Vieques: The Island We Couldn’t Leave

This entry is going to be tough.

There is some temptation to write several posts about Vieques, each focusing on one of the many aspects that make it so endearing to us. But, no, I’ll try to keep it somewhat concise. Because, until you visit this little island, you’ll probably have a hard time understanding why every little detail was so special. Every beach, horse, meal, stray dog, food truck, old tree, rough road, breakfast pastry, and disappearing restaurant warrant at least a paragraph.

Insead. Let’s start with some pictures.

Post Index:
1. Getting There and Back Again: Don’t Fear the Ferry
2. Where to Stay: Yet Another Plug for Airbnb
3. So, You Like Beaches?
4. Food in Vieques
4. The Bioluminescent Bay: Worthy of any Bucket List
5. Additional Comments on Vieques

1. Getting There and Back Again: Don’t Fear the Ferry

I mentioned the ferry situation in my main, Puerto Rico: Making the Loop post, but I feel that it is very important to expand upon it here. If you haven’t at least Googled “ferry to Vieques”, shame on you. Whenever you’re dealing with an alternative mode of transportation it is a really, really, good idea to do your homework. For those of you who already know what you’re getting yourselves into, it isn’t all that bad. Really!

Yes, the current ferry situation between Fajardo and Vieques is not ideal. They retired all of the passenger ferries awhile ago, and now everyone travels on a few cargo vessels with limited schedules. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be crammed below deck with the farm animals and convicts. In fact, you will probably have a very similar experience to that of any other ferry in the US. Although you cannot explore the deck while the ferry is in transit, you will have a comfortable seat, possibly a table, and maybe even somewhere to charge your cell phone. The only real pieces of advice I have are…

1. Get there early to purchase a ticket. We didn’t have much trouble getting on a ferry the day we wanted, but it seems to get hectic closer to departure. Unfortunately they do not sell tickets in advance, so plan on getting there early on the day of departure.

2. Don’t plan on taking your car with you. Chances are there will not be enough room. There is a fairly cheap lot where you can leave your car while you’re away. It is $5 a day and seems plenty safe.

On that note, DO plan on getting a rental car in Vieques. These can be hard to come by, so be sure to set something up well in advance. We got very lucky and may have managed to snag the last vehicle on the island. (Thanks Marcos!)

Also. Do your best to avoid Jeep Wranglers. I know it seems like the ultimate bad-ass beach-cruising vehicle, but they are the fanny pack of the automotive world. You’ll stick out like the sunburnt tourist you are.

3. This is your opportunity to pack light. We left behind a giant, 45 pound, suitcase in our rental car. Everything we needed fit nicely in our backpacks. From that point on we wondered why we had brought so much in the first place. (Pro Tip: Buy a few stuff sacks. They revolutionized the way we pack.

Although I cannot confirm it, we heard multiple accounts of cheap flights to Vieques from mainland PR. Might be worth looking into.

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2. Where to Stay: Yet Another Plug for Airbnb

It will quickly become apparent that I have a love for Airbnb. I also share this love with HomeAway, VRBO, and any other similar sites, but it just seems that we always end up using Airbnb in the end. I’ll save most of the glorification for another post, but do yourself a favor and consider it. These sites offer way more bang for your buck, and might even save you some $$.

Our rental unit’s backyard as seen from the rooftop balcony.
Our rental unit’s backyard as seen from the rooftop balcony.

No matter where or how you choose to find a room in Vieques, you can’t go too wrong. The island is rather small, and you’ll have no trouble getting around. The place we stayed was just west of Isabel II and seemed perfect for hitting up all the highways that bisect the island. There are plenty of hotels and rental properties throughout the island, but you may as well stay close to either of the main towns, Isabel II, or Esperanza on the south side. (I’ll give my two-cents on Esperanza later) If you absolutely cannot rent a car (or even a scooter) you’ll probably want to stay in the “downtown” area of Isabel II.

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2. So, You Like Beaches?

I do not consider myself a “beach person”. I am fairly convinced that, should I ever end up in water deeper than I am tall, my buoyancy would be about the same as a soggy bag of concrete. The thought of fishes in the deep and dark freaks me out. Lounging on the sand bores me, and I’m not about to get involved in a pickup game of volleyball, frisbee, or whatever games people play in the sand.

