Fort Real Felipe is located in Callao, a port city that is about an hour drive from where we live in Barranco. In the mid-1700s, the Spanish spent about 3 million pesetas and some two decades painstakingly hauling stones in from a nearby island. The Fort, which the Spanish generally regarded as the most important construction in the New World, was named after their king, Felipe V. However, fast forward to the 1820s and 1860s, and in a magnificent historical middle finger, the Peruvians stole the Fort and put it to excellent use as a critical stronghold in securing their independence and repelling incoming Spanish forces.
Why is it still named after the Spanish king? As our Spanish-speaking tour guide put it, “They tried to change the name, but everybody was just used to calling it Fort Real Felipe.”
Even from the outside, the Fort is imposing. Though with the advent of independence and, well, airplanes, it has become the Peruvian Army Museum, the 250-year-old structure has been painstakingly maintained. If anything, it seems like since it has been converted to a museum it has done nothing but collect more cannons.
Our first stop on the tour was a gloomy looking fellow set on a raised stone platform. The man is Francisco Bolognesi, a Peruvian military hero who contributed to the success against the Spanish. Apparently, the reason he seems so glum is because the sculptors originally planned to have cherubs on his shoulders, carrying their hero up into heaven as he looked fondly downwards at his country. That is, that was the plan until the Catholic priests running the small church on the establishment got wind of the idea. Since only Mary, Jesus, and certain saints could appear with angels on their shoulders, and since construction was already largely finished, the sculptors shrugged their shoulders and placed Bolognesi on a regular platform instead, sans angels and now seemingly a bit depressed.
The cannon motif continued as we reached the home of the featured museum items. Here, our guide walked us through a humble but organized display of Peruvian history. The first room featured the weapons, tools and artifacts left behind by the Incan people. These do tend to have a distinctive look, but one I don’t feel ready to describe just yet. The second room featured the extensive range of weapons the Spanish brought with them.
The significance behind the organization was quite clear: In the first room, while the weapons are nothing that I would want to be stabbed with, they are also generally crude; in short, the Incan people wielded nasty-looking but still recognizable basic spears. In the second room, the weapons were designed with all the vicious creativity of a people who had a penchant for torture and far too many metals at hand. Don’t get me wrong– I don’t think I’d like to live among the Incans either. But the contrast was shocking. To be blunt, I’m impressed the natives put up as much of a battle as they did.
Granted, the indigenous people (not necessarily the Incans) did have guys like Túpac Amaru II on their side. From a combination of the unimpressed nodding in the tour group and my research, I’ve gathered that Túpac’s story is something of a fairly well known, albeit tragic, legend here.
In a third room, one which features the neatly aligned heads of Spanish generals, all with icy military half-smiles, there is an additional bust set apart from the others on its own pedestal.
Yup, that’s Túpac, eyes bulging, mouth gaping, hair thrown back. The sheer size of the bust dwarfs those of the other generals; his neck is thicker than most of their heads. I’ll ignore the colonial implications of this artistic interpretation for now and just get straight to the story: Towards the end of the 1700s, the natives were getting understandably sick of the Spanish, who had tortured, raped and pillaged their way across the land only to enslave and oppress the natives. This growing displeasure manifested in multiple rebellions, one of the more memorable apparently being led by Túpac.
After allowing a Spanish governor to be hung by his own slave, as well as occupying and looting several Spanish towns, Túpac’s forces of some 6,000 natives clashed with a small Spanish army. Their victory was absolute. Every Spaniard was killed– and not all of them kindly. Not long after though, with even the forces that might have taken his side frightened off by the bloodshed, the betrayal of two leaders led to Túpac’s capture.
As you might guess, this latest killing spree had left the Spanish feeling especially colorful in their own execution methods: After being forced to watch the executions of his wife, son, uncle, and several friends, his tongue was cut out. Following this, his arms and legs were each bound to a horse.
At this point, I suppose, the climactic moment of tragic victory and awe arrives: The man was so mighty that the stampeding horses could not pull his body apart. That is the big reveal, if you will. However, at this point, and even during the brief retelling at the museum, I’m really too disgusted to revel in this minor feat of physics. Besides, the Spanish quickly alleviated this brief impediment by chopping him to bits anyway.
Moving back outside–to some much needed fresh air–we finally had a brief break in our tour at a little shop with some native goodies. Among them was “queso helado”… cheese ice cream. Don’t freak out! There’s not actually any cheese in it. It’s just named “cheese ice cream” because traditional preparation would have it cut to look like slices of cheese. It was absolutely delicious, sort of like frozen rice pudding with a touch of cinnamon and coconut at the consistency of dense ice cream. Admittedly, ours was not quite as pretty as the photo above (we ate cubes of it from a plastic cup with toothpicks), but I needed to look at something nice after the previous story.
The final leg of our tour took us up one of the “last stand” towers at the Fort’s corner. If all else failed, the remaining soldiers were to burn the wooden bridge and retreat to the topmost levels, where they would continue firing cannons until they were dead, captured, or reinforcements arrived.
Although I’ve visited my fair share of forts, this was the first time the outrageous logic of cannons really struck me. For real?? You are essentially using a giant potato gun to launch a bowling ball miles away at a target that–at this distance–is about the size of your thumb. This moment of realization made me question every fort-based battle reenactment I’ve ever seen. Battles must surely have been much slower, more calculated, and certainly more frustrating than what we imagine. I’m curious to know how many cannon balls are still sunk off in random parts of the coast.
By the end of our tour, as good as it was, Ivo and I were starving; rather than pausing for “photos and questions” at the final stop, we quickly thanked our tour guide and ducked out. Admittedly, the catch here was that we did have to exit the spooky tunnels by ourselves.
As you might have guessed by now, the Fort is reportedly haunted– haunted enough for Ghost Hunters International to have stopped by (I am now shamelessly thrilled to have caught up with the Ghost Hunters at least twice, the first time being in Savannah GA). Hah, regardless of how you feel about ghosts though, these were some spooky tunnels: When we had first climbed the tower, a mother and grandmom had opted to lug a stroller up the stairs rather than leave the group and take the ramp by themselves. Needless to say, we exited quickly.
Dinner for the evening was a pleasant surprise. Ivo, in a stunning exhibition of turning down the right corners, quite literally dragged me around the back of a seemingly decrepit shipyard. After braving a pier and dock that sank a bit too much under my feet for comfort, we arrived at “La Rana Verde” (The Green Frog).
The restaurant, which has been around since the Italians and their ample money ruled this city, is quite literally on the water (visitors included).
As expected though, the food made it clear why this place is still besieged with as many dinner reservations as sea birds.
Fortunately for us, we had arrived before dinner on a weekday, and so had a quiet restaurant to complement the view. Here, the water is calm enough for a forest of yachts to sway just a short boat ride away.
Although our waiter offered to take us out to the yachts for a look around, we opted to skip dessert and start our drive home before dark. Hah, I have to agree with Ivo: I’ll look at yachts when we can afford to buy one. For now, I was much more content with getting a glimpse of the beautiful–albeit, often tragically decrepit–architecture still lining the streets of this city by the sea.