Visit South America’s Largest Spanish Fortification – A Guide to Cartagena’s Castillo San Felipe Fortress

Located just a short cannon ball’s throw outside of Cartagena’s historic walled city, the Castillo San Felipe Fortress is hard to miss, and it is certainly a can’t miss activity during a visit to Cartagena.  Built on top of a hill, this massive fortress was the largest Spanish colonial fortification on mainland South America.  It was meant to repel any foreign or pirate invaders trying to get their hands on Cartagena’s colonial riches, and it played a decisive role in stopping an attack by the English in 1741.  Today, visitors can explore the fort and take in its impressive stonework, walk through its eery, winding tunnels, and enjoy the great views of the colonial city from its walls.  Read on for a visitor’s guide to Cartagena’s Castillo San Felipe Fortress, including its history, what you will see, how to get there, and visitor information.

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The massive San Felipe Fort in Cartagena in the background with a few palm trees in the foreground.
The San Felipe Fort is an imposing structure. I wouldn’t want to march against its walls.

History of the Castillo San Felipe Fortress

Cartagena was enormously important to Spanish colonial rule.  It was a seat of military power and a center of trade, especially the export of precious metals mined in the colonies and the import of slaves and European produced goods.  This trade made it wealthy.

Therefore, it’s no surprise Cartagena was a target of foreign powers and pirates throughout its history.  Most famously, Sir Francis Drake succeeded in sacking the city in 1586, looting it after an occupation of a month.

After Drake’s attack, the Spanish began the construction of a number of fortifications to protect Cartagena.  Among them were the city’s iconic walls and the fort that became the massive Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.

Built on top of the 40m high hill of San Lazaro, the first fort at the site dates to 1536 and bore the name of the hill.  It was later expanded and given the name of San Felipe de Barajas in 1657.

A view of Cartagena's bay with a section of the wall running along the water taken from atop the walls of Castillo San Felipe Fortress.
This view of the bay from atop the fortress helps put into perspective the strategic location of the Castillo San Felipe Fortress.

However, this fort still paled in comparison to the structure that stands today.  Consisting roughly of the central, highest part of the fort, it was meant to garrison only 20 men and 6-8 cannons.  Unfortunately, this fort did fall to the French privateer Baron de Pointis when he took the city in 1697.

However, the fort would play a decisive role in the greatest colonial battle of Cartagena’s history.  In 1741, during the War of Jenkin’s Ear, named for a British sailer whose ear was cut off by the Spanish, Edward Vernon attacked Cartagena with a massive force.

Vernon had over 120 ships and more than 20,000 men.  Cartagena, meanwhile, boasted a defense force of no more than 6,000 men.  The defense of the city was led by Admiral Blas de Lezo, who had a peg leg, peg arm, and eye patch and is often considered the model for the image of the pirate in modern pop culture.  He and his forces prepared for the coming British onslaught.

On April 20, after taking the bay’s outer defenses and landing ground forces, the British forces attempted a night assault on San Felipe’s walls.  The fort’s defenders successfully repelled them, and the British forces, already suffering from tropical disease, were forced to retreat and leave the city unharmed.  The Battle of Cartagena de Indias had proven to be a resounding success for the city’s defenders.

A statue of Blas de Lezo outside the Castillo San Felipe Fortress.
The statue of Blas de Lezo, hero of the defense of Cartagena in 1741.

It truly was a remarkable victory.  Vernon had even commissioned the creation of a coin commemorating his victory and the surrender of the city, so sure he was of his victory.  Blas de Lezo, who himself died from disease 4 months later, is today celebrated as a hero with a statue outside the fort.

Beginning in 1762, the Castillo San Felipe Fortress was gradually expanded to encompass the entire hill.  Over the next 5 years, the entire hill was covered with stone to create numerous extensions of the fort.  By the time of its completion, it could house 500 men and had an extensive network of tunnels between its different sections and even into the city.  Its sections were built with overlapping fields of fire so that even if an attacker took part of the fort, they would be met with firing from other parts.

