In just a matter of days Cuba’s biggest annual tourism fair, FITCUBA 2018 will be celebrated in Villa Clara, the central Cuban province that’s home to one of Cuba’s least known coastal gems. And, no, I’m not talking about Cayo Santa Maria (this popular resort is anything but unknown these days, even if it’s only been developed over the last decade or so) but about a place so rare and unheard of (certainly not featuring in any tourist guide) that it deserves special attention, even more so now that it is about to receive the overhaul and attention it has earned throughout its many years of resilient, enduring silence. Now, finally is the time to talk and even shout about Isabela de Sagua’s raw, crude, heart-wrenchingly compelling and rapidly fading beauty, when it seems that authorities will finally embellish its ruins and help it rise from the ashes. It was about time too, and Isabela de Sagua is ready to be lavished with the attention it has been meriting for decades.
On this post, we talk about what Isabela de Sagua is, what it was and what it will become after a series of planned investments put an end to the area’s impoverished decline and decay to elevate it as a sophisticated tourism destination like nothing ever seen in Cuba yet. But even now, when the town is still reeling from the dire aftermath of Hurricane Irma (which destroyed 82 per cent of all residential structures); the bewitching remnants of a once prosperous city built on stilts over a scenic bay are as haunting as ever.
Looking at it makes you feel like stepping into a film set, in a place drenched in oblivion, standing amid the rubble like the last habitable corner of earth before a massive exodus happened following a corrosive war. Cuba’s very own unsubmerged Atlantis, Isabela de Sagua, once the island’s proud Venice, is little more than the skeleton of a once prosperous port city. Nothing but the bare bones and a few admirable structures remain, the foundations of a harbour and a warehouse, misshapen wooden houses missing half its planks (and roofs) and little else. Still, if you are in the area (whether that’s enjoying Cayo Santa Maria’s paradisiac beaches, visiting Che’s Mausoleum in Santa Clara or exploring Remedios) you should take the time to see Isabela de Sagua now before it forever changes (for the better we hope) and is given a new lease of life.
Magnificent ruins that humbly rise over the water
Once they rose majestically, today they barely stand, some of the wooden houses dotting the bay have been torn apart to bits, others partially remain standing, a few preserve its original structure, while some concrete building remnants look like Greek or Roman ruins - it makes for quite a sight. Images published in April 2017 by OnCuba magazine’s online portal showed houses that seemed taken straight out of a Jim Burton film or a surrealist drawing , indeed one of these made me instantly think of Brad Silberling’s 2004 “Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events” with its bright turquoise paint, white door and windows, and impossibly twisted frame towards the back; it seemed the result of special effects, so unreal I do wonder if it was Photoshopped or altered in any way. It’s a wonder these houses have managed to stand at all after over a century of weather adversities and absolute neglect.
Most of the houses built over water were only made of wood after all, not the most resilient of materials, especially in the face of hurricanes and Isabela de Sagua has seen quite a few of them over its lifetime, with the most devastating of all having swept through the town in September 2017. But more on that later.
What’s the story of this now virtually deserted coastal town and its ruins? Read on to find out.
A brief story of Isabela de Sagua
The sea is perhaps Isabela de Sagua’s best historian, the one that best knows and remembers all of its comings and goings as one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful and busiest harbour cities, welcoming ships of all sizes and trade to its port. The sea is the only living witness that could retell how Isabela went from being an unassuming fishing town to becoming the main port of call for many vessels bringing and taking trade goods from all around the world. To learn of its humble origins, we have to go a couple of centuries back in time.
Once upon a time, there was a small, sleepy coastal town on the north of Villa Clara that only had one street and several wooden bridges over the bay, which neighbours used to get to and fro their houses, which stood on stilts over the water. Its port, with an enviable location right in the middle of Cuba’s northern coast, and thus the closest to the U.S., was founded and opened to international trade in 1844. From then on Isabela prospered like never before and its days of glory and splendour lasted for more than a century.
Its piers could dock up to eight large cargo ships at the same time, most of which loaded an approximate 41,600 sacks of sugar (weighing 250 pounds each) every single working day. At its peak, it received up to 300 ships in a year and 42 cargo ships in a day. Sugar, honey, rum and other goods were kept in Isabela’s ample harbour warehouse.
The arrival of the railway to Villa Clara in 1858 (Cuba launched the Caribbean’s only railway system in 1837, which went to eventually reach the entire island and is still running to this very day) meant that people from Isabela were easily connected to the nearby municipality of Sagua, with train departures every hour, and trains to Havana departing six times daily. Isabela was a well-connected port of call in Cuba, both internationally and nationally.
Looking at the badly beaten and weathered Isabela of today, it’s hard to believe it once was anything but rubble, but upon closer inspection, you can picture it as it was, even when nowadays little remains of Isabela de Sagua’s days of grandeur.
