Vieques is the largest of the Spanish Virgin Islands. It is 8 miles East of the Puerto Rican mainland and is easily reached by plane or ferry. The Island measures 21 miles long by 4 miles wide with a population of 9350. The U.S. Government used this island much as they had Culebra. From 1941 – 2003 the island was used as a firing range and ordnance testing ground. It is wisest to steer clear of areas with signs indicating unexploded ordnance.
“Never again shall we tolerate abuse of a magnitude and scope the likes of which no community in any of the fifty states would ever be asked to tolerate. Never again shall we tolerate such abuse: not for sixty years, and not for sixty months, or sixty hours, or sixty minutes.” — Puerto Rico Governor, Pedro Roselló, October 19, 1999. Statement before the U.S. Senate Armed Forces Committee.
A rather fast ferry ride from Fajardo was packed with people and the sound of chatter was enough to give me a twinge of a headache. Pete’s sister , Karina decided to join on us on our latest adventure after hearing our stories and photos of previous trips. I anxiously awaited a sighting of land and was wishing we had booked a flight. Once we were on the dock, we stood around waiting for our Jeep rental. As time went by, it was clear that no one was coming. After the fourth call we were told that they were short-handed and we had to collect the Jeep ourselves. A very kind Officer gave Pete a ride while we waited with our mound of luggage. We were relieved when he pulled up an hour later and we were off to our rental house.
After unpacking we headed to Playa Navio to unwind after a day of traveling. Having already researched all of the beaches ahead of time, I knew that the waves would be rougher here and not really suitable for snorkeling. Pete and Karina were having none of that noise. They put on their gear and splashed their way in. About 10 minutes later I heard Karina wailing that her mask was gone. A wave had caught her and shoved her face into the sand, ripping the mask from her face. We searched several minutes with no luck. We heard a shout and a young man came trotting up with a large grin, and proudly placed the mask into her hands. After thanking him profusely, she dumped her gear on the beach and decided to just spend the rest of the day playing in the warm water. Lesson learned.
Media Luna has the calmest water I have ever seen. The surface of the warm water was like glass and the waves lightly brushed the smooth white sand. Locals and visitors in the know take their children to this serene little slice of perfection for a safe and easy day at the beach. The water was warm and soothing and we spent the rest of the day splashing around and exploring the beach.
Sun Bay is the hotspot on Vieques for good reason. It really is the perfect combination of sand, surf and, view. The golden sand is fine with large deposits of crushed shell that are smooth and feathery soft. The waves are gentle and the water is warm. As if spending the day frolicking at this idyllic beach weren’t enough – there are horses grazing the pasture fronting the beach. The view is breathtaking and it brings to mind the Corona commercials We grew up seeing on TV. My favorite show growing up was the A-Team, just in case you were wondering.
There are many horses that actually freely roam the majority of Vieques. Driving on this Island is challenging under the best of conditions. The roads are narrow, winding and poorly marked. The biggest problem are the horses. They have zero sense of self-preservation and wander all over the roads. The adage is; If you hit a horse and it damages your car, no one owns the horse. If you hit a horse and hurt it, everyone owns the horse.
Green Beach was a place we would have loved to spend an entire day exploring. A powerful storm was rolling in and we spend several overcast hours exploring the beach and wading into the shallows. The feathery bits of crushed shell felt wonderful on my bare feet and I couldn’t resist wriggling them deeper into the sand. After a light rain a swarm of gnats ate us up, and we made our escape. There was a rather beautiful loneliness about this place in the weak light and I would imagine that this place is breathtaking on a clear day.
The grand old ceiba tree is said to be almost 400 years old. I have seen many conflicting figures, so I decline to put an exact number on the age. As I approached this massive tree, I felt as if I were stepping through a curtain in time. The large, seeking roots tumbled around the trunk like the tentacles of great drunken sea creature. Karina and I had to walk all the way around this magnificent beast and touch just about every area we could reach. The bark was much smoother than I thought it would be and the smell of damp earth was comforting in the warm breeze.
