Havana, Cuba: Beautiful in neglect

The amber glow of sunrise warmed the waterfront as our ship docked.  Its upper deck provided us a view of the port as if we were seagulls soaring above the first commuter ferries of the day crossing the harbor.  Along the water, buildings wore a tired facade of montage color and aged textures. Beautiful in neglect. These were our first impressions of Havana. The few buildings under renovation were easy to spot with their fresh coats of paint. The domes of the Russian Catedral Ortodoxa Nuestra Señora de Kazán, built to celebrate Soviet – Cuban friendship glistened in the sunrise, its onion shaped domes an odd juxtaposition, accented the balmy Caribbean skyline.  We’d be spending two full days in Havana.

By the time Nevada legalized gaming in 1931, Havana, once nicknamed “the Paris of the Caribbean” was already a well-established tropical get-away for gambling, especially if you lived in the wintry northern parts of the United States.  Havana’s balmy weather and swaying palms contrasted nicely against Las Vegas’ dusty strip in the desert where tumbleweeds blew across the sidewalks. In the 1950s, fifty dollars could purchase a three-day package tour to a Havana casino that included airfare, entertainment, food and hotel. Cruises to Havana from Miami were also possible aboard ships like the 725 passenger S.S. Florida for $46.00. For an additional $35.00 you could take your car along if you wanted to explore the “700 miles of Cuban highways,” a travel brochure from the time advertised. Cruise ships arriving at night were occasionally treated to displays of fireworks over the centuries old Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro and the highrise apartments along the Malecon as they entered the harbor. It was city of Jazz clubs, high rollers, zoot suits, large finned Cadillacs and mobsters. Headliners like Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Eartha Kitt, and Nat King Cole drew folks to the casinos controlled by New York, Chicago, and Miami crime syndicates.

Mafia payoffs to the rampantly corrupt regime of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and his associates allowed their casinos, brothels and drug running operations to flourish unimpeded. As flashy as the casinos were, the sugar industry dominated ninety percent of the rural Cuban economy for decades and was the largest employer in the countryside until sugar prices collapsed.  That along with government policies that ignored its impoverished citizenry bred increased discontent as the disparity of wealth between the rural poor and the Havana elite grew intolerable. The jungled mountains of the islands’ interior sheltered Fidel Castro and his armed revolutionaries. 1959 was their year. Batista and his cronies fled to the Dominican Republic. Afterwards all homes, properties, businesses, and cars were nationalized.  An exodus of the Cuban middle class followed with approximately 1.4 million people heading to the United States to reestablish their lives.

While Europeans and Canadians have long traveled to Cuban government-run tourists’ resorts along the coast, we were visiting the island on a cruise during that first window of opportunity which opened to Americans between 2016 – 2019, before access was unfortunately tightened again.  Recently the travel restrictions to Cuba have once again been loosened.

Rush hour in Havana happens whenever the cruise ships disgorge their passengers onto the waterfront to walk into the city center, catch their bus tours or to snag a ride in one of those classic cars from the late 1950s. There are literally thousands of antique cars still on the roads in Cuba, jury-rigged to keep running and often repainted with house paint that reflects the bright ambience of the Caribbean. 

Depending on where you are in the disembarking queue these beautiful classics, especially the convertibles, might already be tooting around Havana with other tourists and you might have to opt for a coco taxi.  These entertaining rickshaw type taxis are covered in a bright yellow, fiberglass shell and have seating for three across the rear axle. When it rains, you are going to get soaked as we did when we got caught in a downpour. The return ride was definitely more comfortable after several Cuba Libre cocktails. 

Down the side streets of the city, it wasn’t unusual to see these vintage cars raised on cinderblocks, their hoods open as amateur mechanics tinkered away to keep their classic beauties running. There are about 60,000 old American cars still on the road in Cuba. Most date from the 1950s, but there are still 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 it’s 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 were eventually changed to allow Cubans to freely purchase older cars brought to the island before the revolution. Often cars are family heirlooms that have been handed down from generation to generation, with fathers teaching sons the intricacies of keeping the cars running. It’s extremely rare to find new automobiles in Cuba as the government imposes very high taxes on car imports, rendering them highly unaffordable for the vast majority of Cubans.

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. “There are no junkyards in Cuba; everything is still driven.”

Flagging down a Cadillac convertible, we took a ride along the Malecon seafront before breakfast at a paladare recommended on TripAdvisor.  Paladares are small privately run restaurants, usually operated out of the chef’s home, that have been allowed to open as Cuba relaxes its ban on private enterprise in the country.  Typically, their menus change daily depending on what is available at the markets.

After breakfast, our original plan was to walk to Havana’s Central Park to join a tour of the city with a Guruwalk guide. Unfortunately, we arrived late and missed the group. Unfazed, we decided to wander on our own around the city.

