If you’re looking for a bargain, off-the-brochure destination in the Caribbean, head for the quiet Puerto Rican island of Culebra.
Lynn Langway reports on this quirky haven for snorkelers, sailors, birders, and beach-lovers.
On the laid-back little island of Culebra, there is nothing—and everything—to do. Located 17 miles east of “mainland” Puerto Rico and 12 miles west of St. Thomas, Culebra (pronounced “koo-LEH-bra”) is one of two “Spanish Virgin” islands.
Long overshadowed by its bigger, splashier sister, Vieques, 8 miles to the south, Culebra remains the Caribbeanas it used to be. Although reachable by a 30-minute, scenic plane ride from San Juan or a 1.5-hour ferry from Fajardo on Puerto Rico’s east coast, this hilly island is largely undeveloped, with one town (Dewey), and one main drag.
You won’t find any casinos, discount shopping malls, or chain stores on this sliver of paradise, which is only 3 miles wide and 7 miles long.
Learn what life is really like in these isolated islands: Moving To Paradise: Life In The U.S. Virgin Islands
What you will discover, as my husband and I did on a return visit this winter, is more than a dozen uncrowded beaches, splendid, accessible coral reefs for snorkeling and diving, and a surprising array of first-rate restaurants for such a small place, where the population tops out at around 3,000 people.
Several factors protect the pristine surroundings.
President Teddy Roosevelt designated about one-third of Culebra as aNational Wildlife Refuge back in 1909, and the U.S. Navy ceased shelling here in 1975—decades before departing sister island Vieques—leaving seabirds, endangered turtles and tropical fish of all sizes to flourish.
Because the harbors are shallow, no big cruise ships can anchor, and because the climate is so arid, there’s less run-off to pollute the clear waters.
To explore these protected cays and inlets, try a day-long sail with Captain Bill Penfield aboard his comfortable 30-foot catamaran, Pez Vela (Spanish for “Sailfish.”)
Many travelers just pass through the Puerto Rican capital, but Lynn Langway says to linger longer: Off The Brochure Travel Guide: San Juan, Puerto Rico
With the help of his canine co-captain, Gigi, a dachshund-terrier mix who can spot sea turtles from yards away, Penfield takes passengers outside the reef to fish for blue marlin, tuna and grouper, and inside to hike and snorkel on sheltered bays (he furnishes all gear.)
Anchored off Culebrita, the largest cay, we swam among blue and yellow angelfish, yellowtail snappers and coral hawkfish, while orange and purple fan coral waved below.
In Tortuga Bay, we jumped in beside a large Hawksbill turtle, christened Tina Turtle, and paddled Gigi to shore on a surfboard for a walk up to the 19th century lighthouse.
We saw plenty of birds—oystercatchers, magnificent frigatebirds, diving pelicans and boobies—but no more than six other people all day. And while the surf was too rough for deep-sea fishing, we still got to sample the catch from the previous day, which the captain transformed in his tiny galley into a snack of yellowtail tuna tataki, and lunch of sauteed blackfin tuna steaks with rice, squash, peppers and beans.
Back ashore, you can spend a week comparing Culebra’s beaches without ever repeating yourself. The most celebrated is Flamenco Beach, a 1.5 mile crescent of powdery white sand and turquoise waves that’s widely acclaimed as one of the world’s most beautiful.
Don’t miss our Beach Vacations section for more great destinations.
Because it’s the only beach with restrooms and snack shacks (try the shark shish kebabs and conch turnovers) and reachable by taxi from town, Flamenco can get crowded on weekends and holidays.
As an alternative, there’s a superb, secluded snorkeling beach, Carlos Rosario, just a 25-minute hike from the parking lot, up a sometimes-rugged trail that’s blessed by yellow, orange, and black-and-white butterflies.
Unless you are demon mountain biker, you will probably want to rent a Jeep to visit other beaches—the isolated, expansive Zoni for swimming and walking; Melones, Tamarindo, and Punta Soldado for snorkeling right off the shore; Brava and Resaca for surfing.
We rented a serviceable Suzuki Samurai from Jerry’s Jeeps, whose proprietor will detail every speed bump, pothole, and sea urchin patch for you to avoid.
Forestry expert Pablo Cruz offers more hikes and explains the islands’ beauty of the area in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque Rainforest on PGW Radio.
LIVING LA VIDA LOCAL
For larger families, rental villas are popular. Diehard beachcombers can rent equipment and camp at the government-run campground on Flamenco Beach.
We preferred the spacious one-bedroom suites at the Bahia Marina Condo-Resort, perched on a hilltop about 2miles outside Dewy, overlooking the sailboats anchored in Bahia Ensenada. As birders, we appreciated its easy access to plenty of walks where we spotted everything from hawks to hummingbirds.
Nightlife revolves around Culebra’s lively waterfront bars and restaurants. Boaters, snowbird expats and locals mingle after 5 p.m. at the Dinghy Dock and Mamacita’s, where the casual camaraderie reminded us of Key West before it became Margaritaville, Inc.
Explore more local restaurants with Puerto Rican Flavor With Restauranteur & Chef Wilo Benet on PGW Radio. And you’ll find some of his restaurant picks as well as other recommendations in our Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Puerto Rico.
At Susie’s Restaurant, a canal-side cafe run by a gifted chef who fled a high-pressure job in San Juan, we savored a snappy tuna tartare with homemade vegetable chips, crisp bacalao fritters, a flavorful skirt steak, and a scrumptious cheese flan.
At the inventive Shipwreck Grill, we dined on perfectly-broiled lobster with lime-cilantro butter while guitarist Amy Jo, a Nashville refugee, sang everything from Michael Jackson to Lyle Lovett, plus her own country songs.
Another ex-pat, Barbara Peterson, serves fabulous fish & chips from her kitchen counter at Barbara Rosa’s; bring your own wine (sold at several local bodegas) and dine on her roomy front porch.
For breakfast, chow down on the ham, eggs, and pan-fried toast at thePan Deli.
All text and photos by Lynn Langway for PeterGreenberg.com. Lynn Langway is an award-winning editor, writer and journalism teacher. Visit Lynn on the Web at www.lynnlangway.com.
Related Links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- Off The Brochure Travel Guide: San Juan, Puerto Rico
- Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Puerto Rico
- Puerto Rican Music, Culture, Arts & Festivals – PGW Radio
- Puerto Rican Flavor With Chef Wilo Benet – PGW Radio
- Puerto Rico’s El Yunque Rainforest – PGW Radio
- Moving To Paradise: Life In The U.S. Virgin Islands
- Travel Tip: Finding The Right Island Vacation
- America’s Gypsy: Puerto Rico In Chicago
- Caribbean Travel section
- Beach Vacations section