Yet I love the beaches in Vieques.

The most popular beaches are on the south-central to south-east side of the island. These beaches are very calm with white sand and clear blue water. Pretty much anyone’s vision of a perfect, tropical, beach. Keep in mind that you will probably need a 4WD vehicle to reach most of these, but the roads are well marked and certainly not the worst on the island. On your first visit, I would recommend that you do not set your sights on one particular beach but rather try to find one you can call your own. I’m not sure what the usual protocol for staking your claim is, but we made a habit to keep on driving if someone was already parked in one of the spots leading up to the water. Once you start bouncing around on the dirt roads it is hard to tell exactly where one beach ends and the next begins and you’re sure to find a spot that hasn’t already been claimed.  Our personal favorite of these beaches was La Escondida.

La Escondida
La Escondida

Also on the south side of the island, but a bit west of Esperanza, is Playa Negra. This stretch of beach is named for its (surprise!) black sand. As far as we could tell, there were no signs or formal directions to this beach. Google was particularly vague, and we eventually just picked a random path that led off the main highway and in the general direction of the ocean. At no point did we see No Trespassing signs, or any other suggestion that we were somewhere that we shouldn’t be. Ultimately we DID make it to the beach, so I can’t completely advise against this method of exploration.

It may have just been the time of day, but the waters surrounding Playa Negra were much rougher and less pristine than those to the east. Not to detract from their spectacular features, but I was under the impression that this might not be prime territory for snorkeling and sunbathing.  This particular stretch has some pretty great cliffs, and rock formations. You’re probably less likely to run into other beachgoers there. And, of course, the black sand is a nice touch.

Playa Negra
Playa Negra

If you feel like going for a nice, long, bouncy drive, make your way out to Punta Arena. This is at the far western tip of the island, and will really test your vehicle’s suspension. Once you make it to the water you will find two beaches. The first discourages swimming due to an underwater cable, but we still saw plenty of people in the water. The second beach does allow for swimming and was a good spot for snorkeling. I should probably note that this was the only beach that we even tried snorkeling in, but it seemed like an obvious choice as soon as we arrived. All along the shoreline there were remnants of old conch shells, sea urchins were abundant in much of the shallow water, and a number of snorkel tubes could already be seen poking out of the water.

Maybe I should take a moment to note something… Do not step on sea urchins! It seemed obvious to me, but we met a pair of travelers all too eager to hop in the waters a bit further from the main beach. An area carpeted with spiky, black and red, sea urchins. Even as I had first approached the beach I overheard a resident beach bum telling a story that ended something like, “and it stabbed her right through her flipper and all the way through her foot.” Probably not a good time.

Don’t let this discourage you. I, as I said earlier, do not like the water much. I am a poor swimmer, and have a very hard time getting comfortable in a snorkel mask. This was my second time ever with the opportunity to check out the world under water, and it has gone the same way both times…

Breathe, breathe, brea… nope Nope NOPE. Stand up. Spit, gasp, relax. And repeat.

I can honestly say that It took me at least fifteen minutes before I was comfortable floating around with my face in the water, but it was well worth it. This particular beach did not seem exceptionally diverse or well-populated with sea critters, but it was spectacular nonetheless. Aside from the prickly sea urchins, we saw plenty of different types of coral, schools of tiny fish, some Finding Nemo fish, crabs, a Squirrel Fish (I didn’t name it.), and I am fairly convinced that I saw an octopus hiding in the rocks. Some other swimmers claim to have seen a manta ray as well, but we didn’t have any luck with that.

There are tons of other beaches on the island. These were the most notable for us, but I find it hard to believe that you could find any of the beaches disappointing.

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3. Food in Vieques

Here it comes, the obligatory food section. I’m not sure that travelers generally think of Vieques as a culinary destination. There is no one dish the island is known for, and the standard fare is much like the mainland, mofongo, pork, seafood, rice, beans, and lots of nice pastries. Prior to our arrival, our host had suggested that he had “never had a bad meal in Vieques”, and there is a good chance he was telling the truth.

