It’s pretty rare that tourism and the US military have much in common, but a little island off the coast of Puerto Rico (an island’s island) offers some of the most pristine, or at least undeveloped, land that can be found in the Caribbean. The island is called Vieques.
I spent a long weekend with a good buddy in Vieques a week ago and came away very impressed with what Vieques has to offer. First of all, it’s close. Jet Blue flies into San Juan and you can get tickets there for as low as around $300 round trip. Then you have to hire a puddle-jumper to get you to the airport on Vieques. The whole trip out of New York took me about four hours. Not too bad to be in a place where you feel very much away from it all.
I’d never been to Puerto Rico before, and I didn’t spend much time at all in San Juan, PR’s capitol. But once I landed in Vieques, I felt like I’d landed a few thousand miles and two decades away from my home in New York City. The island has a startlingly rustic feel, with scattered low-slung homes dotting a flat, arid countryside. The process of renting a car in Vieques helps illustrate how old-fashioned the place really is.
We picked up our car in the airport parking lot. We signed no contract, met no person, the car was just sitting in the lot with a key in the ash tray. We were told the plate number, the make and the general location. We found the car, drove it away, and only at the end of the trip did we pay anyone for the rental. That person happened to run the guest house where we stayed, and she told us to try to put some gas back in the car and to return it to the lot wherever we could find a space. This informality was wonderfully refreshing, if a bit awkward, yet it was a part of nearly every transaction we had while on the island.
Vieques belongs mostly to the US Navy…or parts of it do…and while those parts in the past were the location of a bombing range for Navy practice, the Navy’s presence has largely prevented much of the island from being developed. And now that they have stopped bombing there, what remains is a lovely, peaceful island with a very laid-back, heavily gringoized populace.
We dove one day on Vieques at the old navy pier there and saw thousands of colorful tropical fish. We saw lobsters and barracuda and several huge sea turtles, who swam around us with an odd, lumbering grace. The pier is not the best place to dive on the island, but the winds were high and so Dave, our dive master, preferred not to take us on his boat.
Perhaps the greatest attraction on Vieques, other than it’s beautiful, untrafficked sandy beaches, is the bioluminescent bay, called Mosquito Bay (appropriately named, although there was a breeze so we didn’t have a mosquito problem). We went to the Bio Bay (as it is also called) with a local guide named Abe. A hilarious guy. Friendly and almost criminally casual in his approach. We met him and a small group of Americans at a nearby spot called Sun Bay and them drove to the edge of bio bay with a flotilla of kayaks. We paddled into the bay as the sun fell behind the horizon, and once the dark settled over us, the bay itself turned black. Black, that is, except for where our paddles dug into the water. With each stroke, the water around the paddle erupted into a green fire. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. But what was even more fabulous was when we all jumped into the water. Kicking and splashing caused a virtual inferno of green light to erupt around our bodies. Lifting a hand from the water, we watched sparkling stars of bioluminescence crawl down our arms. We remained and kicked and splashed in the waters, completely mesmerized, for hours. And then, as we paddled back to shore, fish below would dart of in a hundred directions, leaving brilliant wakes of light behind them for a few seconds. An incredible experience.
Those are really the highlights of Vieques. The towns themselves – Esperanza and Isabella II – are fine places to hang out and have a meal and drinks. The food is excellent and relatively cheap. Not Third World cheap, but less than I am used to in New York, which may not be saying much actually.
But overall, I am very bullish on Vieques, and highly recommend it as a place to while away a weekend. Get there quick, though. My sense is that the place is developing rapidly now that the Navy is scaling down its operations there. It may not remain the friendly, laid-back place it is now forever.