the excellent preservation of Cartagena’s city wall, and strolling along them is undoubtedly a must do during a visit. Besides being a historical monument, Cartagena’s walls also have their own fascinating history. Read on to learn 10 interesting facts about Cartagena’s Walls you probably didn’t know.
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1. They Were Not Built as a Continuous Wall
You might notice that different parts of Cartagena’s walls have different heights and thicknesses. That is because, they were not truly built as one continuous wall. Instead, Cartagena’s wall was built in sections as a series of stand alone baluartes, or bastions. It was only a gradual process that saw the construction of each bastion and later stone “curtains” connecting them.
The first bastion built was the Baluarte de Santodomingo where the famous Café del Mar is located today. Its construction began in 1614.
The location was chosen to defend against a land force marching from the peninsula of Bocagrande. It had in fact been the site where Francis Drake’s troops had successfully attacked the city in 1586.
See also: A History of Francis Drake’s Attack on Cartagena
2. They Were Once Right on the Water
Today, the Bastion of Santodomingo would seem a curious place to defend from a land force marching from Bocagrande. In fact, much of Cartagena’s walls seem that way. That’s because modern landfill and construction has seen the expansion of the land mass between the walls and Bocagrande.
There was originally nothing but a narrow, 30 foot wide, isthmus between the two ending at the Bastion of Santodomingo. All of the land where Parque de la Marina, the tourist docks, and the traffic circle stand today were part of the city’s bay until modern times.
This was true of all of the Cartagena colonial wall. The rest of the sections of the Cartagena city wall from Café del Mar to the Clocktower would have also run just along the edge of the bay, while the sections stretching the other direction bordered the sea.
The Avenida Venezuela that runs from outside of the clocktower between Getsemaní and Centro was a narrow inlet overgrown with mangroves. A bridge at the city’s gate connected the two islands. Today, pipes under the road still house the water from the inlet.
Water was used as a natural ally in the construction of the walls, and the only land approaches to the city were from that narrow sandbar from Bocagrande and the area known as La Cruz Grande Avenue, where today the neighborhoods of El Cabrero and Marbella are located. Naturally, this became the site of the next section of wall built, the imposing twin Bastions of San Lucas and Santa Catalina completed in 1638.
3. An Extension Was Built to Keep it That Way
The downside of this strategic advantage of the Cartagena colonial wall was that the water caused the stone to deteriorate, and especially on the side facing the sea, the walls had to be constantly repaired. It was particularly problematic for the Baluarte de Santa Catalina.
The engineer Antonio de Ar´évalo solved this by dropping stones off shore, sort of like an underwater jetty, all along the sea wall. This caused the buildup of new land along the wall, protecting it from the waves. However, this solution actually worked even better than Arévalo intended. The new land was so extensive that it could have been used by an attacking force to bypass the walls.
Arévalo now had to build a short extension to the wall to protect this new gap. Known as Las Tenazas, you’ll notice this odd looking, shorter extension of the wall built in 1779 jutting out from the corner of Cartagena’s wall facing the sea passing from El Cabrero to Centro.
4. All of the Bastions Are Named After Saints
The Bastion of Santodomingo was originally named San Felipe, but came to be known for the nearby convent. However, its building inaugurated a tradition that continued. Next were built the Bastions of San Lucas and Santa Catalina.
The third section of Cartagena’s wall, facing towards the bay, was originally known as the Bastion of the Baskets due to its construction with earth filled baskets. However, it later had to be rebuilt (see the next interesting fact) and was renamed the Bastion de San Ignacio, after the nearby Jesuit church that now bears the name of San Pedro Claver.
This reaffirmed what now became a running tradition of naming all the city’s fortifications, including Cartagena’s walls after Catholic Saints.
5. The Jesuit Church and the Authorities Feuded Over a Section
The reason the Bastion of San Ignacio had to be rebuilt is because the Jesuit Order had built on top of a section of the original Cartagena wall.
The Jesuits built part of the church and monastery now known as San Pedro Claver Church atop a section of the wall. Giving any potential attacker a big target and interfering with the city’s defenses. The Jesuits had also built two archways into the wall, creating a weak point.
This construction led to a drawn out 30 year dispute between the church and the colonial military authorities. At one point, a demolition order even came from the king in Spain.
In the end, the dispute was resolved when the Jesuits agreed to pay for the construction of a new section of wall. Keep in mind that the water came right up to the wall. They had to first drop down stone in the water before building the wall atop it. Today only part of it remains.
The Spanish authorities required there be enough space for a patrol to pass through, leaving the narrow alley known as Callejón de la Ronda. You can walk the alley today to the left of the front of the San Pedro Claver Church. You can also see the original stonework of this section of Cartagena’s walls.
6. They Collected Rain for Drinking Water
One of the challenges that long faced Cartagena was its lack of access to fresh water. This challenge continued until the early 1900s before the city had proper aqueducts. It is partly the cause of the great cholera epidemic of the mid 1800s that serves as the backdrop for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.