Over the years it has been cruelly and steadily destroyed by the passing of hurricanes; the loneliness of its ports making it look like a sad giant, forlorn in its abandonment, seeping nostalgia through every pore. Yet, there’s still life in Isabela, in the form of a small group of tradesmen and fishermen - its loyal dwellers have refused to abandon it completely, even after most of its homes now lay in complete ruin. The railway maintains its service, with trains still reaching Isabela, but the frequency has been reduced to four times daily, and Isabela is no longer connected to other provinces in the island….This could soon change if the rebirth plans the Ministry of Tourism has planned for Isabela bears its fruits.
For now, the ruins of Isabela, compellingly and heart-breakingly magnificent in their uniquely decayed and detached (yet touching) way remain. They’re barely more than crude foundations and desolated homes, an amalgamation of strewn about planks, a few preserving some of their bright paint, faded and crumbling to the touch, but still remarkably resilient. Others are little more than rubble, a few more are completely deserted, like an abandoned church and a secondary school that shut down in 2014 due to its bad state of disrepair….It now serves as a shelter for a number of families left homeless after the hurricane.
And that was in 2014, before the passing of Irma, which shook Isabela like never before and literally brought it down to its knees. Luckily for Isabela though, this marked the last time the town is left forgotten and unrepaired after a destructive natural phenomenon. Plans are to rebuild it from scratch and develop it as part of a new tourism destination.
The trail of devastation left by Irma
As it happens Isabela de Sagua was the one single region in Cuba to be most affected by the passing of Irma last September 2017. As if it hadn’t suffered enough over the last few decades, of its 664 residential homes, 178 crumbled to the ground, 130 were partially destroyed, 76 lost all of their roofs and 236 lost part of theirs. A whopping 90 per cent of houses were affected and as a consequence, over 2,100 people had to be evacuated, many of which still don’t have a roof over their heads or a place to call home. The government acted swiftly this time, immediately doubling food rationing for the inhabitants of Isabella, opening a workshop to repair domestic goods and sending a train with 200,000 litres of bottled water. They were fed and sheltered, but many don’t have a home to return to and wait in a shelter limbo.
A few months ago, delegates from Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR) visited Cayo Esquivel, an offshore virginal beauty in close proximity to Isabela de Sagua. The delegation deemed it ripe for development and envisaged a luxury resort, that would start with it being connected to Isabela de Sagua, and the latter’s port being rebuilt and renovated to berth yachts.
But it is Cayo Cristo that stands the closest to Isabela de Sagua, and this one is poised to become a future diving centre, guaranteeing that Isabela would enjoy its own share of tourist visitors. As a matter of fact, before the passing of Irma, the town had already kick-started the process of increasing its tourist appeal with the (highly-successful) opening of six private restaurants (or “paladares”) that claimed to serve the freshest, finest seafood in all of Cuba…before being completely swept away by the 2017 Category 5 storm. The restaurants will have to rebuild themselves up from scratch, with renewed vigour and strength, given the promising prospect of the government turning Isabela into a tourist paradise that will guarantee a fresh flock of diners daily.
A brighter future and the chance for rebirth
The population in Isabela has changed very little since 1899, where the census cited 2,352 inhabitants. While in other parts of Cuba the population has significantly grown, in Isabela it has actually shrunk to some 2,200 dwellers. In 118 years of ups and downs (more downs than ups), it’s a marvel the town lives on at all. Its survival is a wonder, considering the many adverse weather disasters it has endured, including a complete move to an inland area where Fidel Castro built new houses after the disastrous 1985 Hurricane Kate rendered hundreds of people homeless. Yet, of those who moved to Isabela La Nueva, a good number decided to come back and build ramshackle houses at the old Isabela de Sagua…It seems they obstinately resisted being distanced from the sea and their beloved birthplace, hauntingly crude as it was.
During an interview with Dalia Reyes Perera held last December 2017, Regla Dayami Armenteros, a delegate from the Ministry of Tourism currently overseeing part of the works being carried out in Villa Clara, said:
“Isabela de Sagua will have a new look. That pretty little fishermen’s town with an excellent offshore key like Cayo Esquivel will be improved. We’re looking to attract tourism in that little town that has a deeply-rooted sentiment to everything related to the sea, in a way that fascinates and captivates all those who visit (…)”
So now, if all plans are carried to fruition, Isabela de Sagua could experience a rebirth like never before and start welcoming shiny new vessels to its renewed dock; this time luxury yachts and cruises instead of cargo ships, with tourists descending on the docks instead of tradesmen. An era of renaissance looms for Isabela de Sagua it seems. Fingers crossed that authorities follow through with their plans of building a new marina in Cayo Esquivel, a diving centre in Cayo Cristo and completely renovate Isabela’s harbour. Already, six new hotels are due to open in Villa Clara this coming May, (two of which will be located in Sagua La Grande, the municipality that Isabela is a part of ) with plans for more hotels on the way. If you want to see the eerie, nostalgic remains of a ghost town before it slowly awakens from its decades-old stupor to come back to life with a renewed image, now is the time to do so.