Cats And Ghosts. Battles Of San Juan

San Juan View from Fort San Felipe

San Juan View from Fort San Critobal

Old San Juan is full of cats. You have to be very careful not to step on a cat when walking around looking up at old historical buildings, for the cats, like shadows, blend with the cobblestones paving the narrow streets of the old city.

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Founded by the Spanish colonist Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521 on the north-eastern coast of the island, San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico is the capital of Puerto Rico and the second oldest European capital city in the New World after Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

San Juan Port entrance and stone wall

San Juan Port entrance and stone wall

Enclosed by massive stone walls at the mouth of San Juan Bay, Old San Juan is today a major cultural tourist destination attracting visitors with its ancient two-storied houses, a network of narrow streets covered by adoquine, a blue stone cast from furnace slag brought over as ballast on Spanish ships, historical buildings housing museums and cultural organizations, public squares, and cathedrals.

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But the most important buildings declared National Historic Sites here are the city’s former defense forts: Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristobal, a part of humanity’s cultural patrimony.

El Morro

El Morro

Built by the Spanish government in the 16th and 17th century the two forts defended this important seaport used by merchant and military ships traveling between Spain and the Americas against foreign powers.

Battles of San Juan

Many battles took place outside the stone walls of these ancient forts, battles of epic proportions. In 1595 Sir Francis Drake attacked the city but the El Morro’s canons repelled the English battleships.

In 1625 the city was assaulted by the Dutch but El Morro withstood once more and was not taken. Instead, a counterattack left many Dutch soldiers dead after Puerto Rican soldiers and civilian volunteers of the city militia boarded and defeated the Dutch ships.

In 1797, during the French Revolutionary Wars, the British attacked San Juan once again but the siege of the city was unsuccessful and the British army was forced to withdraw in defeat for a second time.

Finally, in May of 1898 United States Navy ships arrived at San Juan Bay. The American bombardment caused a lot of destruction on the city, but the Spanish forces commanded by Captain Mendez heroically withstood the attack for many days. Yet, with just one signature, Spain ceded the island to the United States after the Treaty of Paris agreement. Puerto Rico became and remains to this day an unincorporated territory of the United States.

During the next century, many uprisings against the United States occurred in different places in Puerto Rico all by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and failed. One of the most notable ones is the uprising in San Juan on October 30, 1950. A group of nationalists attacked the residence of the Puerto Rican governor and the United States Federal Court House. The battle between the nationalists and the police lasted 15 minutes and four of the five attackers were killed.

El Morro and the Atlantic Ocean

El Morro and the Atlantic Ocean

Walking next to the stone walls all around the small island looking at the bay, and through the narrow streets of Old San Juan stepping on the blue cobblestones from the Spanish colonial era, roaming inside the dark humid corridors of El Morro and Fort San Felipe is an unforgettable journey back in history and our best experience in Puerto Rico.

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Maya

Maya

Iguana on the stone wall, Fort San Felipe

Iguana on the stone wall, Fort San Cristobal

 

San Juan Cathedral

San Juan Cathedral

View of San Juan

View of San Juan

 

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Aquatic Protest of Powerlines in Rio Dulce

 

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

October 4, 2013.

Good morning Rio Dulce, Guatemala! It is a hot day today in the Rio hotter than usual. It is also a historical day.

We just came back from the first ever aquatic boat parade here in the Rio protesting against the construction of a new powerline over the river, a project by the TRESCA corporation to provide a enormous power supply to the El Estor mining operation.

 

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

 