Lets start in the obvious place, breakfast. Unlike the mainland US, Puerto Ricans are not particularly enthusiastic about breakfast. Most places are open in time for lunch and stay open through dinner. Rather than starting with a meal of eggs, pancakes, meats, and juice, the locals prefer a light pastry and some coffee. In Vieques there seemed to be one obvious choice for this, La Panaderia Viequense. I am not a baker, and really have no idea what the real names of the pasties were, but that is okay. This is one of those shops where you walk up to the display cabinet and simply point out what you want, or inquire what is inside. I’m fairly certain you couldn’t go wrong. The experience was so enjoyable that we committed a traveller’s faux pas and returned for two days in a row. If you’re arriving for lunch, or simply don’t have much of a sweet tooth, they also serve sandwiches.

Your time on the island will likely be quite active. Our lunches usually consisted of little more than snacks to keep us going until dinner. Chances are you’ll never be too far from a bite to eat, and food trailers seem to be popping up all over. I’d suggest eating smaller portions, while, making a point to try multiple places.

There are quite a few fine dining restaurants on Vieques. You’ll find them both in Isabella II and Esperanza as well as scattered throughout the countryside. All of our dinners we quite good, but the meal at Sabores was the best. What originally roped me in were the numerous Yelp reviews claiming that the restaurant was exceptionally vegetarian friendly. Even though anything goes while traveling, I generally do try to avoid meat and this seemed like a good opportunity to see what kind of veggies were used in Puerto Rican cooking. Before going to far, Sabores DOES have one or two vegetarian items on the menu, but it is far from catering to a vegetarian lifestyle. Despite the limited options, I decided to go for the veggie mofongo. In all honesty I was expecting to be a little underwhelmed. I was very very wrong. For starters, the mofongo is a mix of green and sweet plantains as well as yucca with the choice of creole or garlic sauce. I chose the creole. This was easily the best mofongo we had during all ten days in Puerto Rico. It’s hard to say exactly why, but the omission of meats or seafood seemed to require the recipe incorporate plenty of other flavors to make up for it. (Oh yeah, we also got a churrasco that was ridiculously tasty.)

Any adventurous eater should also take advantage of the late-night street food. There are not a ton of options, but if you’re anywhere near downtown you should be able to find something interesting. Our first goal was to get our hands on some of the pinchos for sale in front of the Funky Beehive. (A nice little artsy-craftsy shop) The shop’s owner had mentioned that she was looking forward to the pinchos stand opening up later, and we took that as a bit of important local advice. The vendor didn’t get up and running until after dark, and the presentation is both incredibly low-tech and a bit confusing. The whole operation is first come, first serve, but there is no formal line. We didn’t arrive particularly late, but there was already some talk of them possible being sold out. We somehow managed to get their attention and snag two skewers of chicken in the next round to come off the grill.

Lucy’s Pinchos. Good stuff!
Lucy’s Pinchos. Good stuff!

While we were waiting for the pinchos stand to open up, we stopped by another stand nearby. This one was a plain black trailer with no signs, or menus indicating what food they were selling or if they were even selling anything at all. We awkwardly asked the girl inside what was for sale and eventually found out that meat empanadas and pig ears were available.

Okay. We’ll take both.

This was the kind of meal we’d always wanted in a new place. The kind of food that includes all words your are familiar with, but in an application that leaves you a bit intrigued. Empanadas de carne seemed pretty straightforward. I think anyone would imagine the street food equivalent of a Hot Pocket, and they would be pretty much spot on. Seasoned meat in a nice pastry is always a good thing.

The pig ears were a bit of a wildcard. It took a moment or two to assemble our order, and we still had no idea what to expect. I had been imagining something crispy, fried, and resembling the ears of a pig. Maybe lightly seasoned with a dipping sauce, or (as seen in an episode of Bizarre Foods) with a little bit of hair on them.

I was wrong on all accounts.

We were presented with a quarter pound deli container stuffed to the lid with something soft, liquidy, and pretty much indistinguishable from the outside. We paid for our meal, thanked the girl, and decided to take our picnic to the park nearby. Again, the empanada was no surprise, and it was really quite good. But the pig ears were weird. Little pieces of cartilage and skin that had been marinating in a mixture of onions, olives, and some tangy liquid. It was almost the kind of dish where you have to wonder, “Do I eat this part?” The onions and olives were okay, but most of the dish was comprised of quarter-sized hunks of slimy pig ear. We generally make it a point to not waste food, even if it is strange or a little questionable, but this was tough. I managed to find a few pieces that were mostly meat and not much cartilage. Those were at least edible. But anything with the stiff, white, almost bone-like, bits in it were just too much for us. We tried, tried again, and finally gave up.

