2000s Archive

An Island in Bloom

Originally Published February 2005
With the U.S. Navy finally gone, the Caribbean’s tiny Vieques is beginning to come into its own. The best part about it? You get the perfect beaches, wild horses, and funky cafés practically all to yourself

We climbed up into our soft-top Jeep one morning, leaving the blooming hibiscus and cold poolside drinks of our resort behind, and headed into the wilds of Vieques. It’s a tiny island—21 miles long and 4 miles wide—just 6 miles off the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico and largely untouched by the long arm of development that has transformed most other Caribbean islands, since trampled by fashionable crowds and left as yesterday’s playgrounds. Vieques is different, rough-and-tumble, with only two small towns and a few very approximate maps with which to find your way around on the skinny, unmarked roads. This, of course, is in large part due to the United States Navy. The Navy took over 22,000 of the island’s 33,000 acres in 1942 to set up training ranges on the western and eastern ends, squeezing the natives into the middle, if they stayed on the island at all. Camp Garcia, to the east, is where live munitions were dropped in routine peacetime drills for many years, until, finally, on May 1, 2003, the Navy officially left the premises. I took the wheel; my boyfriend, Willy, took the map; and we set off to find Camp Garcia.

On the first road, Route 200, we passed little barrios of tiny stucco houses, which gave way to open, rolling fields and then a small commercial strip with a couple of gas stations, a makeshift bar, and the Papy Kike’s Car Wash and Tire Center. At the middle school, where young girls were gathered out front in white polo shirts, red plaid kilts, and enormous red hoop earrings, we turned south onto Route 997. This narrow road twisted through thick green forest and past cows grazing on hillsides, U.S. Postal Service mailboxes leaning at funny angles, a hospital in a clearing, and then a big stadium that had fallen into disrepair. Just beyond the stadium appeared a dirt road, on the left. We turned in, and there, very clearly, we could see the outline of the Navy guardhouse that once stood on the concrete foundation that remains. Camp Garcia.

We bumped slowly down the long dirt road, flanked by bush and swirling with dust, until, in the distance, we saw chain-link fence surrounding some Quonset huts and military vehicles. The gate was locked—“Authorized Personnel Only”—but there was no sign of life except the Stars and Stripes flapping lazily against the clear blue sky. We took a guess and turned right, then pushed on until we came to an expanse of asphalt that stretched far into the distance. I stopped the car. “It’s an airstrip,” said Willy, leaning forward. Abandoned now, with tufts of green poking up through the cracks, it sits there like an ancient ruin. A handmade detour sign, “Desvío Red Beach,” posted in the middle, was the only clue to what lay beyond.

As we drove onto the airstrip, following it east, we came to another abrupt stop. Four wild horses lifted their heads to inspect us. A snowy egret stood on the back of one chestnut mare. As we accelerated, they turned away and trotted off in the opposite direction, the egret flying on ahead. Another dirt road appeared on the right, narrower than the one before, and we followed it hopefully while overhanging branches scratched the sides of the Jeep. Then, suddenly, we could smell the sea, and after one more sharp left bend in the road, there it was. A great long crescent of white sand framed a smooth, crystalline bay leading out to the rougher Caribbean. Red Beach. I’ve been many places in the world and so has Willy, and we both agreed that it was one of the most pristine beaches we’d ever seen. You would never know that amphibious landings with air support were carried out on these shores, that howitzers were pulled up over the sand, that Marines in full camouflage with gear on their backs ran to gun positions that had been bulldozed in the surrounding thicket. Willy and I parked our car by one of the sheltered picnic tables, in the shade of a palm tree, and went down for a swim. At the height of tourist season, there were only five other people on the sand.

Though you wouldn’t guess it from the empty beaches, these are heady times for Vieques. In the year and a half since the Navy’s departure, the island has seen a boom in tourism, but it’s brought with it a lot of questions. Will Vieques become another St. Bart’s? Gossip in the few little cafés and bars is all about the quadrupled price of real estate, the mayor’s recently imposed moratorium on construction, the 46-acre parcel on the Caribbean side that may have sold to someone named Trump, and the tension between the local people and those who come looking for the simple life.

By and large, the shared objective among most Viequenses and the large population of North Americans—some of whom have lived here for 30 years—is to achieve a balance between development, which would provide much-needed employment, and preservation of the sleepy island charm. Meanwhile, there is no evidence of rapid change.

One night during our stay, we went to a restaurant in the little port town of Isabel Segunda that had been recommended by a couple of North Americans who live on the island at least part of the year. Café Media Luna is a small, sultry restaurant in a converted house on the corner of the dingy main street and a dark residential lane. While sitting up on the balcony of the second floor, eating remarkably good small plates of food, we watched a young family in their finery walk back from church in the square with a bust of Simón Bolívar in its middle. A pair of young men cruised by in their very out-of-date Impala with the bass booming. And then the street fell quiet for a while until the unmistakable sound of cantering hooves pierced the air. Right through town, a reedy teenage boy rode bareback on his Paso Fino, the small breed of horse we’d seen on the airstrip.

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