Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Puerto Rican Outer Islands... a well-kept secret!

The Puerto Rican Outer Islands , formerly called the Passage Islands, primarily consist of the islands of Vieques, Culebra and Culebrita.  They are part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and are located east of the main island of Puerto Rico. Many people have never even heard of these outer islands... thus, the well-kept secret.

Approaching our Vieques Anchorage
Vieques lies about 8 miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland, and measures about 21 miles long by 4 miles wide. It is part of the United States Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, but, like the rest of Puerto Rico, retains strong influences from 400 years of Spanish ownership. Vieques is best known internationally as the site of a series of protests against the United States Navy's use of the island as a bombing range and testing ground, which led to the navy's departure in 2003. Today the former navy land is a national wildlife refuge, with numerous beaches that still retain the names given by the navy, including Red Beach, Blue Beach, Green Beach and others. The beaches are commonly listed among the top beaches in the Caribbean for their azure-colored waters and white sands. 

We had a short stop-over in Vieques for the night. We anchored near Punta Arenas on the west shore called Green Beach. Although we didn't leave the boat, we had a visitor for the night. At sunset, a Brown Booby lighted on our dinghy for a rest.  

This was a big bird! He was about 30 inches long, and his wing span was almost 5 feet! He stayed there all night long. When we weighed anchor the next morning, he flew away. He was a klutz on his take-off! He had a trouble getting his big cumbersome body lifted off the dingy. But once he got in the air, he was quite graceful.

LuLu was fascinated as she watched the booby fly away. She kept a close eye out for birds after that!

As we departed Vieques to our next island destination, Culebra, we were greeted with a beautiful rainbow. Traveling on a boat is so much fun and so rewarding!

We arrived in Culebra four hours later, came into Ensenada Honda Bay, and anchored near the town of Dewey. We were excited to reach Culebra as we planned to stay for a few days, rest, and tour the island.  

Ensenada Honda is purported to be one of the safest hurricane harbors in the Caribbean. Many sailors stop here and never leave.  Our anchorage was charming, surrounded by local houses on hills, and was quiet and peaceful yet located next to town. 

A sleepy little island loved by sailors, beach lovers, eco-travelers, snorkelers, Culebra is a destination for those seeking the ultimate privacy.  The island may be small (only 7 miles long and 11.5 square miles) but it is blessed with miles of gorgeous coastline. Even today when most islands have been exploited by tourism in the Caribbean, Culebra Island remains undeveloped. The crime rate is low and there is a laid-back island vibe.  Because it is part of Puerto Rico, US residents do not have to have a passport to visit, which makes it an attractive, though remote, travel destination.

However, Culebra is a popular weekend tourist destination for Mainland Puerto Ricans, and residents of Vieques. They arrive on ferries and flood the small town, rent all the rental vehicles, and jam pack the restaurants during the high season in the winter. 

We rented a jeep for the day during the week and traveled around the island in relative obscurity. Most of the roads were in pretty good shape, but we did have to travel up and down some pretty steep embankments, so we were glad to have the 4-wheel drive.
Boats on moorings overlook Ensenada Honda Bay

Our road trip around the island was spectacular, with mountain roads that traveled to high points with great views. Because of the "arid" nature of the island there is no run-off from rivers or streams resulting in very clear waters around the island. The water, with so many shades of blues and greens, was a sight to behold.

Culebra has many beautiful beaches and we wanted to visit them all. Our first beach visit was Zoni Beach, located on the east side of the island. We met two older couples on the beach that were from New York.  This was their 20th year to visit Culebra! They told me not to write too much about the island...they said it needed to be kept secret and untouched by commercial tourism.

On the hillside overlooking Zoni Beach, we could see the nearby island of Culebrita. It is the island on the mid right of the photo below.  The island seen in the far right background is St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. The colors in the water constantly amaze us. Every time we think we have seen the most beautiful water we have ever seen, another spectacular view comes along!

On the north side of the island was the famous Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco), rated the third best beach in the world for 2014 by Trip Advisor. This is where most of the weekend tourists head when arriving on the island. The crescent shaped beach is a stunning mile-long stretch of sand embraced by tree covered rolling hills as a backdrop, so there is plenty of space for everyone.  

This is definitely a beach for beach lovers. We enjoyed a long walk along the beach and talked to several fellow travelers. This is a beach that we would have loved to stay for a while...break out the beach chairs and umbrella, ice down a few cold ones and spend the day.  But that wasn't in the plans for us on this day. We had a rented Jeep waiting for us and we were ready to explore!

But that didn't stop us from walking up and down the beach several trips. For some reason, LA didn't mind all the walking... Maybe it had something to do with the local scenery! LA declared her definitely "thong worthy".

I, on the other hand, was hungry! After finally dragging LA away from the "scenery", I was able to get his mind on food instead. We stopped at a little beach shack and had a delicious lunch of barbecued chicken, slaw, and rice (and cold beer). 

We walked right across the parking lot at Flamenco beach to visit our next beach stop, Tamarindo Beach. We knew this was a secluded beach on the west side of the island, but what we didn't know was how long the hike was going to be to get there!  We traveled up and down (and up and down... and up and down....) a longgggg path through the bushes to get there.  

