An Arsenal of Mysteries: The Terrifying Allure of a Remote Caribbean Island

Every year, I spend a month or two in Puerto Rico, where my mother’s family is from. Often I go in winter, with the other snowbirds, finding solace among palm trees. But I’m not a tourist, not really. I track the developers that privatize the shoreline; I follow the environmental reports that give our beaches a failing grade. I’m disenchanted with the Island of Enchantment, suspicious of an image that obscures the unglamorous conditions of daily life: frequent blackouts, meager public services, a rental market ravaged by Airbnb. Maybe that’s why I turned away from the sunshine and started to explore caves with my friends Ramón and Javier, seeking out wonders not yet packaged for the visitor economy. I’ve been learning to love stalactites and squeaking bats, black snakes and cloistered waterfalls — even, slowly, the darkness itself.

The Greater Antilles and the Yucatán Peninsula form one of the most cavernous regions in the world, and many of these grottos contain precolonial inscriptions. But no other site can match the density of designs found on Mona, a semiarid mesa halfway between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The island is ringed by sheer cliffs and honeycombed with miles of subterranean passageways. Most of the inscriptions are tucked away in the so-called dark zone, far from access to the upper world, congregating around rare pools of freshwater. More accessible chambers harbor other histories: an Incan vase filled with gold coins, shards of a Spanish olive jar stained with the oldest wine in the Americas. In one cave, a foreign visitor from the 16th century carved a kind of commentary alongside ancient petroglyphs: “plura fecit deus.” “God made many things.” I kept repeating the phrase to myself like a mantra, trying to impose divine order on the contradictions of the New World, the only world I’ve ever known.

Colonial inscriptions in Cave 18 inscribed with the year 1550 and the phrase plura fecit deus or “God made many things.”Credit…Christopher Gregory-Rivera for The New York Times

Mona now “belongs” to Puerto Rico (and thus to the United States), but the island has always retained a certain rugged self-possession, rising fatherless and fully formed from the sea like an American Aphrodite. The archaeologist Ovidio Dávila famously described the island as “a floating fortress”: remote, inhospitable, an arsenal of mysteries. But Mona also teems with life: flowering cactuses, swirling flocks of seabirds, orchids and iguanas and frogs found nowhere else on Earth. Hawksbill turtles from as far away as Panama crawl onshore to nest under the summer moon. Enormous basket sponges and gorgonian corals cling to the sea wall. Many migrant species rarely seen from Puerto Rico proper come close to shore: dolphins, pilot whales, tiger sharks, bluefin tuna, flying fish. Mona’s remote beaches receive tribute from faraway waters, as if this might be the secret center of the world.

But for many Puerto Ricans, Mona is a legendary backwater, the punchline for a whole genre of jokes: Your political enemies “couldn’t even win the mayor’s race on Mona,” the socialists should “go live with the iguanas,” the Supreme Court might consider setting up “its little theocracy” over there. Like Robinson Crusoe, even locals who should know better view this other island as a blank slate for exile or utopia. Of course, Mona wasn’t always an abstraction. Before Europeans wandered west, Indigenous people settled the island as early as 3000 B.C. When Columbus first came to Mona in 1494, there was a community cultivating a marvelous variety of fruits and tubers from a thin fringe of arable soil on the island’s western side. Indigenous people continued to survive on Mona for another hundred years — much longer than elsewhere in the region — taking refuge in the island’s mysterious interior. Since then, the island has hosted a vivid procession of conquistadors, conversos, maroons, priests, pirates, prisoners, guano miners, military men, treasure hunters, scientists and refugees.

Back to top button