It was a relatively quick passage through the Panama Canal. No waiting at either side and we are out on a calm Pacific Ocean with a blue sky and lots of sunshine. It looks like a lake out there with the sun sparkling on the water. Huge contrast after the rough seas of the Atlantic side. So I put on my bathing suit and sat out on my balcony in the sun. It’s like being on a private yacht with just a gentle roll to the ship, the trade winds cooling my brow, a rum & orange juice in my hand and time to contemplate Porta Marta, Cartegena and the Panama canal.
Even though we missed this port, it was fun to learn about it. Porta Marta’s main claim to fame is that Simon Bolivar is buried there, the site marked by a beautiful white marble memorial. We all know the name from school, but I had forgotten what exactly he was noted for. He is a God figure here in South America, particularly Colombia and is known as ‘the Liberator’ for bringing independence from the Spanish to Venezula, Bolivia, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador & Peru and briefly uniting them as a single nation – Gran Colombia – which was dissolved in 1821 due to political differences and regional tensions among the people that made up the republic. It reverted back to the original countries except for Panama, who did not separate from Colombia until 1903.
The Spanish took advantage of the indigenous peoples throughout this area, took the beautiful gold artifacts they found and melted them down for shipment to Europe. For the most part, the Spanish treated the native Americans poorly and wanted to convert them to christianity. But they were more interested in the riches of the Americas, forced the natives into slavery and brought slaves from Africa, so they could mine the gold and silver for Spain to finance the Spanish wars. Between 1500 and 1650, the Spanish imported 181 tons of gold, 16,000 tons of silver. In todays money that gold value would be nearly $4 Billion and the silver value would be over $7 Billion.
Bolivar was born in Caracas, Venezuela and after his death Venezuela wanted him to be buried there, but the Colombians were not about to give him up. He was born into a very wealthy mining family and orphaned at a young age. He was educated in South America and Europe where he met his wife, Maria Teresa del Toro y Alayza. They came back to Caracas and after less than a year of marriage she died of yellow fever and he vowed never to marry again.
But he had a mistress, Manuela Saenz, and for my money she was much more interesting than Bolivar. She was known as the Liberator of the Liberator. The stories say she was born in Ecuador, out of wedlock and never fit into normal Ecuadorian society. She loved riding horses and shooting pistols with her family’s black servant. She was sent to a convent and was expelled from there for having an affair with an army officer. After that she was married off to an English merchant several times her age, thinking this might settle her down. But it didn’t.
She was revolutionary heroine who supported the cause and protested for women’s rights. She joined the rebels when she was 26, deserting her new husband in exchange for adventure. She was a spy and excellent at gathering information. In one battle she took the moustache off a dead enemy as proof she had been there. She wore it to masquerade balls and they say she also kept a pet bear. She was Bolivar’s favourite mistress – he had many apparently – and he called her his “gentle, crazy woman.” She saved his life twice. But she was more than a lover. She was a trustworthy confidant & advisor. The emotional ties were strong and she attempted suicide when she learned of his death.
Bolivar died of tuberculosis in 1830, and Manuela died in 1859 of diphtheria. She was buried in a mass grave. But in 2010, she was symbolically reinterred with Bolivar. He died a poor man having spent his wealth on fighting the Spanish, and it is said he was buried in a “borrowed” shirt. Manuela is a legend and there are many stories about her, so I am not absolutely sure about the accuracy of the above or how much it has been embellished over the years, but I love a good story and she was definitely Bolivar’s mistress!!