Vieques and Culebra
The Sleepy, Low-Cost Sanctuaries of Puerto Rico where bombardment means bargains
By Andrew D. Blechman
Frommer's Budget Travel
When I tell friends that I'm visiting Vieques, I'm usually met with blank stares—or, more recently, occasional concern about the island's reputation as a Navy bombing target. Hopefully, you'll be met with similar responses if you plan a trip there, because it's precisely this lack of general awareness about this little gem of an island that has kept it so darn cheap.
Although Vieques is located just six miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, its downy soft beaches, lush hills, and colorful coral reefs have been kept a near-secret by adventurous and savvy budget travelers. Unlike so many other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico included, Vieques and its sister island, Culebra, are packed with budget lodgings where you can easily find a room for $85 or less a night, and eat a filling dinner of freshly caught fish for less than $12 per person.
Beyond the delight in finding so many bargains, the other joys of Vieques and Culebra include their off-the-beaten-path authenticity. Part of their charm is what you won't find: traffic lights, fast-food restaurants, T-shirt shops, discos, or cruise ships anchored at port. You will find beautiful beaches so empty you may have them to yourself, dollar beers at outdoor bars, farm animals sleeping in the streets, and wild ponies running along the shore. If you're looking to chill out with a good book on a deserted beach and spend quiet evenings strolling along the shore, then Vieques and Culebra are for you.
How has Vieques remained so affordable and undeveloped? Perhaps it's the island's unique history as a favorite naval proving ground since WWII. The island's roughly 15,000 inhabitants have spent the last six decades sandwiched in the middle of the island between a bombing range and a munitions storage depot. For those concerned about the bombing, worry not. The Navy has suspended the use of live ammunition, and the chance of a bomb being dropped anywhere near you is about as remote as a shark attack in your hotel shower.
In recent years, the bombing range has become a political hot potato, with many islanders demanding an end to the military's presence. The Navy recently gave back the western third of the island (site of the munitions depot), and under pressure from an anti-bombing local plebiscite, is likely to suspend operations.
If the Navy moves out entirely, the way of life could change dramatically on Vieques, which is why it's probably best to run, not walk, if you're looking for a bargain. Although no one knows for sure, it is very possible that the vacated land could be developed with luxury hotels. Certainly there will be a lot of interest in commercializing the island's pristine beaches, which have been closed to development for six decades. For now, there's no hotel with more than 16 rooms. But that is already beginning to change. There are plans for a five-star luxury resort to open sometime in later this decade, and American Eagle expects to start servicing the island with daily flights—that means bigger airplanes, more marketing, and more visitors. For better or worse, Vieques seems poised to pop out of its time warp and onto the big-time travel scene.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
The populated middle section of the island can be split into two areas: the main town of Isabella Segunda, on the northern coast where the ferry docks, and the sleepy fishing village of Esperanza, on the southern coast. Bargain hotel rooms for as little as $50 can be found just about anywhere you go. But don't expect room service or even amenities like cable TV—Vieques is more funky than fancy. You're more likely to wake up to a rooster outside your window than to a clock radio on the nightstand. What you can expect are simple, clean rooms from which to launch your daily activities around the island. You'll probably want to rent a car to get around. Rentals are about $45 per day, and there are plenty to choose from. Check out www.vieques-island.com for a full listing.
ROOMS, MEALS, & THINGS TO DO IN ESPERANZA
Many travelers gravitate to the strand of mini-hotels and restaurants along the palm-lined water's edge in the town of Esperanza. With its breezy outdoor bars, picturesque fishing boats bobbing in the bay, and killer sunsets, it's not hard to understand why. There's no shortage of bargain lodgings either. The popular hangout Bananas (787/741-8700) has attractive wood-paneled doubles for as little as $45 a night. There's no air-conditioning, but ceiling fans ensure the sea breeze cools you off. For $60-$70 you get a big screened-in porch and cozy sitting room. You'll also find small but clean rooms at the Trade Winds Guest House (787/741-8666) and Amapola Inn (787/741-1382) in the $65 range. For a quieter, more intimate stay, you may want to try out one of the guesthouses a few blocks in from the water's edge. Ted's Guest House (787/741-2225) is definitely a value king. Ted rents out apartments with full kitchens, large balconies, and air-conditioning for just $65 a night. A two-bedroom apartment costs $100.
One of my favorite restaurants in Esperanza, the Posada Vistamar, is also one of the cheapest. It's run by elderly local legend Olga Benitez, who will personally seat you in her screened-in porch of a restaurant and tell you what's on the menu - basically, whatever the fishermen caught that day. A whole fried grouper with plantains and rice and beans will set you back just $9. So will an octopus or conch salad. And for under $6, you can munch on porkchops and crispy fried chicken. You can get similarly priced meals nearby at the whimsical beachfront restaurant El Jibaro ("The Hillbilly").