With no access to a river or other fresh water source, the city relied on the collection of rainwater. Cisterns were included for its collection in many of the bastions of Cartagena’s walls. In this way the city’s walls quite literally were life givers as well as life protectors for its citizens.
7. Some Sections Originally Had Cannons Built into Them
Cartagena’s three earliest bastions (Santodomingo, San Lucas and Santa Catalina) originally had cannon emplacements located half way up at their corners. These were meant to fire on any soldiers who attempted to flank them. As the walls underwent later renovations, they had become obsolete and were filled in.
However, you can still see traces of their locations today. The vaults on either side of the ramp up to Café del Mar that today house bathrooms and another bar restaurant held ramps up to these cannons in the Bastion of Santodomingo.
One of the openings was restored after the floor of the Bastion of Santa Catalina collapsed during modern renovations. You can see it today if you walk around the corner on the left side of the corner facing the sea from Cabrero. You can also see a secret passageway that leads up to the center of the bastion (although it usually remains shut today).
8. They Took 184 Years to Fully Complete
As noted before, the first section of the wall built was the Bastion of Santodomingo, whose foundations were laid in 1614. Most of the Cartagena’s walls (including those around Getsemaní) were actually completed by 1631. However, some sections still were protected by nothing more than a wooden wall.
Following heavy damage taken during the 1697 attack by the French privateer Barón de Pointis, extensive renovations of the walls were undertaken that lasted a hundred more years. In addition to the renovations of the Cartagena city walls, extensive construction took place to protect the bay with the forts of Bocachica and an expansion of the Castillo San Felipe fort outside the city. As part of this reinforcing of the city’s defenses, the last part of the walls were completed in 1798.
See also: Visitor’s Guide to the Castillo San Felipe, History of the Castillo San Felipe, and Visitor’s Guide to the Forts of Bocachica
9. Las Bovedas Were the Last Section Completed
Much of this construction was planned by the engineer Antonio de Arévalo. Las Bovedas de Santa Clara were his crowning achievement and left the city fully enclosed by stone. Located behind the Bastion of Santa Catalina, this area had only been protected by a crude wooden palisade, even as stone walls were built around the rest of the city. Begun in 1789, the Bovedas were completed a decade later.
The Bovedas were bomb proof barracks meant to provide safe shelter from artillery fire for the city’s defenders. It is hard to imagine getting a good night’s rest with your city under siege, but that was Arévalo’s goal. The chambers were also meant to safely store gunpowder and provisions.
To help make the troops more comfortable, Arévalo included an elaborate ventilation system with arched vents along the floor between each chamber. These worked with the musket slits facing the sea and larger openings on either side of the structure to create a cross breeze. You can still see the arch ways in some of the tourist shops today.
The Bovedas were used as a prison during the independence era, with patriots being held there after the Spanish retook the city in 1815.
10. There Was Originally No Clocktower
Cartagena’s iconic clocktower was not an original feature of its walls. In fact, the city originally had no proper entryway or gate here. A wooden drawbridge did connect the island of Calamarí (where Centro stands) to the adjacent island Getsemaní.
Though oftentimes considered as such today, this was not truly considered the the main entrance of the city. The main entrance was considered to be the fortified Gate of the Media Luna (disappeared today, but located roughly at the end of the Calle Media Luna).
Eventually a small main gate was constructed, but it was destroyed by Pointis in 1697. In 1704, the engineer Juan de Herrera y Sotomayor (who was responsible for many of the Cartagena city walls renovations) built a new, more impressive gate. It had three bombproof vaults located under archways. Originally, only the center one served pedestrians, while the other two were used for storage.
Herrera crowned his new majestic gate with a clock and bell tower with a spire. In 1888, the octagonal towers and spire that are visible today replace Herrera’s original.
Today, the blend of early 18th century military engineering and 19th century architecture stands as Cartagena’s most iconic site, a must for photos and gracing countless postcards.
See also: Best Photos to Take in Cartagena
Want to learn more about Cartagena’s city walls?
I learned nearly all of these facts from Rodolfo Segovia’s excellent book The Fortifications of Cartagena: Strategy and History. Excellently written, it explains the military strategy and history of construction of Cartagena’s wall and the city’s other fortifications. Lots of maps, figures, and photos also help to understand the walls’ strategic locations, and the book is filled with interesting tid bits, of which I have only scratched the surface here.
I highly, highly recommend it for those interested in learning more about Cartagena’s walls and fortifications. You can see my full review for the book here, pick it up at local bookstores, or check it out on Amazon.
There you have it, 10 things you probably didn’t know about Cartagena’s walls. I hope you enjoyed it, learned something, and can now impress your friends on a stroll around Cartagena’s wall when you 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 the Fortifications of Bocachica
Visitors Guide to Cartagena’s Naval Museum
A Comprehensive History of Cartagena (long read)
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