The sun was still below the horizon as men rowed small wooden fishing boats, laden with nets and poles, against the waves as we entered the narrow channel that would eventually widen into the Bahia de Cienfuegos, Cienfuegos Bay. Not much appears to have changed since the old man battled his Marlin in Hemingway’s 1951 novella. Farther along, listing boats were tied to beaten docks in front of weathered homes, their pastel colors muted in the predawn. They faced the inlet under the battlements of Castillo de Jagua, a stone fortress that has guarded this stretch of water leading to the bay since 1745.
The bay was encountered by Christopher Columbus while on his second voyage to the new world in 1494 and noted as a spectacular natural harbor, located at the end of a long narrow inlet, a perfect sheltered anchorage to weather the gales and hurricanes that blow across the Caribbean. However, closer to the gold of the new world, Havanna, on Cuba’s north coast, became the island’s dominant harbor and city. Mostly, Cienfuegos Bay was a forgotten backwater, without a permanent settlement, on the south coast of Cuba, a perfect location for the notorious British pirates Francis Drake and Henry Morgan to launch their raids on the Spanish Main and plunder the treasure fleets that voyaged from Havanna back to Seville, until the fortress ruined a good pirating gig.
The area grew slowly until the early 1800’s when an influx of French migrants fleeing the slave revolt in Haiti founded the city in 1819. Flattened during an 1825 hurricane, the city was rebuilt with a modern cosmopolitan grid pattern. The fertile region surrounding Cienfuegos supported prosperous tobacco, coffee and sugar plantations and continued to attract French immigrants from Louisiana, Bordeaux and Quebec. By the mid-1800s, a railway funneled goods from across the region to the port for export, and a steamship line connected Cienfuegos to Charleston and New York City. The city’s prosperity was reflected in its stately mansions, elegant civic architecture, wide boulevards and parks reminiscent of New Orleans and Paris, earning it the nickname “La Perla del Sur,” the Pearl of the South.
The Cuba of the 2020s still looks very much like it did during Hemingway’s life, as if it was stuck in time, a perpetual movie set. This is a result of the political decisions made during the 50-year reign of the country’s communist dictator, Fidel Castro, who ruled from the revolution in 1959 until 2008, and other communist leaders since then. Consequently, the United States imposed and still maintains a trade embargo against the Cuban government that visually appears to have frozen the country in the 1960s.
Europeans and Canadians have long traveled to the government-run tourist resorts along the pristine coast. Previously, an inland tourism infrastructure didn’t exist, but with the introduction of the internet to the country and encouraging private enterprise reforms things are slowly beginning to change. We were visiting Cuba on a cruise during that first window of opportunity that was open to Americans between 2016 – 2019, before access was unfortunately tightened again. Recently the travel restrictions to Cuba have been loosened again.
Across from the pier a horse drawn cart with several wooden benches, car tires for wheels and a sun bleached canopy stood idle. It wasn’t meant for the tourist trade, but instead was the cheapest mode of transportation for local folks to use to move about town. And it was our introduction to how self-reliant Cubans are and how slowly change happens in Cuba. Then we noticed the cars.
Earlier an email confirmed our rendezvous, “Ten is good. Meet at the statue of Benny Moré, a beloved Cuban singer, songwriter and band leader, at the intersection of Paseo El Prado and the pedestrian only San Fernando. Ciao.”
We had decided to skip any ship organized tours of Cienfuegos and instead opted for a tour of the city with a Guruwalk guide we found online.
With introductions made, our small group of four followed our guide through Cienfuegos as they pointed out various sites and their significance. Other stops included the government shoe store where the limited styles were only available in black, and a government bodega.
Here food is acquired with the use of La Libreta, a government issued ration book used to tally your monthly allocation. allowance or allotment Typically the monthly allowance per person is 5 eggs, 1 liter of cooking oil, 1 pound of spaghetti, 3 pounds of refined or white sugar, 3 pounds of unrefined or dark sugar, 6 pounds of white rice, 20 ounces of black beans, 2 packets of “mixed coffee”, daily bread (dinner rolls). Fresh produce not available at the government bodegas is sold at state sponsored farmers markets.
Stopping at a large print shop, we watched the printer set lead type by hand as he assembled each word and sentence for the document he was preparing from a large tray of metal vowels, consonants and punctuation marks. There were not any computers, laser printers or copy machines in sight, only the shop’s heavy German Heidelberg printing presses, which have been meticulously maintained since 1959.
