The offshore islands of Vieques and Culebra are in many ways the most alluring parts of Puerto Rico. If you’re yearning for laidback, tropical islands and dreamy landscapes of empty, palm-fringed beaches, this is where to find them. The US Navy occupied both islands for over half of the twentieth century and as a consequence they have avoided the rampant development endemic to much of the region. Today you’ll find some of the most unspoiled beaches in the Caribbean and a chilled-out mix of locals and Americanos running a simple but sophisticated infrastructure of guesthouses and restaurants. Both islands are surrounded by vivid coral and tropical fish, with Culebra in particular a haven for sea turtles.
High season is between November and May, but Vieques goes into semi-hibernation over the summer, while Culebra sees a second boom in domestic tourists – rental cars and hotels can be booked solid in July.
Top image © nadia block/Shutterstock
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tours of the bay run all year, but moonlight has a huge impact on bioluminescence – it’s crucial to avoid full moon cycles, when it’s impossible to appreciate the effect. Though most operators don’t run tours when the moon is full, they tend to play down its impact. Another problem is jellyfish, which collect in the bay and sometimes sting hapless swimmers. Again, tour operators are reluctant to make too much of this, though to be fair, the stings are rarely serious, affect only a handful of visitors and are easily treated with vinegar spray.
Conservation-minded Island Adventures (t787/741-0720, wwww.biobay.com) is the best operator and has a useful moon calendar on its website. Tours begin at their office, west of Esperanza on PR-996 (near Inn on the Blue Horizon), with an informative talk, followed by a rickety bus ride to the waterside. From here one of their expert guides takes a boat around the bay (around 1hr), stopping for at least twenty minutes for a swim and pointing out all the major stars and planets along the way, with plenty of local history and botany thrown in. They have a café (daily 5.30–11pm) at the office serving Puerto Rican and Mexican food and plenty of parking.
Abe’s Snorkelling Tours (t787/741-2134, wwww.abessnorkeling.com) in Esperanza organizes daily kayak trips to the bay at 2pm, paddling through the mangroves for just over an hour, followed by snorkelling and a beach visit, before returning to the bio bay after dark ($100). They also do night trips around the bay only (with swimming; 1hr 30min; $30). Blue Caribe Kayaks (t 787/741-2522), at c/Flamboyán 149 in Esperanza, also organizes kayaking trips for $30 per person. Vieques Adventures (t787/692-9162, wwww.viequesadventures.com) offers unique tours in their clear polycarbonate canoes for $50.
If you want to ride horses on Vieques contact the SeaGate Hotel (see p.000), which can arrange a two-hour jaunt around the island ($65/person) through local expert Penny Miller. Call the hotel (787/741-4661) or Penny directly (787/667-2805) a few days in advance.
Vieques isn’t as rewarding as Culebra when it comes to diving, but there are plenty of worthy options offshore, particularly around Rompeolas (Mosquito Pier), the headland near Playa El Gallito (Gringo Beach) and in the shallow lagoons on the south coast (perfect for beginners).
Black Beard Sports (Mon–Fri 8am–5pm, Sat 8am–4pm, Sun 10am–3pm.; 787/741-1892, www.blackbeardsports.com), at c/Muñoz Rivera 101 in Isabel II, runs night dives ($100) or two-tank day dives for $120 and half-day “discover scuba” PADI courses for $150. They also rent snorkelling gear for $15 per day. Nan-Sea Charters (787/741-2390, www.nanseacharters.com) offers half-day two-tank dives for $120 (maximum six people), one-tank beach dives for $60 and 2hr snorkelling trips from $60.
The waters around Vieques are rich in tarpon, bonefish, permit and snook, with marlin, barracuda, kingfish and amberjack also common. Caribbean Fly Fishing (787/741-1337, www.caribbeanflyfishingco.com) is managed by fishing veteran Captain Franco González. He charges $350 for a half-day excursion and $550 for a full day.
Blue Caribe Kayaks at c/Flamboyán 149 in Esperanza (787/741-2522, www.bluecaribekayaks.com), rents kayaks for $15 per hour or $45 for 4hr – perfect for the cays and mangroves just offshore. Garry Lowe at Vieques Adventures (787/692-9162, www.viequesadventures.com) rents top-of-the-line kayaks for $75 per day and will drop you off at the best locations – he also leads guided fishing trips by kayak for $150 per half-day. Fun Brothers, at the tiki hut in the car park at the eastern end of the Esperanza malecón (daily 7am–5pm; 787/435-9372, www.funbrothers-vieques.com) rents kayaks for $35 (9.30am–5pm) or $45 for 24hr.
Kris and Barbara Dynneson run Marauder Sailing Charters (787/435-4858, www.viequessailing.com) with the 10-metre yacht Marauder, charging $100 per person for day-trips (2 to 6 people only; 9.30am–3pm; includes visits to two offshore reefs, snorkel gear and gourmet lunch). Captain Bill Barton sails the 9-metre Willo out of Isabel II (787/508-7245, email@example.com), offering half-day cruises ($50 per person) and all-day excursions ($110 per person, minimum 4 people), which include snorkelling, a beach visit and lunch. Fun Brothers (see above), rents jet skis for $100 for one hour or $60 for thirty minutes.
Abe’s Snorkelling Tours (787/741-2134, www.abessnorkeling.com) organizes two-hour trips (by kayak) to Cayo Afuera off Esperanza ($35) and two-hour excursions off Mosquito Pier ($30) for beginners. Blue Caribe Kayaks (see above) also organizes short snorkelling trips from around $35. Fun Brothers (see above), rents snorkels for $10 per day and runs tours for $35.
One of the world’s most enchanting natural wonders, La Reserva Natural de La Bahía Bioluminiscente at Puerto Mosquito is definitely the richest example of a bioluminescent bay. Boats leave glowing trails in the darkness, while swimmers are engulfed by luminous clouds, the water spilling off their hands like glittering fireflies – it’s like something out of a fantasy movie.
The effect is produced by millions of harmless microscopic dinoflagellates, most commonly a protozoa known as pyrodinium bahamense. These release a chemical called luciferin when disturbed, which reacts with oxygen to create light. Experts think that this is a defence mechanism (the glow drawing bigger predators that will eat the creatures feeding on the protozoa) or a way to attract food. Dinoflagellates are found all over the tropics, but Puerto Mosquito has a particularly intense concentration: it’s shallow, has a narrow mouth that acts like a valve, the salinity is perfect (with no freshwater source or human contamination), and the mangroves provide a crucial nutrient boost. Though you can visit the bay on your own, it’s much wiser to use one of the local tour operators, at least at first, to get a thorough introduction to the site.
Surprisingly, most of the land around the bay is private and the main threat for now is artificial lighting, which limits the bioluminescent effect: the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust is leading the campaign to reduce public and private light sources nearby.
Completed in 1855 and named after the governor of Puerto Rico at the time (the Count of Mirasol), the Museo Fortín Conde de Mirasol (free, donations suggested; t787/741-1717) served as a barracks and prison before ending up as a beautifully restored museum, surrounded by gardens and battlements offering distant views of the cloud-topped peaks of El Yunque.
Although the collection inside is fairly modest, displays are enhanced by original wooden floors, exposed brick walls and timbered ceilings. Upstairs you’ll find local artwork and artefacts from the prehistoric and Taíno periods: ceramics and stone tools, the esoteric cemí and striking jade amulets. Other exhibits include historic photos of the town, local art, old Spanish weapons and coins and an explanation of the fort’s restoration. From the plaza take PR-989 up the hill to get to the fort – you can park on site.