So, I NEEDED to get away for spring break (or go nutty) and after exploring various options to visit friends to no avail, I somewhat randomly chose Puerto Rico (and when I say randomly I mean the ticket was cheaper than most :)) While flying to Portland over a year ago I met this guy who was living on Culebra
and it sounded like a great place to check out...and just what I needed- off the beaten track, the beach, quiet, a lesser known spot in the caribbean...perfect! I was also reminded of how thankful I should be to be able to take off and spend a few days on my own on an isolated beach somewhere. I certainly don't mind traveling on my own and have done so plenty of times before, but was feeling a bit annoyed by that aspect of my life as of late.
zoni-more waves than usual
As I mentioned my plans to friends and families with whom I work (most of whom have young children) the moms all gave me a disgusted look and wistfully told me how envious they were and thought it sounded absolutely amazing. It was a good reminder for me:) I think most people would like to continue to keep it a secret though so shhhh...
Culebra is referred to as the Spanish Virgin Island. It lies 17 miles east of "the big island" (Puerto Rico) and 12 miles west of St. Thomas. Culebra (spanish for 'snake' due to its shape) is 7 x 3 miles and a portion of the island is a national wildlife refuge. Local population is around 2000, concentrated around the one town of Culebra, Dewey. There are a mix of native Culebrense, folks who have left the big island for a slower life, and ex-pats.
The first inhabitants of Culebra were the Tainos, a peaceful tribe located throughout the Caribbean. Legend has it that pirates also used Culebra as a hideout... (to quote one of my favs PB "invaded by pirates is good..."). Currently, the inhabitants of Culebra have been working to figure out how to balance development, some increase in tourism, caring for the needs of the children on the island, and the ecosystem of the island. The snorkeling and diving is supposed to be quite good (my visit was so short that I didn't go:( ) Playa Flamenco is the most popular on the island and said to be one of the prettiest in the Caribbean.
When I was talking to my parents before I left, my dad laughed and said that he had spent a lot of time on Culebra when he was in the Navy.
It always amazes me the places that he has been but never mentioned before...when I think I have found some obscure place that he has never heard of he has all these stories of his time there! We joked that they probably wouldn't let me on the island if they heard that I was his daughter:) The US Navy used to use Culebra, Playa Flamenco to be exact, for target practice (nice, huh??) and there are Pershing Tanks remaining on the beach and have become a symbol of defense against development.
When planning a trip to Culebra it is helpful to check out the website www.islaculebra.com. You will find info on accomodations, places to eat, transportation, and things to do. I flew to San Juan
and had a car service waiting (John Rosario).
tanks at flamenco...the ones my dad used to use as target practice
Well, actually I got stuck in Charlotte for quite a long time due to mechanical problems with the plane...don't you hate getting on a flight after they tell you all about the mechanical issues they have "fixed"??:) So I got in much later than planned...I had called John to let him know that my plane was going to be late. He is much cheaper than a taxi from SJU to Fajardo
, so if you plan to go that route I would definitely check him out. At this time the trip from SJU to Fajardo was $65 (per trip, not per person) and his van holds about 8 people. He lives in Fajardo so you can contact him to make the return journey as well. You can reach him at johnspublico@yahoo.
dewey...across from the ferry terminal
com or (787)354-5851. He is a nice guy and it was very helpful to have that all arranged in advance- I told him that I would include his contact info on TB so it would be great if you use him:). Your other options are to fly from San Juan to Culebra (although you will need to take a taxi to another airport in town) directly (for fares check out www.airflamenco.com), rent a car and drive from SJU to Fajardo (if you do this it allows you to spend the time you would like to explore the rainforest...), or a taxi ($80 one way). Once in Fajardo, you can catch the ferry to Culebra for a bargain $2.25 one way. See the website I mentioned for ferry times. I left SJU much later than planned since the flight was so delayed and I was not sure if there was enough time to catch the ferry.