From the top of Hotel La Union, the highest point in the city’s center, we surveyed Cienfuegos, today a sprawling city of 150,000.
“So, you’ve noticed the old cars on the street?” Our guide turned the talk at lunch away from any political questions we were eager to ask about life in a communist country.
There are about 60,000 old American cars still on the road in Cuba. Most date from the 1950s, but there are still Consuls, Packards, Cadillacs, Dodges, Chevys, Studebakers and Fords from the 1940s and 30s that are still road worthy. This is an amazing testament to the talent of Cuban mechanics that have been “MacGyvering” the repairs with makeshift parts since the revolution ended in 1959, when the U.S. trade embargo began, and Cuba banned the import of American products. While some cars look to be in mint condition, often the interiors are taped together, door handles are missing, and the windows don’t roll up.
Engines don’t last forever and its not uncommon to swap engines between the American makes and models. Sometimes even the motors from Russian Volgas and Ladas work their way under the hood of Fords and Chevys. Fiats and Peugeots were imported after the revolution but proved to be not as durable as the American models. With the nationalization of property in 1959 the nicer cars of the wealthy who fled were assigned to government officials, doctors, renown celebrities and famous athletes. Regulations prohibiting the ownership of cars was eventually changed to allow Cubans to freely purchase older cars brought to the island before the revolution. Since then, often cars are family heirlooms that have been handed down from generation to generation. Fathers teaching sons the intricacies of keeping the cars running. It’s extremely rare to find late model cars on the roads as the government imposes very high taxes on new car imports, making them highly unaffordable for the majority of Cubans.
“There are no junkyards in Cuba, everything is still driven.” The ingenuity of Cuban mechanics can surely teach us a thing or two about sustainability. Wonderfully many of these resourceful home mechanics have kept these automotive treasures alive and have created an income for their family by offering rides in their classic cars to tourists.
After lunch we watched dancers rehearse in an old colonial building now used as a community center, and we stopped in several art galleries along the park that featured many talented Cuban artists. With the government tightly controlling the economy along with the print and electronic media in the country, creative self-expression through art, dance and music are treasured venues as long as the views expressed don’t “run counter to the objectives of the socialist society.”
While the center of the city is well maintained, and many of the old mansions and civic edifices recently renovated. The homes and buildings along the side streets show decades of neglect from a failed socialist system.
Pride in ownership is a difficult concept in Cuba, and since wages are so very low, buying paint is the last thing anyone is thinking about. Low wages necessitate most families to spend any extra funds at the free markets to buy the goods that aren’t covered with the La Libreta rations card.
This quote I found sums up concisely the housing situation. “In Cuba, everything belongs to everyone and no-one at the same time and if a building is “collectively-owned”, it’s understood that the State is the one responsible, but the goverment can’t afford the maintenance.”
Down the side streets, past glories are now sadly intriguing in their neglect, the homes and buildings wearing a texture carved from storms and hot unrelenting sunshine, revealing ancient layers of paint that gives the neighborhoods a weathered patina, a faded elegance.
“Welcome aboard, folks. Our flight time toBelize is two hours and ten minutes. The weather is expected to be a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit today when we land,” the pilot announced as we were buckling in. Then continued with “As you know the National Weather Service has issued the very rare ‘Beware of Falling Iguanas Weather Alert’ for Miami and South Florida this morning.” As funny as this sounds, it actually happens when the temperature dips into the thirties in Florida. Cold blooded animals, the iguanas slowly stiffen as the temperature drops and eventually lose their grip on the tree branches they have been sleeping on and fall to the ground, stunned, where they lay immobile until the temperature rises. Iguanas can grow quite large and may cause serious injury or death if you are unlucky enough to get struck by one of the falling frozen reptiles. It sounds like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie – be careful out there. We were delighted to be heading south again to a warmer climate after a cold and rainy November and December in Italy, which was followed by a warm-hearted, but very frigid Christmas with our kids in New Jersey.
On our final approach for landing the wing of the plane dipped to reveal a beautiful azure sea outlined with dense green jungle and brilliantly white sand beaches – and not much else – as far as the eye could see. It was still much like it was several millennium ago when a prosperous Mayan civilization flourished, supporting an estimated population of 500,000 – 1,000,000 in the region. Columbus sailed by without stopping and landed in Honduras during his last voyage to the Americas in 1502. Navigator Juan Diaz de Solis did not mention a landfall or discovery during his expedition in 1507 sailing from Panama to the Yucatan. Several theories suggest that the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, the largest in the northern hemisphere, was too difficult to navigate through so the Spanish fleets sailed past. We witnessed this difficulty once from the deck of a cruise ship as the captain left a snaking wake as he steered a serpentine route through the underwater obstacle course.
