Floating in a political no-man’s-land between US statehood and outright independence, Puerto Rico is an archipelago made up of four significant land masses, only three of which are inhabited: the heavily populated main island and its two eastern siblings, Vieques and Culebra.
the clamour and commercialism of the crowded “mainland”, the latter two islands
– both reachable by a 90-minute boat ride from the port Fajardo – purposefully
shun Puerto Rico’s default attractions of golf and gambling. The island’s lay
claim to broad unblemished beaches, vigorous expat communities and a spirit of seditious
nonconformity, borne in part out of the islands’ recent histories as firing
ranges for the US Navy.
By far the smaller
of the two islands, Culebra is Puerto Rico at its most esoteric, an 11-sq-mile slice
of sleepy eccentricity, where clucking hens wander down potholed side-streets,
shops hang signs saying “open some days, closed others” and the nightlife begins
and ends with a crowd of bearded Hemingway-look-a-likes at the waterside Dinghy Dock bar.
Wilder and more
bucolic than Vieques, Culebra is favoured by self-sufficient types who can
survive when the island’s limited ATMs run out of cash. It is also revered by
tranquillity seekers. Life beyond the weathered “capital” Dewey rarely gets out
of first gear, and the most popular form of after-dark entertainment is
their idyllic domain, Culebrenses are less effusive and more
backwards-before-coming-forwards than other Puerto Ricans, but recalibrate your
body clock to off-beat “island time” and you will quickly find them to be
hospitable and bitingly funny hosts.
For lunch, head over
to Barbara Rosa, an
amiable señora who runs a restaurant out of her front room. Grab a menu, shout your
order through the kitchen hatch, and wait on the front patio with a dozen or so
of Barbara’s cats for the magic to materialize. For dinner, sample bold
culinary creativity at beach shack cum no-frills guesthouse Mamacitas
attractions are first and foremost of the natural kind. Turtles come to nest
here each year, a rare
lizard found nowhere else in the world stalks the bushy slopes of Mt Resaca,
and the island’s lack of significant river run-off has created an unusual level
of water clarity, meaning water-orientated activities reign supreme. Divers
love it, as do snorkellers and boaters intent on exploring some of Culebra’s 20
But the island’s
trump card lies two miles north of Dewey, at platinum-blonde Flamenco Beach --
a rustic but justifiably popular scimitar of sand hailed in tour brochures as
the best in the Caribbean. Campsites rather
than beach condos lure romantic overnighters.
Covering 52-sq-miles, Vieques plays Scotland to Culebra’s Wales. But, while larger
and more heavily populated than its errant northern twin, its idiosyncrasies are
gentler and a little easier to digest. Wild horses rather than rare lizards pepper
the grassy pastures, and a smattering of boutique accommodations have
lent the two settlements of Isabel II and Esperanza an upmarket sheen. And the
island’s refreshing dearth of traffic (or a single traffic light), makes it
ideal for cycling.
With more space
and a better infrastructure, Vieques caters to a wider variety of tastes than
Culebra. You can “slum it” in a quintessential Caribbean beach shack, or clink
cocktail glasses at the W Retreat and Spa.
The island also attracts families with its profusion of beaches (40 to
Culebra’s half dozen) and safe road-rage-free streets that are eerily
reminiscent of the US sixty years ago. Though soporific by “mainland”
standards, Vieques retains a pulse after dark. Regular live music lights up
sultry evenings in Esperanza and Isabel II.
The pièce de résistance,
however, is Vieques’ dramatic Bioluminescent Bay,
an ethereal lagoon full of tiny micro-organisms which glow purplish-blue when
disturbed after dark. The effect is rendered all the more psychedelic thanks to
Vieques’ welcome lack of light pollution. Try kayaking the bay at night or taking
a tour in a specially-designed electric boat.
military occupation lasted three decades longer than Culebra’s, with prickly public
protests finally sending the US Navy packing in 2003. But beneath the ongoing
clean-up campaign hides an unusual blessing. Dozens of beaches that were
inaccessible to the public during the military episode have since been
commandeered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, meaning they remain virgin
and unsullied by resort development. Angling off the
rarely-fished southern coast is phenomenal.
The article 'Culebra vs Vieques: Puerto Rico’s contrasting islands' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.