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Vieques on the Verge

The Navy is gone; the bombing has stopped. What happens to Puerto Rico's Vieques now?

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martineau bay’s landscaped grounds, all well-placed palms and bright marigolds, are plenty lovely. The buildings, an assortment of nouveau colonial villas and vaulted meeting rooms, snuggle low and yellow along the coast. Developer Roberto Cacho, a young-looking 40-something Puerto Rican in beachwear, appears relaxed as he settles us and a few other visitors on a breezy patio for a celebratory white wine toast. “This,” he tells us, beaming, “has been my biggest dream. To give this to this island. After all of our troubles, the planets have finally aligned, and with the Navy pulling out, it just looks like we’ve gotten lucky with our timing.” Cacho says the 156-room resort has added 220 jobs to Vieques, including ten managerial jobs—all filled by Viequenses.

He does not mention, however, any of the surprisingly shrill local critics who like to suggest, as one publico (taxi) driver did, that the opening of such a big resort on such a small island will likely signal “the beginning of the end of the Vieques we know.” Several days later, though, that vision of Vieques—a Vieques that includes ten rare and endangered plants and animals on the largest expanse of semiprotected habitat in the entire Caribbean—seems a lot less likely than the vision of an upwardly mobile Vieques embodied by a newly hired bartender at the resort’s swim-up bar. Like a lot of other native Viequenses, he knows the troubles of finding work. In between pulling drinks, he studies a tome called the Complete World Bartender Guide and says, “I hope this will be a fine job. And my family hopes this too. The pay, you know, it is very good.”

It’s a fuzzy gray day, the horizon line blurring with approaching weather, and back on the island’s pinched roads, the turnoff for the 4,000-year-old man finally reveals itself. Roberto Rabin, an archaeologist and the director of the local FortCountMirasolMuseum, leads the way up a rutted track to a scruffy clearing that features a few giant boulders and a smattering of trees. “You’ve heard of Stonehenge, right?” Rabin jokes. He points to a shady spot where the bones of the 4,000-year-old man once lay under the topsoil, until their excavation in 1990 by two scientists from the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Puerto Rico.

The man, who died at age 35 or 40 from a blow to the jaw, was a hunter-gatherer, says Yvonne Narganes, one of the archaeologists who uncovered the skeleton. His bones, she says, are the oldest human remains found in more than 25 years of field study on Vieques and the first significant evidence of a preagricultural society on the island. They reveal that people arrived here from South America 1,000 years earlier than previously thought. (Narganes and others have also found on Vieques the remains of a 2,000-year-old culture that made delicate semiprecious stone amulets of frogs and bats, unlike anything seen before in the Caribbean.) “And look,” says Rabin, “the site is completely unprotected, not even a plaque. If the island grows overdeveloped now, it’s spots like this that will be at risk.”

I recall the words of a dark-haired local waitress who’d told us that the island was still defended by “strong spirits,” particularly at this site—now known as the Hombre De Puerto Ferro site, named for a nearby barrio. She said the souls of the 4,000-year-old hombre and his compadres would forever rebuff the encroachments of vulgar commerce. She said that if I didn’t bring an offering—“a cookie or a handful of sand or something”—the spirits would run me off, as they’d run her off before, with wild horses or swarming bees. But I am not that sort of spiritual man. And so I’ve come empty handed. And so, of course, it’s not long before a bee stings me dead on the nose and the swelling blurs my vision until I’m forced to head back in search of ice—more uncertain than ever about the island’s imminent future—to my posh hotel.


Getting There

Vieques is a paradox. The Navy.s 60-year occupation has left the island largely undeveloped and free of the commercialism common to other parts of the Caribbean. But the pollution the military left behind may imperil paradise. Even so, apart from the likelihood of a nasty sunburn, a short-term tourist faces little health risk, say experts. And the lack of development means the visitor has naught to do but bike, hike, kayak, ride horses, and honor the island.s painful past by enjoying its hard-won peace and charm. The average temperature is 79 degrees, and Americans do not need a passport to visit. Most major U.S. cities offer flights to San Juan, Puerto Rico; from there, Vieques is a ten-minute hop via Air Culebra (four flights daily). INSIDE TIP: VisitGreenBeach, on the island.s western tip, for views of the rain forest, good snorkeling and glimpses of herds of wild horses.

INFORMATION: Visit www.enchanted-isle.com and www.vieques-island.com for services and accommodations.

 

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