If you live in the northern U.S. and are tired of snow, the threat of snow, and the media endlessly blabbering about snow, chew on this: for as little as $180, and without a passport or visa, you can fly round trip to San Juan and enjoy luxurious Caribbean sunshine and warm blue waters. And although English is spoken alongside Spanish, the dollar is the currency, and Burger Kings and KFCs dot the urban landscape, a traveler needn’t go far to feel, well, far away from the trappings of mainland America.
For us, that meant staying one night in San Juan before hopping a puddle jumper to the auxiliary island of Vieques. (A one-way ticket on Seaborne Airlines cost $55 – and no checked bag fees!) Flying is the fastest way to get from San Juan to Vieques – you will spend 20 minutes in the air, versus several hours in a public van just to get to the ferry landing on the mainland’s northeast coast. The flight is also exhilarating, though not for the faint of stomach.
Vieques, the tiny island-off-the-island of Puerto Rico, is far removed from its days as a passionately-protested host to a U.S. naval base. After bombing drills killed a man more than a decade ago, the navy was kindly excused, and Vieques has since remained its sleepy, peaceful self, worlds away from busy San Juan, if only minutes away by plane. Although some gilding of the lily has occurred – including the opening of a W hotel and resort on the island’s otherwise-sparse north end – Vieques’ tourism industry can still be considered quaint and underwhelming, perfect for anyone looking to escape the rat race for a week or even a weekend. The Viequense are slow paced and friendly; stores may open and close at the owners’ convenience, and horses will leisurely graze along the roadsides, glancing up indifferently before returning to the task at hand. The energy comes at night (after you’ve sufficiently swam and suntanned), amidst the cacophony of alien sounds coming from the tropical vegetation – frogs, birds, bugs, and who knows what else. That’s when you’ll find yourself dancing Caribbean salsa at an open-air bar along the promenade, or plunging incredulously into the other-worldly Bio Bay to swim with millions of incandescent microorganisms.
Most of the hotels, restaurants, and other tourist activities are centered in Esperanza, on the south coast of Vieques. (The airport and larger town of Isabel Segundo are on the north coast.) As many of the beaches are difficult to reach by foot, it is recommended that tourists rent a vehicle for at least part of their stay, and most (usually a Suzuki) can be had for $50-60 per day. From Esperanza you can walk to glorious Sun Bay Beach in about 10-15 minutes, and it’s another 20 minutes by foot to Media Luna, a beach whose swimming waters are uniformly three feet deep and (I’d guess) 80 degrees. This makes Media Luna great for families or anyone who can’t swim.
In fact, I think we have a clip of one of the beaches. Do we have a clip…? Okay, we do, let’s set this up. This is Sun Bay beach, which is in between Media Luna and Esperanza. Roll it, Hal…
I highly recommend renting or bringing some snorkeling gear to Vieques. But exotic fish aren’t the only wildlife you’ll encounter. Iguanas, crabs, and semi-wild horses can all be found in the towns and on beaches. (Not to mention stray but harmless dogs and cats.) The horses in particular lend the beaches a majestic aura. Just don’t get too close – they are used to people and mostly calm, but a mare protecting her young will be understandably territorial.
The promenade along Esperanza beach in the town is El Malecon, and that’s where you’ll find a majority of the shops, hotels and restaurants (including the Vieques Conservation and Historic Trust, purportedly the world’s smallest aquarium). Some of the restaurants are run by American mainland expats and have mainland prices (a cheeseburger, for instance, cost us around $10). If you prefer to save some money, there are a few small groceries in town where you can stock up on food for your stay.
A more affordable option to dine-in restaurants is La Morcilla de Choly (calle Almendro, a block from the school and near the park). Choly and her family will make you empanadas stuffed with beef, chicken, or crab ($3-4) or a generous plate of chicken, beans, and rice ($7). It’s a bright green shack on the street with picnic tables in front.
The crown jewel of Vieques is Mosquito Bay, otherwise known as the Bio Bay. That’s bio-luminescence, meaning hundreds of thousands of single celled organisms living in the water that produce a spectacular glow when agitated. The result is an experience that no photograph or video can do justice: swimmers and boats leave sparkling trails of light in the moonlit bay like something out of a Disney cartoon. The ecosystem is fragile, so the only way to visit is by guided tour, which can be found at http://www.viequestours.com ($25 for adults, $15 for children). In fact, we were handed a card while in a store with with a guy’s name and number promising a discounted price. Why not, we thought? Sure enough, Samir showed up in a beat to hell 30-year-old van with no side door and needing a screwdriver to start. After we accompanied him on a couple of errands (including some auto maintenance), we were off in the thick of night to the Bio Bay. Samir was a genial young man who was also quite knowledgeable about the bay, and once we were in our kayaks and life vests he practiced the utmost safety on our tour.
Most lodging can be found on El Malecon in the form of guest houses. Because of the proximity to the promenade and beach, rooms will run north of $100 per night. If you back up a few blocks, you’ll save some cash, as we did at the Villa Coral Guesthouse (485 Gladiolas). Rooms are new, clean, and air conditioned, though not spacious, and the owners are attentive and friendly. There is a second floor veranda and a rooftop for lounging and reading. We paid around $85 per night, though prices during high season (winter) may be higher.
Getting to Vieques
Your cheapest bet is to book your flight to San Juan, then use the local airlines to fly to Vieques. Currently, Spirit Airlines has flights in February from NYC-San Juan for $181 and from Chicago-San Juan for $235. AirTran also has affordable flights from Minneapolis, Detroit, and Milwaukee in February. Major airlines such as Continental and American also fly into San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. From there, you’ll need to get to nearby Isla Grande airport and fly to Vieques, usually for around $55 one-way.