- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

ISLA MONA, Puerto Rico — Turning eyes and shotguns toward a rustling bush on this uninhabited Caribbean island, the hunters eagerly await the day’s prey.

In a flash, a 4-foot iguana emerges.

“Darn iguanas,” growls the camouflaged Angel Luis Seda, lowering his weapon in disappointment. “They sound like goats.”

Set in some of the Caribbean’s roughest waters, Isla Mona offers rugged adventure for those who want to hunt, explore caves adorned with petroglyphs, snorkel a pristine coral reef, spot rare boobies, hunt for pirate treasure or investigate a lighthouse designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel.

For four months of the year, the 7-by-4-mile island between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic attracts hundreds of hunters from the U.S. Caribbean territory and mainland.

They can kill up to five goats a day and any number of pigs, which are rarely sighted.

In return, they help protect the island’s threatened rhinoceros iguana, or Cyclura cornuta stejnegeri.

“It’s a win-win situation,” says Robert Matos, director of natural reserves for Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources.

Biologists estimate the island is home to more than 2,000 iguanas, threatened by pigs, goats and feral cats brought by farmers in the 18th century.

The pigs devour iguana eggs. The cats prey on young lizards. The goats feast on plants the iguanas eat.

In 1999, scientists began catching iguana hatchlings and raising them until they’re capable of protecting themselves. About 40 adults have been released since then, says biologist Alberto Alvarez, who directs the project.

“This is hostile land,” says Mr. Seda, one of 75 hunters who came toward the end of the hunting season in March. It begins in December with a month devoted to hunting with bows and arrows.

Dubbed the “Galapagos of the Caribbean” for its remoteness and wildlife, the island boasts many birds, including red-footed boobies and falcons, more than 50 species of spiders and endangered hawksbill turtles.

Hunters come on a three-hour boat ride, made nauseating by choppy water and strong currents, to experience a mixture of heaven and hell.

Temperatures can soar to 110 degrees in winter, two deadly types of scorpions are indigenous, and dense thorn bushes make Mona hard to navigate.

A teenage Boy Scout died of dehydration in 2001 after getting lost. The same year, a hunter died after his friend mistakenly shot him.

Although Mr. Seda and companion Victor Padilla know the island well, they carry a Global Positioning System and, if separated, whistle out before shooting.

“It’s better to scare the animal away than to get shot,” says Leoneides Morina, 45, a shirtless hunter with hands bloody from skinning a goat.

The island’s wild beauty makes the challenges worthwhile.

Bleached bluffs buttress coral reefs that are a paradise for divers and snorkelers.

About 200 limestone caves await explorers, some with petroglyphs from Taino Indians who lived here before Ponce de Leon and his Spanish conquistadors arrived.

The caves, some large enough to hold a small cruise ship, once were used for mining guano.

Carts and rail tracks still litter some of the larger ones, remnants of concessions granted to companies from Spain, Germany and Puerto Rico in the late 19th century.

Isla Mona translates to “monkey island” in English, but there never were any monkeys here. It was named for a Taino chief called Amona.

Bands of pirates also stopped by, and legend has it that buried treasures abound.

The infamous Captain Kidd hid here in 1699 while England sent word it wanted him executed. Kidd should have stayed. He left for New York, where he was captured and shipped to England for hanging.

On the east coast, a cast-iron lighthouse in disrepair draws visitors because it was designed by Eiffel’s company, of Eiffel Tower fame, according to Ovidio Davila of Puerto Rico’s Culture Institute.

The island was last inhabited in the early 1940s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps sent hundreds of people to plant trees in a post-Depression-era program to create jobs.

Illegal Dominican migrants trying to reach mainland Puerto Rico sometimes stop here when they encounter rough seas or engine trouble. A graveyard of a dozen or so mangled boats on the west end of the island bears testimony to unsuccessful attempts.

Today, Isla Mona is a remote outpost, visited by biologists, hunters and tourists who must get permits from the Department of Natural Resources. The only accommodation is a $4-a-night campsite with dinner, often a hearty goat stew cooked with cilantro and served with rice and beans.

Hunters ship the rest of their booty to the main island for sale.

“You alleviate stress with nature,” says Mr. Padilla, a 32-year-old auto parts store manager.

“This is the life.”

Tourists are allowed to get to Isla Mona only by sea, which takes about three hours in usually choppy seas. A rocky airfield is used only for tiny government planes.

Chartering a small boat costs $115 to $135 round trip. Just four boats are registered to ferry passengers there. Call individual charter captains at 787/851-2185, 787/255-2031, 787/851-9259 or 787/833-1196. There’s one road on the island, but the only vehicles belong to park rangers and biologists.

Camping is the only option. Bring your own tent, sleeping bag, etc. and be aware that the two seaside campsites do not have bathrooms. Playa Sardinera, located in the western part, accommodates up to 75 people and is surrounded by cabins used by park rangers and biologists. On the east end, Playa de Pajaros can take up to 35 people. Cost: $4 a night. Permits must be obtained by calling the Department of Natural Resources in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 787/724-8774, 787/723-6435 or 787/724-2816.

There are no shops or restaurants, so be sure to carry enough food, water and ice.

Bring good hiking boots for some jagged terrain, bug spray to fend off mosquitoes, and long-sleeved shirts and pants to avoid contact with poisonous plants that cause rashes.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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