The first European to arrive in Corozal literally washed ashore as a survivor of a 1511 Spanish shipwreck. To stay alive, conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero offered his skills as a soldier to Mayan Chief Na Chan Kan at Chactemal, (now Santa-Rita, Corozal Town). He proved his skill as a warrior and married the chief’s daughter, Princess Zazil Há. The children from their union are recognized as the first Mestizos of Central America; theirs was the first Mayan liaison recorded by Bernal Diaz de Castillo in his memoir “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” written in 1568.
Guerrero defended his adopted homeland against conquest in 1531 when he helped Chief Na Chan Kan defeat the Spanish army in a battle near the Rio Hondo. Today the river is still Belize’s northern border with Mexico. Spain never established any permanent settlements in Belize. Gold and silver were discovered next door in Guatemala and Honduras. Belize was absorbed into the Spanish empire of Central America by its proximity to its larger neighbors, but was never colonized until the British subversively entered the territory.
The riches of the new world didn’t go unnoticed for long, but by the time English and Scottish pirates arrived on the scene in the mid-1600s, the treasure-laden flotillas destined for the Spanish crown from central America had been replaced by shipments of logwood. Native to northern Central America, logwood or bloodwood was used by the indigenous tribes of the region to produce a vibrant red-orange dye. Mixed with other ingredients, a full spectrum of colors was possible. It grew abundantly and was exported to Spain where the cheap natural resource revolutionized the textile industry and afforded commoners a chance to have colorful wardrobes, which before was only afforded by the nobility. Gone were the days of fabrics dyed gray with soot.
Gold or wood – it didn’t matter. Pirates were pirates and willing to steal your cargo regardless of its content, as long as there was a profit to be made, and the English textile mills were demanding logwood. After plundering large Spanish merchant ships that sailed across the Gulf of Honduras, the pirates found safe refuge for their smaller vessels in the shallow waters behind the Belize Barrier Reef amidst its 450 cays and atolls, where they could hunt for food, get fresh water, and repair their boats. In 1670 England and Spain signed a treaty banning piracy in the Caribbean. The days of the infamous pirates of Belize, Edward Lowe, Captain Charles Johnson, Bartholomew Sharp, Captain Henry Morgan, and Blackbeard, were waning. By this time English pirates had discovered Belize was full of logwood and many ex-privateers became legitimate and wealthy logwood cutters and exporters after buying African slaves to work in the miserable conditions of the mosquito-infested jungles. Though Spain considered all of Central America as part of their empire and occasionally harassed the British logwood camps trying to evict them, the Spanish crown never established any settlements in Belize.
In 1763 Spain signed another treaty allowing English subjects the “privilege of wood-cutting,” but still retained sovereignty over the region. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and Belize finally became the English colony of British Honduras in 1862. Mahogany had replaced logwood as the major export. Conflict with the Mayans escalated as settlers moved farther into the interior exploiting the regions mahogany forests, and forced the indigenous population from their lands by burning their villages and crops. The giant cut logs were floated down the country’s rivers to the coast and where rivers didn’t exist, small logging railroads were built to satisfy the European demand for this beautiful hardwood that was favored for fine cabinetry, furniture and shipbuilding.
Disenfranchised and oppressed, the Mayan revolted in what is called the Caste War against their colonizers. Led by Marcus Canul, a Mayan chief, his people demanded the British pay for the crops they burnt and for the land they occupied. In northern Belize, Canul’s freedom fighters attacked and occupied the garrison town of Corozal. The movement lost its momentum when Canul was killed during an unsuccessful assault on Orange Walk in 1872. Long considered a rebel and criminal, he is now regarded as a Belizean hero who fought against ethnic cleansing. The deforested jungles were replaced by sugar cane, ranching and agriculture plantations.
Belize finally became independent in 1981, though The British Army still maintains a jungle warfare training facility in the country to help deter Guatemalan aggression in an unresolved border issue. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “If the world had any ends, British Honduras (Belize) would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.”
Today the tiny country of 400,000 supports a diverse culture descended from Mayans, Mestizos, African slaves, Garifunas, Europeans and more recently immigrants from Lebanon, Germany, the East Indies, Asia and North America with an economy centered on tourism and agriculture. English is the official language of Belize, but it is not the first language of many with Spanish, Belizean Creole and Q’eqchi’ Maya primarily spoken, depending on what part of the country you are in.
