Faro a Colon
The “Faro a Colon”, or 'Columbus Lighthouse', is NOT a lighthouse in the technical sense but a huge monument in Santo Domingo
, the oldest colonial city in the Americas (and capital of the Dominican Republic
). It was unveiled in 1992 to celebrate Christopher Columbus's “discovery” of the “New World” 500 years previously.
It is allegedly also the mausoleum where the remains of Columbus are kept, though that is contested. Even without this element there is something maybe not properly dark, but certainly very bizarre and slightly disturbing about this highly unusual monster of a landmark.
More background info: The monument was a long time in the making. Early suggestions for constructing such a monument to commemorate Columbus's arrival in the Americas go back to the mid-19th century. In the first half of the 20th century things got a little more concrete when in the 1920s a design competition was held.
Out of the over 450 submissions, it was – somehow inexplicably – a British design that won, that by Scottish architect Joseph L Gleave. Construction work on the foundations was begun but halted again before the middle of the century and only resumed in the second half of the 1980s under the rule of Joaquin Balaguer (see history of the Dominican Republic
The original design was adapted by another architect to accommodate the idea of giving the pile the second function as a museum of the Americas. Construction was completed just in time and the monument was inaugurated in 1992, promptly for the 500th anniversary of the Columbus's arrival in the New World in 1492.
The huge monument is controversial for various reasons. Not only for its bulky design, which is somewhat reminiscent of some kind of industrial plant or a prison complex, but also for the enormous costs of its construction. The idea was that all the countries of the Americas would contribute towards the costs, but apparently participation in that scheme turned out to be somewhat less than enthusiastic (some non-American countries chipped in too and thus got some surprising representation in the museum part for it … hence the Russian and Taiwanese references you'll see there).
Moreover, a whole district had to be bulldozed to make space for it – and naturally that was rather one of the poorer 'barrios', so there is something politically very unsavoury about its location too.
And then there is the question whether the sarcophagus around which the monument is laid out actually does contain the real remains of Columbus. After his death in 1506, his dead body continued to go on voyages, so to speak, as it was carted first back to Spain
, then back to Santo Domingo
, then to Cuba
, and back to Spain again … or not, as the case may be.
The problem is that both his son and his brother were also buried in Santo Domingo and at least at some points in time they were kept together inside the Cathedral. There is confusion over which remains are whose, since the respective boxes had the same markings, apparently, as all three Columbuses (Christopher, Bartolome and Diego) held the same titles in life: Don Colon and “Admiral of the Ocean”.
Seville, in Spain
, is adamant that it is their Columbus tomb that has the real one in it, as they had taken the body to Havana, Cuba
, from where they transferred the remains to Seville when that colony fell to the USA
. Santo Domingo
, in turn, insists that the body never left their city so that their mausoleum is the real article and the others must be holding on to the son or brother. It is also possible that neither are right and the real Christopher is still in Cuba
. … or somewhere else altogether.
Adding further to the controversy surrounding the Faro a Colon is the fact that not everybody agreed that the arrival of Columbus was such a reason for unabashed celebration in any case, given that the subsequent onset of colonization also meant the genocidal destruction of the pre-Columbian Taino culture (see, again, under history
) and the conquest of various other indigenous cultures under the Conquistadores.
It is also said that when the light installation in the monument, which projects the shape of a Christian cross up into the sky, is switched on, other parts of the city or surrounding villages suffer from blackouts. Naturally, that doesn't make the thing popular with the relevant people either. These days, however, it is only rarely lit up like that, so I was told by my guide in Santo Domingo
– though he also conceded that it was quite a sight to behold.
Even without the lights, the monument is in some way impressive for its monstrous size alone. Made out of grey concrete and having the footprint shape of a Christian cross, it stretches out across the western part of Parque Mirador del Este for almost 700 feet (210m) and rises to a hight of almost 200 feet (60m).
Many consider this enormous landmark an eyesore, and the area around it doesn't have the best of reputations. Most foreign visitors come to see it as part of a guided tour by bus or individually by taxi. The locals appear to pay little attention to it.
What there is to see: You either approach the monument from the north, where there is a parking lot, or from further away at the western end of the park it sits in. Either way, the size of the thing will not fail to impress (whether in a positive or negative way).
Coming in from the west, as I did, you won't at first notice the enormous length of the building as you can only see the head, or top, of the cross-shaped footprint. As you get closer, it looms larger and larger in front of you. Along both sides of a central “gap”, huge stone plaques are stacked from the bottom to the top on which various glorifying quotes are etched.
Eventually you ascend a set of enormously wide steps, and doing so you pass a roughly life-size bust of Joaquin Balaguer (see above
and under history
!), with a blue plaque spelling out his name (and that of the monument's “governor”). His head seems to be made of brass, and the metal is partly polished around his cheeks, mouth and forehead, giving a strange exaggeratedness to his features with harsh contrasts of bright gold and dark bronze-to-almost-black.
A bit further on behind the bust you come to the entrance to the inside of the monument/mausoleum – if you come from the north, you have to walk all the way around to the western facade.
Once you've paid your admission fee you get to the holy of holies of the monument, the one that makes it a mausoleum. In contrast to the almost “industrial”, plain concrete look of the bulk of the monument, the tomb of Columbus has a rather (mock) Gothic look. The sarcophagus is in the centre – you can stop a moment and contemplate … whether or not the real Columbus remains may be inside (see above
) and also about the massive historical repercussions that Columbus's “discovery” of the “New World” has had …
Apart from the mausoleum part, the architecture is stark, modernist, almost brutalist, grey concrete – and impressive in its own way, especially if you believe that size matters.
