Saturday, May 3, 2014

Castillo San Felipe de Lara

What do you expect to find in countries like Guatemala? Ruins, jungle, poverty… perhaps colonial buildings and cobble-stone streets… but a real castle?Yet that is what we found at the Rio Dulce River in Guatemala! We weren't the only ones that had found it. Today its a magnet for tourists but shortly after it was built by the Spaniards, pirates found it as well. It was actually partly built for them. Not as a welcome home but to keep them out of Guatemala. It didn't work that well as they blasted it to smithereens many times…

The pirates were looking for Guatemala's gold, silver and cacao, stored in the Spanish warehouses of Lake Izabal. There was much gold and silver to be found here, as can be read in the history books, but frowned when I read that a castle was also built to protect the cacao. I like a bit of hot chocolate now and then but would hardly go into the store guns blazing for it… yet pirates apparently did.

Reading the brochure I can't help but feeling it wasn't much more than a hurdle for the serious pirates. It had to be rebuilt many times after all. Just looking at the two objects in a fight between pirates and a castle I picture a wooden boat destroying a stone castle… should be the other way around shouldn't it? Digging a little deeper into the history of the Castillo I found it was originally a single tower with just 12 pieces of artillery. Being the only defence position to the interior of Guatemala and sole protector of the warehouses of Bodegas, I didn't find it very impressive. The pirates didn't either and blew it to smithereens!

The Caribbean Sea must have been a violent place back then, as that is where they all came from. Belize was a base for many pirates and places like Campeche and Chetumal in Mexico have had long standing 'debates' with pirates too. Everywhere you go in this area, pirates have left there mark. 

After 70 years of attack and destruction Spain send a military engineer to fortify the structure. He did a reasonably good job apparently as the castle wasn't destroyed in the next proper attack… instead it was seized by the pirates! Dutch pirates had a go at the Castillo too and destroyed it, plundered the ammunition and then burned it to the ground… Another Spanish military engineer was send who rebuilt the fort again and expanded its capacity. As peace returned to the area it seemingly worked… for a while.

In 1957 it was rebuilt again, not to prevent pirate attacks but to attract tourists to the building. It's well restored too. Entry to the Castillo San Felipe de Lara, which has 3 levels, is via a classic draw bridge. The castle, in its present form, has several towers and quite a few canons too. Walking around it's clear to see its strategic position and I can't even imagine what it must have been like to be under virtually continuous attack… while drinking hot chocolate :-)

Outside the Castillo is normal Guatemalan life, if that exists. The usual stalls selling food and souvenirs didn't really surprise me. Maybe because we're used to it or maybe because it's understandable. What I find much more difficult to accept is the behaviour of rich Guatemalans…

Lake Izabal is a good example of the massive gap between rich and poor Guatemala. It's the playground for rich Guatemalans with their jetskies and expensive yachts, while next to them in the same lake local fishermen have to scrape a living from the bottom of the lake in old leaking boats. They won't make enough money in a lifetime to buy a jetski and live in huts made from wood and palm leaves while the rich burn money right in front of them. 'How long can this go on before violence erupts' I wonder. 

The restoration of the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara has been very well done. A lot of work has been put into it as even extensive excavation work has been done to find the foundations of previous versions of the same fortress. The history behind the Castillo is quite interesting too, especially for Europeans or Australians as there are not too many castles which have been under continuous attacks from pirates over more than a century! I guess there is a reason why the movies are called Pirates of the Caribbean...