Maio, island of salt and endless beaches

Shivering in the cold, early morning air at Praia airport waiting for my delayed (by fog) TACV flight to the island of Maio, I watched the sun rise and wished for the fabled golden beaches of Maio. Finally in the air, twenty minutes later I could see the turquoise waters of a peaceful-looking Atlantic lapping onto the white sand beaches surrounding the island’s capital, Vila do Maio.

I’d been given contradictory advice about Maio from people in Praia. This ranged from, “Why go to Maio? There’s nothing to do there”, to “Go now before tourism destroys the peace and quiet.” The irony of the latter wasn’t lost on this tourist. Its true that there is little to do on the island, but that was part of the allure. I’d decided to stay for four days, and explore its beaches and grog bars at leisure – it was so hot that exploring at leisure was the only option.

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

The island is home to about 8000 people and suffers from water shortages, a landscape denuded of trees and chronic under- and unemployment. Tourism is of the low-key, independent traveller variety (I only met a handful of other tourists), but lack of water and potential environmental devastation, hasn’t prevented permission for a giant resort hotel being granted. Raise the issue of how the resort got permission, local people simply make the international sign for money changing hands.

This is particularly important as Maio has a largely pristine environment and a high level of biodiversity, but is extremely vulnerable to habitat and environmental degradation. Loggerhead Turtles nest on its beaches, Humpback Whales frolic in its waters, the sea off its shores teems with life and it is an important habitat for migratory birds. All of this would be threatened by badly managed mass tourism, not to mention the impact on the water table.

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Although people are keen to have the employment, the benefits of mass tourism are dubious. Two Cape Verde islands – Sal and Boa Vista – have embraced mass package tourism and have found it a double edged sword. Extensive environmental impact has been coupled with increased crime, while local communities gain little from tourists on all inclusive package holidays who rarely venture out of their gated compounds. That model of tourism doesn’t work for communities, even if the resorts employ some local people.

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde (photo from Maio Facebook page)

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

I also wanted to visit Maio for its history. It is one of the Cape Verde islands which has a salt pan, created by a natural tidal lagoon. This natural ‘wonder’ attracted sailors and pirates for three hundred years. Sir Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd and Blackbeard were just some of the famous pirates to stop here. Legend has it that Captain Kid buried his treasure on a remote island he named Skeleton Island; even today many people believe Maio is Skeleton Island. Whether true or not, the treasure hasn’t been found yet, and I did look.

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Eventually the English took control of Maio. The main town, Vila do Maio, became known as Porto Inglês, or English Port, because of the number of English ships that called here. Using their superior military strength, the English traders had the cheek to sell Maio’s salt to the other, Portuguese controlled, islands. This also explains the number of grog bars on the island. Grog, a very English naval term for hard liquor, is the tipple of choice on Maio, and there are plenty of home made varieties from which to choose. I can vouch for the fact that a night in the grog bars can be pretty wild, the morning of the following day less so.

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde (photo from Maio Facebook page)

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Lunch, Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Lunch, Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

I spent my first day in the main town, Vila do Maio, strolling on the beaches and having some delicious fresh fish for lunch. I sat at a beach side restaurant and watched life pass by, it was just too hot to do anything else. The comings and goings of fishermen provided the entertainment. Things were very relaxed in the town, the heat of the day was severe, and it was only in the evening that people really came out onto the streets.

Sleepy El Castillo, centre of an eighteenth century global conflict

Its difficult to imagine as you stroll down the ‘main street’ of El Castillo, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth century this village was at the centre of a global conflict between competing European nations that saw bloody battles between English fleets and Spanish defenders. The reason for those conflicts was a fortress built by the Spanish to prevent pirates from sailing up the Rio San Juan from the Caribbean to attack the fabulously wealthy city of Granada.

Granada was sacked and looted three times by pirates between 1655 and 1670, including famously by the Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan. In response, the Spanish built a fort on a bend in the Rio San Juan between two sets of rapids that slowed ships down and allowed the fort to train its cannons on them.

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

The site is spectacular. From the battlements you can see for miles down the river and over the top of the vast tropical rain forest that surrounds it. It is hard to take in what it must have been like to be a Spanish soldier posted to this remote site in the forest, surrounded by hostile indigenous tribes and subject to malaria and other tropical diseases.