El Estor Mine

El Estor mine is one of the largest nickel mines in Guatemala located in El Estor, Department of Lago Izaba, not far from Rio Dulce. The mine has a dark history. It all started in 1960 when a Canadian mining company Inco purchased the open pit nickel mine near El Estor. During the 36-year Civil War in Guatemala, the mining company cuts a corrupt deal with the military to provide „safe operations and security“. The result is somewhere between 3000 and 6000 innocent peasants killed in the region by the military whose chief of operations was nicknamed The Butcher of Zacapa. In 1970 he  is elected president of Guatemala, Colonel Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio. He promises that if necessary, he will “turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it“. Q’eqchi Mayan farmers are expelled from their land to make space for the mine and the construction of a town to house the miners. Public protest grows. The tension between miners and the local community rises. In the years to follow, murders, gang rapes, and more extraditions of Indigenous Mayans become regular incidents. After the end of the Civil War in 1996, new Peace Accords promise returning of historical Mayan land to the Mayans and restrictions of military and police forces. Still, the conflict in El Estor continue. In 2004 another Canadian company closely related to Inco purchases the mine without consulting the indigenous population. mayan Q’eqchi return to their lands only to be evicted by police again, without a court order. The eviction is accompanied by burning homes and gang rape of Mayan women. Today, the mining company is property of a Russian company, Solwey Investment Group, which bought it from the Canadian one in 2011 and the tensions continue. The same issues remain today: exploiting Mayan land and Guatemalan resources by foreign companies, evicting indigenous populations from their ancestral lands, clashes between miners and locals, between military and civilians.

 

 

*For more about the history of the mine read here, and  here, and watch the short documentary Violent Evictions at El Estor, Guatemala

 

Protest in Rio Dulce

 

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

 

Today about 50 boats of all kinds assembled under the bridge for the first time in the history of Rio Dulce  to protest peacefully against the construction of powerlines for the El Estor mine. Fata Morgana was in the middle of the boat-soup, along with other sailing and power boats, locals and from the international community,dinghies, lanchas and fishermen’s cayucos. The whole thing turned into a huge aquatic party-parade to the sound of „Johnny, la gente esta muy loca“ song.

 

Casa Guatemala Orphanage was represented!

Casa Guatemala Orphanage was represented!

Unfortunately, those opposing the project are doing it for the wrong reasons, it seems to me. It is not an opposition to the mining company and its operations in the region, nor it is in support of the local populations still suffering displacement, injustice, and oppression. The Rio Dulce boaters simply try to protect their beautiful view of the river and the Castillo de San Felipe from getting obstructed by powerlines. And the scariest part for the boaters is the possibility that the powerline clearance will be too low for some masts to pass under. Therefore, some proposed, let them build the lines under the river…

Mira holding a sign:  El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido.

Mira holding a sign:
El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido.

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Traveling in Cuba. Viñales

 

 Cruisers traveling in Cuba

 

We came to Cuba by boat and that made it very difficult and expensive exploring the country by land because of the many restrictions on boaters and the high marina and transportation costs.

 

In Cuba, it is forbidden to just drop anchor anywhere you like, leave the boat and go to the mainland. (One more reason why Cuba is unique in the world of cruising.) On the north coast, you can drop anchor only near some of the many tourist-populated cayos and resorts, but you can then only visit the cayos, by law you cannot set foot on the mainland and explore the nearest village. Plus, there must be at least one adult on board at all times if you are anchored out, you cannot leave the boat unattended. The concern, I guess, is that a bunch of not very patriotic Cubanos might grab the opportunity (and the boat) and sail off into the sunset (or rather into the Gulf Stream and north).

 

If you want to explore the interior of the country, your only option is to leave the boat at one of the marinas, which are not many in Cuba, pay 20 dollars per day for a 40-feet boat ( $0.50 per foot per day), and find transportation to where you want to go. Here is the tricky part: transportation. From Havana to all main cities,  Santiago, Trinidad, Camagüey, Holguín, etc., you can get an air-conditioned tourists-only bus for about $100 per person one direction. Or you can rent a car (maybe air-conditioned if you are lucky) with or without a driver, between $90 and $120 per day. You can try to move around by cheap local bus, which is actually an old truck and people pile up in the open-air trailer under a canvass. We wouldn’t mind doing this, to us it sounds like fun, but it would take days to get anywhere, and we would still have to pay for the marina, $20 per day, so it is not worth it. Same problem with hitch-hiking…

 

We really wanted to visit Trinidad, a spectacular UNESCO heritage mountain village with spectacular colonial architecture in the south, but we calculated that for our family of four it would cost us over a thousand dollars to leave the boat for a few days in Hemingway marina, get on the tourist bus and pay for hotel or a casa particular in Trinidad for a couple of nights. So we didn’t visit it this time, we might sail there some other day.

 

Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba.

A photo journal.

The only place we visited in the country’s interior was Viñales in the Pinar del Rio province, less than two hundred kilometers west of Havana, thanks to Harley and April who we met at Marina Hemingway: it was their idea.

