It must have been an awesome sight: Dozens of treasure galleons chopping their way across the Atlantic to Spain, their sails emblazoned with the fiery red cross of the Holy Roman Empire.
Mostly loaded at the Caribbean port of Cartagena, the ships carried silver, gold, cacao (chocolate) beans, chile peppers, tobacco and other bounties of the New World from mines and plantations across Central and South America. The treasure shipments, started in the 1560s, went on for over 200 years.
Brimming over with profits from the shipping business – and from a marketplace for incoming loads of slaves from Africa – early Cartagena was an attractive target for pirates roaming the Spanish Main. Over the years it was looted by a sort of who's who of the pirate community ... the skull and crossbones of Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Henry Morgan and their chums being no strangers to the city's inviting bay.
Cartagena was likely the most plundered port in the New World until Spain got its act together to defend the city, circling it with a seven-mile-long wall studded with gun turrets backed up by forts in key locations.
It's hard to miss the crown jewel of the defense network: the monster fortress of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, towering over the city on a 130-foot-high hill. Originally built in the mid-1600s, it was rebuilt and enlarged several times over the years to become the greatest fortress Spain ever built in its colonies.
English Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon, fresh from a victory at another Spanish port at Portobelo, Panama, literally ran into a stone wall at Cartagena in 1741 when he tried to invade the city. He showed up with a force of 23,000 men and 186 ships bristling with 2,000 cannons, but Castillo San Felipe – defended by just 3,000 Spanish troops and six ships – stood off a month-long siege of the city.
The Spanish victory at Cartagena was one of the greatest defeats of the Royal Navy. Also red-faced after the battle were 4,000 American colonists from Virginia who fought for Admiral Vernon under the command of Lawrence Washington, half-brother of George Washington.
Looking much like a mountain of concrete, the fortress is in remarkably good shape. Visitors will rub elbows with thousands of other tourists climbing its walkways (it takes about 15 minutes to get to the top), scampering around its bunkers, batteries and tunnels, and posing for pictures on its cannons. From the highest level it's easy to see how sharp-eyed Spanish gunners could blast enemy ships down in the bay, and in another direction pick off soldiers trying to attack the fortress on foot.
Another eye-popping view from the top of the fortress is a panorama of this city of a million or so people. In one section you'll spot modern high-rise condos, in another the domes and soaring crosses of historic churches, and in another rows of glassy office buildings.
Andalusia in Colombia
Down on the ground, visitors to Cartagena are invited to take a trip back to its colonial elegance by wandering around “Old Town” behind the city walls. You'll stroll through cobbled lanes lined with buildings painted in pastel blues, greens, yellows, reds, pinks and browns, many of them the mansions of shipping barons, bankers and slave dealers in the years of the treasure fleets.
Adding to the Andalusian fantasy of Old Town's seemingly endless blocks are elaborately decorated arched doorways and balconies with flowers poking through iron railings and lattices. You'll saunter by charming al fresco restaurants, all kinds of bars, museums, churches, convents and statues of Colombian heroes. A tip: Don't miss a look at the dark side of old world Spain in the Palace of the Inquisition.
Need a rest? You're welcome to join the local folks snoozing or chatting on benches around the area's magnificent squares and parks while musicians, jugglers, clowns, mimes and the like pass by, hoping to earn tips of a few thousand pesos (2,000 Colombian pesos = about 1 U.S. dollar).
More info: Visit Proexport, Colombia's tourism, foreign investment and export promotion agency.
Staying there: Cartagena offers better than 90 tourist-class hotels in and around the city.
Getting there: Nonstop flights to Cartagena are scheduled from a few U.S. airports such as New York-JFK, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Flights from other U.S. gateways often involve one or more stops along the way as well as connections at Bogata, Colombia, or Panama City, Panama.
Historical notes: Sailing from Cartagena in convoys of as many as 40 ships, the treasure fleets usually made it to Spain in five or so weeks depending on the weather. The sailing time included a stop at Havana, where the ships from Cartagena joined similarly sized fleets – doubling the fire power of the convoys – heading to Spain from the eastern Mexican port of Veracruz. Besides Mexican riches, the latter ships carried goods from Asia such as silks and porcelain shipped from Spain's trading post in Manila to the western Mexican port of Acapulco. From there, mule trains carried the shipments 450 miles across the country to Veracruz.
The combined fleets ended their journeys on the docks of Seville, Spain, where a government office controlled all ventures into the New World and collected taxes on booty from the colonies.