By Matt Bokor
Located on the northwest coast of the Dominican Republic, remnants of the first European town in the Americas tell the story of how Christopher Columbus and his large entourage lived—or tried to—after the Spaniards’ second arrival in 1493.
The admiral named the settlement La Isabela, after his benefactor, Queen Isabela of Spain. However, the seaside spot about 30 miles west of modern-day Puerto Plata didn’t last long.
Visitors to sun-baked La Española National Park, which encompasses the settlement’s relics, will find excavated foundations of homes, a church, storage buildings and several other structures, including Columbus’ citadel and portions of the wall that surrounded the roughly five-acre outpost overlooking the Bay of Isabela.
Perhaps most striking for tourists today are the many gravesites, including one with the skeleton fully exposed.
The informative La Isabela Museum onsite exhibits numerous artifacts and narratives about the settlement’s turbulent, five-year history, which goes like this:
With goals of establishing a Spanish base in the Americas and finding gold and other precious metals, Columbus arrived with a fleet at 17 ships and some 1,500 men, along with horses, pigs, seeds, tools and other materials for carving out a community.
The explorers also introduced rats and diseases—smallpox, measles and typhus—which with warfare and enslavement doomed the native Taino population.
The Spaniards grew increasingly hungry, sick, disillusioned and even mutinous as their crops failed and their gold expeditions proved fruitless; hurricanes in 1494 and 1495 sunk several ships.
By 1498 the settlement had been abandoned in favor of a new location on the south coast—Santo Domingo.
Historical archaeologists from the Florida Museum of Natural History collaborated with the Dirección Nacional de Parques de la República Dominicana and the Universidad Nacional e Experimental Francisco de Miranda in Venezuela to excavate and study La Isabela between 1989 and 1999.
The results of that work can be seen onsite at the La Isabela museum and online at flmnh.ufl.edu … just type La Isabela in the search field.
National Geographic Television produced the documentary “Columbus’ Cursed Colony” about the debacle at La Isabela in late 2011.
La Española National Park is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; admission is 100 pesos (about $2.50 USD). Guided tours (in Spanish) are available for an additional fee.
Although La Isabela is relatively close to Puerto Plata, the drive takes about 1.5 hours.
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