A word of caution: Don’t rely too heavily on Google Maps or Yelp. We found that the locations and hours of operation were right only some of the time. Don’t let it get your down. There are plenty of other options available.

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4. The Bioluminescent Bay: Worthy of Any Bucket List

I’d heard of bioluminescent bays for some time, never really knowing what to expect. At first I imagined schools of blue tetra fish swimming through the water, or maybe some funky glowing crustaceans wedged in the rocks, only glowing if you can scare them out of hiding. Then, a little underwhelmingly, it came clear that what made the water glow was a microscopic organism. Certainly nothing worth looking at if it is so small you can’t even see it.

Fortunately, I was wrong.

You may have seen photos of the bio-bays on the internet, or heard accounts from other travelers, but neither come close to doing it justice. The experience at Mosquito Bay in Vieques is an incredibly unique experience, not only for Puerto Rico, but the world as a whole. Apparently the few other glowing bodies of water on Earth are not doing very well and have started to fade or disappear completely. In general this is attributed to abuse by tourists, although some bays might be rebounding  thanks to new restrictions.

The bay in Vieques appears to be going strong, but it is heavily regulated. Visiting this particular spot falls into the category of “Things you should book early”. There are only a limited number of excursions allowed in the bay, and you may need to inquire at several companies before you get lucky. It took us a few tries, and ultimately landed a tour with Blackbeard Sports, one of the larger outfitters on the island. Our reservation was made nearly a month in advance, and I strongly suggest that you do the same.

IF you blow it, and fail to make a reservation, there may still be hope. It seemed like many of the tour vans were open to picking up travelers on the fly. Our driver picked up a couple on the way that just happened to be hanging out at one of the pickup spots.

Our tour began at the Blackbeard shop in The W Resort. There is also a location downtown and one near Esperanza where they can pick you up and drop you off. The ride to the bay isn’t long and probably depends mostly on the punctuality of the other passengers. Like most things in PR, the excursion is pretty laid back, and the instructions consisted of “Everyone has been in a kayak before, right?”, and “Our kayaks all have blue glow-sticks on them, and mine looks like this…” The other tour groups also had glow-sticks, except theirs were green. Of course blue and green are pretty relative in glow-stick terms, and you may start to feel a little colorblind.

Once everyone is settle in their kayaks, the group heads out towards the middle of the lake, all while hopefully following the correct blue-green light cruising out into the darkness. Don’t worry about your skills as a kayaker. The water is smooth, and there is no hurry to get anywhere. It seemed like all ages and abilities had no problem getting around on the water. The guides are very familiar with both the bay and the night sky. Expect to learn lots of neat things about the water and what lives in it, but also plan on getting a tour of the constellations. For anyone that lives near a big city, the number of stars in the sky will shock you.

But so far I’ve neglected the obvious. The water. And for good reason. It is really really really difficult to give an accurate representation of just how unusual, magical, surprising, and out-of-this-world the water actually is. Any time that the water is disturbed, by your kayak, your paddle, your hand, or fish swimming beneath you, it sparkles blue for a moment. This means that everything in the water creates a trail of light. Disturbances on the surface are easier to see and have a more electric effect. Fish, sharks, and other monsters under the surface create a faint glow as they move through the water. Schools of fish take on the shape of much larger, glowing blue, blobs underneath.

Here is where I would normally post a picture or gallery of images, but it just isn’t possible. For starters, I didn’t even bring a camera, and I would suggest the same for you. The low light and nature of sitting in a kayak just does not lend itself to any sort of long-exposure photography. You cell phone doesn’t stand a chance of taking a decent picture, and you’re very likely to get wet. Besides, this is one of those occasions when you really don’t want to be tied to any electronic devices. You’ll never be able to recreate the experience, so I would very strongly recommend taking as much time as possible to dedicate this adventure to memory.

