Isla Culebra, one of the Spanish Virgin Islands is located 17 miles East of Mainland Puerto Rico and 12 miles West of St. Thomas. This tiny island is only 7 miles long and 5 miles wide. There are only around 1800 residents on this remote gem, but it is accessible by plane or ferry. With no local source of fresh water, the waters are very clear and ideal for snorkeling.
This breathtaking island was sadly used by the United States Navy for gunnery and bombing practice from 1909 to 1975. As a lovely retired teacher from New Jersey told us, officials are still identifying and detonating ordnance to this day. His description of the trembling island during detonation was hauntingly beautiful, “You have never felt the devastation of war until that siren sounds and the entire island shakes with a thundering sound.”
There were less than 10 people in the gym sized airport near Fajardo, Puerto Rico. There was no metal detector, no scanning machine, and no official asking if we had packed our own bags. At the ticketing counter our bags were weighed as we were asked *gasp* our weights. At my raised eyebrow, it was explained weights were needed for placement of passengers and luggage on the plane.
We anxiously paced around the small holding area looking out the large glass wall for any signs of activity. Our flight to Culebra was set to leave in 10 minutes, yet there had been no announcements or boarding information. We hadn’t seen a single employee or crew member since we purchased our tickets, over an hour before. Finally, exactly 3 minutes before scheduled takeoff, a thin man with a shock of white hair gestured for us to follow him. The air was sultry and had a distinct odor of fuel as we stepped onto the tarmac. We quickly looked at each other when we saw where he stopped. Surely this mini-van with wings was not our plane? Two more passengers joined us as the pilot opened several doors and carefully loaded the luggage. He called our names and directed us to different rows and sides of the plane before closing everything up and climbing on board. We never heard another word out him. The little plane started up with a roar and within seconds we were barreling down the runway. The incredible surge of powers pressed us against the seats, and left me a little breathless. I was laughing with delight as I felt the wheels leave the rather tired looking runway. The moment of almost weightlessness when a plane pushes gravity aside is my absolute favorite part of every flight. A glance at Pete found him decidedly uneasy with the tiny plane rocketing into the air. Our little mini-van packed a punch and we were soaring above the beautiful Caribbean in moments. During the 15 minute flight, each pocket of air seemed to cause us to lurch wildly before leveling out. I loved every teeth rattling moment. It was a rather overcast day with poor visibility leaving very few clear photos. As anxious as I was to reach the Island, the flight was just too short for my liking, but clearly not for Pete and the other two passengers. There was a disconcerting moment when it seemed that we were going to crash right into the mountain range. The pilot veered sharply between two mountains and didn’t slow down until we squeezed between them, at what seemed to be a recklessly low altitude. With a collective sigh of relief, we touched down flawlessly. The plane was in the air before we even made it to the house sized terminal. If there wasn’t luggage in the back, he very well may have just pushed us all out over the water of Flamenco to get home as quickly as possible.
We collected our rental and made our way around the island, getting lost and loving it. There is such a feeling of wildness about Culebra, it felt like the island would reclaim everything that had been disturbed by the touch of man. It felt primitive in the most wonderful of ways, like I always imagined a Caribbean island should be. There were no high rises or fancy hotels here, just simple rentals. For those with far more money to throw around than we have, there are luxury rentals available. Being hopelessly lost on our first day was a highlight. I was thrilled to be able to take photos around the island while we tried to get “unlost”. We finally found our rental house and happily unloaded, anxious to hit the beach.
Zoni beach was the closest to our rental house, so it seemed the perfect place to spend the rest of our first day. The beach was totally empty and the ultra fine sand was soft and inviting. The water was warm and as clear as the springs back home. We carefully made our way in past the rather large shelf-like rock formations that were hard on the feet and slippery. We played in the water and marveled at the beauty of this small island for hours. We explored the shoreline snapping photos and making plans for the upcoming days.
“The Spot” was our first stop in Culebra. We had parked by the ferry terminal and decided to stroll along the charming main street to find something to eat. The dining in Culebra is sparse to begin with, and only one place was open in mid afternoon. We walked into this truly tiny little bar and were charmed by the bartender. He suggested we add a couple of “drunken seagulls” to our sandwich order. He whipped them up while giving us a little history of the island. We happily sipped our drinks and talked with some locals while waiting for our food. The bartender was curious about Florida and was on “island time” when it came to preparing our food. This suited us just fine as it gave Pete a chance to have two more “drunken seagulls”. These drinks are supposed to sneak up on you and leave you feeling quite drunk, but we never felt anything more than a pleasant warmth.
About 30 seconds after we rolled up our the long steep driveway to our rental house, a large spotted dog happily launched himself at us. His tag announced that his name was Nacho and he clearly was used to being the center of attention. He ran up or down the stairs with us as we were unloading the car and happily sat with us as we enjoyed the view of the mountains. His ears perked up a few minutes later and he trotted down the road. We didn’t see him again until the morning we left. He must only be contracted to meet the new tenants, then check they leave on time.