I was determined to find the fabled Playa Negra, with the locals we asked having no clue where it was, we were on our own. We started down a promising path and eventually came to a yellow gate. Naturally this meant we had to keep going, it was just for cars (or so we told ourselves). We hung a left and decided not to stop until we reached the ocean. As we were on an island we knew we would eventually find the water. It took us over and hour on this long, often narrow and hugely rutted road. It was hot, we had no water and we feared we were hopelessly lost. Finally we heard the ocean, but the trail frustratingly kept veering away from it before coming back around. We saw a break in the brush, and breathed a collective sigh of relief. We had no idea what beach we were on, but it was the most interesting place we had seen. The beach was totally wild and it’s remoteness made it feel as if people had never set foot there before. Karina and I decided to claim it as our own, and named it Fat Girl Beach. We spent hours exploring the beach, we didn’t get into the water as it had a rather strange shelf at the shoreline that seemed to be a combination of rock, shell and coral. We saw conch shells the size of basketballs bleaching in the sun. Huge formations of brain coral that had blackened with age were partially buried in the golden sand.
Playa Negra, or Black Beach was the one beach we were determined to find before leaving the island. The black sand is magnetite, and yes is actually magnetic. We asked several locals and they seemed to have no clue about it. The only information we had from online sources was a general direction, a guard rail, and walking through a dry riverbed. We finally found a small pull off right after a guard rail that looked promising. We followed a trail down about 20 feet below the road. There were a group of local youths that very helpfully pointed out the direction we needed to take. There had been a heavy rain the night before, so there was a small trickle of water in the “dry riverbed”. This small amount of water made walking difficult, as the mud just sort of sucked your feet down. We sloshed our way through this softly shadowed, hidden world for about 15 minutes. We saw a break in the trees and a subtle blackening of the sand at the mouth of the “river”. We had found Playa Negra! We scurried to the beach and stood in wonder as we got our first glimpse of the black sand sparkling in the sunlight. We had this slice of magic all to ourselves and we spent the rest of the day feeling like we were the only 3 people on Earth.
The Biobay *dreamy sigh*. This is by far the best excursion we have ever taken. Mosquito Bay is the brightest in the world. We arrived at the Mexican restaurant that shared a building with Island Adventures a couple of hours early to check in. Our dinner was fantastic, despite having no photographic proof. You can’t wear lotions, makeup, sunscreen, hair products or repellents in the Biobay. Chemicals destroy the tiny organisms that cause the water to literally glow. The area is swarming with mosquitos, it really is aptly named. There were citronella candles burning on the tables, but that did nothing to stop the pterodactyl sized beasts from trying to carry us off.
The microorganisms that make the Biobay so special are called Dinoflagellates and when they come into contact with another organism or disturbed they produce a bright burst of blue light. This is believed to be a defense mechanism. By illuminating larger creatures, predators will bypass such small prey. The best time to take one of the tours of Mosquito Bay is right after a full moon. The darker the night sky, the better the experience. At least we did that part right.
We loaded up on our ratty old bus and had the most insane ride of our lives. Vieques has very hilly, pot holed, switch back roads, usually with horses lurking nearby. Our bus driver decided to drive it like he stole it. We were flying down the twisting roads at an alarming rate. We reached a dirt road and just about 2 wheeled it during the turn. The driver must have been in a death race, as he only got faster as the road got more narrow and rutted. We started to bounce and shift all over the place. Karina was in a seat by herself and was white knuckling it. There were no seatbelts and I could hear sounds of distress in the darkness coming from the other passengers. After about 2 minutes the low hanging branches started attacking. We now had a trifecta of insanity; ruts, sharps turns and scraping branches on the roof and windows. I pulled at my window, but it would only close halfway. Pete was desperately trying to keep us from tumbling into the aisle while we were flying through countless ruts and car sized holes. I was trying to lean as far into him as I could to keep the branches and thorns out of my face. All this is in complete and utter darkness. Finally we arrive at the edge of the bay. We shakily walked the plank, literally walked up a bending, narrow, bouncing board onto the pontoon.
We all settled in with a sigh of relief and set off. The guide used a laser pointer to show us formations of constellations. I kept hoping there were no planes overhead, as the light seemed to slice directly into space. After a few minutes I noticed it was brighter, I looked over the side of the boat and saw that the wake was actually glowing softly. The guide began to stomp and dozens of blue streaks explode around us. He explained that what we were seeing was startled fish. I had no idea how fast fish can actually swim. Generally when a fish swims away, you lose site of it fairly quickly. We could see the glow of their escape for miles and they moved incredibly fast.
