Photo: Sarah Hill

Americans don’t need passports to go to Vieques, and there are no warnings posted at the ferry dock in Fajardo, on Puerto Rico’s eastern end, to raise any red flags about your trip.

It is easy enough to interpret the little hardships of vacationing here—practically no fresh vegetables, ATMs, or bathrooms on the beaches—as the charming idiosyncrasies of any sun-soaked island paradise that has escaped major resort development.

But maybe the odd sign will catch your eye, such as the hand-lettered Spanish-language ones at the entrance to Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. One caption reads: “RETURN: That our land be restored to its original condition.” The illustration shows a family huddled in front of a landscape of eerie ponds, the gloomy sky blackened by a mushroom cloud. Between the painted family and the background is a sign within the sign; this one reads “NO TRESPASSING. Authorized Personnel Only. DANGER. EXPLOSIVES.”

As you buzz past these modest reminders of Vieques’s recent past on your way to enjoy a lazy day at a sugar sand beach—where you will meet nary another swimmer—you might stop to read another post: a bleached-out guide to things you ought to leave alone. In fading color photographs, unexploded ordnance doesn’t look much different from the truck parts, marine junk, and old rotting metal you might find around any derelict pier. But they are, of course, different: these artifacts will oblige you to realize that this crowd-free Caribbean landscape is so undeveloped because it used to be the bull’s-eye at the center of the U.S. Navy’s war games.

In 2003 the United States decommissioned the proving ground that squeezed Vieques’s 9,000 residents between underground warehouses and giant weapons targets on the two ends of this fifty-two-square-mile island. These features of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station took up most of Vieques’s 33,000 acres and all of its natural aquifers. In the sixty years of its use as a base and bombing range, Vieques was pummeled with more than 300,000 munitions, totaling more than half a million pounds of aerial drops a year. These were often live bombs, including everything the Navy wanted to test from the end of World War II until not that long ago: napalm, depleted uranium, and maybe, residents suspect, a little Agent Orange.

Starting in the 1970s, when the target practice began in earnest, the island was showered in the refuse of 500-pound bombs. Metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and copper, along with perchlorate and carcinogens such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) littered the place. In 1999 tests of goat hair showed levels of these metals at higher rates than on the Puerto Rican main island. Another study showed high metal loads in the tissue of fiddler crabs, while another examined leaded-up garden vegetables.

Vieques, in short, is a place of contrasts. In a sweeping view of its quiet coast, you can see both wintering kestrels and withering UXOs (shorthand for unexploded ordnance). Vieques’s natural beauty is unmatched; it boasts the brightest bioluminescent estuary in the world and the most ecologically diverse refuge in the Caribbean. But it is also a Superfund site.

The island is riddled with petty crime, high unemployment, low-birthweight babies, and the relics and wrecks of militarization and demilitarization. Residents pay a premium to live here, but they can hardly afford to do so. They shell out more for gas and groceries—challenges of daily life—but they lack a hospital to treat the cancers that some studies have shown occur at higher rates than elsewhere in Puerto Rico. For-sale signs swing listlessly from vacant, crumbling homes next to rentable mansions (complete with pools), often owned by absentee investors.

Vacationing depends on economic, political, and environmental conditions that make it possible to afford travel in the first place. In Vieques we can ignore these, no doubt as patrons of the recently opened and fully bunkered luxury W Resort do. But we can also explore the contradictions that enable us to travel here—and leave once we’ve had our fill of it.