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5. Additional Comments on Vieques

I’ll start by explaining this post’s header, “The Island We Couldn’t Leave”. After working on this article for a few days, I came to the realization that  it might sound like a bad thing. Maybe we were trapped on an island, against our will, by a gang of rabid monkey pirates during a hurricane. But, no. We couldn’t leave because we didn’t want to. (Note: There are no monkeys on the island, and hurricanes are very uncommon in this part.)

We had allotted two days on the island. We knew it wasn’t long, but it still would have occupied 20% of a ten day trip, and that is without taking travel time into consideration. But there we were, hardly into our second day, when we realized that we liked it there. We really liked it there, and we were comfortable. Besides, there were more beaches and an entire town we hadn’t yet explored. If we stayed with our original travel plans, we’d have one very short night and an early morning before hopping back on the ferry.

Not being particularly good at making decisions, we almost left it to fate. If our host would allow us to stay another night, we would. Otherwise, we’d have to say goodbye in the morning. We made our request via email, but spotty cell reception on the island meant we had to wait for a response. (I know, first world problems.) Obviously the story ends with us spending an extra night on Vieques, although we later agreed that we probably would have found a hotel even if our host couldn’t accommodate us.

I should make it clear, right now, that this was one of the best decisions we made on our trip. If you have any time to spare, and you find yourself constantly saying things like, “I really like it here. Like, really like it here.”, go ahead and afford yourself that luxury. Maybe it won’t happen to you in Vieques, but I’m sure it will happen somewhere. The problem with being a traveler is that you may never actually make it back to most places you visit. Don’t be in a hurry to leave.

Our favorite local
Our favorite local

An extra day in Vieques allowed us time to do some very important things. Like give one of the local stray dogs a bath! I know it sounds a bit ridiculous, but it is true. This little pup was just about the most affectionate dog we’ve ever met, and always made a point to greet us when we arrived at the rental house. Either begging to be picked up, or rolling on her back for belly-rubs, she was constantly looking for a friend. Like most street dogs, she seemed to know better than to enter someone else’s yard, but on our last night we coaxed her into the yard for a nice dinner and a good bath! At this point we had been away from home for a few days and missed our cats and dog quite a bit. This was a perfect way to help a dirty street dog and get our fill of cuteness for the week.

The island’s critters were not just limited to stray dogs either. Cats, and chickens, and huge iguanas are pretty commonplace. But, what Vieques is known for, are the hundreds of “wild” horses wandering the island. “Wild” because most of them are not actually without a home, but are still free to roam the island. They do like to wander in the middle of the road, so be careful. Especially at night. One of the residents told us that, when planning on a late night of drinking, some locals would opt to ride their horses to the bar. This way, they wouldn’t need to worry about finding their way home because the horse would know the way. Not a bad idea.

A happy horse
A happy horse

Despite its small size, Vieques does have several small towns. The main one being Isabel II, and the second, Esperanza. Most of your time will likely be spent closer to Isabel II, but Esperanza is well worth the short drive to the south of the island. It is much smaller than Isabel II, and most of what you want to see will be along the main boardwalk. This area is very touristy, but has a distinct charm that is unlike the rest of the island. We were fortunate enough to be stopping by during a great sunset, and would suggest that anyone else do the same. Make a point to visit some shops, vendors, and maybe grab a bite to eat. Ultimately we found this area a little too touristy and moved on after exploring for a couple of hours.

From the boardwalk in Esperanza
From the boardwalk in Esperanza

I could go on and on about Vieques. It certainly is hard to stop writing about a place that, so wonderfully, caught us by surprise. But, this is enough for now, Maybe I’ll add some more later!

Here’s my list of blog entries for Puerto Rico.

  1. Vieques: The Island We Couldn’t Leave
  2. El Yunque: Spanish for “The Yunque”
  3. Cabo Rojo: Southwestern Puerto Rico
  4. Lechon: You’ll have to be a stronger vegetarian than me…
  5. The Western Coast: Boqueron & Bacalaito, Mayagüez & Maize, and Rincón
  6. Bosque Estatal De Guajataca, y la cueva del viento: Guajataca State Forest, and the Cave of the Wind
  7. So, this guy has a waterfall in his backyard…
  8. Arecibo Observatory
  9. Old San Juan

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