Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala: When is a Castle Not a Castle?

Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala (5)

If you’ve ever looked at a tourism brochure for Guatemala, you’ll notice that Antigua Guatemala, Tikal’s Mayan temples, and Lake Atitlan occupy front and center.


Occasionally though, you’ll may also notice that included in the brochure is a picture of “castle”, sitting on the shores of a placid lake.  That would be Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, most commonly known as Castillo San Felipe .


Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala sits right where Rio Dulce and Lake Izabal meet, just a few miles from the main road that leads to Tikal and the Peten region.  While not as popular as Lake Atitlan, Antigua Guatemala, and Tikal, Rio Dulce is well worth a visit.


I’d been looking forward to visiting Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala (I make the distinction because there is more than one – in Puerto Rico and in Colombia), for quite some time.


Upon returning from our Belize trip and from the Flores region, we made good enough driving time to stop by Castillo de San Felipe for a few hours.


Visiting Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala


Hours of operation are from 8:00am to 5:00pm, every day.  There’s a 15Q fee per person to get in.  A gravel parking lot sits right outside the main gates, for which you’ll pay about 15Q for the pleasure of using.


Entrance fees paid, you’re handed a small map by the attendant.  You’re then free to wander the grounds at your leisure.


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The long main road leads straight to the castle.


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It’s a pleasant walk and there are good photo-ops along the trail.  Since we visited on a Wednesday afternoon, we had almost the whole place to ourselves.


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The castle grounds has lush picnic areas and a restaurant on-site.  In the picture below, you can see Rio Dulce Bridge in the background, which leads to Peten and the Tikal archaeological site.


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A little-known fact is that Castillo de San Felipe is not actually a “castle”, but a fort.  Only fortified installations where members of a royal family actually lived could be designated as such.


But the “castle” moniker has stuck.  I’m guessing it’s good for tourism.


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The castle’s construction started in 1595, in direct response to disruption of commercial trade by pirates.  The Rio Dulce port was a very important trading post in its time, so the Spanish monarchy though it a good idea to protect the area.


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Ghosts at Castillo de San Felipe?


Besides seeing use as a fort, Castillo de San Felipe later served as a prison.  A very nasty one at that, since prisoner’s quarters were often flooded, making for an unpleasant stay.


Imagine sitting in a pool of fetid water, chained to a wall, with no bathroom access.  Oh, and swarms of malaria-carrying mosquitoes buzzing your head constantly.  Add killer humidity and zero ventilation.


I can’t think of a worst situation to be in, which is why being a prisoner here often meant a death sentence.


I pressed the unenthusiastic guide for any juicy ghost stories, but she had none.  Although, she did assure me she high-tailed it out of there at 5:00pm sharp, since there have been reports of unexplained noises and screams that can be heard throughout the night.


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The castle is built in the typical Spanish-style, with an open-air courtyard and red-tile roof.


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The castle is strategically positioned and closing access to the port was just a matter of raising a chain attached to the other side of the lake.


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Something we didn’t do, for lack of time, was to go on a launch ride around the lake.  One can get magnificent vistas of the castle from the river.


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Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense


A couple interesting artifacts inside the castle are cannons bearing English seals.  These items were confiscated from captured pirate ships.


English cannons were of better quality than the steel-made cannons that Spain supplied for the castle’s defense.


The bronze cannon below bears the English seal of King George III, he who fought, and lost, against the rag-tag band of insurgents of a former colony known today as the United States of America.


It seems that King George III was on a particularly tough losing streak at the time.


Of interest is the French motto on the cannon, “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense“, which means “Shame Be to Him Who Thinks of Evil.”  This motto actually appears on the British passport, Royal Coat of Arms, and many other British government forms.


I hardly think that anyone pointing that cannon at somebody, upon seeing the motto, thinks better of it and waves the other guys over for some tea and crumpets.  Just saying.


The center of the seal bears a “G” and the number “3”, though I’m not sure what the “R” stands for.
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The cannon below bears a similar seal, only this time the letter “C” is engraved in the middle.  The engraving is for a Marquess Cornwallis, Master-General of Ordnance at the time.


Cornwallis is best known in America as Lord Cornwallis, the General who surrendered to American General George Washington during the “Siege of Yorktown“.


That battle was the last major battle between British and American forces.  It convinced the British to give up and led them to ultimately acknowledge America’s independence.


What can I say?  I love history.  And seeing random British cannons in a fort in Guatemala is pretty darn cool to me.


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Compare the shiny bronze cannon above to the junky-looking Spanish version below.  BIG difference.

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My daughter was stoked to be inside a “castle”, the first she’s ever visited.


No, I didn’t have the heart to tell her it’s actually a fort.  Hey, Santa Claus is cool with me too, man.


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Unfortunately, the dungeons and dark tunnels are super-hard to photograph.  If you want to see those pics, just close your eyes for a second or two.  You’ll get the same effect as if you were looking at them here.


At least I got to take a pic of the Master’s quarters, which are spacious and somewhat lit, which is the nicest thing that can be said about them.  No wall-to-wall windows with vistas of the beautiful river outside.  For shame!


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In all, we spent a good 3 hours there, which was plenty of time to see the castle up and down twice.  It is definitely worthwhile to visit, as well as other attractions in the Rio Dulce area.


What’s your favorite castle you’ve visited?

And no, Cinderella’s at Disney doesn’t count.

Published by Rich Polanco

Fan of dogs + all things tech. Love a great pizza. My goal is not to travel to every country in the world. I only want to get to know my favorite ones REALLY well. Check out the big bio here. Follow @RichPolanco and connect on Facebook. Currently exploring: Guatemala.