The tiny Caribbean island of Anguilla, a next-door neighbor to St. Maarten and St. Barth, is home to 32 pure and perfect white sand beaches - arguably some of the best in the world. In fact, Shoal Bay Beach has been named Best Beach in the World on more than one occasion. Those are the reasons most people visit Anguilla that and the authentic Anguillan personality which is uninterrupted by foreign-owned fast food chains and supersized resorts.
But if you need more than those 32 sandy reasons to visit Anguilla, here's the latest: A big giant rat.
Don't get freaked out. It has long been dead, but it is a focal point of the new Anguilla Fountain National Park, the first in a series of soon-to-be developed sites that focus on the archeological and natural history of this charming island nation.
Thousands of years before Europeans colonized and snowbirding Americans discovered Anguilla's beautiful beaches, the native people of the Eastern Caribbean, known as Arawaks, came to Anguilla to worship at a magnificent water source in an underground cave. Located on the northeast side of the island not far from Shoal Bay East, the 60-foot deep cave is all but hidden by Pitch Apple and Fig Trees, both native to the island. Archeologists tell us that trees have always grown on that site and probably hid it from view of the Arawaks as well, so no one really knows how they found this tiny opening.
But modern explorers rappelled to the bottom and were delighted not only to discover a source of fresh water, but also a number of petroglyphs and statues indicating that more than 4,000 years ago, people from all over the Caribbean came to Anguilla to drink the water and worship in this cave.
The Arawak believed that all of mankind originated from this site, and another smaller cave on Anguilla. Fountain Cave is the oldest known and longest used ceremonial site in the Caribbean, making it an unmatched site for those interested in the cultural heritage of the Caribbean natives.
Today, the cave is covered by a sturdy iron grate that prevents just anyone from spelunking here, but there are indeed other spelunking sites on Anguilla and the surrounding islands.
But even before the Arawak explored Anguilla, there lived on this island a creature that has yet to be documented as living anywhere else on the planet. Its scientific name is Amblyrhiza, but it's basically a big rat. Seriously big like 300 pounds or the size of a small black bear.
Paleontologists first learned about the critter as far back as the 1860s. You probably aren't interested in all of the details, but a bunch of dirt from caves in Anguilla was shipped to Philadelphia as a possible source of phosphate. Some unusual bones were discovered in the shipment, so the great names of paleontology of the time hurried off to see what was living in those caves.
Fast forward to 1979 when another discovery of bones in the bottom of a cave confirmed the existence of the big rat. Unfortunately, at the time, Anguilla did not have the resources to properly preserve the bones and exhibit them to people who are interested in looking at the bones of super-sized rats. So the bones lived for several years at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The big giant rat came home to Anguilla in July 2015 with the dedication of Fountain National Park, which coincided with a meeting of the International Congress for Caribbean Archeology.
The visitor's center tells the story of the rat and showcases some of the bones. A trail also leads visitors about a half-mile to the Fountain Cave, with numerous interpretive signs explaining the flora and fauna of Anguilla. Plans are to expand the trail and include additional huts with other exhibits on the natural history of Anguilla.
At slightly less than five acres, Fountain National Park could fit into the parking lot of places like Yellowstone or Yosemite in the U.S. But you must remember that the entire island of Anguilla is only about 17 miles long and 3 miles wide. The population is a little more than 15,000 people and they are all quite proud of their new park, their cool cave and really big rat.
Culinary travel and culinary tours are growing in popularity. How can a travel insurance plan provide protection for your foodie voyages?
A Midwest farm girl at heart, Diana Lambdin Meyer caught the roaming bug early in life. Diana married well - to a photographer who also has the travel bug and whose work in still and video complements her words. Now based in the Kansas City area, Diana is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers who makes a full-time living on the road and at the keyboard. Read about Diana's adventures on her blog, Mojotraveler or follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.
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