A Cross Marks the Spot
San Salvador, or ‘Holy Saviour’ as it was christened by Christopher Columbus, is an island of wonder. It is popularly known as the site of first landfall for Columbus during his first voyage in 1492. Although some historians are still in conflict about which Bahamian island is exactly the true gateway, San Salvador is self-assured when it comes to its famous first.
A white stone cross framed by a wooden pavillion and two palm trees, standing on either side, marks the spot where Columbus made contact with the island known by the indigenous Lucayans as “Guanahani”. Much has changed since the fateful encounter: the Lucayans were plundered and decimated; the islands were stained with the blood of enslaved Africans, and reborn after liberated Africans made settlements on the rubble of old plantations. There are three monuments to Columbus’ arrival in San Salvador, but the cross at Long Bay stands as a chief marker of an encounter that was the genesis of a new era.
With its unusual land and water formations, San Salvador is really the peak of a submerged mountain that begins 15,000 feet below sea level. The island’s rugged cliffs contrast with swathes of white sand and turquoise water beaches, sea water lagoons, rolling hills peppered in coppice, and throngs of mangrove where dune ridges open out into a glittering waterway known as the Great Lake Preserve. One third of the island is water, and it is that water that keeps settlements like Rice Bay in the North and Sugar Loaf Bay in the south connected, allowing communication between less than 1000 San Salvadorans in towns all across the island.
Pigeon Creek, an intricate tidal system on the southeastern edge of San Salvador, is home to hundreds of species of nesting birds and spawning fish. It was also the site of one of the largest Lucayan villages in the Bahamas. At Graham’s Harbour, which Columbus said could hold “all the ships of Christendom”, the Gerace Research Center works year-round to observe the archaeology, biology and marine life of the island. Nearby, a US military tracking station operated for many years, monitoring possible missiles entering the US, as well as spacecraft orbiting the earth. The station made tourism off limits in San Salvador until the 1960s.
Since then, San Salvador has become a thriving tourist location, with visitors coming to see for themselves the island that was a portal to the New World. Snorkel off the lee side and explore sharks and stingrays at reefs like Devil’s Claw and Vicky’s Reef, and elkhorn and staghorn coral on French Bay and Gaulin Reef. Stay at one of San Salvador’s many small villas, beach clubs, or at Club Med, just north of San Salvador’s capital, Cockburn Town. And, while you’re here, trek over to Long Bay to see for yourself the white cross where Columbus walked ashore, laying eyes on the curious faces of Lucayans.