on my walk home one day
There was quite a bit of traffic getting out of San Juan but we still made it to the ferry terminal in about 1 hour and 15min-1 1/2 hours. I was a bit nervous that we wouldn't make it...I had read in a number of places that you need to get there an hour in advance (I was arriving 15 min in advance:)) but there was no line for a ticket and the boat didn't leave until 7:30. I wouldn't bank on that though:) Locals told me that the ferry can be sold out (usually the first trip of the day), particularly around Holy Week (when I was there)...especially Easter weekend, and on weekends in the summer. The trip takes about 1 1/2 hours on the ferry. There is a little pizza stand at the ferry terminal and parking (although lots do fill up). The ferry had A/C that worked too well.
on the way to zoni beach
..I was freezing!:) Be warned that the ferry was cancelled a number of days when I was there due to the swells of the sea with the storm that was lingering. When the ferry is cancelled it makes things a little crazy:) I was told that this happens maybe once a year (and usually not this early). That being said, if you take the ferry, I would not buy a roundtrip ticket and have a plan B. There is a cargo ferry as well...but again that means that if you take a rented car over and then can't return on the ferry then you have an issue:) You can fly from fajardo to culebra (for $30 one way)...I did so on demand on the way back, but if you know that you are going to fly you might want to book a flight in advance, or at least check it out more than I did before I left:)).
drive to zoni
There is a limit for luggage on those flights...they are tiny 8-9 seaters-pretty cool 15 minute flight though:)
I had booked accomodation in advance, using the islaculebra website to contact various places. The first place I tried was booked, and ended up at Casa Robinson (www.casarobinson.com). Casa Robinson is relatively new (built a few years ago) and he is in the process of adding 4 new rooms on the top floor. It sits outside of Dewey, and took me 15-20 min to walk into town. The casa sits high on a hill overlooking the harbor, Ensenada Honda, and has great views! He has hammocks and grills that you are free to use which are a nice place to relax while taking in the view. The owner, Elias Robinson, is a very friendly man who was in the police force for over 30 years and was the Police Chief on Culebra until a few years ago when he retired and built Casa Robinson.
He is very nice and proud of his place and his island. He picked me up at the ferry (which I would highly recommend since the taxis seemed to be dedicated to going to the campground/beach at Flamenco rather than taking you out of town) and gave me a quick tour of all of the important spots. I had arrived after 9 and hadn't called to let him know that I was planning on catching the 7:00 ferry so I thought it was quite nice of him to hop in the car to get me straight away, give me a tour, and continue to inquire if I didn't need to stop somewhere to eat. The room was quite comfortable...with a queen sized bed, private bath, futon, fridge, microwave, sink, some basic dishes, sat TV, and wireless internet access (which I think one of the guys staying there was able to get while out on the patio with the hammock).
view of Culebrita from Zoni
Definitely not huge but there was just one of me so no problem there. It was very quiet and relaxing. Elias recommends renting a car while you are there. I opted not to at first and it was not a big deal walking into town to catch the publico ($2) to playa flamenco.
Playa Flamenco (and all of the beaches actually) is public and there is a campground right there. According to locals, holy week is NOT the time to come to Culebra...particularly toward the end of the week and the weekend...if you are looking for the usual Culebra atmosphere and experience. The best time, they say, is the winter...the summer also gets more "tourist ridden":) I walked around Dewey for a bit to try and get my bearings and to try and find a map or something...that was a bit of a challenge.
Cloudy day, but you can barely see St Thomas in the distance (to the left)
I was told "we really don't have one" but there is a visitor guide for sale at some stores (most were out of it though) and it has a map. Dewey isn't very big so it isn't all that necessary I suppose, but I just felt better with a map to make sure I could make my way back to Casa Robinson:) I also inquired about renting a bike ($15/day) SO, my day at playa flamenco...it was a bit cloudy when I was walking into town and caught the publico, got on the beach, decided to splurge and rent a beach chair (a little steep at $7!), and got situated, and then it started to rain. Just sprinkling at first, then more, and then a downpour. ugh! I wrapped myself up in the blanket I had and tried to cover up my beach bag with my towel as best as possible as to not soak everything in it.