Parque Central is the nucleus of a daily classic car show with the old cars neatly lined up for tourists to choose which nostalgic Ford or Chevy they want to cruise around the city in.  Length of the trip and price can be bargained for with each driver.

Across from the park, sparkling from the completion of a recent renovation, the ornate baroque façade of the Gran Teatro de La Havana drew our attention. Built in 1838, it’s a cavernous structure that can seat 1,500 people and is home to the Cuban National Ballet Company.  President Obama addressed the Cuban people from its stage in 2016 and the biennial International Ballet Festival of Havana is hosted here.

While many hotels and historic public buildings immediately surrounding Havana’s Central Park have been pristinely renovated, you need only to walk a half block down any side street and it’s obvious that the maintenance of the city has been neglected for decades. With many of the buildings in central Havana dating from the 1800’s, most are severely showing their age. Signs of structural neglect were endemic.

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 government doesn’t have the resources for maintenance.”

We worked our way towards Real Fábrica de Tabaco Partagas, a historic cigar shop and factory dating to 1845, located behind the Capitolio Nacional de Cuba, a near replica of the United States’ capital building, only larger and with a higher dome. A tour of the cigar factory, where 500 people sort, grade and roll tobacco leaves into world famous habanos, cigars, was not available the day we visited, but we were able to watch a cigar rolling demonstration.

Asking for a recommendation for a place to eat enroute back to the harbor the salesman at the cigar shop suggested Tablao de Pancho, Grupo El Guajirito. Along the way a pleasant young woman, sensing we might be lost, spoke to us in excellent English and offered to guide us to the restaurant. She declined a tip for her assistance, so we asked her to join us for lunch instead. She quietly saved half her meal to take home to her child, because her ration card did not provide for enough food.

Life and business are conducted on the streets of the neighborhood with most doorways and shallow balconies harboring tenants trying to stay cool. A mattress maker refurbished rusted bedsprings on the sidewalk. Vegetable cart vendors pushed their wagons around the blocks. The scarcity of some the smallest luxuries and basic necessities is visible and there was a sense of waiting, but what for was difficult to determine. The hardships of life that the residents of the city endure under a failed socialist revolution are still very much in evidence in the forgotten, gritty side streets of the capital.

The cigar chomping aficionado in our group was determined to purchase the legal limit of Cuban habanas that were permissible to bring back to the states at the time, so three of us crammed into a coco taxi, a not particularly macho ride to cruise in along the Malecon.

Our destination was the Hotel Nacional de Cuba for a smoke and a glass of rum. A historic 1930s hotel and casino, before the revolution it attracted American celebrities like Erroll Flynn, Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, and Walt Disney. Now the hotel annually hosts the Festival de Cine Nuevo Iberoamericano and claims Michael Keaton, Francis Ford Coppola, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Steven Spielberg as past attendees.

Later that afternoon, behind the 1500s era Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a star shaped fortress that protected the colonial harbor, we wandered through the Old Havana district, still lively since the days when treasure laden Spanish galleons from the New World stopped in Havana before voyaging back to Spain.

Latin music filled Obispo Street and Calle O’Reilly, the two main boulevards, the later named to honor Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irish born soldier who fought for Spain during the British siege of Havana in 1762. This neighborhood is alive with street buskers and has an entrepreneurial spirit that’s visible in many the restaurants, galleries and shops that line the sidewalks here.

Our ship listed heavily as gale force winds churned the sea as we left the shelter of the harbor and passed the solid stone walls of the Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro.

Across the water large waves crashed against the seawall that protects the Malecon from collapsing into the sea.

It’s all too easy to romanticize poverty in an exotic destination that’s veiled by swaying palm trees and a pristine Caribbean sky.  The people of Cuba deserve better from their government. Watching the skyline of Havana fade in the twilight we wondered if Cuba’s sea change was coming.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Cienfuegos, Cuba – A Caribbean Time Capsule 

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.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Seville Part 3 – Walk a Little then Café

Parts of this ancient city with its labyrinth of cobbled lanes feel more akin to a small village with an earth toned, sun drenched patina. Vibrant traditions and a youthful vitality along with numerous historic sites scattered across the city all contribute to make Seville a walker’s delight. There’s no correct way to explore the city. How you do it depends on the amount of time you have to indulge yourself in the history and atmosphere of this beautiful city. Strolling through the city is the finest way to discover its character. Immersing ourselves into the city for six weeks, we walked the familiar cobbled lanes multiple times with many variations and sporadic detours that we hope you find interesting.  Seville never ceased to charm us. 

The routes we favored most webbed out from behind the Cathedral of Seville’s Patio de los Naranjos on Calle de Placentines, around the corner from the Palacio Arzobispal on Plaza Virgen de los Reyes, and wandered through the Alfalfa, Centro and La Macarena districts.