We were so far back in the brush we walked right up on two deer standing right on the path. They just stood there looking at us and finally wandered off the trail. We saw a lot of birds on our walk but I couldn't get any pics! One of the oldest bird sanctuaries in United States territory was established in Culebra in 1909 by President Teddy Roosevelt.  

We finally made it to Tamarindo Beach... it was worth it! Unspoiled and pristine, the beach was deserted and the water was a clear turquoise.  The reef system looked healthy. We wished we had our snorkeling gear so we could explore! 

We enjoyed our visit to Culebra.  We a taste of the island and we wanted to see more. But, that will have to come on another visit.  We want to come back to this little island paradise. There are so many anchorages to explore!  Seeing the views of the islands to come, it was time to say goodbye to Culebra. After a five day stay, it was time to visit the next island on our journey, Culebrita. 

Isla Culebrita (little Culebra, little snake) is a small, uninhabited island off the eastern coast of Culebra, Puerto Rico and is part of the Puerto Rico Archipelago. It is a nature reserve and is part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge. This tiny cay (pronounced "key")— located off the north-east corner of Culebra — is uninhabited, visited only by a few people every day, and holds many wonderful “secrets” waiting to be explored. You can only get there by boat, but it is totally worth the effort in order to experience this unspoiled island.

It only took one and one-half hours to reach Culebrita. Although there were several mooring balls available, we anchored close to the beach so we could have a little privacy.  There were 4 other boats there, but we didn't see anyone out and about on the beach. I was ready for some hiking! LA wanted to work on boat projects, so he dropped me off at the beach and off I went! The island was deserted.  In the photo above, a lighthouse can be seen at the top of the hill.  I was determined that I was going to see that view from the top! 


I found the trail on the beach leading up the hill.  Uh oh, here we go again...another trail through the middle of the brush! I hiked my way across the bottom of the hill a long way before the trail finally took a turn going up.

As the trail wound along, I heard some bird calls that sounded like a chittering noise.  I saw a pair of American Kestrels perched in a tree. I was so excited as I got my camera ready. Finally got a bird pic! American Kestrils, also known as sparrow hawks, are actually small falcons and are only about 8 inches long. They like open meadows with places to perch and hunt.

I continued along my way and came across an open grassy area. I heard a rustling in the nearby bushes and a bleating noise. It startled me...remember, I am hiking all by myself on a deserted island. I had visions of some sort of wild animal barreling out of the bushes in attack mode.

Imagine my surprise when I came around the bend and there was a huge wild mountain goat! I don't know who was startled more... him or me! He looked at me...I looked at him. We just stared at each other for a few seconds.  I was so glad I had my camera ready! After I got my shot, he took off down the hillside at full speed.

After my goat encounter, I headed straight up the hillside to the lighthouse. I kept thinking, it is getting late in the day and I am never going to make it. But, I was determined! I could only see the top of the lighthouse and the view was tantalizing me to push further.

Finally, I reached the top of the hill and there was a big "NO TRESPASSING" sign waiting for me...and when did that ever stop me?? I walked right around the fence and kept on going.

I'll have to say that it was quite spooky up there since I was alone. At least, I hoped I was alone. I kept thinking that a creepy, deserted-island ax murderer might be ready to leap out around every corner. I pushed those thoughts out of my head and checked out the lighthouse.

Now, a bit about the history of the Culebrita Lighthouse.  It is one of the oldest lighthouses in the Caribbean, is the only remaining Spanish-era structure in the Culebra archipelago (group of islands). Construction of the lighthouse began on September 25, 1882, and it was completed on February 25, 1886. The Spanish Crown built the lighthouse to help secure its claim over the main island of Culebra. It was one of the oldest operating lighthouses in the Caribbean until 1975 when the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard finally closed the facility. The United States Coast Guard has replaced the lighthouse with a solar powered light beacon that is located on the side of the hilltop.  The beacon guides navigation through the Virgin Passage and the Vieques Sound connecting in the Puerto Rico Light System with the Cape San Juan Light. 

The Culebrita Lighthouse was registered on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on October 22, 1981; however, no work has been done to maintain the facility. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo caused extensive damage, and in 1995 the tower was destroyed by Hurricane Marilyn. The Culebra Foundation, starting in 1994, has tried to attract local and federal attention to save the lighthouse, but they have had little success. Presently, the lighthouse is in danger of collapsing, hence the "No Trespassing" sign.

I walked all around the lighthouse, and went inside to explore the rooms on the ground floor.  The old bricks were different colors and had interesting brickwork around the windows and doors.

What interested me most was the winding old iron staircase up to the top of the lighthouse.  A climber since way back, I desparately wanted to climb up the rickety steel stairs.  I peered inside, but it was hard to see what was there. I envisioned a giant wasp nest... and realized just how dangerous it would be to climb up with no one else around. Common sense prevailed. If LA had been with me, I would have been up that staircase in a minute!

I walked out to the edge of the hilltop and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the island.

Genesis appeared as a tiny dot in the bay, all by herself anchored close to the island in beautiful clear blue water. This tranquil setting shows the beauty and solitude of our cruising life and is one of my favorite photographs. It was time to head back to the beach and get back to LA and the boat. We left the following morning to visit St. Thomas in the American Virgin Islands.

1 comment:

Gringo said...

It sure looks like SOME people are just having too much fun.

We could sail down and meet you in Columbia in a few months...