The Attack of Sir Francis Drake on Cartagena
In 1586 on a moonless night the famed English pirate Sir Frances Drake attacked the Spanish New World coastal city of Cartagena. An attack that was well planned and especially intricate was manned by the pirates on a city that was somewhat fortified. Cartagena sits in the final curve of an S-shaped Peninsula.
Fortified as it was Drake could not attack head-on, instead he had to land soldiers while the tide was out (a grand feat in and of itself) and then work his way up the inside of that protective peninsula past a well fortified tower and the two Spanish galleons that were stationed to protect the entry. Avoiding poison spears, sentries and strategic armaments Drakes foot-soldiers took advantage of a weak spot to infiltrate and take the city prisoner while the fleet of pirate ships worked their way in to where the main port of the city is situated at the end of this channel.
During his 2 months of occupation and negotiation Sir Frances Drake and his scurvy sea dogs left behind large parts of the city in ruins, churches damaged and ransacked while Spanish ships were stripped of any value. The official ransom was 107,000 pesos however after his own personal ransacking, goods of value and weapons Sir Frances Drake sailed onward with 500,000 pesos in total booty.
The Old Walled City of Cartagena
After the attack by Francis Drake the Spanish crown invested time and money to ensure that this disaster would not happen again. During a period of 208 years the Spanish constructed walls, a sizable fortress, armaments and defensive features that would greatly raise the cost of future attacks. Attacked a couple other times, Cartagena wasn’t always successful at defense but they were able to quickly rebuild and regain wealth after each attack establishing this port as important trade center of the New World. Today you can see the results of their work and hear the echo’s of it’s colorful history.
In the old city you can find yourself wandering for hours among streets and buildings that have been standing since before the foundation of the United States. With over 400 years of history Cartagena is a city of age and romance. Every day the streets are alive with music, dance and tradition as tourists relive the experience by wandering through museums, riding in carriages and enjoying the Colonial Spanish architecture present in the streets and buildings.
My trip was filled with wonder and imagination as I bought fruit from “Costena” women, feasted my ears on the wistful violin solo of “Yesterday” and drank in the Caribbean music and dance. I spent time languishing on it’s beaches, eating amazing gourmet meals and exploring the stories of the past. I found the Naval Museum, the walls of the old city and San Felipe Castle to be some of the most interesting sights and experiences. However Spanish reading competency is necessary for the Naval Museum as there are only limited amounts of English explanation available. The castle was one of the most costly entry fees at 16,000 COP, but I felt it was worth it for the views of the city, and fun photo opportunities that I found.
There are plenty of English speaking services in all parts of the tourist areas and an ample selection of hotels, resorts and backpacker hostels ready to accommodate any type of budget or traveler. The weather is very hot and the sun intense so any kind of wide brimmed hat, light clothing and a bottle of water are essentials for all who wander during the daytime hours. Additionally some of the best experiences other travelers raved about were the Island Beach Tours, Sailing Trips and Yacht excursions, which cost about 80,000 COP or more.
The most annoying feature of Cartagena was the constant push by vendors to buy tourist trinkets, food and “hand-crafts.” Due to the size of the tourism industry scams, thieves and harassment does abound. Women should try to go to the beach in the early hours of the morning if traveling alone as you will be bothered a bit less by the beach vendors and strange men than mid-day or afternoon.
Despite the exploitation and crime that does rear its ugly head I never really felt unsafe at any time in Cartagena, especially in Bocagrande and the Old City. Overall I love the atmosphere and energy. For me the best part was just being there, even when it was so hot I felt suffocated. The sunsets were beautiful. I spent hours wandering streets, exploring shops and learning about history. Next time I hope to make my way onto a few island tours and explore more of the beaches.