History is a slippery concept in Vieques.
People who live their daily lives in a state of being that most North Americans would consider firmly entrenched in the past (e.g., riding horses to the grocery store) don’t draw the same sharp distinctions between the past and present that we do.
In our daily lives in Washington, it seems like Michael and I are either overdosing on technology or abruptly switching everything off and dashing into a museum for a quick infusion of history.
Middle ground is hard to find.
In Vieques, on the other hand, past and present happily cohabitate. Those same young guys who ride their horses to the market for a beer can be spotted, on occasion, chatting on their cell phones as they trot along.
We even saw a kid who couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen cantering down a country road one blindingly sunny afternoon, texting away just like any teenager from Podunk, U.S.A.
Architectural vestiges of the past aren’t particularly numerous on Vieques either, but the few remaining ones are memorable.
The most prominent of these is the fort in Isabel, perched in stately isolation atop a hill just above the town.
This fortified mini-castle—possessing the dubious distinction of being the last Spanish fort constructed in the Western Hemisphere—was built between 1845 and 1855 to protect Vieques from foreign attack, but it never really served any practical function until someone had the bright idea of turning it into the municipal jail around 1900.
Now it’s a museum. Cool and dark inside, it offers not only a permanent exhibit of artifacts relating to the history of the island, but the occasional temporary exhibit of works by local artists.
All interesting enough, but the fort’s ace in the hole is its view: when you exit the museum and walk down several steps past a low garden wall you’re socked in the eye with a truly breathtaking view.
There’s also a pretty terrific lighthouse situated on a lower promontory in Isabel, with swell views of its own.
It was allegedly built on the site of a Frenchman’s villa called, rather unoriginally, Mon Repos, which eventually became known to the locals as Morropo. But as picturesque as this lighthouse may be, it doesn’t hold a candle to the deserted lighthouse on the south (Caribbean) side of the island, a couple of miles below the gates of the old Navy base.
Inaccessible by car, the Puerto Ferro lighthouse has been on our list of must-sees for years. When we finally decided to bike out one day not long ago to see it, we weren’t disappointed. If you worked with every fiber of your being to create a structure that screamed “lighthouse ruin” you couldn’t do a better job than time and chance have done here.
Set on a high pitch of land (called Verdiales, for the family who maintained the lighthouse for decades) jutting out into the water like the prow of a ship, the structure is probably best described as Spanish Colonial. Although stripped by the elements of its stucco finish and tower, the base is handsomely rugged, all exposed brick walls, decaying pilasters, and lashings of atmosphere.
Michael took a great photo from the base of the ruin toward the low, craggy, sea-grape-clustered cliffs below and the azure sea beyond.
This shot, which has become the screensaver on my work computer, has helped me survive many a dreary winter afternoon.
Other architectural ruins pop up here and there around the island—most notably the sugar mill at Playa Grande—to remind us, in Vieques’ understated, almost grudging way, that many came before us, and that their lives were hardly the proverbial “day at the beach” so many of us have enjoyed there since.
Speaking of those who came before us—the skeleton of a man dating back some four thousand years was found in the Puerto Ferro area in the 1990s. Nobody knows how this young fellow got to the island or what he was doing here.
Personally, I like to imagine him junketing over for an afternoon of snorkeling.
Even Ancient Man had to have a little fun.