 

Harley and April aboard El Karma

Harley and April aboard El Karma

 

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway … stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway ... stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

Cooling off the car

 

For two and a half hours we look out the car windows. The countryside is charming: fresh green mountains, plains, little neat villages. None of the madness of the big city.

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Viñales is a small model-village in the mountains, a national monument since 1978 and a UNESCO heritage site since 1999. It is a main touristic destination, and so we were not very pleased to find here crowds of visitors, buses arriving every half an hour.

Main street and church in Viñales

 

The main attraction in Viñales are the two caves where runaway salves,  Cimarróns, lived in the 1800s. After entering in the first cave, we decided not to enter in the second… There is an entrance fee of $5 per person, the cave is in fact a few meter long corridor complete with fake snakes and frogs and a small restaurant at the entrance. Even if the cave is not big and impressive, its history is a fascinating one. The fact that this cave was the home for runaway slaves in the 1800-s was the most thrilling for me.

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A bunch of street artists ambush the cave exit and perform a  Cimarrón dance for inevitable tips.

 

Performance in the cave

Performance in the cave

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave's houses in Vinales Valley

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave’s houses in Vinales Valley

 

The caves are located in Palenque near Viñales, in a deep green valley surrounded by tall granite mountains and thick vegetation. It is an awe-inspiring landscape.

Viñales Valley

Viñales Valley

 

Looking up

Looking up

We get a bunch of very cheap and very sweet bananas from a local farmer on our way back in Viñales.

Bananas 24 for $1

Bananas 24 for $1

 

Back in Viñales, we hide from a torrential tropical mountain rain, enjoying a glass of cold beer on the terrace of a small restaurant. In Cuba there are two kinds of beer: Bukanero and Cristal. We like Cristal a lot better, but they didn’t have Cristal and served us Bukanero instead…

 

Una cervesa por favor

Una cerveza por favor

As we are sitting in the restaurant enjoying our cold beers, a car pushed by three people passes down the road. Poor people, having car problems in the rain. Oh, wait a minute, this is our car! Our driver, Erie, a very timid always smiling guy, was supposed to wait for us at some corner, but I guess he had a bad day with that car…

 

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

We managed to get back to the marina without anymore car problems on the way back, listening to old 80-s disco hits and enjoying, once more, the unspoiled Cuban countryside.

House near Palenque

House near Palenque

 

The history of the Caribbean runaway slave, el Cimarron, is a fascinating one. 

 

As the sugar production (sweet gold) was booming in the French colony of Saint Domingue in the 1700-s, black young women and men, African princes and princesses, were piled up on ships and brought to the islands to work the sugar cane plantations. The slaves lasted for about a year in unimaginable conditions, and so more ships with „fresh meat“ were arriving weekly. For the slaves, the only hope was to escape. But escaping was not easy and most of the times the runaways were caught and brought back to be killed in public as an example, or died from dehydration and exhaustion in the unforgiving tropical wilderness of the island. But some succeeded, some made it to the mountains, to the caves, to freedom. They formed small communities, away from the cities and the plantations, life as close to nature as one can only imagine. Nature was mother, doctor, protector. The caves were home. The Cimarróns were free, multiplying, organizing.

Inspired by the French Revolution, a black avalanche descended from the mountains in 1791 upon Le Cap and Port-au-Prince in the then French colony of Saint Domingue. Sugar fields burned with black smoke for weeks, heads of planters and their entire families rolled on the streets, boats, this time loaded with white refugees fled to Cuba and America.

In Cuba, the emancipation took longer, freedom for all didn’t come until 1886. The history repeated itself.

I have read two remarkable books (in Spanish) which I would recommend to everyone interested in the subject of the runaway Caribbean slave.

One is  Miguel Barnet’s Biography of a Runaway Slave. Historia de un Cimarrón. It is the detailed and personal testimony of Esteban Montejo as told by himself in 1966, when he was 103 years old, and as such it is also a valuable historical document.

The other is Isabel Allende’s The Island Beneath the Sea, La isla bajo el mar, a beautifully written historical novel full of romance and intrigues, giving a poetic account of the Haitian revolution in the French colony of Saint Domingue (today Haiti). 

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