It is oppressive outside. Like a high-school locker room after gym class – sweaty, stinky, and disgustingly uncomfortable. The weather channel said it was only supposed to be highs in the mid 70’s and rainy all week, but Cartagena is proving me an idiot, because after telling my dad to bring jeans, it is minimum 90 degrees Farenheit out with about 135% humidity.
But we (Diego and I), only have five days in Cartagena with my dad, so this sauna that mother nature has thrown us into is not going to thwart our explorations!
And off to the San Felipe castle we go!
Oh, I mean after we convince the taxi driver we do NOT want to go way up into some hill, to some nunnery we’ve never heard of (and that our cabbie obviously gets a commission from) and after a finalizing protest of our desire to still go to San Felipe, get suddenly dropped off in some parking lot that is not the entrance to the castle. “Where are we?” we are asking each other. We are on the backside of the castle where even the shade went “Screw this heat” and disappeared. Well, this castle’s effectiveness is obvious by the gigantic vertical wall in front of us with no way of getting into the castle. So we walk around to the left, skirting the perimeter of the castle (which is noticeably lacking in anything shade producing) towards the entrance.
And off to the San Felipe castle we go!
After the customary extortion, I mean tourist entrance fee, the 3 of us – Dad, Diego, and I – finally enter the long, uphill, switch-back style walkway leading up to the castle, which sits high upon the hill. The Castillo de San Felipe de Bajaras (its official name) was a strategic fortress started in 1536 and sits atop the Hill of San Lázaro in Cartagena. It was expanded in 1657, attacked and repaired a few times, and in 1984 finally declared (along with the historic walled city of Cartagena) a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And there is your little history lesson for the day.
But the real question is: Where the hell is the shade?
‘Armies would die of exhaustion before even reaching the actual castle’, I’m thinking. It is hard to walk in this heat. We are all dripping wet and stopping at the random vendors that line the walkway; not out of interest, but because it is an excuse to stop for a minute.
My was-cold water is already near boiling; wet, but not at all refreshing.
Near the top of this scorching stone monstrosity, we turn to spy a little darkened entrance. Shade! We don’t really care where it goes at this point, as long as it’s out of the sun. None of us audibly announce our feelings on this matter, but we all know what we are thinking: SHADE!
Down a few ancient stone steps and into narrow, winding, catacomb-like tunnels.
Ahhhhhh…it’s cooler in here. Not much, but enough that exploration of these carved hallways seems like the greatest adventure ever.
And it really kind of is! I use my new Sunpack LED light as a flashlight (after first smacking into a darkened section of wall I thought was a doorway), and we all start heading down into the bowels of the castle’s ancient corridors. Down and down we go, down gently sloping ramps, searching every nook and cranny. And of course, we are trying to run ahead and flank one another. My father gets me the best. I’m running around a corner, trying to get ahead of Diego to scare him, and my dad jumps out from a hallway I swear I just checked and was bricked up. I scream and jump like the dumb chic who runs towards the killer in the horror movies. Then I hear Diego behind me laughing hysterically as my dad stands in front of me quite proud of himself.
We tramp down and down, further into the barely lit, damp tunnels until we reach an intersecting hall that is semi-flooded. Only a few inches of water are on the floor, but we can see the water deepens as the hallway continues downwards. Between the water and the open electrical wires running between the dim, torch-like lights recessed into the walls, we decide to turn back before someone makes a “based on a true story” horror movie about the tourists that went missing and now haunt the castle in Cartagena.
Ah man, we didn’t plan this for this. As we turn around we realize, “Now we have to walk UP. Ugh!”
After resurfacing into the sunny-side-of-Mars air again, we wander the flat, reflective, light cement and brick upper levels of the castle; purposely heading away from the tour group that has arrived. None of the three of us are into giant crowd,s and would rather explore on our own without people in our way. Plus I hate meandering strangers in my photography.
We explore and drink up the beautiful views, commenting on the now-covered holes that once must have housed gunners and canons. I balance along a steep precipice of a wall to get the angles I want for my photos (to my father’s and Diego’s protests). We stop on covered benches to discuss the castle and its possible defense strategies (a.k.a. it’s still stifling hot out and we need an excuse to rest). And we dip into a few more catacomb openings, mostly to escape the sun, and once I go after an animalistic scruffling sound that we decide is either rats or bats, but upon locating the sound in a chamber I can’t see into with my light, I turn around. I am in no mood to be attacked any biting and/or flying animals, or take the resulting tour of Cartagena’s fine medical facilities. I mean, we only have a few days in the city.
Eventually we reach the top of the castle. As we are commenting on how the original tenants could have survived here during heat like this, we stumble upon a little bed-room type chamber – complete with ancient air-conditioning!
Turns out small, hand-sized holes, cut through the feet-thick stone walls, at just the right places, create these wind tunnels that force breezes through the room. Even on a day like today with zero wind. The temperature in the room isn’t a huge difference, but you can feel the difference between oppressive (outside) and mildly tolerable (in the chamber).
Impressed by this science discovery, we start seeking out the holes and quickly learn that if you stand on a little, raised, ledge (that I am pretty sure was where the chamber pot was placed) and stick your face directly in front of one of the holes, a blast of cold air hits you hard! It seems some holes suck in the air, while others obviously blow it out, creating the air flow. Air cools as it comes through the thick, cool, stone walls of the castle, so even though it has to be in the upper 90F outside, the air hitting me in the face is actually chilly!
Ancient air-conditioning…who would have thought?!
Another cool fact (which I am pretty sure is not accidental), is that the holes sucking the air in looked out over the harbour, so as you stand against the wall cooling off, you have a beautiful view and can see boats coming and going. I, of course, grab my tripod and take some photos and videos through the hole.
Grudgingly, I am eventually pulled away from my tiny bit of relief and we start heading back down the castle. Of course, it takes a while because, as Diego and dad keep walking towards the taxi line, I keep stopping to take “one last photo” (like a dozen times). But it’s ridiculously hot, we are all out of water, drenched in sweat, hungry, and exhausted.
The San Felipe castle was really cool to go explore, and though I wish it is cooler out, the heat has kept most of the crowds away. Just remember when you go, bring LOTS of water. I didn’t notice many food or beverage vendors around, but there are cafes across the street.
About Dani Blanchette
I am a freelance travel and music photographer and creator of GoingNomadic.com.
I love music, food, and exploring cities without guidebooks. I’ve flown a helicopter, hitchhiked down the east coast USA, and once snuck into the back of a zoo (in Serbia) and pet a lion.
I am always up for an adventure, and sometimes I videotape them.