Most of the island's outdoor adventures are run out of Esperanza. Not to be missed at any cost is a tour of Vieques' bioluminescent bay—easily the most spectacular in the Caribbean. The water is packed with a large concentration of single-cell organisms that literally glow in the dark when agitated, so it fills with bright green streaks of light (nearly bright enough to read by) whenever a fish or stingray races past. You can even jump into the bay yourself and watch as your limbs light up the surrounding water. Tours, either by electric boat or kayak, cost $23 and are run by Island Adventures (787/741-0720) or Blue Caribe Dive Center (787/741-2522). And for just $20 a day, you can explore the interior of the island on a mountain bike (La Dulce Vida, 787/617-2453).
ROOMS & MEALS IN ISABELLA SEGUNDA
With its colorful churches and shady central plaza - tailor-made for romantic evening strolls - Isabella Segunda also makes for a comfortable base. The Water's Edge (787/741-1128) has cozy doubles around a quiet courtyard with a pool for just $70. A room with an amazing view of the ocean costs $85. Also on the high end but worth the money is the Crow's Nest (787/741-0033), just outside town. For $85, you get a nicely furnished room with overstuffed chairs, a small patio beside the pool, and a full kitchen where you can save money cooking your own meals (except breakfast - it's included).
For those on a tighter budget, try the Adventure Inn (787/741-1564) just outside of town on a quiet residential street. The rooms aren't fancy, but they're comfortable, cost $65 a night, and include a full breakfast. Everyone shares a large kitchen and a peaceful porch.
Isabella Segunda is teeming with great-tasting and abundantly affordable local restaurants. Believe it or not, you can get a breakfast of two eggs, bacon, and toast for only $1.25 at La Viequense Bakery. A shot of espresso to wash it down will set you back just 50›. Lunch isn't much more: A club sandwich or hamburger costs $2.75. It's a good place to pack a lunch and walk to the Old Spanish Fort or lighthouse for a romantic but inexpensive afternoon picnic.
Nearby, you can dig into a big bowl of lobster stew for $9 at Shaunaa's Restaurant. A conch salad or shrimp in garlic sauce will set you back just $8, and Shaunaa will serve you a hearty steak lunch for only $5.
CHILLING OUT ON CULEBRA
If Vieques is sleepy, then the tiny island of Culebra, with its 2,000 inhabitants, is downright soporific. A diver's paradise, far more goes on here under the water than on land. There's just one town, Dewey, and nearly everything is located there.
But if it's beaches and bargains you want, then Culebra is another great find. You won't find more beautiful beaches anywhere in the Caribbean, and the lodgings are a lot like those on Vieques—cheap. Perhaps the best bargain on the island is the Villa Fulladoza Guest House (787/742-3576), where you can get an attractive double room right on the bay with a kitchenette and small balcony for just $55 a night or $350 a week. Another find is the Posada la Hamaca (787/742-3516), where a simple room runs $65, or $75 with a small kitchenette. If camping is your thing, you can sleep under the stars at the ridiculously gorgeous Flamingo Beach for $10 a night.
You can save on car rentals (generally about $45 a day) by renting bikes or taking a public taxi to the beach for $3 per person. Most everything you'll need is in or near town, anyway.
Cheap local food is also abundant. Try Tina's El Caobo - a plywood shack filled with locals and smug gringos in the know. Happy Landing, where a full-fledged steak dinner will set you back just $6.75, is another budget find.
The best activity on Culebra is totally free. If you're there in the spring or summer months, you can sign up with park rangers (787/742-0720) and spend the night watching one-ton leatherback turtles (an endangered species) lumber out of the ocean to lay their eggs on the beach. Volunteers help the rangers count the eggs and mark their locations. It's an amazing sight-and it won't cost you a penny!
VOYAGE TO VIEQUES
Vieques Air Link (888/901-9247) and Isla Nena Air (888/263-6213) both fly to Vieques and Culebra from San Juan International Airport for about $120-$136 round-trip. For the price of a $15 cab ride, you can catch a Vieques Air Link flight from San Juan Municipal Airport for just $80 round-trip. Alternately, a 90-minute cab ride (about $65) to Farjardo will get you to the comfortable passenger ferry (787/863-4560), where a trip to the island costs just $2 but leaves just one or two times a day. Planes from Fajardo are about $35 round-trip. There are no regularly scheduled flights between Vieques and Culebra and no ferry service, but the truly adventurous can try hopping on the Isla Nena interisland mail flight for just $20 - if there's room!