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.