Peculiar Puerto Rico!
From skinny houses to painted tanks, Puerto Rico has an array of unusual attractions. The Atlas Obscura team – experts in seeking out the world’s greatest curiosities – guide us around the intriguing island…
Ruins of Lazaretto de Isla de Cabras TOA BAJA
What? Crumbling remnants of a 19th-century quarantine hospital
Isla de Cabras (Island of Goats) is known for its beaches and spectacular views of Old San Juan. But atop a hill, visitors will notice some ruins that seem out of place, revealing that the island wasn’t always a recreational getaway.
Isla de Cabras served as an inspection port for ships coming from Europe during the early 19th century, when the threat of cholera was high. As a safety measure, every product and person on those ships, including enslaved Africans, were placed under quarantine to prevent the spread of the disease to the mainland. Toward the end of the century, a colony was officially established on the island. In 1876, construction began on four buildings that would serve as a shelter and hospital for infected people. The brick structures were finished by 1883, and were known as the Lazaretto de Isla de Cabras. They housed people suffering from yellow fever, cholera and leprosy, among other diseases. Since there was no cure for those illnesses, admittance was pretty much a death sentence.
The facility continued in use after the United States took control of Puerto Rico, but was shut down by 1923. The decaying ruins of the old hospital serve as a reminder of the island’s morbid past.
Know before you go: The ruins are open for exploration; take care on the uneven ground.
La Casa Estrecha SAN JUAN
What? Tiny home, originally a narrow alleyway
If you find yourself walking the streets of Old San Juan, you may be surprised to come across an extraordinarily slim, two-storey house known as La Casa Estrecha. Measuring less than 2m across, the house was once a neglected alleyway before it was transformed into a habitable abode by architect Antonio Álvarez.
Squeezed between two regular-sized buildings, the vibrant yellow ‘Narrow House’ draws visitors to tour its slender interior. Despite its slim stature, the house features a living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. The bathroom’s design, however, is a bit tricky: without enough space for a separate shower area, the floor was fitted with a drain under the sink area.
The custom stairwell features alternate steps that extend the height of the house, because traditional steps just wouldn’t work in such narrow settings. Today, Álvarez uses the house as a gallery to showcase the work of local artists.
It may be the narrowest house around, but a small balcony on the top floor opens to reveal a magnificent wide-angle view of the bay and the colourful streets of Old San Juan below.
Know before you go: The house is open for tours; call in advance for an appointment (+1 787 396 5620).
The Tanks of Flamenco Beach CULEBRA
What? Graffiti-covered machines on a tropical beach, once used by the US military for target practice
Just before World War II, the US Navy used the picturesque island of Culebra to train soldiers and test bombs, leaving behind a number of tanks to rust in the wilderness.
Flamenco Beach, in particular, was used for the training exercises, which started in 1939. Testing and training continued through the war and beyond, and though no huge base was created, a great deal of equipment and armaments were moved to the island. Unfortunately, the Navy’s testing and exercises on the island did not sit well with the residents, and in the early 1970s protests were launched in an attempt to persuade the military to leave. After some four years of outcry, the Navy finally evacuated. However, a number of tanks and other pieces of gear were left behind. Much of it was cleaned up, but the huge tanks could not be moved and were simply left to rot. While the salty sea winds worked on the metal, causing it to rust and crumble, the locals got to work on decorating the tanks, covering the abandoned hulks with layers of graffiti.
Today, the tanks have become a unique feature of the otherwise pristine beach. New pieces of graffiti are continually added, giving the old war machines an almost cheerful new life.
Know before you go: The tanks are back in the brush and on the shoreline on the far west side of the beach.
Cemi Museum JAYUYA
What? Odd little museum devoted to ancient religious artefacts, shaped like the very things it displays
The Cemi Museum gets right to the point: it’s named for and shaped like the subjects of its collection.
The pre-Columbian Taíno Indians of the Antilles fashioned cemi (or zemi) in stone and other materials in various forms, notably a three-pointed cosmological symbol. The central point represents a mountain peak, home to Yaya, the Creator. The mouth-like point represents Coabey, the land of the dead. The final point represents the land of the living. The Cemi Museum’s building takes the shape of one of these sacred symbols; when viewing the structure against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains, it’s easy to see how this symbol evolved as a stylised echo of the topography.
Inside the small museum, cemis and other Taíno artefacts are displayed, including a carved, pointed wooden tongue depressor used in ritual vomiting ceremonies. There is also a mural depicting a series of petroglyphs believed to have been created by the Taíno.
To see Taíno petroglyphs in situ, seek out La Piedra Escrita, a boulder in the middle of the Río Saliente that features the beautiful spirals and cartoonish faces of Taíno stone carvings.
Know before you go: The museum is on Route 144, south of Jayuya.
Guánica Lighthouse GUÁNICA
What? Now-abandoned tower from which invading US troops were first seen, leading to the Spanish-American War
During the late 19th century, the Spanish government in Puerto Rico built some 15 lighthouses to protect the island’s surrounding waters and the ships sailing in them. In 1898, one of these lighthouses, the Guánica, spotted American vessels heading towards the coast of Rincón.
