La Isabela, first Spanish settlement in the New World


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This is the site where the first Catholic mass in the New World was held, where the definitive colonization of America by Europeans began.

La Isabela is a significant historic site, just over an hour's drive from Puerto Plata. A historic park and a small museum can be visited, where some of the artefacts unearthed on the site are exhibited.


On his second trip to America in January 1494, Columbus and his people built the second permanent settlement on American soil on the north coast of the island of Hispaniola. In honor of Queen Isabel II (La Católica), who sponsored Columbus' trips, he called this spot La Isabela. The settlement survived only four years and was abandoned to be build on the south coast of the island, in the supposedly safer Santo Domingo.


Before Columbus sailed back from his first voyage to Spain, he used the remains of his stranded ship "Santa María" to build a small fortress on the north coast of Hispaniola (on the Haitian side), which he called "Fuerte de la Navidad". There he left back 39 men of his crew under the command of Diego de Arana. On his return, Columbus found nothing because in 1493 the native Tainos were fed up with the strangers who raped their wives. The fortress was destroyed under the leadership of the cacique Caonabo and their inhabitants killed.


On his second trip, Columbus brought 1,500 men (only men) in a total of 17 ships to settle the new Spanish possessions to their standard used to in Spain. He founded La Isabela on December 10, 1493. In just four days, the craftsmen set up 200 wooden houses. And after a few days, on January 6, 1494, the first Mass was read on American soil.


Although Columbus had thought of everything needed for colonization, from craftsmen with their tools, to plants, seeds, horses, and pigs, it was no picnic for the Spaniards. The fortress was surrounded by a wall, guarded by nine towers, at one end a fortified warehouse, at the other the house of Columbus. According to archaeological excavations, there was a second village not far away, where the craftsmen and peasants lived and worked. The heads of the well-planned settlement, such as priests, officials and soldiers, of course lived in their homes in the sheltered fort.

But the settlers died like the flies from all sorts of diseases (such as gonorrhea, tyros, syphilis, hard labor, famine, rebellions, and last but not least the original inhabitants, the Tainos) twho were on the outs with the fair-skinned invaders. To make matters worse, two hurricanes destroyed many Spanish ships.


After only four years, the settlement was abandoned and the headquarters of the Spanish administration were moved to the south of the island, on the east side of the Río Ozama.In 1496 Santo Domingo was founded. But also there things did not last long, because a hurricane flattened everything. Only the fourth attempt of a solid settlement worked. On the west bank of the Río Ozama in Santo Domingo, many well-preserved and reconstructed buildings of the Spaniards can still be admired in the Ciudad Colonial.


During a visit to La Isabela, visitors can only see a few stones of the foundation walls of this historically important site. This is because much of the ruins were irretrievably destroyed during the time of the dictator Trujillo when he had the area cleaned for a reception. The mayor understood that he should tear down all the surrounding walls. His workers, out of ignorance, cleared the walls of this settlement as rubbish.


An attraction for historically interested people is the small museum on the premises. On the wall are panels (unfortunately only in Spanish) on which the time of the discoveries is vividly illustrated. All sorts of objects from the time of the first settlement and remnants of the Taino culture are exhibited.

Next door there is a factory for Taino figures made from the hard wood of Guayacán, a tree much sought after by the Spaniards, whose wood is so heavy that it does not float, and they made anchors for the ships.



La Isabela


After a trip of about one and a half hours from Puerto Plata via Luperón the visitor gets to La Isabela. There is the easy to find historic park. It is also called "El Castillo" (the castle).

The entrance fee for the park and the museum is 100, - pesos. There are guides who speak Spanish as well as English and French.



Article in LA PLAYA, issue 7 from 25 November 2009

Information on prices and opening times are from then