Suitcase and World: La forteleza. San Juan de Ulúa.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

La forteleza. San Juan de Ulúa.

Our last stop today, before arriving into Veracruz, was San Juan de Ulúa. When we left Oaxaca this morning, we were in the Sierra Madre mountains and it was sunny and cool. By afternoon, we had arrived into Veracruz and the heat and humidity of the tropics. When Franciso opened the door and I felt the blast of heat, my first reaction was, "Is it too late to turn back?"

Unfortunately, it was.  Fortunately, we were prepared. We had switched into our shorts and tee shirts. We had our hats on and we had fully stocked up on water.

San Juan de Ulúa is located in the same area as the modern day port of Veracruz.

By now, we had a routine.  Follow Francisco to a starting point where he gives some background information on what we're about to see.  To shield us from the blazing sun, our starting point was under the shade of trees.  Nonetheless, it was still hot and I must have downed half my bottle of water just listening to Francisco!

The history lesson.  Built between 1535 and 1692, San Juan de Ulúa is a large complex of fortresses, prisons and one former palace on an island overlooking the seaport of Veracruz.  Today, the complex serves as a museum for tourists but in its history, it has served several times as the presidential palace, housing presidents such as Benito Juárez and Venustiano Carranza.

San Juan de Ulúa also held many of Mexico's most famous prisoners at the time, mostly during the regime of President Porfirio Díaz. It is popularly said that in order to prevent prisoners from escaping, sharks were brought to the waters surrounding the island, so that they would kill anyone attempting to escape.

The prisons and the fortresses are all open to the public, with the exception of the former presidential palace, which suffered severe decay and is still undergoing renovations.

History lesson over, we started our tour.  

Coral walls. As he led inside the fort, Francisco pointed out that the walkways and walls were constructed with coral recovered from the sea.  Indeed I could sections of brain coral held together by mortar.

Yellow is the color of sorrow.  Our walk brought us to a yellow bridge.  Normally, you would associate the color of yellow with something happy but this bridge represented the exact opposite.  Back in the day, the fort served as a defense against pirates and the French and US naval invasions against Mexico.  But it is more notoriously known as a brutal dungeon where disease and famine awaited prisoners who crossed the dreaded Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs) into the dank prison cells.

Cells to hell.  On the other side of the bridge were the prison cells - dank and musty with only small slits in the stone walls providing light and air.  Large groups of prisoners were crammed into each cell which basically looked and felt like caves.  I wonder if they had any furniture back then or did people just sit and sleep on the hard stone floor?  I can only imagine how horrible the conditions must have been.  The stench of people relieving themselves in the same space they live in mixed with that of death must have been constant and overwhelming.

At one point in our walk we came across a draw bridge that no longer existed. I can't exactly why the bridge is no longer there but obviously, it used to connect two sections of the fort together.

The Palace, the courtyard and beyond.  Crossing back over the Bridge of Sighs, we entered into a large courtyard. At one end is a building that once served as the Presidential Palace.  Over the years, it fell into a state of disrepair and efforts are currently underway to renovate it.  While the renovation work is going on, visitors are not allowed inside.

One end of the courtyard opened out to the sea.   In the near distance, we could see the modern day city of Veracruz.  Francisco pointed out the town center and relative to that, where our hotel was.

A set of stairs took us up to upper level. From there, we had a better view of the fort and its surroundings.  It was another picture perfect day in tropical Mexico - bright blue skies and humidity so thick you could bathe in it :-)

The wonder of cranes.  From one side of the second level, we could also see a set of container cranes lifting cargo containers  off ships to awaiting trucks.  The timing and coordination of cranes being lifted and dropped onto trucks took place with unbelievable precision.  It looked liked a choreographed dance performance!  I know we were visiting San Juan de Ulúa for a history lesson but the container cranes at work really caught our attention.  Über geeks in denial, Francisco and Ayşe even took on the challenge of estimating the number of containers there were on the ship, how long it took to move the container to the truck and therefore, how long it would take to fully unload the ship.  Yes, those were my tour mates and that was the kind of trip I was on.  *sigh* :-)

The museum.  Having had enough of the outside, Francisco led us to the small museum tucked inside one of the fort's buildings.  There, you can see a 3-D model of the fort and read some plaques describing its history. There's also a canon that commemorates the marriage of a royal couple.  I joked with Francisco that that was equivalent of giving your wife a vacuum for your wedding anniversary.  Bad idea!

Our visit over and water bottles empty, we backtracked and made our way out of the complex.  Our brilliant driver, Juan Jose, had started up the air conditioning so by the time we made it back to the van, it was cool inside.  Now, that's a considerate man for you!

Next destination.  Across the water to Veracruz.