Travel: Mangroves under fire

American war games fail to mar Alex Hamilton's stay on two of Puerto Rico's outlying islands

`Where are you going?" asked the man with the gun, backed up by a notice saying that he was authorised to use it. "Playa Arenas," replied my friend, who had once swum butterfly for the Puerto Rico national team.

"Ah, Green Beach," nodded the guard.

"Since I was a child," glossed my friend, "we call it Playa Arenas."

The guard's tone changed, and he switched into Spanish: "You know how it is, the gringos make us call it Green Beach." He waved us through in our Jeep into the American base on the island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico.

"He calls them gringos, but he takes their dollars," commented my friend sourly.

Green Beach, Red Beach, Blue Beach ... the US Navy has overstamped the local names. They could have been called White Beach, Whiter Beach and Whitest Beach. They are some of the most splendid and dazzling stretches of sand and pellucid sea in all the Caribbean. And I don't mean just for rehearsing invasions. Up to your neck in water you could still see if your boots shone properly, and which sort of turtle was passing by. And they're ideal for the butterfly stroke, which demands calm water.

The Americans don't bomb, strafe or mortar Vieques every day. In some years there have been about 200 attacks and the rest of the time people were free to swim at leisure. A red flag at the gate to Campamento Garcia signifies no bathing. The bombing programme is posted in the town of Isabela Segunda. And the waist of the island, nearly a third of the total of 33,000 acres, is wholly civilian. There are 10,000 civilians. "We are the meat in the sandwich," they say.

You could also swim in Mosquito Bay at night. This is well named as the mosquitoes are like woodpeckers, only much more plentiful. It also has a semi-scientific name, Bio Luminescent Bay, one of the few places in the world where the wake of a fish looks like the tail of a meteor. And my friend, when swimming butterfly, resembled a manta (ray fish) on fire.

It's a weird place, about 160 acres of shallow mangrove creek with a narrow inlet, best when there's no moon. I saw bats catching fish. I did. You go out on a motorised pontoon with a boffin who explains the psychedelic mix, then frolic in it. I asked if there were any practical applications of the heady mix, and my boffin replied that the Navy hoped they might use it to catch enemy frogmen. Ah well.

On a hill above Isabela is Fort Conde de Miraflores, built by the governor of Puerto Rico in the 1840s to stave off the British. It's a relief to come on guns that are impotent. Nevertheless this is a museum with attitude. It's where the slaves were locked up after transport from the French islands.

Furthermore the director, a Bostonian with 25 years in Puerto Rico, had gone native and mounted a scathing verbal barrage against the Navy's war games. He was so incensed by the threat to the lighthouse, another historical monument, that he prompted the minister of culture to hand in a strongly worded protest. Some of these bombs weigh 2,000lbs, and they shake the foundations. Well, they make the furniture tremble on Culebra, the sister island, and the pictures fall off the walls: Culebra is 10 miles away.

Playa Flamenco, on Culebra, is the most accessible beach, a couple of kilometres of seamless, sinuous sand, pristine up to a point, that point being at the end where some rusting US tanks are still rooted where they were planted for target practice. They've been there so long they'll soon qualify as historical monuments.

I contemplated them in the company of some sooty terns, who breed there between May and September. We were joined by Culebran lovers escaping from the campers at the other end. "Meet you by the tanks" is a proven formula for assignations.

The Navy's arrival is bleakly illustrated by the houses of the Danish community of San Ildefonso, now open to the sky. The people are alleged to have been given 48 hours to clear out, and relocate in St Croix in the US Virgin Islands. Considering the battering the houses took, you can't but be impressed by the strength of Danish buildings. Not much that has gone up on Culebra since could so obstinately defy a high wind or a hostile strike. San Ildefonso was renamed Dewey after the victor of Manila, to make it easier for the marines, and is therefore pronounced Dooie.

When the Navy stopped flying over Culebra, the migrant seabirds, though not the Danes, resumed operations. They come, like the Puerto Rican young, to mate and, unlike them, stay on to establish the results. Much of the island is a wildlife refuge but the problem for the birds and their supporters, when the marines decamped, was that farmers rushed into the vacuum with their cattle, which cropped the vegetation short and trampled the eggs. But now the birds seem to be winning; the mangroves are stuffed with crabs; the dry forest and thorn scrub annex the arid patches; and there's no fresh milk.

