The Fort of San Felipe de Bacalar: a historic monument in southern Quintana Roo


Bacalar registers its foundation in 1544, in a region dominated by swamps, jungles, and mangroves, an action that responded in good measure to the location of what is currently known as the Bacalar Lagoon or Lagoon of the Seven Colors. By 1696, the town was abandoned due to the difficult living conditions suffered by its inhabitants, in addition to the attacks of pirates and smugglers from Belize.

Between 1727 and 1729, the governor of Yucatan, Antonio de Figueroa y Silva Lasso de la Vega Ladrón del Niño de Guevara, promoted the repopulation of Salamanca de Bacalar, considering the construction of a fort, with the purpose of generating the presence of the Spanish Crown in a territory of difficult natural conditions, which due to its forest wealth was at the expense of the appropriation and exploitation by the English from their settlements in the territory of Belize. This is how the first fortification took shape, referred to in 1729, as a square construction, 30 rods on each side, with four bastions at the corners and a moat.

Later, the Caballero Alto was built, and masonry houses were erected for the soldiers and their families, thus shaping the settlement; with the fortress, a church, and dwellings. By 1814, a few years before the consummation of Mexico's Independence, there is a reference that on the road to Bacalar, there were about 40 leagues of "desert" or uninhabited land before reaching the settlement and that the site had a total of 2,498 inhabitants.

In 1846, before the beginning of the Caste War in Yucatan (1847 - 1901), Bacalar had 43 houses, warehouses, a church, and a customs house, with a population of 6,078 inhabitants. During this conflict, the Mayan rebels occupied Bacalar in May 1848, so in 1849, a force under the command of Colonel José Dolores Cetina, coming from the port of Sisal, disembarked and developed actions that allowed the recovery of the settlement, which remained under government control until February 20, 1858, when a force of Mayan rebels or cruzoob, took the town by assault, massacring almost the entire garrison and civilians. Bacalar remained from then on as a storage and provisioning site for the Cruzoob, in order to receive arms and supplies from Belize, and no longer as a population center.

It was during the administration of President Porfirio Díaz, after the signing of the Spencer-Mariscal treaty, during the offensive developed by the Federal Army to occupy the territory of the Cruzoob and incorporate it into the government administration, that on March 31, 1901, troops under the command of General José María de la Vega, occupied Bacalar. By 1903, the site registered 207 inhabitants. The fort of San Felipe remained as military barracks, hospital, and abandoned building. In 1983 it was officially inaugurated as a museum after the works developed for this purpose, use it currently retains, as the headquarters of the "Museum of the Fort of Bacalar", administered by the Government of the State of Quintana Roo.

The Fort of San Felipe in the geography of Quintana Roo in the 21st century

In the urban fabric of the city of Bacalar stands out the presence of the fort of San Felipe, the most relevant construction not only for the characteristics of its architectural typology and its periodicity but also for its scale and value as a historical and cultural reference for the inhabitants, as well as its attractiveness in terms of tourism. These characteristics make the construction the most important within the group of 18 historical monuments registered in the south of Quintana Roo.

The relevance of the building with respect to the urban complex, although it implies the fact that the importance of preserving it is understood and accepted by the community as a whole, is at the same time a reason to generate actions that may have an impact on the deterioration of the building. To this end, it should be noted that a tour of the site, in its current use as a museum, allows an approach to the set in its original military function.

From the building it can be observed how it maintains its position of dominance of the surroundings due to its location on a portion of the elevated surface with respect to the lagoon: the slope that descends from the eastern façade of the fortification towards Avenue 1, which is adjacent to the lagoon shore, can be appreciated; it is possible to suppose that the mangrove swamp that today has given way to constructions, spas and paving works, complemented the obstacles and defensive systems destined to make access to the site from the lagoon difficult.

The block that was originally destined to the outline of the fort of San Felipe, has received the incorporation of other buildings in the second half of the XX century.

To the north, an office building for the municipal administration is located a few meters from the ravelin that guards the access bridge to the fortification, while to the south, as part of the equipment for the community, an open-air theater or stage was incorporated, taking advantage of the natural slope of the terrain. To the west, Avenue 3 separates the block in which the fort is located from the block containing the central park or main square of Bacalar. In the context formed between the Fort, the main plaza, and the western shore of the Seven Colors Lagoon, land uses related to commerce, services, and public administration predominate.

The San Felipe Fort and the lagoon have represented a tourist attraction for the inhabitants and authorities of Bacalar. From this derives another set of threats to the conservation of the fort, in addition to the deterioration of any historic building as a result of weathering: the expectations in the development of projects and actions in terms of economic development and tourism, which, as happens to a large extent throughout the state of Quintana Roo, are framed in models that mimic the beach tourism projects in Cancun, little linked to the components and values of cultural heritage, and more related to the formation of "scenographies".

By Luis Jesús Ojeda Godoy, Source: INAH