An old-world fabric store bedecked with selections of gold embroidered trim, ribbons, and tassels hanging from worn wooden cabinets enticed us inside.  Further on the display window of a religious goods store fascinated us with its selection of all things sacred. Before crossing into the Plaza Jesus de la Pasion, the savory window display at Confiteria La Despensa De Palacio stopped us dead in our tracks. Lovingly run by generations of the Santaella family, the shop has been Seville’s premiere chocolatier and pastelería for over 250 years. The pastries were sumptuous!

Across the street the Plaza Jesus de la Pasion widens to reveal a wonderful example of 19th century Andalusian architecture. The far end of the square features a façade of red brick framing Azulejos tiles and Moroccan influenced, pointed arched windows.  The plaza also seems to be a favored place for a protest or political rally as we came across several, over the weeks we spent there.

At this point it’s possible to head one block over to visit the Iglesia Colegial del Divino Salvador, on the plaza of the same name. This is a very popular square with many restaurants and outdoor tables along with buskers providing entertainment.

The Iglesia Colegial del Divino Salvador is the second most important church in Seville after the main cathedral and features a monumental and intricately carved 18th century Baroque altar. The beautiful piece was created by the Andulasian altarpiece architect and sculptor Cayetano de Acosta, who contributed works to numerous churches across southern Spain.

Returning to Plaza Jesus de la Pasion, the far end of the square funnels into the very cosmopolitan C. Puente y Pellon. Lined with a wide variety of shops, we found the most interesting to be the Zapaterias, shoe cobblers, and the dress shops, their windows filled with colorfully clad mannequins displaying tight fitting and frilly dresses called traje de flamenco or traje de gitana, for the upcoming Seville Fair (La Feria De Abril).

Here we found what we regard as the best bread bakery in Seville, Crustum Panem Bridge and Pellón, https://www.crustum.es/ sandwiched between window displays featuring towering pyramids of tasty Bocadillo de jamón, the ultimate hoagie lunch para llevar, to carry away, for an inexpensive picnic. The bakery offered a wide assortment of breads and empanadas. Our favorite though was a very dense bread made with nuts, seeds, and dried fruit which they sold by the slice and weight.  We returned often.

A little further on the Setas de Sevilla loomed over us as we left the alley.  The Setas is a massive, multi-story, Lego-like freeform sculpture with a viewing deck atop it. Constructed entirely of wood, it nearly covers a full city block. It’s an iconic symbol of modern Seville that the locals lovingly call The Mushroom because of its shape. 

For over 150 years this plaza was the true center of the city for Sevillianos when 400 market stalls of the Mercado de la Encarnación occupied the land above the ruins of the medieval Convento de la Encarnación, from which the plaza took its name.  The market operated until 1973 when the building was demolished for structural reasons and the remaining ninety vendors were housed in temporary facilities for what was hoped to be three years.  Inaction by the city left the site closed for 31 years and the area around the plaza became blighted, until the local government sponsored an international design competition in 2004 for ideas to revitalize the plaza and return it to its former prominence. 

Jürgen Mayer, a German architect, won with a concept called Metropol Parasol, constructed with sustainable wood. At 490 feet long by 230 feet wide and just under 100 feet tall, it is the largest wooden structure in the world made with laminated Finnish pine. Its unique design features 3500 sections attached together with 16 million nuts and bolts. The interior of the Setas now hosts a daily market with 38 vendors offering fruits and vegetables, fish, meat, poultry, and cheese. The base of the monument and plaza is ringed with restaurants that have excellent outdoor seating in the shade of the mammoth structure. Inside by the market stalls are several traditional luncheonettes that offer inexpensive daily specials.

A detour to the Guadalquivir River and Triana can be easily made here by following Calle Imagen west. This walk took us past many older buildings with interesting architectural details, and the 14th century Iglesia de San Antonio Abad which hosts the Brotherhood of Silence, the oldest brotherhood in Seville.

A block away the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans drew us into Elhombre Pez, where you can only purchase bags of whole or ground coffee beans. Their coffee beans are definitely worth the purchase if you have an apartment stay in the city.

The Seville Museum of Fine Arts, set in a former 17th century palace, is also in this direction and is an intriguing detour with its extensive collection of Spanish masterpieces.

Several blocks farther the Real Parroquia de Santa María Magdalena was an interesting discovery. Built in 1691, this Baroque church has a fascinating interior.  The small bar on the corner, Casa Murillo, was a reliable spot for café and lunch. Across the street Churreria San Pablo always seemed to have a line waiting for its sweet treats.

Calle Regina directly behind the Setas de Sevilla begins to funnel folks away from the bustling historic district and into a more residential area, though it’s still lined with a variety of shops and eateries. And if you share our belief that the food is always better and more affordable two blocks away from a popular tourist attraction, you will like this neighborhood. On this stretch Mr. Cake Sevilla with its artfully prepared and tasty offerings is a nice place to rest.

