Swashbucklers ahoy

A pink house in the former pirate hangout of Camaguey.
A pink house in the former pirate hangout of Camaguey. Jill Worrall

WHEN you're in the Caribbean, walking around a town designed especially to deter rampaging pirates, it can be difficult to let go the image of a swashbuckling charmer with dreadlocks and eyes lined with kohl. Well, it is for me.

However, the history of the real pirates of the Caribbean is much less picturesque than Johnny Depp.

For about 200 years, from the mid-1500s, pirates, privateers and buccaneers terrorised Cuba (as they did all of the Caribbean).

Remarkably, they did not just attack, burn and pillage towns on the coast. Camaguey, which is in the centre of the island, was targeted so frequently by pirates in the 1600s that its street plan was devised like a maze to disorient them.

Camaguey began life as the Spanish coastal town of Santa Maria del Puerto Principle in 1514. It was relocated inland just 14 years later - not because of the pirates but due to battles with the local Indian population.

Unlike almost every other Spanish colonial city, Camaguey is not built on a grid system with square plazas. Instead, to confound marauding pirates it has labyrinthine streets and narrow alleyways. Today there's the added advantage that these twisting lanes keep out the tour buses and encourage tours on foot or bicitaxi (the Cuban version of a bicycle rickshaw).

Among the pirates who sacked Camaguey was Sir Henry Morgan, one of the most notorious of all. Technically, Henry Morgan was a not a pirate but a privateer. So, bear with me while I veer slightly off course to explain the difference.

Pirates, most simply put, are robbers with ships. Traditionally pirates had no allegiance to any country or power, but were literally a law unto themselves. One of the most famous pirates of all times was Blackbeard (Edward Teach).

Privateers were men with privately-owned ships who were contracted by a nation at war to attack its enemies' ships - and in some cases their towns and cities. Henry Morgan was contracted by the English, who were at war with the Spanish at the time.

Also operating in the Caribbean were the buccaneers. The word buccaneer originates from a word in the local Caribbean language related to dried meat - particularly manatee meat. The original buccaneers traded this meat but eventually also began attacking ships, especially Spanish ones, as well as raiding towns. Apparently it was a lot more lucrative.

The lines between a buccaneer and privateer are very blurred.

It's also true that one nation's hero is another's privateer. Sir Francis Drake, for example, was lauded by the English as a legendary sailor and explorer but was detested by the Spanish who regarded him as a privateer and nicknamed him The Dragon.

But, back to the ancient streets of Camaguey, where Admiral Sir Henry Morgan once rampaged, but which now are officially listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.

Because Camaguey lies outside Cuba's main tourist trail (such as that is) you're unlikely to meet many other visitors here.

It's an easy place to walk around (and to get lost in) but much more fun is to hire a bicitaxi on which to rattle around the cobblestone lanes. If you're lucky your bicitaxi might be equipped with its own sound system (ie. an ancient boom box tied to the back axle).

The cyclists will take a rest and stretch out languidly along their bikes while passengers walk along the pedestrianised street leading to Plaza del Carmen. A 19th century church dominates one side of the square but what steals the show here is a series of bronze sculptures by Cuban artist Martha Jimenez created some years ago. The sculptor used local people as models.

One of the sculptures is of a man wearing a baseball cap sitting on a bench reading the newspaper. Rather poignantly, the subject - now a little more lined and stooped - comes to the square to sit beside it, complete with cap and newspaper, waiting for tourists to make the connection. He's been there two years running, which I find a little sad. I shamelessly cajole my group members to leave him small tips.

With so little motorised transport here, even non-pedestrianised streets are claimed by Camaguey's residents. In the late afternoon as the sunlight softens people spill out of their houses, most of which open directly on to narrow pavements.

Old ladies sit on rocking chairs in their doorways, men lean on walls and smoke cigars, boys kick footballs over the cobbles and young women in skintight lycra wiggle past.

I wandered around a corner and almost fell into a game of dominoes that had been set up in the road. A vocal audience surrounded the players as they slapped their tiles down on the table, their voices echoing through these streets once haunted by pirates.

>> Read more travel stories.

Topics:  caribbean cuba pirates of the caribbean travel travelling

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