Lying just 12km off the east coast of Puerto Rico, VIEQUES is blessed with great sweeps of savagely beautiful beaches and the world’s brightest and healthiest bioluminescent bay (or just “bio bay”). Most of Vieques was occupied and sealed off by the US Navy in 1941 and by the time the military was forced out sixty years later, much of the coastline had reverted to a wild, natural state. Despite a steady stream of new arrivals from the US mainland, Vieques has been spared large-scale resort and condo development – for now.
Vieques is undoubtedly one of the highlights of Puerto Rico, but as with many seemingly idyllic islands, life here has a darker side. Although the public beaches are clean and perfectly safe, much of the island remains contaminated and off-limits, and while the small scale of tourism is appealing for outsiders, it has had little impact on the local economy, the poorest in Puerto Rico. Petty crime is a problem and unemployment regularly hits sixty percent. You’ll rarely see any expression of these frustrations on the streets, however: Viequenses are a friendly, easy-going bunch who welcome visitors.
Most travellers arrive at Isabel Segunda (or just Isabel II), the workaday capital of the island, with its spread of modest sights and shops guarded by the old Spanish fortress, Museo Fortín Conde de Mirasol, now an absorbing history museum. From here the windswept north coast is sprinkled with a series of rougher, thinner beaches, broken up by the Rompeolas (Mosquito Pier), a World War II folly that juts into the sea like a road to nowhere. Esperanza, on the south coast, is more geared up for tourists, with its lazy malecón lined with restaurants and bars, and excellent snorkelling just offshore. Nearby, the sands at Sun Bay, Media Luna and Playa Navío offer an enticing introduction to the island’s southern coastline, while more beaches lie within the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.
Vieques has been inhabited by humans for at least three thousand years, colonized by a series of Arawak migrations much as Puerto Rico itself. “Vieques” comes from a Spanish transliteration of bieques or Bieké in the Taíno language, meaning “small island”. Initially ignored by the Spanish, the Taíno of Bieké, led by cacique Cacimar, aided the rebels on the main island in 1511. Cacimar was killed on Puerto Rico and in the aftermath a punitive Spanish force was sent to Vieques, where his brother and successor Yaureibo was also killed along with most of his warriors. The Taíno villages on Vieques were razed and the island virtually abandoned. For much of the subsequent three hundred years the island remained the domain of fugitives and pirates such as Captain Kidd.
The Spanish established their first formal outpost on Vieques in 1811, but the governor was ineffectual and order was eventually restored by an enterprising Frenchman, Don Teófilo Le Guillou. A former plantation owner from Haiti, he arrived on Vieques in 1823 and persuaded the governor in Puerto Rico to allow him complete authority in return for bringing the island under control. By 1828 he had achieved his aim and introduced sugar cane to the island, retaining the position of military and political governor until his death in 1843. Sugar plantations, manned mostly by slaves from Tortola, soon dominated the island’s economy and the forests that had once covered the island were gradually cleared.
In 1941, with war looming, the US Navy essentially occupied Vieques, a cataclysmic event that led to three-quarters of the island being sealed off. Thousands of locals emigrated to St Croix and many were resettled, many forcibly with minimal notice, on just over three square kilometres of razed sugar-cane fields in the centre of Vieques: 89 percent of the population was squeezed into just 27 percent of the land.
Formal resistance began in the 1970s, when the Vieques Fishermen’s Association successfully sued the navy for accidentally destroying fish traps and protested against navy war games off Playa de la Chiva. In May 1979, Puerto Rican activist Ángel Rodríguez Cristóbal – who was supporting the fishermen – was arrested along with twenty other protestors and was murdered in his prison cell in Florida later that year, a case that remains unsolved.
The navy clung onto Vieques throughout the 1990s, the end coming only after the Navy–Vieques protests triggered by the 1999 death of David Sanes, a local employed by the navy as a security guard. Sanes was accidentally killed by two bombs dropped by a US jet during target practice. After a prolonged campaign of civil disobedience, the navy withdrew from the island in 2003.