It doesn’t get any better than a good pirate story… just ask Johnny Depp. Tales of buccaneers and plunders of cities filled with gold bring out the adventurer in all of us. How would you like to get a taste of “Pirates of the Caribbean” in real life? Well, thankfully there is a city, with a long history of pirate plunders and conquests, that still shares its magic charm with people today – Cartagena, Colombia
With Gold Come Pirates
Cartagena, Colombia has always been a city with a pirate problem. Located at the top of South America, Cartagena was a major Spanish port in the early days of the New World conquest. Cartagena has a deep, safe harbor and was used as the main port for shipping all the gold taken from the Inca Empire back to Spain. Trillions of dollars worth of gold, precious stones, and other goods passed through Cartagena and it didn’t take long for the pirates to catch on.
Pirate attacks were common in Cartagena and usually ended with the ransoming of the city by the pirates back to the Governor, who would usually flee before the fighting really began. All the famous pirates attacked Cartagena at one point or another – Robert Baal, Martin Cote, and eventually Sir Francis Drake in 1586. Considered a national hero by many in England, Sir Francis Drake was despised by the Spanish crown and viewed as a criminal of the high seas. After Drake’s devastating attack on Cartagena, the Spanish crown finally decided it was time to invest in the city’s defenses.
Visiting Cartagena feels like going back in time. Old colonial home and mansions all cluster together, guarded over by the huge city walls or Las Murallas. These walls, pocketed with cannon wounds and complete with jail cells, stand up to 20 feet thick in places. Began after the attack of Sir Francis Drake, the city walls cost over 2 trillion dollars to build (at today’s value) and took over a hundred years to construct. It was built in three different stages as the city invested more and more into its defenses.
You can still walk along the wall, which is still nearly perfectly intact. The best views of both the city and the sea are from the top of the wall, where you can also find the popular Cafe del Mar bar. If you are visiting Cartagena, be sure to visit the wall at sunset. If you begin your walk on the Northeast end of the city about 45 minutes before sunset, you can walk the full length and be at the perfect spot to watch the sunset on the west side of the wall.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Even after the city walls were complete, Cartagena continued to suffer pirate attacks. The Spanish, in another effort to secure their South American gold supply line, ordered the building of a number of forts, San Felipe being the biggest.
This incredibly well designed fortress has no vertical walls, is designed to deflect cannon balls, and has a number of hidden underground tunnels and passageways so that the fort could survive weeks of constant attacks. In 1741 the fort was put to the test. Sir Edward Vernon, a English Parliament member, declared war on Spain and recruited an armed force of 28,000 men and over 180 ships to attack Cartagena. This was seen as overkill, as Cartagena had been successfully captured with as little as 1000 men before but this time they had a fort and city wall to protect them. The well loved (his statue stands in front of Castillo de San Felipe today) Don Blas de Lezo was the commander for the Cartagena force and with the help of the fort, city walls, and even an underwater wall blocking the harbor, Don Blas was able to conquer the English forces with only 6000 armed men.
If you visit the fort today, opt for a guided tour to hear the full tale of Don Blas’ amazing battle and how this hero saved his city.
Couple Travel Tips
- If you want to know more about the pirate attacks on Cartagena, visit the Palace of the Inquisition Museum in Cartagena. They have old maps, tales of the battles, and even old weapons from the attacks.
- Want to see what all the fighting was about? Across the plaza from the Palace of the Inquisition is the Gold Museum of Cartagena. Inside is just a small collect of the gold artifacts that were being melted down and transported back to Spain.
- Ask locals to tell you their favorite pirate stories. There are enough tales to keep you entertained for hours but be careful who you believe. The stories, like any good pirate story, have been “enhanced” throughout the generations.