"Don't let the calm fool you," the captain says. "The ocean here has teeth." Peering through the twilight mist at mirror-smooth water reflecting the dawn sky, I can't imagine what he means. But as we cross the mere 41 miles from Mayagüez on the west coast of Puerto Rico to what's been called the Galápagos of the Caribbean, the flat waters rise up. As on all great adventures to secret islands like Mona, I have to run a gauntlet -- this time the Mona Passage -- and teeth it has. The prickly, erratic ocean defeats many travelers attempting to discover the enchantment of Mona.
"Today we got lucky," remarks the captain as he drops me off at the park ranger station. He grins. "Maybe I'll see you again in a few days." My legs still reel with the sea, salt water dripping from my shirt. I'd been bumped and banged on the crossing, but the memory of it evaporates as a 4-foot Mona iguana slides from the tree line, sashays across the path and plops belly-down in the shade of the beach. The lizard closes its eyes, in its element and unafraid. These endemic creatures have been seen by storm-stranded sailors, Taino Indians, Dominican refugees, possibly Christopher Columbus -- and now me.
You have to bring your own water, food and accommodations to this uninhabited island. But Mona is one of the Caribbean's last, true untrammeled escapes, one that includes sleeping on the beach (if you have a permit) and cooking over an open flame. Only 100 people are allowed on the island at a time, as if 100 could ever get here at once.
The short switchback trail to the top of the island runs almost straight up a cliff face, past ancient mahogany, mimosa and ficus trees. Baseball-size hermit crabs and the big iguanas that rule this 13,000-acre island scurry through the underbrush. The humidity rises with each step to what feels like 200 percent, and I'm instantly dripping. At the meseta (plateau), the trail flattens and stretches out into shrubby trees, prickly pear cactuses and pincushion cactuses -- a tropical dry forest in a swell of colors. Every branch, twig and sprout carries a bloom. The air is alive. Tiny endemic orchids and more than a dozen other flowering species scent the air with perfume, subtle yet competitive, sending a wash of aroma on the humid breeze.
A miniature plumeria that grows only here amid this stunted forest produces an intensely sharp, sweet scent that coils around me as I walk. Soft, lilac-colored orchids bloom edge to edge across the tabletop meseta.
I stand for a moment and inhale, my eyes closed, to take in the piquant scene. Thinking of the words of the boat captain, I suddenly feel like I've been plucked from the sea and given time on Mona as a gift.
After we explore the meseta, my guide from Acampa, a company that specializes in eco-based adventures, takes me down the cliff into the island's past. We wander off on a slight path seemingly forged by a drunken snake. From our Sardinera Beach base camp, we wind our way to Cueva Negra. In the exquisite cool of one of the cave's large chambers, a pirate has scrawled his name and a date in charcoal on the wall -- it looks like "Francios 1787. " I wonder what kind of pirate would write in such a pretty and delicate hand. I know for sure that he had to stand in the exact place I stand, and I can picture the smoky candles and swarthy, sunburned face, even hear the jingle of doubloons in his money pocket.
But this stop is just a steppingstone back in time. My guide takes the lead, clearing the spider webs that criss- cross the path, and we climb up a cliff face to another cave. At the entrance, he shows me native rock art and a ceremonial pestle. The faces carved into the rock by the Taino Indians look like an alien and a monkey. The Taino Indians left the island littered with artifacts and ceremonial sites, signs of the sacred. This side of the island is riddled with caves featuring petroglyphs, rock art and also blissful, cool shade, relief from the tropical heat that simmers the island.
We exit into the dry forest in the early afternoon, the sounds of birds everywhere. Iguanas crash along the leafy forest floor, immune to its poisonous plants. My guide finds several endemic lizard-like anoles, the Mona blind snake and a rare Mona boa. It's as if I've been dropped off in a secret garden.
At camp later, the stars press down, and the serenade of coqui frogs fills the forest. I've arrived at Mona on the day of La Noche de San Juan Bautista (June 23), a Puerto Rican holiday celebrated with a purifi cation ceremony. Near midnight I stand at the water's edge, and as tradition dictates, I fall backward once, twice, three times, washing away the sins of the year. As I lift myself the third time, I feel an air of purity. On the Puerto Rican main- land, crowds will be cheering, but I stand shivering, quiet, looking at the profile of Mona against the heavens, wrapped in the sounds of the night.
Plan Your Trip: Isla Mona
Only 100 people at a time are allowed on this island off Puerto Rico