Dave and I recently cruised to Cumana, Venezuela, in our classic trawler, Swan Song. We go there often to buy diesel for the boat but rarely stay long enough to tour the city and outlying area so this visit was most memorable. Marina Cumanagoto, where we stayed, borders a new shopping mall which has a pharmacy and laundry, among various stores and restaurants. As Cumana was the first city founded in South America by the Spanish invaders, I wanted to know much more about its history and hired a guide. Alex took me everywhere it seemed, but knowing my love for old forts we visited these first.
Cumana, the capital city of the Sucre State, was actually founded in 1521 by Gonzalo de Ocampo, a general in of the conquering Spanish army. Its name, in the language of the Cumanagoto native tribe, means “union between sea and river”. Castillo de San Antonio de la Eminencia, which sits on a hilltop overlooking the city, was the first Spanish fort in South America and is shaped like a four pointed star, each point staking a cardinal direction. Constructed entirely of coral stone, it is a lovely building even though it has been rebuilt several times due to earthquakes in 1684, 1765 and 1929. The fort looks down on the main cathedral of the town and has a long-ranged cannon called a ‘culverin’ that supposedly can reach the Golfo de Cariaco and the Rio Manzanares, where they join the Caribbean Sea.
Another fort, The Castillo de Araya is located across the bay and was built on cliffs in the early 17th century to protect the salinas, which are salt pans/deposits discovered by the Spanish in 1499; this natural resource has been continuously worked since that time and are Venezuela’s greatest salt reservoirs. Since they are open to visitors, you can see the natural salinas and the artificial salinas along with the processing buildings. After a hurricane flooded the salt lagoon, the fort was abandoned. The Spaniards tried to explode it, but the fort, the most expensive Spanish fort ever constructed in South America, was too strong. Many of the marine artifacts that tell of the history of Cumana are housed in a small museum, Museo del Mar, which I found to be quite interesting. We also enjoyed visiting Museo Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho, which is dedicated to Cumana’s native son General Antonio Jose de Sucre, hero of the Battle of Ayacucho and later the first president of Bolivia.
Unlike a lot of cities in South America, Cumana is exceptionally clean. I was amazed, as Alex and I visited flower malls and open markets, that there was no trash anywhere. Cuba is the only other place I have visited in the Caribbean that is spotless and for a different reason. There are so few commodities in Cuba that everything is recycled over and over – there is absolutely no trash anywhere – everything is used. Cumana is clean because the citizens pride themselves on its quaint shops and homes, realizing that tourists appreciate cleanliness and nature – so flowers and parks abound. On Saturday Alex took me to the enormous central market which is so diverse in its offerings that it is overwhelming at first. The parking lot is also large, but not large enough as everyone waits for a spot. Loving locally-grown coffee, I splurged and bought three kilos of beans. Buyers and sellers were bustling in a cacophony of chatter and Latino music.
Cumana is a good place to haul out for either hurricane season or just to work on your boat and there are several boat yards available. Mochima National Park and Playa Colorado are also nearby for boaters and tourists, and local Pineros, local handmade wooden boats with high speed engines, provide daily tours. The people are friendly and courteous and will delight in showing you their town…and, of course, knowing a little Spanish is a great asset.
Nancy Terrell is a freelance writer who has lived in the Caribbean for 22 years. She holds a Masters Degree in Literature and is currently cruising on her trawler, Swan Song, throughout the Caribbean.