How not to attack Cartagena’s St Felipe fortress

It was supposed to start at night. At night – long before the invention of powerful torch beams – you could attack a fortified fortress and no-one could see you to shoot you.

Of course, if you’re the British Army in the 1740s, maybe you drink too much Caribbean rum, maybe you get distracted by the giant iguanas… whatever, you set off late and begin attacking Cartagena’s San Felipe de Barajas just in time for dawn to break and the cannons to start firing.

(You also happen to be wearing distinctly un-camouflage red jackets and, best of all, the ladders you’ve brought to scale the fortress walls will turn out to be 10-feet short.)

What with dying of yellow fever, it wasn’t a great time to be British or, worse, an American fighting alongside his British cousins. We didn’t even give them rations.

This gleeful defeat of my lot – who eventually fled leaving 18,000 men dead on foreign soil, stricken by disease or wounded in battle – is recounted in the audio tour of St Felipe, a five-minute taxi ride from the old city.

For me it was the best part of the tour; I have no interest in engineering or defensive architecture and the talk dwells too long on both (especially considering St Felipe is not impenetrable; the, ahem, French managed it)

But the views of the city from St Felipe, both the old town and the Bocagrande skyscrapers beyond, are spectacular and unnerving too is the tiny hospital block – you can only imagine the fear of the soldiers who entered and wonder if they would have been better off without it.

Children – and adults who enjoy dark, cramped, damp spaces – will love the numerous tunnels burrowing into the fortress. Colombians don’t have the same fear of Health and Safety regulations as we do, hence the only clue to stop walking is when the tunnels stop being lit.

(There are rumours that one of the escape tunnels leads all the way to the island of Tierrabomba. My boyfriend, despite never having read The Famous Five, is determined to return one day with a torch to try it out. Since I spotted a large bat in one of the fortress’s darker corners, I won’t be part of this adventure)

Back in the sunshine, St Felipe is a great day out – vast, interesting, suitably bloody. Just don’t do anything too English. Don’t wear anything red.

The view from St Felipe


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