While the modern city of Fajardo has all the charm of a giant shopping mall, the real Caribbean starts in earnest just offshore. La Cordillera is a chain of around ten uninhabited, reef-encrusted white sand cays, paradise for anyone interested in snorkelling, diving or lazing on the beach. Turtles nest here each year and the sprawling coral reefs are home to a variety of marine life. Many of the islands are protected within the Reserva Natural La Cordillera, managed by the DRNA.
To reach the islands you’ll need a boat: the easiest way to get one is to find or call Captain Domingo “Mingo” Nieves (t787/383-6509) at the Las Croabas pier. He’ll take you to Icacos or Palominitos for $100 (maximum 6 people) and pick you up anytime. For $30 per person (minimum 4 people) he’ll take you snorkelling off Palominitos for a couple of hours. If you’re lucky enough to be a guest at the El Conquistador Resort, you’ll get ferried over to Isla Palominos for free and failing that, numerous boats operating out of Villa Marina and Puerto del Rey visit the islands every day.
Cayo Icacos (163 acres) is the biggest island in the chain, coated in a thick layer of scrubby bush, seagrape and coconut palms, and fringed by incredibly seductive beaches of floury white sand and vivid, turquoise waters. Being relatively close to shore (though still 7km from Villa Marina), it’s a particular favourite of boat operators, which means the best beach areas (on the calmer, leeward side) can get crowded on weekends, but at other times it’s easy to find a secluded spot. The ocean side of the island is rough and rocky, while the reefs between Icacos and the rock known as “Cucaracha” have the best snorkelling.
From here, smaller islets stretch east towards Culebra: Cayo Ratones, Cayo Lobos and, further out, Cayo Diablo (30–40min by boat), are popular dive and snorkel sites (see The islands), and it’s rare to go ashore. Five-acre Lobos is 2.7km east of Icacos and actually a private island, though it’s permitted to dive or snorkel off its reef. A posh hotel was built here in the early 1960s, but went bankrupt soon after and now serves as a luxury vacation home for the owners.
To the south is the larger, rockier Isla Palominos (4.8km offshore and 15min by boat). Most of the island is leased by the El Conquistador Resort and officially off-limits to everyone else, though people do come here to snorkel off the northern shore and dine in the restaurant. Resort guests get whisked across in minutes to enjoy the lavish facilities on the 104-acre island, which include swimming, snorkelling, diving, windsurfing and horse riding. It also has a bar, a café and plenty of loungers on the smallish but pristine beach. Isla Palominitos covers just one acre, 460m off the southern tip of Isla Palominos, and surrounded by a reef perfect for snorkelling. Though it’s tiny, it also has wide, sugary-sand beaches – a real desert island.
Diving La Cordillera
Diving La Cordillera
Join any dive trip from Fajardo and you’ll almost certainly be heading for La Cordillera. Unless conditions are perfect, experienced divers may be disappointed with the coral and marine life on display, much reduced in the last twenty years or so – hardcore divers should head to Cayo Diablo (or Culebra). For casual or beginner divers, it’s worth a look and it’s not overly expensive.
La Casa del Mar Dive Center
(t787/860-3483, whttp://www.scubapuertorico.net) inside El Conquistador Resort is open to non-guests and offers two-tank dives for $99 ($69 for one tank). Trips to Culebra start at $125 for two tanks, while the Discover Scuba programme for beginners is $139. They also run daily snorkelling trips to Lobos ($60) and Culebra ($95), and offer a popular kids’ programme (for 8- to 9-year-olds) known as Bubblemakers – call for details.
Sea Ventures Dive Center
(t787/863-3483, whttp://www.divepuertorico.com) at Puerto del Rey is the other main operator in the area, charging $119 for two-tank dives with equipment and $109 if you bring your own ($55–65 for one tank). Non-certified beginners can dive for $150.
Where you end up diving is largely in the hands of your divemaster and the weather/sea conditions on the day – heavy rain in El Yunque can decrease visibility dramatically, as heavily silted rivers flow into the sea near here. Beginners usually end up at Pyramid (9m), a coral rise teeming with small fish and reef lobsters, but often disappointing for seasoned divers. Cayo Lobos has three main sites, with Lobos itself (up to 10m) having the greatest variety of fish: yellowtail snapper, blue tang, the ubiquitous sergeant major and sometimes dolphins and stingrays. Isla Palominos has five main dive sites, with Sandslide (4.5–21m) one of the most popular, a gentle sandy slope that leads to a large reef crawling with enormous lobsters and all sorts of coral. You might also see dolphins, turtles, barracudas, small tuna and octopus here. Finally, Cayo Diablo (13–15m) has several sites and some of the best diving on the east coast, though swells and high winds often prevent visits. The island is surrounded by brilliant hard and soft corals, schools of barracuda and occasional rays – the water is extremely clear.