The Iglesia de San Juan de la Palma stands at the crossroad to our favorite tapas bar in Seville, the Bodega La Plazoleta. The gothic portal of the church is one of its few remaining original features. Compared to other churches in Seville its relatively small, but it features three interesting side chapels devoted to the Brotherhoods of Bitterness, the Virgin of the Head, and Our Lady of Montemayor.

The restaurant is on a small square, to the right of the church, that was far enough off the main path that it didn’t attract many tourists. Over our six-week stay in Seville this was our go to bodega for its excellent food, relaxing atmosphere and chocolate cake! The restored 15th century Palacio de las Dueñas is nearby, but let’s face it, it’s impossible to do everything and we needed to save some ideas for future visits to this wonderful city.

If you make a left at this crossroad, it’s a simple detour to the Alameda de Hércules. The origins of this large park date to 1574 and it is believed to be the oldest public garden with tree lined promenades in Europe.  The park takes its name from a statue of Hercules, the mythical founder of Seville, excavated from the ruins of a nearby ancient Roman wall.  This part of the city now has a younger hipster atmosphere and is known for its nightlife and club scene as well as its array of restaurants offering a variety of international cuisine. In this barrio the Basílica de Jesús del Gran Poder is an unusual church with its circular sanctuary which is surprisingly hidden within the church’s traditional façade.

Back at the crossroads: Thursdays are, as the name Mercadillo Histórico del Jueves suggests, the best day for this final leg of the walk. Legend says that this street market has been a feature of the city since the Moors ruled Seville.  Every Thursday several blocks of Calle Feria are closed to traffic, and it becomes a pedestrian mall lined with vendors now selling antiques and flea-market type items.  The market is a popular destination, and occasionally we felt like we were in a conga-line weaving through a sardine can.  We did find a small, folkloric style painting of Seville’s La Feria de Abril that just fit into our suitcase.

It was quite a walk from our apartment on Plaza de Doña Elvira, but our favorite local food market in Seville was the Mercado de la Feria, several blocks past the mercadillo histórico.  The market had a very authentic feel to it, being in a neighborhood that is far away from the tourist center of the city. It had a wonderful fish monger, cheese shop and fresh pasta maker. Accustomed to their neighborhood clientele, the vendors seemed surprised with our purchases which indicated that we actually cook for ourselves.  This is also a great destination for lunch as there are a number of small restaurants that ring the market.

Next to the market – It’s not always open, but if the door under the 13th century pointed Gothic arch of the Real Parroquia de Omnium Sanctorum is ajar, it’s worth stopping to investigate – is one of the oldest churches in Seville. It has gone through many incarnations over the centuries, most notably after a 1355 earthquake, and arson attack in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

At this point in the walk, you can choose to head back towards the Alameda de Hércules or continue on towards the towers of the Puente del Alamillo bridge, which you’ve probably already spotted, that spans the northern part of the Guadalquivir River. Head to the river. There is a wonderful pedestrian foot/bike path that follows the course of the river. This stretch of the river is also popular with anglers using traditional long poles and line gear to catch fish from its bank.

It is a long but pleasant walk south along the river back towards the bustle of Seville.  Mid span on the Puente del Cachorro is a great vantage point for photos of the historic Triana waterfront with kayakers and scullers enjoying the river.

If its late in the day and you want to catch a movie, the Centro Comercial Plaza de Armas is only two blocks inland from here, in the restored 19th century Old Cordoba Train Station.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Ronda Road Trip – The Pueblos Blancos or Blinded by the Light

Needing a break from city life we rented a car at the Santa Justa train station and within minutes we were out of Seville heading south to Ronda, one of Andalucia’s many “Pueblos Blancos,” the white villages, so called because of their uniformly whitewashed houses.  Although it was less than two hours from Seville, it took us all day due to the number of planned stops and spontaneous detours we made.

Lime paint was introduced to the region when Rome controlled the Iberian peninsular. Its use was greatly expanded during the mid-1300’s when a bubonic plague pandemic swept through the Mediterranean countries.  Residents of villages were required yearly to cover the outside and the interiors of their homes and churches with a limewash, known for its natural anti-bacterial and insecticidal properties, in an effort to reduce the spread of disease. Community inspections were done, and folks were fined for noncompliance. This mandated conformity was eventually appreciated as an aesthetically pleasing look and a symbol of meticulous tidiness. Fortunately, the custom stayed and has become an iconic signature of southern Andalusia.

Cresting a low hill on the A-375, we spotted a small castle with crenellated walls and towers in a shallow valley not far from the road. Turning towards it we followed a dirt track through farmland not yet ploughed for the Spring planting to a small intersection where the castle stood next to a narrow, babbling brook.  The history of the Castillo de Las Aguzaderas isn’t really known, but it is thought to have been built in the 1300’s by the Moors as they retreated from advancing territorial gains made by the Spanish during the Reconquista. 