The engine shut off and they put everyone in life vests. I was the closest to the back and our guide took my hand and led me to the ladder. “I have seen this movie. The first one in the water always dies first.” He was very surprised by this response, but took it with good humor. Pete executed a perfect cannonball into dark water in a spray of glowing blue. The water was glowing in soft blue arcs as we moved and our skin glittered as we took limbs out of the water. I took loads of photos on a camera that I forgot to change the light settings on. I got dozens of pitch black photos and videos of the most amazing adventure of our lives. Does fail even begin to describe this? We made our way back onto the boat and everyone was excitedly talking about the experience during the short trip back to shore. Back over the plank to Evil Knievel and his bus of doom. We made It back to our rental and I fell into bed to dream of softly glowing waters and fantastical creatures. I also dreamed of cookies and a personal sized helicopter. I don’t get it either, but I did have cookies for breakfast the next morning. I count that as a win.
Blue Beach, or Playa Shiva was an idyllic beach we happily spent an entire day exploring. The sand was so pale It seemed to glow, and the warm water sparkled in the brilliant sunshine. Small wisps of clouds danced lazily in the gloriously blue sky. There is a small rocky island to the left of the beach that we were told had coral heads that were good for snorkeling. It took about 10 minutes to swim out over the grassy area into deeper water. The current wasn’t too difficult to get through, but it was a little disconcerting for Karina as we hit deeper water. We reached the reef area and she was entranced by the coral heads. This was her very first experience snorkeling over coral and she was almost tearful in her wonder of the underwater beauty. The water was a little cloudy in places due to the week of rain that had hit the area, but overall it was great snorkeling. We spent several hours working our way through the water on the right side of the rocky little piece of land we didn’t dare explore due to an ordnance warning sign. After we exhausted ourselves snorkeling we returned to the shore to laze away the day under the palm trees. There were less than a dozen people on the beach with us and we felt wonderful to be in this special place.
We spent an entire day just rambling our way around the island and stopping at interesting looking places. Secret Beach was the highlight with its seclusion and feeling of being untouched. The water was calm and warm and we enjoyed the feeling of total relaxation it brought upon us.
We were all packed up and anxiously awaiting our ferry. A nasty storm was rolling in and the skies went almost black as we boarded. The seas were rolling with waves slapping against the windows of the ferry as we tried to cut our way through the frothy gray water. The crew stumbled their way between the rows and handed out seasickness bags as we were rocking and lurching through waves at a hideous rate. We heard several people on the packed ferry being ill, and I tried desperately to tune it out. Pete loaded a rollercoaster game on his phone and happily played away. Karina slumped over and went to sleep like an old drunk after a bender. I just wanted to get back to solid ground quickly.
General Tips for Vieques
There is petty theft problem on the island. Never leave things like cameras, cash or expensive equipment in your car or on the beach. Just use common sense to keep your valuables safe. Don’t lock your rental car doors and leave the windows cracked or open as the weather permits. Thieves have been known to smash the windows to search the vehicles for valuables. Don’t worry about someone stealing the rental. It is a small island – where could they go? Reserve your rental Jeep well in advance, as they tend to sell out quickly. I did say Jeep – you need a 4×4 to get to the best places. Reserve your ferry ticket in advance, it is a madhouse on those ferries packed with people, book your return ticket at the same time if your know your dates. Most beaches have no facilities on Vieques, plan accordingly. Don’t stay anywhere near Esperanza if you dislike noise. When we went downtown for dinners music blasted into the night for hours. It was glorious. The food here is fantastic, be adventurous and dive in. Hit the local bakeries EARLY in the morning to get fresh hot Puerto Rican breads and pastries. They usually sell out by 9am. Fresh baked bread generally ran around $1 a loaf, sold in packs of two. If you collect sand, coral or shell (never remove them from the water) visit the local post office and mail them with a flat rate box. Ours was 38 pounds and it only cost $15.95 to mail it. It was waiting for us when we got home. Don’t take photos of Puerto Ricans (especially the children) without asking first. They are very private people, but are generally very gracious if asked first. English is widely spoken here, but a little Spanish can make the things easier. Don’t be afraid to mess up the words, if you smile as you talk they will forgive you and gladly help. Be respectful of the culture and sensibilities of the places you visit. The experience will be better for everyone.
My song obsession for Vieques was Tito El Bambino’s Lleuve El Amor