Away from the green flash sunsets and deserted beaches, the cracked conch and the reggae, the Caribbean conceals its own fearsome hazards, lurking in wait for the unsuspecting visitor. The best defense is to be prepared.
Of course, this sub-tropical region plays host to a typical roster of stinging, biting critters, but these threats wear their heart on their sleeve, or scales. The Fer de Lance snake of St. Lucia’s rainforest and the French islands can cause paralysis with its bite, the Brown Recluse spider of the Bahamas and Jamaica leaves a wound which can take over a year to heal, and anyone who’s inadvertently stepped on a giant Caribbean centipede will not forget the searing pain that followed.
However, no one ever looked at any of the above without instantly recognizing the cold eyes of a silent assassin. What, though, of those dangers which look harmless?
The cruelest must be the Manchineel Tree, also known as the Beach Apple. Perhaps its other nickname explains why the Guinness Book of Records lists it as the world’s most dangerous tree – islanders often refer to it as the Death Apple. So toxic that trees are frequently painted around the trunk or identified with a warning sign, Manchineel trees grow right where they can prey on the unsuspecting tourist: on the beach.
Stand under the tree in rain and the water running off the leaves will burn the skin, leaving a painful rash. Take even a solitary bite of the initially sweet fruit which the tree drops in abundance, and you could find your mouth and throat on fire, with the pain lasting for hours. The milky sap from the tree is extremely toxic and can cause blindness; even smoke from burning the wood can damage the eyes. This is the tree that should have grown in the Garden of Eden, as a bite from this forbidden fruit would have been the perfect “told you so.”
The Caribbean’s other hazardous Trojan Horse is ciguatera, a toxin contained in many of the most popular fish species served up in the region’s restaurants and fish frys, from Red Snapper to Grouper. Ciguatera is far more insidious than simple food poisoning – it is impossible to tell whether the fish is affected, whereas a spoiled fish will have a distinctive odor and color. Symptoms start with tingling around the mouth and in the hands and feet, with subsequent nausea and vomiting. Even months later, the toxin can cause sufferers to experience bizarre symptoms such as feeling cold objects as hot and vice versa, and victims will be unable or unwilling to eat shellfish or fish again.
Ciguatera comes from coral reefs and is ingested by fish that feed on the algae, gradually accumulating in larger fish up the food chain. The safest bet is to eat as locals do – most fishermen will know which reefs to avoid and generally steer clear of larger predators such as king fish, barracuda, large grouper and dogfish. Tuna, on the other hand, are not affected, or wahoo.