Guam calls itself the island "where America's day begins." The island, located near the International Date Line in the Pacific, has been part of the United States since 1949. This was the end of Guam's long colonial history 73 years ago.
The Spaniards had written the first chapters; From 1565 to 1898 they determined the fortunes of the largest and southernmost island of the Micronesian Mariana Archipelago. Then the Americans took control of Guam. Initially, their involvement was limited to administrative issues; That changed in World War II when the Japanese annexed the island and only left after heavy fighting.
After the end of the war, the United States granted its patronage Guam the status of an external US territory with internal autonomy and expanded the military base. A third of the island – it is 48 kilometers long and almost 20 kilometers wide – now serves as an air force base.
But that didn't stop the Japanese and South Koreans from investing in Guam's hotel industry from the 1980s onwards. Tourism is now the most important source of income for the islanders after the military. With temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius, there is bathing weather all year round; there are long beaches, intact coral reefs - and a lot of history.
Guam is listed with 130 places in the "National Register of Historic Places of the USA"; they are mainly visited by Asians. A three-hour flight from Tokyo, the island is a popular travel destination for the Japanese. They make up three quarters of the one million tourists a year, followed by South Koreans, Chinese and Taiwanese.
And the Americans? They prefer Hawaii, which can be reached more quickly from the American west coast. The few Western vacationers on Guam are mostly Crusaders; once docked, they storm the island's tax-free shopping centers and seven golf courses.
Adelbert von Chamisso, who traveled to Guam in 1817, raved about the "green, fragrant island". There are still dense rainforests, but today Guam's tourism industry prefers to advertise dream beaches and diving spots, golf courses and cultural events, hotels and high life than the tropical interior of the island.
Because where the German naturalist Chamisso suspected the "garden of lust" at the time, the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) is now lurking everywhere. The nocturnal animals stay mostly in the branches, but are considered aggressive and bite without warning. Their venom, while incapable of killing humans, is painful.
Many travelers will shudder just to think that Guam has the world's highest density of snakes, with thousands of vipers per square kilometer. Accidentally introduced from Papua New Guinea in the 1940s, the snake species spread to the island for lack of predators, wiping out 10 out of 12 bird species native to Guam. Which triggered an ecological chain reaction, because soon the spiders on the island also multiplied explosively.
To address the problem, Guam has been fighting the snakes from the air for some time now, using poison bait attached to small parachutes designed to get tangled up in the treetops where the snakes live. It is hoped that this will keep the bait out of the reach of animals living on the bottom. The outcome of the experiment is open.
Colorful coral gardens and mysterious World War II wrecks - many of Guam's highlights lie deep, including the Blue Hole, an undersea cave off the west coast of the island. Its entrance, although 15 meters below the water surface, is clearly visible from the excursion boat.
Even more spectacular for divers is the view from the inside of the cave to the outside, because the sinkhole does not have a circular entrance like other famous blue holes, but a heart-shaped one. A silhouette whose black edges contrast more sharply with the light blue of the sea the further you dive.
The waters around Guam offer a depth of visibility of 30 meters, which means that divers with normal equipment almost reach their limit. The descent to a depth of 41 meters, where a hole in the Blue Hole wall allows the return to the open sea, is considered the ultimate adventure among divers. If you want to go down to the bottom of the Blue Hole at a depth of 91 meters, you need special pressure suits.
For 17 years, nothing could separate the lovers: since 1985, the couple had been snuggled together on the edge of a 125-meter-high cliff in northwest Guam. Until typhoon Pongsona swept across the island in 2002 and damaged the bronze-colored steel sculpture, which is almost eight meters high, so badly that it was dismantled.
The popularity of the couple - according to legend, a wealthy Spanish woman and a poor Chamorro boy who jumped off a cliff to their deaths together because the woman's parents rejected the romantic relationship - did not diminish. Two Lovers Point attracts 500,000 visitors annually.
Hardly anywhere on the island are more selfies than on the viewing terraces on the edge of the cliff - and in front of the sculpture of the lovers. Because since 2015 the work of the artist Eduardo Castrillo has been back on the pedestal. A happy ending made possible by a rich islander who, for the sake of his bride, had the sculpture taken from the junkyard and restored.
27 Pacific island regions host the Pacific Arts Festival every four years. Established in 1972, it aims to promote the self-confidence and solidarity of the indigenous people of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. In 2016 the event took place on Guam. It was the first international "performance show" of indigenous Chamorro culture since 1944, the year Guam fell back to the United States after three years of Japanese occupation.
At least 43 percent of the 177,000 islanders see themselves as descendants of the Chamorro, a Southeast Asian ethnic group that settled Guam and the Mariana Archipelago 4,000 years ago. In 2020 the Pacific Arts Festival was canceled due to the pandemic. The next host is Hawaii, where participants and guests can sway to Polynesian hula rhythms in June 2024.
"I'm embarrassed to come back alive"
This sentence made the Japanese Shoichi Yokoi world famous 50 years ago - and put Guam in the international headlines. Because it was in the jungle of the Pacific island where the imperial soldier had hid from the Americans for 27 years after the end of the war.
Yokoi, who lived in a burrow during the day and only left it at night to hunt, was not discovered until 1972. After his arrival in Japan, the then 57-year-old wanted to personally apologize to the Japanese Emperor for the "disgrace" of his capture, but he was not given an audience.
Guam is commemorating Yokoi, who briefly returned to the island in 1973 as a newlywed honeymooner, in a museum. "Yokoi's Cave" is even more popular, even if it is only a replica of the eight-square-meter shelter.
Bizarre, record-breaking, typical: You can find more parts of our regional geography series here.
This article was first published in August 2022.