Effectively occupied by the US Navy until the 1970s, CULEBRA is an unapologetically raw Caribbean island that has resisted high-impact tourism and shrugged off attempt at large-scale development. There are no casinos, tour buses, mega-resorts or traffic lights, crime is virtually unknown and the beaches are simply staggering – Playa Flamenco is consistently voted one of the world’s most awe-inspiring stretches of sand, while the turtle-rich sapphire waters and shallow reefs offshore make diving and snorkelling a real treat.
The real charms of Culebra are its rugged coastline, wild beaches and warm, enticing waters – other than services and shops, there’s little to see in Dewey, the main settlement. The justly celebrated highlight is Playa Flamenco, but there are plenty of other empty and equally appealing stretches of sand, notably Playa Soní. Some of the most precious parts of the island are contained within the Reserva Natural Canal de Luis Peña and the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, but to really appreciate your surroundings, you need to get onto the water. Aim to explore at least one of the offshore islands by kayak or water taxi – Isla Culebrita has the most to offer.
But behind the calm veneer – and Culebrenses are undeniably chilled out – paradise has an edgier side. Though the US Navy was chased out in 1975, the spirit of activism remains strong, vividly expressed in the energetic campaigns to protect the local reef ecosystems and turtle populations, as well as resistance to looming development and attempts to limit beach access. Indeed, more and more land is sold for posh condos and tourism is booming, making parts of the island uncomfortably busy, especially in July. For now, though, it’s still easy to avoid the crowds and the island remains untainted by cruise ships – just make sure you bring plenty of bug spray, as the flies and mosquitoes can be voracious.
Little is known about the early inhabitants of Culebra, though evidence has been found of a prehistoric people known as the Cuevas (part of the Igneri culture), who settled here in around 640 AD. It wasn’t until Spanish adventurer Don Cayetano Escudero founded the village of San Ildefonso de Culebra in 1880 (in honour of the then Bishop of Toledo, Spain) that a formal Spanish presence was established. The name Culebra, meaning “snake”, was eventually applied to the whole island (although there are no snakes and its shape bears no resemblance to a serpent).
The colony was short-lived, as the US assumed control in 1898 and the US Navy took charge of the island five years later, promptly sealing off large areas for marine exercises and forcing the abandonment of San Ildefonso, or “Pueblo Viejo”. The majority of islanders were resettled on the other side of Ensenada Honda: leaving no doubt as to who was now in charge, the new town was named Dewey after Admiral George Dewey, a US Navy hero from the 1898 campaign. The island was dominated by the navy thereafter.
In 1970 the formal campaign to remove the US Navy began with a feisty coalition of locals known as the Culebra Committee, led by Mayor Ramón Feliciano, Rubén Berríos, the leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), and several US senators. Finally, in 1973, with the help of Governor Colón, a coalition of respected ex-governors, and US Senator Howard Baker, the US government agreed to withdraw the navy from Culebra – all navy activity ended in 1975.Read More
A brilliant white crescent of coral sand, lapped by glittering waters of turquoise and azure blue, Playa Flamenco (24hr; free) is fringed with the same low-lying scrub and palm trees that Columbus would have seen five hundred years ago. Staggeringly beautiful, it’s worth a day of swimming, lounging and simply soaking in the idyllic scenery. The beach can get busy at the weekends, but it’s wide enough to handle the crowds and at other times is remarkably tranquil. Check out the rusting Pershing tank half-buried in the sand at the northwestern end of the beach. Once used as target practice, it’s decorated with murals (there’s another tank just inland). At the far eastern end of the beach is the “Muellecito”, where an old pier has formed a sheltered pool popular with families.
Flamenco lies about 2.5km north of Dewey at the end of PR-251, with the large car park behind the sands home to a series of tempting kioscos selling drinks, snacks and more substantial meals from around 7am to 6–7pm every day; the best is number 6, Meson de Goyita (t787/642-1101), selling fresh fish, shark nuggets and garlic shrimp ($4–11). For information about camping here. To access beach hotels, turn right along the signposted dirt track just before the car park.
Don’t leave Culebra without spending some time on Isla Culebrita, the inviting cay off the east coast. Like Luis Peña, the 1.2-square-kilometre island is only accessible via water taxi or kayak. The main attraction here is the beach, but you can also hike up the 90-metre hill in the centre to the half-ruined Faro de Isla Culebrita. The Spanish lighthouse opened in 1886 and after a spell as a navy observation post, was closed in 1975.
The best beach on Culebra is actually on Culebrita: Playa Tortuga is a cove on the northern side of the island and one of the most picturesque arcs of milky white sand you’ll ever see, backed by the odd coconut palm and scrub. It’s often deserted and never crowded (though boats from Fajardo do come here, especially on weekends), and you’ll often spy stingrays and turtles playing in the water just offshore, the latter munching on seagrass beneath the surface. Nearby are the Jacuzzis, shallow pools of warm saltwater big enough to bathe in.
Reserva Natural Canal de Luis Peña
Reserva Natural Canal de Luis Peña
To escape the relative hustle of Flamenco, you can walk to the Reserva Natural Canal de Luis Peña on the western side of the Flamenco peninsula. The reserve was established in 1999 to protect the fragile reefs here. You are free to snorkel on your own, but take care: the slightest touch of hands, feet or fins can damage the coral.
The inviting cays and reefs off Culebra are ideal for diving, snorkelling and swimming, but remember to check the latest tide and weather reports before setting out – currents, waves and riptides offshore can be treacherous and people drown here every year. One of the best sites is Ensenada Dakity (Dakity Bay), a sparkling stretch of cobalt blue water at the mouth of the Ensenada Honda, accessible only by boat.
With no freshwater runoff, the pellucid waters off Culebra offer some of the best diving in the Caribbean and are certainly its best-kept secret. With up to fifty sites to choose from, including a plethora of shallow locations perfect for beginners and plenty of more challenging dives, you won’t get bored. Everywhere you’ll see forests of fan coral, sponges, sea urchins and great clouds of tropical fish; turtles, barracuda, stingray and puffer fish are also common.
Culebra Divers, just across from Dewey’s ferry terminal at c/Pedro Marquez 14 (t 787/742-0803, wwww.culebradivers.com) offers daily dive trips for a maximum of six divers. In the afternoons they offer snorkelling trips. You can rent snorkelling equipment for $15 per day.
Friendly competition is supplied by Aquatic Adventures (t787/209-3494, wwww.diveculebra.com), operated by Captain Taz Hamrick, with morning and afternoon dive trips ($100 two tanks), as well as snorkelling excursions for $45.
Contact local expert Chris Goldmark at Culebra Fly Fishing (t609/827-4536, wwww.culebraflyfishing.com) for boat and off-beach fly fishing for bonefish, permit and tarpon (equipment included). He charges $60 per hour on the boat, $50 for the beach and $400 for a full day.