Camaguey cemetery and the legend of Dolores Rondón

Like all good Latin American cemeteries, Camaguey’s is home to a legend surrounding a tragic young woman. Dolores Rondón was the beautiful mulata daughter of a poor Catalán immigrant. Through marriage to a Spanish military officer she transcended her humble origins and joined Camaguey’s high society.

She travelled, went to balls and attended high society events. Then tragedy struck. Her husband died and she was left adrift in a world in which she was an interloper. She fell into poverty. Destitute, she made her way back to the Camaguey streets from which she came, and died of smallpox in a local hospital.

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

The twist in the tale? There’s always a twist in the tale…after returning anonymously and without financial resources, it was her rejected former suitor – a humble barber – who found her in the hospital and who paid for her funeral. Legend has it that it was he who inscribed the biting epithet on her gravestone.

The epithet* has become a memorial to her life and a lodestone to those who seek meaning in graveyards. It asks us mortals to consider where ‘true greatness lies’, before going on to admonish us for the ‘pride and vanity of wealth and power’. Ironic really, her grave sits in a cemetery that seems dedicated to projecting the wealth and power of Camaguey’s most prominent citizens.

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Like Havana’s larger Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Camaguey cemetery and the attached Iglesia del Santo Cristo is an impressive place. Graceful marble statues rise up into the air, exquisitely carved details giving a hint of the craftsmanship (and money) that has gone into their creation.

True it’s not as grand or quite so beautiful as other Cuban cemeteries which might explain why, in an UNESCO World Heritage listed town, it isn’t a national monument. Despite that, it’s still an atmospheric place.

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

The old part of the cemetery is quite beautiful, with large tombs and wide avenues; but over to one side is a newer part to the cemetery. This is much more cramped, and there are far more tombs that are far more humble. It’s clearly the more used part of the cemetery; there were fresh flowers and, on a child’s grave, a cake being slowly devoured by ants.

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Cuban independence hero, Ignacio Agramonte, is also buried here…or at least that’s the rumour. It turns out that although there is a mausoleum to Agramonte, he may not reside within. Agramonte was killed in battle and, fearing that Cuban forces would try to retrieve the body, the Spanish brought his body to Camaguey to be cremated.

It’s not really known what happened next, but a  witness claimed the body was never fully burned and the remains were interned in a grave in the cemetery. Two historical conundrums in one cemetery…

Here Dolores Rondón
Ended her life.
Approach, mortal, and consider
Where lies true greatness:
Pride and vanity,
Wealth and power.
All of them come to an end
For only immortaliSed is
The wrong that is saved
And the goodness that is done.

A confusion of streets in Camaguey

Camaguey was built with a confusing street layout, meant to baffle and disorient would-be attackers. Our first indication that they’d succeeded in this aim was when our driver stopped to ask for directions. A short time later he stopped to ask for more directions. The third time, he stopped and offered a woman a lift if she’d guide us to our casa particular. We still ended up on the wrong street.

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Our misadventure seemed trifling compared to the troubles Camaguey endured when it was first founded, as Santa Maria del Puerto Principe, in 1514 on Cuba’s northern coast. A wealthy hub, it was repeatedly attacked by pirates, and faced rebellions from local indigenous tribes.

The town finally moved to its current inland location in 1528. This didn’t stop the pirate attacks, and it had to be rebuilt in 1668 after a particularly destructive raid by Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan. It was after this that its haphazard street pattern took place.

Parque Ignacio Agramonte, Camaguey, Cuba

Parque Ignacio Agramonte, Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza San Juan de Dios, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza San Juan de Dios, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza San Juan de Dios, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza San Juan de Dios, Camaguey, Cuba

Some commentators compare Cameguey’s maze of streets to an Arabic medina. These commentators have clearly never been to Fez in Morocco where, without the aid of a guide, you could wander for days without ever finding your way out. There were times when we were a little disoriented, for sure, but unlike Fez we never had to resort to paying someone to lead us to safety.

Camaguey should really be known for its numerous lovely plazas, the premiere example of which is the colonial-era Plaza San Juan de Dios. It’s a picturesque place with some nice restaurants that have tables with umbrellas; it’s perfect for having a mojito and watching children playing football, itinerant musicians playing the nearby bars, and the occasional tour group sweeping through.

Walk through a tangle of narrow streets past the ‘five corners’ and you’ll arrive at another splendid square, Plaza Del Carmen. You approach down a narrow street lined with pastel-coloured houses with a pretty colonial church at the far end. The real delight is a series of humorous statues depicting scenes of daily life in this traditional barrio: women gossip, lovers get intimate and a man reads a paper.

Another favourite was the Plaza de los Trabajadores, with its visually oxymoronic Iglesia de Merced on one corner and a large mural of Che Guevara opposite. Inside the church there was a tour group of pilgrims – an unexpected sight – underscoring Camaguey’s reputation as Cuba’s most Catholic city. At night one corner of the plaza became an informal dance hall. It was a lot of fun.

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Our guide book said to be aware of street crime in Camaguey, but we walked around the town day and night without ever being hassled or feeling insecure. It’s a peaceful and clean city that belies its status as the country’s third largest. People were helpful and friendly, the worst thing I could say is that after walking up a dozen flights of steps to reach the rooftop bar of the Gran Hotel, it wasn’t open.

We were staying in a lovely casa particular. The owner, Rafael, gave us lots of tips on places to go, and barmen who made the best cocktails. He even found accommodation for us at the Playa Santa Lucia when we moved on from Camaguey. Before that though, we had a lot of exploring to do, wandering the twisted streets and taking in scenes of day-to-day life.

Fruit seller, Camaguey, Cuba

Fruit seller, Camaguey, Cuba

Iglesia de Merced, Plaza de los Trabajadores, Camaguey, Cuba

Iglesia de Merced, Plaza de los Trabajadores, Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

This included an alarming number of pig roasts taking place in the street. We were on our way to the cemetery when we first saw a pig being manhandled and hung from a  tree while it was gutted. Not a sight for the squeamish. The pig was unceremoniously skewered on a large pole that entered one orifice and exited another. There is no dignity in death for the pigs of Cuba. It doesn’t make them less tasty though.

Pig roast, Camaguey, Cuba

Pig roast, Camaguey, Cuba

Pig roast, Camaguey, Cuba

Pig roast, Camaguey, Cuba

After this little demonstration we went into the hugely attractive Necropolis de Camaguey. It seemed fitting…