When my daughter was 2 years old, my husband and I took her to visit the Parque Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana in Utuado, Puerto Rico.
I remember driving up a mountain that’s 820 feet high with winding roads that made our stomachs queasy while our ears got stuffed up because of the high elevation. I was a bit concerned for my 2-year-old; what if she got sick and started throwing up?
This was the first time my family traveled to the center of the island of Puerto Rico.
Utuado is a mountainous municipality found almost right in the middle of the island. It took us about two hours to drive there from Canóvanas, a city on the eastern part of Puerto Rico and where we were staying.
All of my concerns went out the window the minute we arrived at the Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Park. We were immediately so immersed in all of our surroundings that we completely forgot how uncomfortable the journey there had been. Even though this place might not impress the avid traveler who has seen the majestic Aztec and Maya pyramids in Mexico or the Terracotta Warriors in China, it does speak to anyone who loves nature and is looking to seclude themselves in quiet places. It speaks to anyone looking to learn about history and anthropology or anyone looking to reconnect with their ancestors, the Taíno people.
Touring the whole park might take less than two hours. That’s including a walking tour with one of the guides and visiting the museum center, which houses permanent exhibits and archaeological findings. We probably stayed there for three hours because it was our intent to take advantage of every minute we were there. We didn’t want to just take pictures for our family album and be on our way. We wanted to spend some quiet time on our own and reconnect with the people that once called this place their home.
This trip wasn’t just spare of the moment, I had been planning it for a few years. My husband who was born and raised in Puerto Rico had never even seen this place before. As it happens with most people who have lived in a certain place for many years and they are unaware of those ‘hidden gems’ tucked in their own country.
My inspiration for this trip was the beautiful poetry of Rafael Gonzáles Muñiz in Mi Pueblo Taíno. In his book, Gonzáles Muñiz presents an overview of the history of the Taínos and a collection of poems dedicated to the strength of the Taíno people who used to live in the island of Boriquén, before the Spanish named it Puerto Rico.
My concerns about my daughter being bored or getting nauseous dissipated when I saw her squatting down in one of the main plazas, called Batey, which is where Taínos held their religious celebrations. She found a small branch from a tree and started drawing on the ground. She was quiet, reflective, but by no means bored. The fact that this experience was important to her parents made it important to her as well.
We walked, listed to the tour guide, asked a lot of questions, visited the museum where the exhibits are, the gift shop was closed, but we managed to visit every area available for viewing. We even went up the second floor of the museum to look for the Cemí, a three-pointed mountain which the Taíno people viewed as sacred. We spent a good amount of time at one of the bateys, the main ceremonial plaza. This is was a very important place to the Taíno people. In these places they held special events called areítos, a type of ceremonial event where song and dance was performed. This main batey is also known as the ceremonial ball court site where the famous Taíno petroglyphs and monoliths are found.
According to Mi Pueblo Taíno, there were different types of areítos depending on the occasion. There were areítos held for marriage unions, solemn ones for when someone passed away, celebrations to honor their gods or a heroic deed. No matter the occasion, they all involved music, dancing, singing, and narrating of stories from their ancestors. Areítos were led by the religious leader in the tribe or community. Women would lead in the areítos and they were usually the ones reciting poetry and retelling of the stories of their ancestors.
We walked around the recreated area of what a yucayeque might have looked like when the Taínos lived in the island. The replicas of the huts are called bohíos and they represent the homes of the Taínos.
If you love nature you will enjoy this place as there are many gardens with many native trees and plants, which were important to the livelihood of the Taíno people. For example, the ceiba tree, one of my favorite trees found all throughout the Americas, this beautiful, strong tree was so essential to the Taíno as this is the tree they used to make canoes. The corozo palm and the cojobana can also be found in this park and they were essential plants used by the Taínos.
Before we left the park, we stood still in front of one of the plazas or bateyes. The air was so calm, and everything was so quiet, since we were the only visitors there at that time. I closed my eyes and imagined what would it be like in the year 1500 AD just before the arrival of the Spanish to claim this land. When was the last areíto that was held here at this batey where I was standing? When was the last time everyone was gathered around here before they found out they would be forced into slavery? I could hear their voices and a wave of chitchatting and laughter coming from women, men, and children as they danced to the tune of the güiros and the maracas. I heard their spirits enjoying their celebration as if it was their last. Their spirits are still here in this island, even though men claimed their land as their own, forced them into slavery and killed many of them. The spirits of the Taíno still remain here on their land.
To read more about the history of the Taíno people and read my first post about this trip I invite you to read Where are the Taíno Indians Today?
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