CHACACHACARE: The sad legacy of an idyllic island in the Caribbean
CHACACHACARE, Trinidad - In the blue waters off this small, pretty island, several yachts ride at anchor. On the beach, couples stroll along the sand, stopping to examine sea shells and driftwood.
They probably don't know it - but a short walk away, just beyond the lush foliage, lies one of the saddest and most desolate places in the Caribbean - an abandoned settlement where victims of Hansen's Disease (leprosy) were once isolated, a colony now slowly being reclaimed by the jungle.
Scenic and accessible, just five miles off the northwest coast of Trinidad, Chacachacare Island boasts a beautiful lighthouse and a colorful history. But it draws mostly foreign "yachties" who've never heard of the colony.
"Not too many Trinidadians go out to that island," says Adrian Camps-Campins, who has researched the site's history. "They stay away from Chacachacare. One reason is that people feel the germs from the (patients) might still be there. They're scared to set foot on the island."
Those few who venture to the south side of the boomerang-shaped island, which is 10 miles long (15 kilometers) and two miles wide at its widest, will find among the hills empty barracks and other wooden buildings once inhabited by scores of victims of the disease.
The roof and floor of the church are full of holes, but basically intact. You can almost hear the prayers of the mournful. The doors and windows are gone. The interior is dark save for shafts of sunlight penetrating through openings in the roof.
Perhaps eeriest of all is the medical administration building. When the colony was disbanded in the 1980s, many documents were left behind. Detailed medical records are scattered on the floor, on forlorn desks, on the porch outside - index cards describing daily treatments, staff evaluations, prescriptions.
Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1498, but stayed close to shore when his crew was attacked by wild monkeys. Mistaking them for wildcats, Columbus named it "Puerto de Gatos" - Port of Cats - and swiftly cleared out, according to a history written by Sister Marie Therese Retout.
Named Chacachacare by Amerindians who lived there, the island was awarded to an Irish immigrant named Geraldine Carige by the King of Spain in 1771. He established a tobacco and cotton estate and hunted whales in the nearby Gulf of Paria.
The island played a small part in Venezuela's independence war in 1813, when a small band of exiles - including famous names such as Santiago Marino, Dona Maria Concepcion and Francisco Bermudez - launched boats from there en route to their revolution.
At the turn of the 20th century, the island was a playground and resort for the well-heeled.
But with Hansen's Disease spreading in Trinidad, British authorities decided to move a hospital from the main island to remote Chacachacare. The first patients arrived in 1922, followed by Dominican nuns and, later, U.S. Sisters of Mercy.
In 1942, about 1,000 U.S. Marines landed. They built nine military barracks, installed coastal defense guns and built a road to the top of the 865-foot (260-meter) main peak.
In recent decades, medication brought infectious Hansen's Disease under control and eliminated the need for segregated colonies for patients. This one lingered until the last patient left in 1984.
The former colony's future seems uncertain.
"My dream is that Chacachacare should be for us Trinidadians," wrote Sister Retout in the Trinidad Guardian newspaper. "Let us transform it into a beautiful natural park so everyone can enjoy its beauty. This unique and historically important island gem should be preserved for future generations."
Last year, when U.S. real estate magnate Donald Trump visited Trinidad during the Miss Universe contest, there were reports of plans for a Chacachacare gambling casino. Neither Trump nor the Trinidad government offered comment and the idea appears to have evaporated.
For now, there are few structures on the island other than the lighthouse at the summit, the old barracks and the dilapidated buildings of the colony.
"People are waiting for the government to do something with it," says Ian Jardine, a Port-of-Spain resident who has visited the island and developed a fascination. "But like so many other things in Trinidad, nothing is ever done."
On the Net: The official site of the Tourism and Industrial Development Co. of Trinidad and Tobago is http://www.VisitTNT.com.
Phones: USA, 1-888-5954TNT; UK, 0-800-960-057; Trinidad, 1-868-623-6022/3.
A private Web site offering boat trips to the offshore islands, including Chacachacare, is at http://www.the-travel-centre.com/trinbch.htm.
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