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Idyllic island harbors strange secret

Jan 1, 2003

Just five miles off the northwest coast of the Caribbean island of Trinidad is an island often visited by voyagers for its lush scenery and deserted beaches. At any given time of the year several yachts bob at anchorage in the sheltered harbor and a handful of visitors stroll the glistening beaches. It is the largest of the islands forming the Boca that divides the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Paria and Trinidad from Venezuela; and it is one of the most peaceful and charming anchorages in all of the Caribbean.

Just a few hundreds yards into the dense foliage, however, lies a scattered collection of buildings, which just a few years ago was home to an unusual population: victims of Hansen's Disease - leprosy.

The leper colony on Chacachacare was established in 1887 by an order of Dominican nuns. The last patient left the island in 1984. Parts of the colony look as though they were left in haste: rusting beds are still in position and medical notes and records lie windblown in the corners of the rooms. Rusting typewriters lie where they were abandoned beside file cabinets and typing chairs.

The main anchorage in La Chapelle Bay is beside an old stone jetty leading up a steep path to the nunnery. There is a tangible solemn atmosphere about the buildings, places where so many brave women lived beside their ailing patients. From the collapsing veranda there is an eastward view toward the other side of the bay. Another path leads higher to a small plateau where the nuns' cemetery is host to a handful of spare-looking graves.

During operation of the facility, patients lived on the leeward side of a small fishing village. This kept villagers upwind from the apparently dangerous air-borne contagions that emanated from the hospital. On the far side of the bay are the two, once charming, doctors' houses, each standing on its own grounds with boat house, stone jetties, and the remains of a gazebo. Between these homes and what's left of the village are the remains of a church, now threatening to collapse as the jungle reclaims the island. A road around the island's perimeter that once connected the buildings has been completely overgrown or fallen into the sea.

Above the colony buildings up a demanding climb stands a lighthouse that towers 2,700 feet above the little bay. From here Venezuela is visible to the south across the short stretch of blue sea. In the surrounding jungle there are remains of the Amerindians who once inhabited Chacachacare before Columbus landed on Aug. 12, 1498. He reportedly mistook the screeches of howler monkeys for wild cats and named the bay Puerto de Gatos. Later the Spanish settlers grew cotton on the island and even established a whaling station.

Except for the lighthouse keeper, no one lives at Chacachacare anymore.