The second day of our Spring Break trip to Puerto Rico happened to be St. Patrick’s Day. We started off by planning to take the ferry to another island that is part of the Puerto Rico territory, Culebra. I’d heard amazing things about Flamenco Beach and Culebra, and with a ferry ride being $4, I figured it would be worth checking out. I had read the reviews online and was prepared for a bad scene, and I was not disappointed. We got there a little over an hour early, and the line for the ferry was already about five blocks long. The ferry schedule is not ideal for day trips unless you get on the first ferry at 9 am. Hope was fading fast for being able to get on the ferry, and we were discussing contingency plans and sent Chelsey to check out the front of the line. Here, she discovered that all of those people in line were trying to get to Culebra and there was no line for the ferry to Vieques. We figured ‘why not?’ and grabbed seats on that ferry just in time for the scheduled departure.
Once we got on the ferry, things settled down. Vieques is about 8 miles east of the main island of Puerto Rico and it took a little more than an hour to get there and (on this day at least), it was a smooth ride. Once we arrived in Vieques, we were faced with the next challenge: figuring out what to do with the rest of the day. I had done some preliminary research on Culebra, but had no idea about anything on Vieques. Vieques is fairly large but skinny, about 21 miles long by 5 miles wide. As you might expect from that much shoreline, Vieques has more than 50 beaches.
Like Puerto Rico, Vieques was owned by the Spanish and was actually where they built their last fort in the New World. It was ceded to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War. Starting in the 1940s, the U.S. Navy actually owned about two-thirds of the island. After WWII ended, the Navy used the island for military exercises, including as a testing area for bombs and missiles. In May 2003, the Navy withdrew from Vieques, and now a majority of the land is designated a National Wildlife Refuge and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is actually one of the largest wildlife refuges in the Caribbean.
When we disembarked from the ferry, we were in the main town of Isabel II (Isabel Segunda), the capital of the municipality. It’s nothing special, a few bars, shops and markets. After a quick look around, we agreed that the best course of action would be to start at the bar (it was St. Patrick’s Day, after all). Here, we ordered some pina coladas and asked the bartender for some advice. In a stroke of luck, he used to live in the DC area and had been living in Vieques for about five years. After chatting with him, we had a better idea of what we could do with our day. Then we got even luckier: the other patron in the bar was also looking to head out to the beach for the day! After a few calls, he arranged a vehicle for us and we decided to head out with him to explore the island.
So for the second time that day, we figured ‘why not?’ and the three of us headed off with our host for the day, James. James is originally from Texas, so Chelsey was excited about that. We stopped at a local shop and grabbed beer and some amazing fresh fruit for the day and headed to the beach. He has worked as a tour guide, so he knew all the best spots and filled us in with some history and fun facts along the way.
Many of the beaches on Vieques are still known by the names the Navy gave them, including Red Beach and Blue Beach (zero points for creativity), although there is a movement to return to the traditional names. Many of the beaches have areas where swimming is not recommended due to the possibility of unexploded ordinance (!), including the key across from the Blue Beach. The possibility of leftover bombs aside, the beaches are beautiful! And unlike Culebra or some other beaches in San Juan, there weren’t very many people there. We spent most of the day at Playa La Chiva (Blue Beach), and there were probably only about 20 other people there during the day.
After soaking up an acceptable amount of sun (except for Sarah), we unfortunately had to start heading back to catch the 6:30 ferry back to Fajardo. Along the way we stopped in Esperanza, the second biggest city on the island. We had a snack at a great bar and walked along the esplanade, which offered beautiful views. In honor of the holiday, we had a couple green shots of Jameson – proving there is no escape from green food coloring on March 17.
We headed back to Fajardo happy with our amazing day and only a little sunburnt. We had another great dinner in Fajardo and declared St. Patrick’s Day a success.
And if you don’t believe me, check out this photo essay about Vieques from The Washington Post: In Puerto Rico, a glow in the night.