Of Spain’s 2500 castles this is the only one that does not sit atop the high ground of a hill or mountain to command the surrounding terrain, but according to its historical placard, stands in a hollow to protect the spring that emerges from the earth outside its wall. With no attendant and an open gate, we were free to scramble around the walls and climb stairs in a terrible state of disrepair to the top of the castle keep for views all around. In the distance an ancient stone watchtower, Torre del Bollo, dominated a hill.

From afar the whitewashed casas of Zahara de la Sierra brilliantly reflected the sunlight like polished marble.  The homes, stacked like building blocks, rose up the hillside until they met a sheer butte. A square tower crowned the butte’s summit.

We followed the long ring road that circles the mount through the village and decided to have lunch at Meson Oñate where we were drawn to the outdoor patio that overlooks the Zahara-El Gastor Reservoir and the rolling farmland that surrounds it. 

After lunch, to work off our delicous meal, we hiked to the Castillo de Zahara, which crowns the mountaintop above the village. It was a well paved steep path at the start, but soon the slope decreased to a manageable incline that zigzagged up the mountain.  For our effort we were rewarded with stunning bird’s eye views over the red tiled roofs of the village and to the distant lake below. A tower is all that is left of a larger Moorish castle from the 13th century that was built over the ruins of a small Roman settlement that once called the mountaintop home. Barely accessible, it provided a safe haven during times of trouble. The castle had a turbulent history with its control passing back and forth several times between the Moors and Spanish. Even French troops once commanded its summit through Napoleon’s conquest of Spain during the Peninsular War that raged in the early 1800’s.

With a last-minute decision to take a longer route to Ronda, we headed into the mountains outside of Zahara de la Sierra on CA-9104, a serpentine road with steep slopes that took us into the Sendero La Garganta Verde, a rugged and wild scenic area that is known for its population of Griffon vultures, and Monte Prieto.  The wind was insanely whipping around us when we parked the car at the Puerto de las Palomas (4500ft above sea level) mountain pass and walked to an observation deck in hope of viewing some vultures.  Griffons are large birds of prey that have wing spans up to nine feet across. We were fortunate to spot some, far off in the distance before we ran back to the car, chilled to the bone.

The sun sets early when you are on the eastern side of the steep Sierra del Pinar mountain range.  The last rays of sunlight still illuminated Grazalema as we drove into the village, but the temperature dropped along with the vanishing light of a February afternoon.

We sat in the plaza and had café across the sidewalk from an interesting statue of a bull being roped.  The statue commemorates the ancient practice of hunting wild bulls. The tradition continued through the Romans and Arabs and was Christianized by the church into the feast of the bull to celebrate the Virgen del Carmen. During the festival, three times a day, a bull is released to run through the village for an hour with the men chasing after, in hopes of roping it. The beginning and end of each bull’s run is announced with fireworks throughout the day.  Sections of an old Roman road that led up into the village are still visible from the mirador on the edge of town.

Enjoying the freedom and spontaneity a rental car offers is a big plus when developing itineraries. Finding convenient and affordable hotels that have free or inexpensive onsite parking was another whole issue.  It was dark by the time we reached Ronda and we were having difficulty finding the hotel’s parking. With one last call to the hotel receptionist the garage door to their secret lair, that was our parking space, was magically revealed to us on a back alley, under the Hotel Plaza de Toros. Only big enough for six cars, our tiny Fiat 500 easily fit in its tight confines.

The next morning revealed that the hotel was in an excellent location, just a block from the town’s famous bullring, Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, built in 1784. Aside from bullfights it has been used as an armory and calvary training grounds by the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, a noble order of horsemen in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The promenade next to bullring is dedicated to famous literary talents who were enamored with the “Ciudad Sońada” or “Dreamed City,” as Ronda is also called. While Don Quixote didn’t tilt at any windmills in Ronda, his creator Miguel de Cervantes certainly drew inspiration from the area as he traveled between villages for his day job as Royal Tax Collector. Washington Irving found inspiration in the rugged landscape of southern Spain when he traveled through Ronda in 1828 prompting him to write, “There is something in the austere presence of this Spanish landscape that wounds the soul with a feeling close to the sublime.” He also romanticized the brigands, who some saw as Robin Hood figures that lived in the mountainous terrain surrounding Ronda, and Irving was disappointed in not encountering any on his journey through Andalusia, ignoring the poverty and repressive feudal system that forced many into a life of crime. Ernst Hemingway was drawn to the machismo and pageantry of bullfighting in Ronda, where the sword and red muleta cape were first introduced into the ring by the legendary matador Francisco Romero in 1726.  Orson Welles explained bullfighting as “an unjustifiable yet irresistible, three-act tragedy.” Wells was so fascinated with this quintessential Andalusian village that he chose to be buried here on the hacienda of a bullfighter friend – “A man does not belong to the place he was born in, but to the place he chooses to die.” Spanish poet, José Agustín Goytisolo summed it up best for us with, “We sighted Ronda. It was raised up in the mountains, like a natural extension of the landscape, and in the sunlight it seemed to me to be the most beautiful city in the world.”