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The rapids underneath the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The rapids underneath the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

Today it still feels remote – to reach the village involves a one and a half hour boat ride from San Carlos at the entrance to Lago Nicaragua where the river begins – but the effort to get there is well worth it. El Castillo is a sleepy place where you can relax for a few days between trips to surrounding natural wonders, including the extraordinary Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, a vast and pristine tropical rain forest.

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

Perhaps the most famous incident in the history of El Castillo was in 1762 when Rafaela Herrera, the teenage daughter of the dead fort commander, rallied the troops and defeated an English fleet headed for Granada. Although El Castillo’s true moment in the sun was during the California Gold Rush from 1848-55 when it was an important staging point for prospectors trying to reach San Francisco.

This was pre-Panama Canal and a decade before the US transcontinental railway, making it the quickest way to get from the East Coast of the US to the West Coast. Ironic then that the Nicaraguan government is conspiring with Chinese investors to build another transcontinental canal to rival the one in Panama. One possible route will be the Rio San Juan, something guaranteed to destroy both the natural environment of this region and the main reason for tourists to come here.

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

We spent a few days here absorbing river life and watching the world go by in small boats. El Castillo is another place where geography and history have conspired to keep it free of motor vehicles, so the world goes by much more quietly. The region is famous for giant river shrimp, much to our disappointment this wasn’t the season for shrimp – seriously, this is the sort of information a guidebook should give you!

The village is very welcoming and is starting to build a solid tourist infrastructure. Things will change in the next few years, but currently it feels like you have fallen off the tourist trail. People in the village genuinely want to encourage tourism, a guide we hired to take us to the forest put it very simply: before tourism many people in the village worked illegally (and cheaply) picking fruit in Costa Rica. Tourism, he implied, had restored a sense of pride in El Castillo.

Cartagena de Indias, “City of Encounters in the Caribbean”

We flew into Cartagena late at night after a short hop from Lima. The wall of heat and humidity that greeted us as we got off the plane at 11pm was the complete ‘I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’ moment. The air smelled different.

Our first real sight of this extraordinary colonial city on the southern fringe of the Caribbean would have to wait until the next day, but as we drove through the streets to our hotel the thumping sounds playing from cars, houses and bars were distinctly Caribbean. This is not just due to the city’s location, but its history as a cultural and ethnic melting pot. This is where Europe, indigenous Latin America and Africa meet and have mixed for 500 years.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The sun was up early the following day, bringing with it serious heat, even at 8.30 in the morning. Walking out of our hotel in the Getsemani district we were immediately confronted by the fortress walls build by the Spanish to protect the city from pirate attack. Across a stretch of open water rose the giant fortress of the Castillo de San Filipe de Barajas. It was like walking into a living museum – a well fortified museum.

Cartagena, Colombia

Outside our hotel, Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena’s history is the stuff of legend. Founded in 1533 it quickly became the major port for shipping silver, gold and other valuable goods back to Europe. It grew to be the most important Spanish port in the Caribbean. Despite repeated sieges and attacks by English pirates (or privateers, as they were known), the city flourished and its legacy is as one of the best preserved colonial towns anywhere on the planet.

When the Spanish arrived the region was already heavily populated. Resistance was quickly crushed and the Spanish were able to get on with the serious business of collecting and shipping treasure back to Spain – and building a city to match the wealth that was passing through it.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

This success was both Cartagena’s making and its curse. The vast riches stored in the city attracted pirates, and the city was repeatedly attacked. In the sixteenth century there were regular sieges by pirate forces, the most famous of which was Sir Francis Drake in 1586 – the year after Spain had declared war on England.

Drake spared the city widespread destruction in exchange for a vast ransom, but this, amongst other acts, convinced Philip II of Spain to attempt his unsuccessful invasion of England – the Spanish Armada – in 1588. Regardless of these setbacks, Cartagena continued to grow in both size and importance. Much of that city remains today as beautiful buildings, leafy plazas, monumental churches and fascinating museums.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

One of the more destructive sieges of Cartagena came in 1741. Led by a British pirate, Edward Vernon, it is commemorated by a statue of Cartagena’s one-legged, one-armed defender, Blas de Lezo, outside of the Castillo de San Filipe de Barajas – a fortress built largely to stop such raids. Strangely, it has plaques boasting of British success on its sides, but perhaps they’re ironic given it was a resounding British defeat*.

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

* For anyone wondering how Drake was an English pirate and Vernon was a British pirate, the Act of Union between England and Scotland took place in 1707 changing everyone’s status in England, Scotland and Wales. Tedious, but important.