Considered impregnable, it was the largest Spanish fortification on mainland South America.  With such a massive fortress to protect it, Cartagena was not attacked again during the colonial era.  Today, the fort stands as a testament to Spanish military engineering and the importance of Cartagena as a colonial center of power and wealth.

A Colombian flag flies over the walls of the Castillo San Felipe Fortress.
The walls made the Castillo San Felipe Fortress practically impregnable.

What to See During a Visit to Castillo San Felipe Fortress

The fortress really is massive and there is quite a bit to explore.  Unfortunately, there are not a ton of historical markers, but there are a few that explain the fort’s history and the years of construction of each section.

There are guided tours available for 15,000 pesos a person.  There are also self-guided audio tours.

If you prefer to explore the fort yourself, I’d recommend hiking up to the top first.  There you will get some killer views of the walled city and be able to appreciate the strategic location of the fort.  There’s also a small gift shop, although the ware on offer here is the typical tourist souvenirs you’ll find elsewhere.  They do sell replicas of Vernon’s coin but for a steep 27,000 pesos or 10 USD.  I have to admit I was tempted but resisted.

View of the walled city of Cartagena from atop the Castillo San Felipe Fortress.
The top of the Castillo San Felipe Fortress gives you some great views of the historic walled city.

From there, you can make your way down and over to the side of the fort.  Housed inside the fort’s former hospital, there is a small theater that shows a 20 minute video on the history of the fort.  The animation is a bit out of date, but it gives you a good rundown of the fort’s history, particularly the defense against Vernon’s attack, and has English subtitles.  Especially good is its use of maps to help you understand the geography and how the fort fit into the city’s defenses.

Also, be sure to take a walk through at least one of the tunnels.  It’s wild to imagine being under attack and running through them.  Finally, make sure you snap a picture with the giant Colombian flag before heading down.  Once you’ve exited, be sure you also head over to the corner to see the statue of Blas de Lezo.  If you head from there to the left around the backside of the fort, you can also check out the old shoes sculpture, based on a famous poem about Cartagena.

A picture of one of the tunnels in the Castillo San Felipe Fortress.
Be sure to check out the tunnels.

How to Get to Castillo San Felipe Fortress

The fort is easily accessible by taxi, bus, or walking.  A taxi from the walled city should run you around 7,000 pesos and 8-10,000 from the other outlying tourist areas.

If you’d like to hop the Transcaribe bus, get off at the Chambacu station in front of Mall Plaza and head to the left 2 blocks and turn right past the muffler shops.

The fort is only about a 15 minute walk from the clocktower in the walled city.  Head out along the main avenue to the left from the clocktower.  Continue straight as you pass the India Catalina monument and cross the bridge leaving the walled city.  You’ll pass a police station then Mall Plaza before again turning right past the muffler shops.  If in doubt, just head towards the giant stone structure.

A row of cannons atop a wall of the Castillo San Felipe Fortress in Cartagena.
Although never tested again after Vernon’s attack 1741, the guns at the expanded Castillo San Felipe Fortress stood at the ready to defend Cartagena.

Visitor Information for the Castillo San Felipe

  • The fort is open 8 am to 6 pm every day, except for free admission days when it is only open until 5.
  • The last Sunday of every month, Colombian citizens, and foreign residents who have a cédula de extranjería (Colombian ID card) enter free.  Guided tours are also free.
  • Normal admission is 25,000 pesos for foreigners and 20,000 pesos for Colombian citizens.
  • Colombians or foreign residents who have the cédula de extranjería over the age of 62, and children under 6 always enter free.
  • Students and teachers at public schools or universities pay a reduced admission of 10,500 pesos with their school IDs.

Practical Tips for a Visit to Castillo San Felipe

  • Go early to beat the heat and the crowds, especially if you’re going on a weekend or the free admission day.
  • Take sunscreen and perhaps a hat.
  • Take water.  If you forget, there are tons of vendors selling bottles just outside.  This is one time where their sales pitch is spot on, it is necessary.
  • Wear comfortable shoes, you will be hiking up a hill and walking around on old, uneven stonework.

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