The mirador beyond the park overlooked olive groves and spring fields still dormant.  Past them distant mountains faded into the horizon.  The path through the mirador led to the Puente Nuevo bridge that connects the younger old town to the ancient village across the steep sided El Tajo (The Deep Cut) gorge, carved out eons ago by the rushing waters of the Rio Guadalevín.  Finished in 1793 after 34 years of construction, the new bridge isn’t so new anymore, but it was an engineering feat when it was constructed across the shear 390ft deep chasm that divided the village. It replaced a poorly built 1735 bridge that tragically collapsed after only six years’ use, killing fifty people.

Ronda is a fabulous city for walking and as we continued across the bridge into La Ciudad, Ronda’s old-town quarter, we stopped in awe, to photograph the iconic whitewashed houses that are tenuously perched atop the walls of the gorge. Precarious to the point that if their front door slammed too hard the back of the house might fall into the gorge! 

We worked our way to Plaza Duquesa de Parcent in the center of the historic district for lunch. Passing architectural details from Ronda’s Moorish and Spanish past still evident on some of the ancient buildings.

In the off-season not all of the restaurants were open, but it was a beautiful day and we didn’t mind waiting for a table in the fascinating historical surroundings. A few minutes later we were seated at a table in the sun, caddy corner between the Convento de Clarisas de Santa Isabel de los Ángeles and the Convento De La Caridad, both built in the 16th century. The classic symmetry of Ronda’s Town Hall with its two-tier colonnade anchored the far side of the plaza.  

Adjacent to the town hall the Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor is the real draw to this side of the historic district.  With two rows of covered balconies next to an adjoining former minaret turned belltower, it’s a unique façade for a church and it’s built on the foundation of a 14th century mosque. Ronda and Granada were the last Moorish strongholds in Andalusia, and the mosque was ordered destroyed after Ronda surrendered in 1485. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel immediately ordered that a Gothic church be built upon the spot. 

The balconies on the front were added during the reign of King Felipe II in the 1500s for the well-to-do and nobles of the city to watch maestranza tournaments in the plaza, before the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda was built. A century later the church was partially destroyed in an earthquake and the rebuilding over the next two centuries embraced a mishmash of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles that sends architectural purists into a frenzy of “how could they.” Though smaller than the churches in Seville, we found the Iglesia very refreshing with its lofty interior and fabulous religious art.

Just inside one of the side entrances, a worn stone stairwell led up to a walled catwalk that wrapped around the side and back of the building. The views from it over the red tiled roofs of the old quarter seemed not to have changed for centuries.

Later that evening we explored the new town and found Grabados Somera, Shallow Engravings, a wonderful workshop and gallery filled with etchings of matadors, senoritas and Ronda, all the creations of master printmaker engraver Pedro Somera Abad. Writing this now we regret not purchasing a print as a souvenir of our time in Spain.

We eventually came across La Casa de Jamon, a gourmet store and Iberian Ham bar that will leave any carnivorous epicure salivating. Here a leg of the best jamon to take back to your casa will dent your wallet an extravagant 600€.  We never realized those acorn fed porkers could command such a price. Along with jamon, they have locally sourced sausages, wine and cheese from the Andalusia region. We decided to order a charcuterie board for dinner and we were not dissappointed with the tasty assortment presented.

The next morning we walked through the Jardines De Cuenca along a walled path that traced the course of the Rio Guadalevín through El Tajo gorge far below. Across the chasm the hanging gardens of the old palatial homes that lined the cliff edge were redolent with color. The path through the park slowly descended to the Puente Viejo; built in 1616, it is the oldest stone bridge over the river.

Across the bridge the route split to go back into La Ciudad, the old town, through the Renaissance era Puerta de Carlos V, where taxes were once levied on the wares merchants brought into the city.  Or we could go downhill to the impressive arched ruins of the Baños Arabes, a 13th century Moorish bathhouse on the outskirts of the city, that provided heated water, an impressive feat 800 years ago.

Along the river that supplied water to the Arab baths, grist mills once stood just inside Ronda’s double ring of fortress walls that protected this side of La Ciudad.  The mills ground wheat harvested from the surrounding countryside. The stones of the outer wall were repurposed long ago. Now only remnants of the massive inner wall, the last line of defense before entering the city still stands, causing us to pause and imagine its former glory. Walking under the last vestiges of Ronda’s mighty defenses, we headed back.

It was lightly raining as we strolled along Carrera Espinel in search of an interesting place for dinner.  Most of the inside tables at the restaurants we passed were taken with diners escaping the damp evening chill.  But the aroma of savory clams drew us to an outside table at Restaurante Las Maravillas, where the waiter was attentive and refueled the tower heater next to our table to help keep us warm. The dinner and wine were delicious.