The barrier Islands and cays where pirates might have hidden treasure now sport popular resorts on their white sand beaches. Scuba divers can explore shipwrecks, the Great Blue Hole (a marine sinkhole that is visible from space,) and the exceptional marine life found along the Belize Barrier Reefwhich is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site. Ashore the jungles and mountains continue to reveal the extent of the Mayan civilization in Belize with over 600 known archeological sites discovered so far, ranging from ceremonial caves to towering stone pyramids.
We are on the other end of the tourist spectrum and wanted something very lowkey, inexpensive and relaxing for a month. We headed to Corozal! Located on Chetumal Bay, it is the northern most city in Belize and only 16 miles from Chetumal, Mexico. It was founded in 1848 by Mestizo refugees from Mexico fleeing Mayan retribution from the Caste Wars there. It prospered exporting mahogany logs when there were still enough trees to support the timber industry. Sugarcane now fuels the economy.
In 1955 Hurricane Janet, a category 5 storm with winds of 175mph, flattened ninety-five percent of Corozal and left 8,000 people homeless. Surprisingly one of the few buildings left standing on the waterfront, fully intact, was the home of lumber baron John Carmichael. It was built in the 1880’s using only mahogany. The house is still used today as a Catholic mission. The pre-1955 wooden structures have been replaced with concrete block houses now, mostly two stories high, except the four-story Mirador Hotel, the tallest building in town.
Our ah-ha moment happened after the two-hour, inland drive from the airport, when we entered Corozal and saw the enticing turquoise waters of Corozal Bay on our way to our Airbnb rental. We drove a mile along a still bay bordered by a low battered seawall and numerous public parks dotted with palm trees.
Turning onto 2nd St. North our driver stopped in front of a flowering bougainvillea-covered wall, less than 200ft from the water, that hid the Villa Imperial Loft Apartment, our home for the next four weeks. Our host Oscar wasn’t home at the time, but had made arrangements with Sue, another guest, who graciously led us through the flowering garden, complete with a resident mama cat and her kitten, and up the back stairs to our studio apartment. She enthusiastically answered our first questions about Corozal.
The large room was brightly painted and pleasantly decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques, reminiscent of visiting our grandparents. A wall of windows facing east offered a glimpse of the bay, and any storms approaching, through the neighbor’s tree. Best was the kitchen across the landing at the top of the stairs. It was enclosed on three sides with just screened windows, covered with louvered shutters. In stark contrast to the apartment, it was very rustic with the feel of an old lake cabin. But we soon realized it was the perfect spot to observe the wide varieties of birds that visited the trees in the backyard, and we thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating there. Birding over the next month while walking along the waterfront was one of the highlights of our stay in Corozal. Spotting just a few of the 590 bird species in Belize, we saw sandpipers, great kiskadee, white-collared manakin, yellow-throated euphonia, tricolored heron, kingfisher, lineated woodpecker, great egrets, couch’s kingbird, crimson-collared tanager, black and white warbler, and the outrageously raucous plain chachalaca, which you’ll hear well before seeing them.
For many travelers visiting northern Belize, Corozal is just a brief stop on their way to or from Mexico or Guatemala, or a transfer point to catch the two-hour Thunderbolt Ferry or a flight on Tropic Air from the Corozal Airport (CZH) to San Pedro, on the barrier island, Ambergris Caye. The town doesn’t have a beach, which has probably helped keep it off the beaten path for most tourists that visit Belize. Access to the shallow water is from stairs in the 1.5 mile long stone seawall that has not fared well against the surges of the ocean. We had read that the district has a sizeable expat community, that likes to avail themselves of all the big city options, mainly a Walmart and Sam’s Club that are across the border in Chetumal, Mexico. But from our experiences we only encountered a handful of North Americans, surely not surging numbers that would indicate it was a sizzling hot spot for vacationing or retirement that would change the character of the town. And that’s a good thing. The joy of Corozal for us was its tranquility; there really was not much to do there aside from chilling and the occasional dip in the gentle waves of the bay. The serenity of the seascapes compensated for the lack of activities.
We were enjoying the tropical 80-degree weather of Corozal and re-embracing our slow travel philosophy by immersing ourselves in the daily flow of life in this small coastal town. It was wonderful to see parents accompanying their uniform clad children to school every morning. Some parents drove, others walked along or bicycled with their kids. Routinely at the end of the school day an older couple pedaling a three-wheeler sold homemade popcorn to the kids or the youngsters lined up for ice cream on the porch of a home that doubled as an ice cream parlor. The kids waved to us if they noticed us bobbing in the bay across the street.