Vieques is the word in Taino (an Amerindian language) for "small island". It's not that small. Culebra is the Spanish word for snake, but there never were any snakes: it's actually part of the name of a Spanish grandee in whose fief it lay. It is relatively small, with 2,700 inhabitants. On both islands some people seem as indigenous as the red mangroves, others are Puerto Ricans coming over to build million-dollar villas on hillsides.

Then there's an introduced species of conservationists, which doesn't want to see another roof raised unless it's to save the dengue mosquito. Add a light dressing of boaties, who'd never heard of the place until they dropped anchor some 12 years ago. They sort of liked the big open spaces, but may move on one day when they get over this phase of indecision.

The roads are terrible, so pitted and scarred that they might well have been bombed: your kidneys will

bounce up to your clavicles. At either airport $45 a day gets you a Jeep. Nothing else will master the terrain. Why must the roads be like corrugated iron? Can't they repair them? The secret is that they prefer them that way. They don't want their islands covered with resorts, like Margarita or Aruba, nor with shoppers like St Thomas. If visitors want to look around, they must earn the right by taking their lumps on the trails.

You can fly from San Juan, on Puerto Rico, for $30. Or you can make hard work of getting there by sharing a maxi-taxi to the port of Fajardo on the Puerto Rican mainland, then a ferry to either of the islands. The maxi will do it in two or three or maybe four hours, stopping at every hamlet and charging $12. The ferry will take 90 minutes and charge $10. For another $10 a night you could then camp on the beach. After the first night you will probably rent a room somewhere for $45, and after the second night look for a hotel. Luckily, each island has one inn worth the $90-$115 a room that it charges.

On Culebra it's the Club Seabourn. Its pink and white plywood villas look out on green pastures and Seabourn's spirit is likewise green. Once a year it holds a free animal clinic, to which qualified vets are invited to operate on as many sick creatures as can be induced to come. It has two barrel-shaped cats of its own, who divide their time between the restaurant and the poolside bar. It's a mystery how they sleep with all the typical Puerto Rican arguments about independence versus statehood going on. Every few years a plebiscite preserves the status quo: Puerto Rico remains a "commonwealth" of the USA. Last year the result was a slender margin over statehood.

This means, of course, that they still have no voice in Congress to complain about the bombing practice. My suggestion that they put up statues on the range to honour famous American airmen, so that a scandal might ensue if they were blown up, brought me several free beers in the bar where I made it.

Unfortunately this story can't be left at the level of irreverent fantasy. I thought that pace the imminent arrival of Hurricane Georges, there was nothing else too serious to worry about, and that the bombs wounded Puerto Rican pride rather than its flesh. Sadly, it was revealed this May that a large dummy bomb had landed on the observation building. And this came out with sadder news yet: that two 500lb bombs had gone astray, killing a security guard, Sanes Rodriguez, whose job it was to keep pleasure seekers from wandering into the target area. In the aftermath, a fair head of steam built up for the Navy to give up the live ammo or find an alternative, uninhabited island. An improvement perhaps, but only marginal.

Meanwhile on Vieques the agreeable stopover is the Hacienda Tamarindo, which opened in 1996. The tamarind grows through the middle, with the effect of the tree appearing to wear the house. A virgin book, waiting to take any thoughts I might have in the middle of the night, was left on my bedside table. But I slept till 6am without a single thought.

At that time coffee is already brewing, and you look from your balcony at a waking landscape with horses. Wild horses. In the rainy season, the islets are wrapped in thick mists like so many buns in a cloth, but are soon exposed again by the sun. You wouldn't know there was a fax or a phone or a bomb in all the world.

PUERTO RICO

GETTING THERE

British Airways (tel: 0345 222 111) flies Saturdays and Sundays, Gatwick to San Juan in Puerto Rico, for pounds 472 Apex return, plus pounds 35 tax. Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011) flies Thursdays and Saturdays via Madrid, for pounds 509 Apex return, plus pounds 38.50 tax. A variety of tailor-made Puerto Rican journeys and ecological adventures, including Vieques and Culebra, is offered by Tropix, Apartado 13294, Santurce, Puerto Rico 00908 (tel: 787 268 2173, fax: 787 268 1722). For further information call the Puerto Rican tourist office (tel: 0800 898920).

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