Plans to visit Olvera and Setenil de las Bodegas the next day were made over dessert and coffee. It had been a long satisfying day, our “walk a little then café” evolved to “walk a little more, then bed.”

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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Seville Part 2 – Walking Through History Under the Orange Trees

One of the tenets of slow travel is the ability to revisit a place many times to savor the changes in its ambience. The Plaza de España in Parque de María Luisa was one such lively spot that we enjoyed and returned to several times. 

It is an iconic landmark for Seville with its eclectic mix of Baroque, Renaissance and Moorish architectural styles embellished with hand painted Mudéjar tiles created across the Guadalquivir River, in the Triana barrio.

Along with an expansive plaza, signature horseshoe colonnade, and boating moat, it has been a popular destination since it was constructed for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929.  It, along with the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, and the Archeological Museum of Seville in Parque de María Luisa, are hubs of activity on the weekends when they fill with friends and families looking for more elbow room.

Several other architecturally interesting buildings were constructed in the park and along Paseo de la Delicias at this time to host exhibitions from countries that were formerly part of the Spanish Empire and which would later be used as consulate building. 

On the way to the park one morning, we stopped for café along the edge of Jardines de Murillo and unsuccessfully tried to order cappuccinos from a brusque waiter who replied, “No,” just no and without any further explanation turned and walked away. Confounded, we left.  This happened again several days later when we were early for a dermatologist appointment, for an overdue skin cancer screening at Hospital Fátima, a private hospital in Seville that facilitates multi-lingual medical tourism services for travelers. We used TripMedic to arrange our appointments.

We found the small café, Bar Puerto Chico, on the block behind the hospital. It was full of folks on the way to work, having the traditional Andalusian breakfast that consists of tostada, soft Mollette bread, perfectly toasted to a golden brown and drizzled with olive oil, a smear of crushed tomatoes and maybe a slice of jamon, along with coffee and zumo natural, fresh squeezed Spanish oranges.  “Dos capuchinos por favor.” The barman smiled this time when he responded with a “No,” but seemed to be delighted that two foreigners had found his establishment, when he explained that they only serve espresso or café con leche. In some local bars cappuccinos just aren’t done. Mystery solved.

Heading back into the city center, the sidewalk along Paseo de la Delicias eventually dips down, near the Escuela de Mareantes (School of Navigation) and widens to a scenic esplanade for bicyclists and walkers, that parallels the Guadalquivir River through Seville for several miles.

Speckled with buskers, sculptures, and benches, there are plenty of excuses to saunter slowly and savour the view. The river is popular with numerous kayaking and sculling clubs that launch miles upstream and then race down the river. 

The waterway on the weekends was always bustling, but even during the week there were a good number of paddlers and rowers on the water, from sunrise to sunset.

It’s also an historic stretch of river that was the Port of Seville, where galleons returning from the Spanish colonies in the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries unloaded cargo and registered their treasure of gold and silver bullion at the Torre del Oro, tower of gold bullion.  The 118 ft tall tower dates from the 1100s and was part of the Moorish defensive wall that once encircled the entirety of ancient Seville and was the anchor point for a heavy chain that was stretched across to the Triana side of the river to control shipping.

Ferdinand Magellan launched the first circumnavigation of the world from this quay in 1519. For the 500th anniversary of this tremendous feat the city commissioned a full-size replica of his ship, the Nao Victoria, to be moored on the river.  A small vessel by today’s standards, it made us wonder how they ever succeeded in sailing around the world. 

Nearing sundown, the quay along the river fills with folks waiting to watch the sky erupt with color as the sun sets behind the bridge and Triana.

At the base of the bridge stands the lofty, wrought-iron and glass Mercado Lonja del Barranco, designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1883. It functioned as the city’s fish market for several decades before it was re-envisioned in 2014 as an upscale food hall with a contemporary, architecturally beautiful interior.  It’s definitely a fun foodie destination; it is a savory gauntlet of display cases offering the full spectrum of Spanish cuisine prepared by twenty different restautrants.  There is something delicous for everyone available here.

Aside from the completion of the Puente de Triana bridge in 1852, which replaced a well maintained 700 hundred year old Arab-designed pontoon bridge, it’s alleged that the Triana riverfront looks unchanged since Columbus recruited his sailors from the barrio.

While it still retains its authentic character, some wonderful alterations have been implemented, starting with the pedestrian only Calle San Jacinto that starts at the foot of the bridge on the Triana side. It is a lively stretch of outdoor cafes that offer an array of different cuisines.

The ruined dungeons of Castillo de San Jorge castle, located under the Mercado de Triana, are now a museum and Interpretation Center for the 300 year terror known as the Spanish Inquisition.  Nearby a short alley leading up from the river, the “Paseo de la Inquisición,” was the last walk of freedom for many before the prison door slammed behind them.

