Some part of me blames Disney for creating a false perception of what a castle truly looks like. The illusion in my head resembled something similar to that of Sleepy Hollow, Cinderella, and the like. These massive, magical, and whimsical places where dreams come true. Where reality isn’t so real. Imagine my surprise upon arriving at San Felipe de Barajas Castle in Cartagena. I thought…this is a fort!
After an early morning start and a jammed pack day of sightseeing, my feet hurt. I’d finally broken in my handmade leather sandals acquired in Santorini which caused every inch of my feet to need a massage. Not to mention, the sun had kissed my entire body and I was hardly ready for the climb ahead of me. I purchased my ticket (about 16,000 pesos) and sat at the bottom of the castle contemplating how or if I’d make it to the top. After the realization that this wasn’t wonderland, I figured I’d seen enough from below. Any excuse to avoid the hike up the fortress would do.
Others, young and old, scurried by unbothered by the heat and the steep climb. I sat down, chased my breath, took in the view. Me and my imagined stress induced asthma struggled!
An older woman and young girl caught my eye. The lady, possibly Chinese and Colombian sold goods which weren’t uncommon. However, the more I observed, it became clear the girl was the merchandise. Her childlike face and an overly developed body were on display. As men passed by, the woman propositioned her. I thought about something my Puerto Rican friend said earlier. She felt people treated her differently because of her darker complexion (tanned from the trip) and they also questioned the Black male counterparts she was with. Two Black men, a Puerto Rican, and a Black woman was not a common sight here and caused quite the stir, even though some of the natives had darker skin than us. A bit of sadness filled me. Was this child being mistreated because of her hue? After all, a native Colombian told us that darker women are automatically considered prostitutes. He said I shouldn’t be offended if someone approached me in that manner as they likely don’t know better. This notion of light versus dark transcends across cultures and borders and is infuriating, to say the least.
I’d finally caught my breath and climbed on. A map in hand, I walked up the curving slopes. The closer to the top, the closer it felt to the equator. The sun was scorching!
The trek up the ancient stone was well worth it. The view overlooking the city and harbor was priceless.
a bit of history…
San Felipe de Barajas Castle was constructed in the 17th century and received its name in honor of Philip IV, King of Spain. It’s one of the most famous and longstanding structures built by the Spaniards. The strategic location helped prevent soldiers and pirates from reaching ashore and attacking what is now known as the Old Town of Cartagena (learn more about the Old Town here). The castle was rebuilt and strengthened numerous times over 200 years to improve the structure and defend the numerous attacks often attempted by pirates looking to seize treasure for Spain. It is believed that if San Felipe would have fallen to the English in 1741 that the native language would be English in South America.
More than tunnels and cannons. San Felipe is rich in history and it’s worth purchasing the audio or guided tour to better understand the legacy. As I dipped in and out of the labyrinth of underground tunnels, many of which led to dead ends, it became eerily clear a lot of blood was shed on this hill. It only takes one wrong turn to hit a dead end and become trapped. Imagine these intentional fake passageways put in place to defeat anyone that breached the perimeter of the castle during invasions. Meanwhile, other tunnels led you in an entirely different and surprisingly far direction from the original starting point. An uncanny feeling came over me as I pondered the loss of life that likely occurred in the exact location. Soldiers made the same mistake as me, cornered in storage warehouses and dead ends used to house ammunition.
Quickly, I found my way back out of the tunnels (also used to evacuate inmates), and on the opposite side of the fortress. Relief covered me and the many tourists following behind me. My mild claustrophobia almost got the best of me while trapped underground. I was glad to see the canons.
Standing on top of the castle and inhaling the breathtaking view of Cartagena, you’re reminded of what once took place here. After all, this ain’t Disney, and people didn’t come here to live happily ever after. It’s a humbling experience once you make it to the top.
On the way down, my mood had changed. I was glad I’d finished what I started. I passed the same woman and young girl going down, said a silent prayer, and thought to myself how blessed I am.
P.S. look for the big shoe monument and be sure to take a photo. We totally forgot! Next time…