Our daily walks led to discoveries all across town, mostly culinary in nature. We were eager to find the best places to buy groceries, interesting places to eat and quench our thirst. Most importantly, our craving for good coffee was easily satisfied directly across the street at the top of a colorful flight of tiled stairs. Here Oscar’s nephew Rudi runs the LVDM Coffee Stop on the porch of his home and makes what are easily the best cappuccinos in Corozal. He also rents two rustic villitas in his backyard.
In town there were any number of Asian-owned grocery stores that all offered the same staples. We tended to prefer a shop called the Central Supermarket, because they were the closest place to carry our recyclable beer bottles. Diagonally across the street the city’s daily market had numerous fruit and vegetable stands, an open-air butcher, and clothing vendors. A twice weekly farmers market was held outside of town, across from the cemetery. Fortunately, this location did not reflect negatively upon the quality of produce sold there. At a much greater walking distance, it didn’t offer any real advantage over the produce sold for the same price at the daily market. Shopping there was an early morning event and the atmosphere was very vibrant. It was here we got the first glimpse of the country’s Mennonite farming community, easily identifiable by their conservative dress and spoken Pennsylvania German. Since 1958 when they were invited to settle in Belize by the first Premiere of the country, George C. Price, the community has grown to 10,000, and they have contributed immensely to Belize’s agriculture self-reliance.
Surprisingly, even though Corozal is located right on the bay, we could not find fresh fish and had to purchase locally caught frozen fish, conch and lobster from Frank’s, a great butcher shop that makes their own sausage and offers a wide assortment of fresh beef, pork and poultry. Directly across from Frank’s on the other side of the civic center field we found Vivi’s for wonderful meat pies.
On one of our walks, we did meet a young brother and sister team carrying a five-gallon bucket on the handlebar of their bicycle. It was full of lobster and conch, caught by their father earlier that morning. They were going door to door in the neighborhood, selling it so they could buy their school uniforms. Of course, we purchased some, and it was delicious.
The town does not have a marina for boats, but there are spots along the bay where fishermen pull out their ancient mahogany boats for repairs. Called sandlighters, many of these traditional sailing vessels were built across the bay in the fishing community of Sarteneja and are over eighty years old.
There were several small bakeries in town, each offering different specialties. The Y Not Bakery, to the detriment of our waistlines, was the closest and created the best temptations. Another favorite was Caramelo Bakery across from the high school and down the street from Belcuisine, a spice factory that produces flavorful Belizean Recados mixes.
Corozal really was a rewarding foodie’s destination with numerous small taquerias and enterprising folks offering roadside barbeque. Many businesses were operated from the windows of homes, like Ruby’s, who prepared delicous ceviche then sold it through her living room window for take-away.
The only option for eating out was casual dining. We found June’s Kitchen and Mar’s Caribbean Garden for homecooked meals. Directly across from the bay, Scotty’s Crocodile Cove was a relaxing spot with thatched roofs; it was an enjoyable place for a refreshing Belizean brewed Belikin beer and large burritos that could easily feed three people. The Tortuga Grill, across from the waterfront Rainbow Park, and the Wood House Restaurant, adjacent to Miami Beach, both offered good food and views of the bay.
Corozal enthusiastically supports its art community and one Saturday a month, in the town’s Central Park, holds the Art in the Park event where local artists and craftspeople display and sell their work. It was a fun time, with live music and delicous Belizean food. It’s held between 5pm – 9pm to avoid the heat of the day. If City Hall is open make sure to check out the fantastic wall mural depicting the history of Corozal, painted by Belizean-Mexican artist Manual Villamor.
The blank concrete block walls of homes and businesses across from Miami Beach were the canvases for street artists invited to participate in the Corozal Graffiti Festival. In 2020 street mural artists from Belize, Cuba, El Salvador and Mexico were invited to enliven the walls with an “Ancient Chactemal” theme. It was a lively event with a music stage, art and crafts for sale, body painting and food vendors. On the beach, the Corozal sailing club was offering catamaran rides on the gentle waters of the bay.
There is an abundance of civic pride displayed in this small, well-kept community on Corozal Bay that is endearing. We barely scratched the surface of places to explore in Belize and were perfectly content “Snow Birds” with our choice of Corozal for a month’s worth of lazy rest and relaxation. We’d definitely return to explore the surrounding area more fully.