Behind the Columbus tomb a long slit leads all the way down to the eastern end of the structure (the “bottom” of the cross), like an open-air corridor.
In the two wings to the side of this passage is the museum part of the monument. It is arranged by country, and what is on display varies a lot according to the country represented. Some offer traditional artefacts such as pre-Columbian arts and crafts and gold jewellery, some are a bit more modern, yet others are represented by only a few photos.
Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, the section for Haiti is completely empty, except for the country's name's letters on a niche in the wall. Whether or not this is intentionally symbolic of the often more than strained relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic
(maybe Haiti just didn't pay its contribution, nor supplied anything to display), I found this empty niche the most remarkable bit of the museum.
In addition you'll come across several non-American countries also represented in the museum. I noticed early on that even the signs for the toilets were – surprisingly – in Russian! Presumably Russia
made an especially generous contribution? Anyway, they have their own section in the museum, as do Taiwan
and Great Britain
As you would expect, there is also a section about Columbus himself and about his voyages of discovery. A large monitor that was supposed to be an interactive exhibit was not working, however.
More by chance than anything else, I then hit upon an unlocked door that led to a staircase. I followed it up – but soon it became apparent that tourists were most probably not expected to take this route. As I reached the higher floors it got darker, the ground became grimier and on the last flights of stairs accumulated bird poo and dead pigeons made it quite clear that this had turned into an accidental impromptu exercise in 'urban exploration'. Some rooms branching off were completely empty and dark, others contained some kind of machinery (to do with the electricity supply maybe), and eventually a door led out into the open.
From there a few steps outside lead up right to the concrete “crown” of the monument. I was on top! The views down were worth it. Especially looking down in the open corridor-like central passage with tiny figures of visiting tourists moving about in it provided another good impression of the enormous size of this concrete monster of a monument.
I had some trouble finding my way back down again, and I must have descended a different staircase as on the way up – because shortly before reaching the ground level I passed some staffed offices. My presence – coming down – caused a few raised eyebrows and confused looks, but nobody gave me any grief as I made my way back out again.
Leaving the museum and mausoleum part I then walked round to the northern side of the monument. There's a remarkable open-air exhibit here: a Papamobile, apparently used by John Paul II on one of his Latin American trips that took him to the Dom Rep too. Behind it, on the big slabs cladding the central part of the monument, his name was spelled out … in addition to yet more glorifying quotes like the ones on the west facade.
The park around the monument is landscaped but rather barren. It doesn't look like it gets used by any walkers much. Most of the tourists gave it a miss too and instead headed back to their coach tours or taxis. I walked back to where the taxi that had taken me here had dropped me off and a tourist police officer insisted I also take a taxi back into town and hailed one down for me. It would have been walkable, but they are evidently too worried about security to let tourists wander around here on their own. Whether that is justified or exaggerated (or maybe just a way of keeping the taxi economy going) I cannot say …
All in all I was glad I had made my way out to this truly bizarre monster-monument. The museum part may be a bit shabby and not the most well-designed or well-maintained one in the city (rather far from that), nor is the tomb guaranteed to be authentic, but the weird architecture of the monument as such is definitely worth seeing up close and from the inside. And my unintended bit of extra urban exploring was definitely a bonus too. If you enjoy the unusual, then do go.
in the eastern part of Santo Domingo
, inside the huge Parque Mirador del Este, a bit over a mile (1.8 km) as the crow flies from the heart of the old Colonial Zone.
Access and costs: a bit out of the Colonial centre, but just a short taxi ride away; cheap.
To get to the monument, you can either go on an organized tour that includes a stop here, or make your own way there, preferably by taxi. In theory it would be walkable from the tourist-central Zona Colonial, but I found that the tourist police stationed at the entrances to the car parks by the monument are not keen on letting foreigners walk it, but insist you take a taxi. My taxi rides a) from the Tres Ojos (see under Santo Domingo
) to the monument and b) from the monument to the Colonial Zone cost me 300 RD$ each; that's 5-6 EUR, so not that bad. Those with a real need to keep budgets down and travel as the locals would, can apparently also get there by guagua or motorbike taxi.
Admission to the inside of the monument, the museum and mausoleum is a mere 100RD$ (ca. 2 EUR).
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Time required: I spent a bit over an hour at the site – but that included by climb to the top (which I strongly suspect would not normally be officially allowed – see above); but then again, I went through most of the museum part only casting a cursory look around. Visitors who are actually into all the pre-Colombian art and other themed exhibits, could probably spend much longer in there than I did ...
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Santo Domingo
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
A visit to the Faro a Colon is often part of a standard tourist tour package that also includes the Aquarium and the Tres Ojos – see under Santo Domingo
The problem with these pre-organized tours is that you may not be given as much time at each point as you may like. I saw various tour groups who had obviously been on land excursions from their cruise ship, and they seemed to be a bit rushed.
- Faro 01 - from the west
- Faro 02 - Balaguer bust
- Faro 03 - allegedly the sarcophagus contains the remains of Christopher Columbus
- Faro 04 - central aisle
- Faro 05 - museum exhibition inside
- Faro 06 - nothing for Haiti
- Faro 07 - concrete structure
- Faro 08 - the central crown seen from the main aisle
- Faro 09 - a staircase leading up
- Faro 10 - at the top
- Faro 11 - view over Santo Domingo
- Faro 12 - looking down into the central aisle
- Faro 13 - back outside
- Faro 14 - Pope John Paul II was here
- Faro 15 - and left his Papamobile