Isla de Cabras (traslates as Goat’s island) in the town of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, is known today for its beaches, spectacular views of Old San Juan, and other recreational activities, including swimming and fishing.
However, atop a hill overlooking the coast, are some ruins that are seemingly out of place. Their past reveals that the island wasn’t always a beautiful tourist destination….
During the early 19th century, the island served as an inspection port for ships coming from Europe, when the threat of cholera was imminent. Thus, as a safety measure, every product and occupant on said ships, including African slaves, were placed under quarantine to prevent potential victims from spreading the disease to the mainland.
Toward the end of the century, a colony for the victims of infectious diseases was officially established here and, in 1876, construction began on four buildings that would serve as a shelter and hospital for the diseased. The brick structures were completed by 1883 and were officially known as the Lazaretto de Isla de Cabras. They housed the victims of yellow fever, cholera, and leprosy, among other diseases and, since said diseases lacked a cure, admittance was basically a death sentence.
The hospital remained operational even after the United States seized control of Puerto Rico in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. However, it was forced to shut down by 1923 due to its inhumane conditions, and its remaining occupants were moved to a new and safer institution in the town of Trujillo Alto.
In the following decades, Isla de Cabras was used for various other purposes until it was transformed into the recreational getaway it’s known as today. For over a century, and in spite of its ruinous state, the lazaretto has been an emblematic landscape component of San Juan’s Bay and still today the ruins of the old hospital remain a curious oddity to most visitors, unaware of the area’s former use. In any case, they are still standing as a reminder of the island’s morbid past.