The mercado is a thriving, lively spot that draws locals for the seafood, meat, cheese and vegetable vendors, along with a slew of always busy restaurants.  We caught a lesson in buying fresh fish while waiting in line at a fish monger’s stand. “Always look at the inside color of the gills, they should be very bright,” is what we gathered as he showed several large whole fish to the customer in front of us as we waited to purchase a filet of tuna to cook back at our apartment.

One stall, which we dubbed the olive porn store, only sold decadent large olives garnished with all sorts of delicious extras.  Another booth offered artfully decorated puff pastries, which were as tasty as they were visually stunning. The mercado was a long walk from our apartment, but one of our favorite traditional markets to shop at, which we returned to several times during our six-week immersion in Seville.

We were on the Triana side of the river one late February morning and came across a crew of city workers with ladders and buckets harvesting all the softball size Seville oranges from the trees that were lining the street. The fruit was brought to the city by the Arabs in the 9th century and Seville now, unbelievably, has 46,000 bitter orange trees that produce close to six million tons of fruit annually. Most of it is sold to be used to make marmalade, but it is also an ingredient in Cointreau, Curacao, Grand Marnier and Triple Sec liquors. Oil from the bitter orange skin is used for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and soaps. Recently the city started using the unsold oranges in an innovative Biogas program, where the methane gas created by the decomposing oranges is used to make “clean electricity” to run a water purification plant.

Before continuing our day, we stopped for coffee at one of the cafes that line the riverfront on Calle Betis. From our previous experiences we believed it was impossible to get a bad cup of coffee in Europe. All of it is usually made to order on one of those fancy deluxe espresso machines that you see behind the bars. My wife is more the coffee connoisseur than me as I’ve been known to make a mug of coffee last all day. But that day we both had the worst cup of coffee ever and couldn’t drink it beyond our first sips. It must have been the last pot of drip coffee from the day before that was left on the burner overnight. It’s amazing how waiters can vanish; perhaps ours did from embarrassment, but this could explain the beginning of the inquisition. Bad coffee leading to misplaced aggression, we all know what happens without that caffeine.  Sympathetically the second waiter understood when we explained the situation and he didn’t request payment.

Triana was also famous for the ceramic workshops that painted and then fired in massive kilns the Azulejo and colorful Mudéjar style tiles that adorn many of the historic buildings in Seville.  Along with sailors, Triana has cultivated many famous flamenco dancers, guitarists and bullfighters. The most admired matador was Juan Belmonte who stood famously close to the bulls and was gored several times over a career that spanned 109 bullfights. His statue stands in the plaza across from the Triana Mercado and if you follow his gaze you’ll see Seville’s beloved bullring, Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, often simply called the Maestranza, across the river. It has been holding corridas in the same ring since 1761. 

Many of the taverns surrounding the bullring are full of corrida memorabilia. Our favorite was Bar Baratillo on Calle Adriano which is also full of shops catering to the Andalusian equestrian tradition.  La Feria de Abril is a colorful weeklong festival that celebrates this Andalusian equestrian tradition with the women wearing traditional traje de gitana or faralaes (flamenco style dress), while the men wear a cordobes hat along with a fitted short jacket, riding trousers and riding boots, refered to as traje corto. Every midday during the festival a parade of carriages and riders, called the paseo de caballos, heads to the bullring to watch the best matadores on Seville’s bullfighting calendar perform. Bullfighting season in Seville starts at the end of Semana Santa, Holy Week, on Easter Day.

Farther behind the bullring the Hospital de la Caridad, founded by the Holy Charity brotherhood in the 1600s, still follows its mission to help the poor and infirm. Its beautiful baroque chapel is now a museum filled with art.

Also, in this neighborhood in Casa Morales, we found one of Seville’s oldest abacerías, a small grocery store with a small tavern in the back, on the corner of Garcia de Vinuesa and Castillejo that is still run by the same family since its opening in 1850. The bodeguita retains its original atmosphere with antique cabinetry in the store and tall, large earthen wine vats lining tavern’s walls. It’s definitely worth a stop here to try their traditional tapas or montaditos, small sandwiches.

Just off Calle Adriano one Saturday in the weeks prior to Semana Santa we came upon a Christian brotherhood training to carry their float for the holy week processional. With military marching precision, the muscular team turned the weighted float around a tight corner and continued down the block in synchronized step. 

We followed the marching band that accompanied them to a fundraiser for the brotherhood.  Very much like a church bake sale, the only difference was they surprisingly sold bottles of various liquors.

We smiled, bought one and saluted Seville’s spirit later that evening.

Salud! – Till next, Craig & Donna 

Belize – When Iguanas Fall from Trees, Head South

“Welcome aboard, folks. Our flight time to Belize 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 Reef which 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.