There was a rather perplexing sign on the glass door of the rental house that read, “Please keep door closed and do not let the cat in.” On the second day, a small black cat appeared at the glass door demanding attention. We went out to talk to her and offered her some milk, as she looked healthy but quite thin. After slurping the milk like a hundred pound dog she yowled and headbutted her way into lots of petting. She really was the most demanding cat we had ever seen, and we have a house full of Jerkfaced cats. Pete decided to call her Thin Mint and she was waiting for us on the balcony chairs each morning and when we came back from the various beaches. She declined to see us off our last day. She must have found even easier marks.
Before leaving Zoni we picked up a bag of sand for our collection made our way back to our rental. A few hours later we hear a strange rustling sound coming from the kitchen. I realized that there was a small crab scratching around inside the bag of sand. We took him to the beach and watched him to be sure he was safely hidden. I imagine he is still telling his grandchildren about the time he was abducted.
It is no surprise that Flamenco Beach was named the second most beautiful beach in the world by The Discovery Channel. The sand is the finest of light golden sand I have seen and the shade of the warm, calm water is breathtaking. Throw in a lush mountain range and an abandoned tank being claimed by the sea and you have a recipe for perfection. After a few hours in the water, we decided to explore the far side of the beach. I am so glad that we did, as we would have missed the tank perched so precariously on the beach. I knew about the tank slipping into the waves, but had forgotten all about it once I saw the perfection of Flamenco. There were signs posted a distance from the tank that warned of unexploded ordnance, so we reluctantly decided to end our exploration there.
Flamenco is fronted by colorful kiosks offering delicious foods and mixed drinks. We were wandering through the luscious smelling grouping when the most beautiful sound stopped me short. Aventura’s Dile Al Amor drifted on the breeze and drew me to a blue and yellow kiosk just opening up for the day. I asked the lovely young girl inside what the intoxicating music was. She disappeared for a moment and returned with a CD and pointed to the song with a smile. This began my obsession with the Spanish music, the link at the end of this post illustrates why!
We were given vague directions to walk to a secluded beach with good snorkeling. We bought two jugs of water, as suggested and set out on the worst walk we ever experienced. For 45 minutes we followed a trail that was narrow, filled with holes, and surrounded by thorny plants that grabbed at our swimsuits and skin. It was hot, it was humid and we had no idea where the hell we were. We heard lots of very loud thrashing around in the underbrush. I have seen enough movies to know that creatures are always close by just waiting for the stragglers…… Having not been eaten, we carried on with our heavy and poorly handled bags. Just when I was convinced we were going to end up bleached bones and a tuft of black hair, we heard the ocean! We made our way through the trees and the view made every uncomfortable moment worth it. The golden sand was fine and had streaks of kelp and seaweed strewn about in a rather whimsical manner. This beach was also empty – something we have come to love about this island. We grabbed our gear and awkwardly made our way through the almost alarmingly shifting sand at the shoreline. The coral here was what would be called coral “heads” not reefs, as the corals were spaced out with a sandy bottom or grasses between. The variety of fish was excellent and the coral seemed mostly healthy. It was not as lush as we had seen the year before around Isla Ratones, but we enjoyed it greatly. We both looked around hopefully for a turtle or ray, but I guess they were all at a party for the cool kids. I was moments away from throwing a full on bitch fit, as none of our cameras were cooperating. The housing on my lovely Samsung was cloudy, the dicapac housings on the two smartphones wouldn’t allow the touchscreens to engage, and the actual underwater video camera refused to power up. We finally gave up in disgust and tossed everything on the empty beach to just enjoy the solitude. As the sun began to drop, we felt it was prudent to pack it up and make the long walk back to our car. Remember when I said the walk there was the worst ever? I lied. The return walk was far worse. We could now add being salty, sandy and wet to all the other statistics of misery. We finally squeezed back through the opening in the large chain length fence and joyfully dove into our rental. Next trip to Culebra we will hire a boat, clearly.
El Eden is a funky little restaurant with an eclectic décor. The food was great and we enjoyed talking with the owner, Luce while our food was being prepared. They were stocked like a convenience store in the back and had all manner of wine, art and postcards for sale. It was by far the strangest dining area I had ever encountered, yet the oddity of it also made it quite wonderful. As with all the businesses we visited on Culebra the service was rather slow and casual. Adjust your thinking to “island time” and this wonderful little island and her inhabitants will enchant you too.
A few random tips
As there is no fresh water on the island, all the homes have large blue cisterns that hold water that has been imported from Vieques. The water from the cisterns is perfectly fine for household chores and bathing, but tastes horrible. Be prepared to buy lots water, yes water – dehydration is always a danger when you spend the day at the beach. Caffeine and alcohol just don’t keep you hydrated enough and can actually make dehydration worse. Be patient and don’t go anywhere in a hurry. You will get lost over and over, embrace it. The grocery stores were rather ramshackle buildings with no signage, and there are only a couple of them. Hours of operation seem to be rather sporadic and service can be very slow. When we were on the island, there was only one working gas pump. It took us almost an hour to gas up our rental. As always, remember that when traveling you are ambassador for your own country. Be respectful of other cultures and embrace the differences. A smile and a friendly demeanor will make locals far more receptive. Forget about looking for the familiar, try new things and become a traveler as opposed to a tourist.
We will carry the memories of this magical place with us always.
Below is a link to the beautiful Spanish song that so captivated me at Flamenco.