Guánica Lighthouse at Punta Meseta, the entrance to Guánica Bay, stood 54m tall and could be seen from up to 15km away. It was built in the neoclassical style, with a red brick octagonal tower and a spiral staircase leading to the lantern room. At the north side of the building was the main entrance, while the storage room was at the south. The west side held two bedrooms and a bathroom, while the east side held a living room, an engineer’s room and the kitchen-dining room.
On 25 July 1898, about five years after the lighthouse became operational, keeper Robustiano Rivera spotted American vessels. He alerted the town of Guánica, whose citizens fled before the arrival of US troops and the beginning of the Spanish-American War, which raged till later that year.
In 1937, the structure began experiencing a decline, starting with an earthquake that damaged the lantern room floor, rendering it unsafe. The lights went out for good in 1950.
Today, the Guánica Lighthouse remains in ruins. However, some of its original features can still be observed, including a cistern and a well behind the structure.
Know before you go: The lighthouse is off the PR-333 road; there’s a small area for parking.
Capilla del Santo Cristo SAN JUAN
What? Cliff-top chapel renowned for its healing powers, founded on the site of a reputed divine intervention
Tucked away in the old walled city of San Juan, at the southern end of Calle del Cristo, is a tiny chapel on top of the ancient stone walls, one of the most beautiful and secluded monuments in the old capital. It was built in 1753, to celebrate a miracle. Since then, tens of thousands of faithful Puerto Ricans have come here to pray for miracle cures.
The story goes that, during the San Juan Bautista celebrations of 1753, Baltazar Montañez – a rider in a traditional horse race – lost control and plunged from the cliffs. Watching the drama unfold from a nearby balcony was the Spanish Secretary of Government, Don Mateo Pratts, who is said to have cried out, “Christ of Good Health, save him!” Miraculously, the young rider survived the fall.
Montañez built the small chapel at the spot where he fell, endowing it with an altar of silver and gold leaf, surrounded by beautiful oil paintings by a famous Puerto Rican artist. Over the following years believers have sought healing here, leaving tiny silver ornaments (milagros) representing ailing body parts.
Know before you go: The chapel, maintained by La Hermandad del Santo Cristo de la Salud, is open on Tuesdays and religious days.
Five more oddities around the region
1 Owia Salt Pond, St Vincent & the Grenadines
At the north end of St Vincent, near the small fishing town of Owia, lies a ‘pond’ formed when lava from the erupting Soufrière volcano met the sea and rapidly cooled, forming a small bowl. Waves regularly break over the rock edge, keeping the water level high and eroding the surrounding rock into fantastic shapes – an abstract sculpture garden. There are small cliffs to jump off and deep spots to dive into.
2 Abandoned Radar Base, Trinidad & Tobago
During the Cold War, the US built a radar station near Chaguaramas as part of its Early Warning System. Operation ceased in 1971, and today the empty structures retain a gloomy, movie-scene atmosphere in misty weather, though the site is a great place for stargazing on clear nights.
3 The Chase Vault, Barbados
The Chase Vault, in the cemetery of the Christ Church Parish, is a fairly unremarkable semi-sunken tomb. Built in 1724, it was purchased by the Chase family when Mary Ann Chase died, aged just two; she was placed in the vault in a lead coffin, alongside the vault’s single other occupant. A few years later, Mary Ann’s sister Dorcas was also buried in the tomb after starving herself. A month after that, the girls’ father, Thomas, died. But when the marble slab sealing the entrance was removed, the burial team discovered that the three coffins inside had been violently moved around.
The coffins were put back in their original places and Thomas was interred. But years later, when the vault was reopened, the coffins had moved again. This time, before resealing the vault, a layer of sand was placed on the floor to detect any footprints should the culprits return. After a couple of years, the vault was reopened to check on things – and the coffins had once again been moved. At this point, all of the coffins were removed and reburied elsewhere. The empty vault remains open to this day, filled only with ghost stories.
4 Anegada Conch Middens, BVI
At the East End of Anegada, a 3.5m-high mountain range of conch shells – carbon-dated to the 13th century and first appearing on charts in the 17th century – serves as a reminder that indigenous people once foraged these waters. A hole was cut in the tip of each shell to remove its mollusc inhabitant, before the empty shells were piled up here. One theory suggests that the fisherfolk did this to avoid deterring other living conch from the area. Tour guides now take curious visitors to gawk at the mounds, accessible only by boat. Fishermen continue to visit them to discard their daily catch, ensuring that, even as the shells at the bottom of the mounds dissolve, the ridges themselves will remain.
5 Cemetery of Morne-à-l’eau, Guadeloupe
The origin of the black -and-white tiling pattern decorating most of the tombs in this cemetery is unclear. Some say it represents yin and yang; others claim it’s a combination of the European colour of mourning (black) and the African one (white). The tombs are shaped like little houses, and many include areas for the living to visit their ancestors. Shrines with photographs, flowers, candles and other memorabilia are set up on shelves inside the structures, while melted candlewax covers the ground in many of the open areas. With tombs dating back to the mid-19th century, the cemetery has become much more inclusive over the years. Originally, only the wealthy landowners of Guadeloupe could afford to bury their dead here, but the site now hosts a wide range of Guadeloupeans.
Atlas Obscura is a treasure trove of hidden places, incredible histories, scientific marvels and global oddities, its mission to inspire wonder and curiosity about the incredible world we all share. The second edition of its bestselling book Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders is out now. www.atlasobscura.com