Planet Earth is a brilliantly peculiar place – which is celebrated in Atlas Obscura, a new book of global oddities. We thumbed through this curious compendium and discovered that even the Caribbean region has plenty of spectacularly strange and intriguing sites. Here are five of our favourites…
Prison Cell of Ludger Sylbaris, St Pierre, Martinique
What? The survivor amid the ashes
A glance at the windowless stone cell (pictured above) that Ludger Sylbaris once occupied may elicit pity for the man, until you learn that this building saved his life.
On 7 May 1902, the town troublemaker ended up in solitary confinement after being arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. The next day, Mount Pelée, the volcano just north of St Pierre, erupted, sending a cloud of superheated gas and dust racing toward the city. Within a minute, St Pierre was levelled. Thirty thousand people burned to death instantly. There were just three survivors: a shoemaker who lived at the edge of town, a girl who escaped on a boat and Ludger Sylbaris.
Trapped in his cell, Sylbaris couldn’t fully escape the intense heat as the ash came flying in through the tiny slot in the door. Suffering from burns and desperate to cool down, Sylbaris urinated on his clothes and stuffed them into the slot. Four days later, rescuers freed him from his prison.
Having survived the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century, Sylbaris became a celebrity, even touring the world with Barnum & Bailey’s circus. Posters billed him as “the only living object that survived in the ‘Silent City of Death’ ”. St Pierre, once the cultural capital of Martinique, is now home to fewer than 5,000 people.
Take me there: Fly to Martinique Aimé Césaire International Airport in Le Lamentin. St Pierre is a 45-minute drive from the airport.
Monkey Island, Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico
What? The primate paradise
Half a mile off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico is Cayo Santiago, an island teeming with free-ranging Rhesus monkeys. Researchers from Harvard, Yale and the University of Puerto Rico’s Caribbean Primate Research Center visit the island to study the monkeys’ behaviour, development, communication and physiology.
The simian population numbers around 800. All monkeys on the island are descendants of the 409 monkeys imported from India in 1938 to establish the facility.
Cayo Santiago has no human inhabitants. Visitors are not permitted, and with good reason: Rhesus monkeys may carry Herpes B, a virus that can be fatal to humans. Kayak trips to Monkey Island leave from Punta Santiago. You’ll be required to stay 9m from the island, which is close enough to spot monkeys running wild.
Take me there: Fly to San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Punta Santiago is a one-hour drive.
Pearls Airport, Grenville, St Andrew Parish, Grenada
What? The crumbling Cold War reminder
Two derelict Antonov planes, Soviet skeletons once gifted to Cuba, lie on the grass at the former Pearls Airport. Scavenged and sun-bleached, they are a rare visual reminder of Cuba’s presence in Grenada from 1979 to 1983.
Pearls Airport, the island’s first airstrip, was replaced by Maurice Bishop International Airport in 1984. The construction of the newer airport was a catalyst for the US invasion of Grenada: Ronald Reagan cited its extra-long, military-aircraft-friendly runway as evidence that Cuba and the USSR planned to fly in a stockpile of weapons and endanger American citizens. It is now understood that the airport was built solely for civilian aircraft.
Pearls Airport and its two Soviet planes were abandoned following the US invasion in 1983. The single-engine biplane and twin-engine turboprop, their fuselages ransacked and rusting, have sat beside each other in a field ever since, sniffed by the occasional goat or cow.
Though no longer used by planes, the airstrip still sees regular action: it has become an official drag-racing spot for the Grenada Motor Club. The airport is a 10-minute drive from the town of Grenville.
Take me there: Fly to Grenada’s Maurice Bishop International Airport. Grenville is around a one-hour drive.
Cottle Church, Charlestown, St Kitts & Nevis
What? The game-changing chapel
In 1824, Cottle Church became the first racially integrated place of worship in the Caribbean. John Cottle, a plantation owner and the former president of Nevis, established the church so that his family and slaves could worship together. At the time, black people were banned from attending Anglican services.
For his defiance of the law, Cottle is generally regarded as a kind and lenient figure. His lenience, however, did not extend to his construction methods: black slaves built the church.
Take me there: The ruins are hidden in the woods north of Charlestown. Look for the small sign on the main road, just south of Newcastle Airport, and follow the dirt track.
Moonhole, Bequia, St Vincent & the Grenadines
What? The strange, scavenged settlement
Named for the stone arch through which you can see the moon set twice a year, Moonhole is a community of 19 homes made from stones and scavenged materials. The beachfront houses, built on the small island of Bequia during the 1960s, are open to the elements: there are no doors to lock and many of the walls have windowless archways. Some of the homes are now available to rent and come complete with solar-powered refrigerators, hot water and bars made from whale ribs.
Take me there: Fly to St Vincent’s ET Joshua Airport. Bequia is a 25-minute ferry ride from Kingstown, St Vincent. Moonhole is a 20-minute taxi ride from the dock.
Want to know more?
Atlas Obscura is the definitive guide to the world’s wondrous, if slightly odd, places, put together by a community of curious travellers. The new Atlas Obscura book (Workman Publishing, US$35) compiles 600 of these weird and wonderful gems. There is also a fascinating website: www.atlasobscura.com. And if you know of a curious place that’s not already in the Atlas, let the team know!