Fortaleza Real Felipe is an 18th-century fortress which has been converted into a museum showcasing Peru’s military history.
The Real Felipe Fortress was built in the 18th century to defend the port of Callao from pirates and amphibian invasions. With most of Peru’s mineral exports and luxury imports for the Lima elite coming and going from the port, Callao was a natural target for pirates.
In 1624 – less than 100 years since Lima’s founding in 1535 – a fleet of 11 Dutch ships carrying 1,600 pirates blockaded Callao for three months in an attempt to sack the city and take Lima. The fleet’s commander, Jacques l’Hermite, died of dysentery during the failed siege while stationed on San Lorenzo Island, the larger of the two islands visible from the port district. The fleet moved south.
In 1641, Viceroy Pedro Alvarez de Toledo y Leiva built a wall around what was then the small port town of Callao. Despite being 16 feet thick and 22 feet high in some places, the wall around Callao was destroyed in the massive 1746 earthquake, after which the ensuing tsunami particularly devastated Callao.
After the destruction, Viceroy Jose Antonio Manso de Velasco ordered the construction of a proper fortress. French architect Luis Godin designed the pentagon-shaped structure with towers at each of the five corners. Construction began in 1747 and completed in 1774.
Just a few decades later, independence fever swept Latin America with generals such as Simon Bolivar in Gran Colombia and Jose de San Martin liberating Gran Colombia and Argentina, respectively. These independence fighters believed that in order to remain independent, they would have to banish all Spanish forces from South America. And that meant liberating Peru, including the loyalist stronghold of Lima.
In 1816, Spanish forces repelled an invasion of Chilean forces into Callao. But ultimately the city fell and Peru gained its independence.
But Real Felipe’s history would not stop there. Its greatest moment of glory came in the Chincha Islands War of 1866, when Spain tried to re-conquer Peru (whose independence it had never recognized) after seizing the Chincha Islands which were home to the fertilizer which fueled Peru’s Guano Era. The war came to an end with the Battle of Callao, in which Peru’s mostly land-based forces led by the Real Felipe fortress repelled Spain’s invading navy. The battle ended the war and May 2, or “Dos de Mayo” in Spanish, is a revered date in Peru.
The fortress was later converted into a customs house until 1952, when the fortress was declared a national monument and converted into Peru’s military museum. For the Wealth and Pride collectors coin series in which each of Peru’s departments is represented in a coin, the central bank selected the Real Felipe Fortress to represent Callao, pictured above.
Museum and Tours
The fortress has been converted into a military and history museum managed by Peru’s army. Essentially an 18th-century castle, the structure itself is worth a visit. Inside are exhibits featuring 19th-century cannons, tanks from World War II and exhibits showcasing Peru’s military uniforms and weaponry over the ages, a house telling the story of a fallen hero from the War of the Pacific against Chile and, of course, pirates. Live actors tell some of the stories.
You must take a guided tour, which is available in English and lasts about two hours.
Before the tour starts you will likely have some time to explore the northern wall of the fortress.
The tour starts by viewing some early 20th-century artillery guns purchased from the United States after in the 1920s and later used against Ecuador in Ecuadorian-Peruvian War of 1941.
The tour then enters a building which has been converted into a military museum with the atmosphere of a castle.
The museum also showcases the weaponry and uniforms used throughout Peru’s history, starting with the Incas.
Busts of Peru’s war heroes.
Peru’s flag over time.
I walked right past this pirate actor, who was frozen like a statue, and even took his picture without realizing he was real. He only came alive when more visitors came closer. He gave us all a spook and told this story of the old dream of pirate riches.
This anchor just outside the museum illustrates how catastrophic the 1746 earthquake-tsunami was. It anchor was found at what is now the corner of Faucett and Colonial (Oscar Benavides) Avenues, some three miles from the coast.
This courtyard features several tanks used by the Americans in World War II and sold to Peru in the 1950s.
The Casa de la Respuesta is a replica of the house in Arica (modern-day Chile) where Peruvian general Francisco Bolognesi famously refused to surrender to the Chileans during the War of the Pacific. Bolognesi is one of Peru’s most revered war heroes, and his reply to the Chileans inspired what is now a common saying in Spanish: “hasta quemar el último cartucho” is like saying “until I’ve played my last card.”
Inside this house are paintings commemorating the War of the Pacific and Bolognesi’s sacrifice in the Battle of Arica. Hundreds were killed on both sides.
At the end of the tour is the highlight of the visit, the Turreon del Rey tower overlooking the port of Callao.
Inside its narrow concrete passageways is a former dungeon where the Spanish viceroy would condemn prisoners – mostly colonists working for independence – to death. In a terrifying form of torture, the crown would load 40 or more prisoners into this passageway which was so narrow I had to walk through it sideways. The prisoners would starve to death with no food or water, and if they insulted the crown the guards would pour boiling water on them through narrow holes from an observation chamber.
The haunting manner of death sentence has inspired ghost stories in Real Felipe Fortress.
And on top of this tower is one of the best views in Lima, overlooking the bay full of fishing boats, the port full of containers coming and going, old Callao and the islands of the coast in the distance.
On the north side of the fortress, on the way into the La Punta district, is a nice little park.
Location and info
The Real Felipe Fortress is my favorite museum in Lima, yet it is one of the city’s least-visited attractions, which I attribute to its location in Callao. It’s not convenient to get to, but more importantly Callao is a mostly low-income area which Peruvians don’t promote. But it’s definitely worth a visit and, while you’re in the neighborhood, you can also visit La Punta del Callao.
If you’re a military history buff, make it sweet day with a visit to Peru’s Naval Museum one block away.