I kept thinking positively that it was sure to blow right over despite the very dark clouds filling the sky! Then the wind kicked up. hmm...not passing over and pretty much everyone else ran for their camp sites or some other shelter. but no, not me, the die hard beach-goer...I endured!:) really, it was more just because I really didn't feel like doing the whole trekk again once the sun came out again, which was sure to happen as soon as I left. I considered just swimming since it wouldn't matter getting more wet at that point, but the lifeguard would randomly come onto the beach and make people get out. The whole system didn't really make sense to me and my spanish is rather poor these days so I just sat pathetically in my makeshift tent in the wind and rain.
It died down a bit after 40 minutes or so and I could uncover...ahhh. But then it started again, and the chair guy came over and had decided that it was so not worth his time to be on the beach today and gave me my money back and kicked me out of the chair:( This downpour didn't last quite so long and once it passed through that was the end of the rain...thankfully! There were a few other people on the beach during that onslaught, but I am sure that I looked like quite the fool:) The rest of the day was windy and somewhat cloudy, but had sunny periods so it ended up being on ok beach day. Sunny enough that despite my attempts to prevent it, I got rather burned in some spots:(
I had decided that I really did want to check out some other beaches and spots on the island the next day.
my spot on zoni beach
Being that the island is only 7 miles long I thought it rather silly to rent a car. I figured I could run or bike just about anywhere...but when I spoke to the bike guy he gave me a look that suggested the terrain was a bit more challenging than I had surmised. The bike trip out to Zoni Beach is about 5 miles or so and he said it would take an hour or so. really??? As much as I wanted to be the girl who easily biked or ran to various spots on the island and wanted to exercise...the next morning I was less than motivated and thought about the rain incident from yesterday and to my dismay decided to rent a car. I hate renting a car....especially to drive 5 miles! but I am glad I did:) It was a rather tricky trip out to Zoni Beach with lots of hills and curves.
view from Casa Robinson
I think if I had more time there I would have been more willing to spend time biking, but as I was wanting to optimize beach time I think the car was a good idea. You can also rent a scooter (which I also considered, but I figured I could load my luggage in the car the next day and not have to worry about bothering Elias with transporting me). You get a 10%discount at Carlos Jeep Rental when staying at Casa Robinson and they have a courtesy pick up service (which I didn't use and they seemed to be surprised that someone would choose to walk to their office instead:)). They were very nice and helpful as well. There is only 1 place to get gas and the hours are rather limited so you will want to note that as posted at the car rental office (there is an office at the airport and across the street).
another view from the casa
You may want to book in advance if it seems like it might be a busy time on the island (www.carolsjeeprental.com). Zoni Beach is about a 15 min drive from the Casa. Some beautiful views as you turn the corner and start down toward the beach. You know that feeling you have when you see an "unknown" band in a small venue and you can just tell that they are going to be famous some day and that you immediately gain some "cool points" because you knew them when...that is Zoni Beach. Isolated, unknown, and very cool. For quite awhile I was the only one on the beach...over the course of the day more people came and went but it was still rather private. You can see St. Thomas from the beach, and closer in is Culebrita with its historic lighthouse (circa 1874). I assume that when the sea is less tumultuous that the beach is a bit wider, softer sand (versus wet sand), bluer water, and a little less full of remnants of the sea:) It was still quite nice, rustic, and isolated. I spent some time talking with a guy who has been to Culebra quite a few times and he said that Zoni Beach is his fav & often there is no one else around.
There are other spots that are better for surfing and snorkeling...some of those beaches are only accessed by foot. The locals can tell you which places are best for sunsets, surf, snorkel, etc. And for all of that, you probably would do better to have car as annoying at that is!
I only ate out one night, and went to the Dinghy Dock upon recommendation, which is on the water. There are tables around the bar that give you a nice waterfront view. It opens at 6:30 for dinner...I got there quite a bit after that so I had a long wait. If you are hungry, get there on time:) Put your name on the list that is lying on the bar. You can order apps at the bar, but not meals. I spent time talking with a really fun couple that I had met previously as they were also staying at the Casa, and then shared the table with another couple who kindly bought be a glass of wine for sharing the table with them. I felt bad taking up a prime spot all by my lonesome once the first couple was seated so I had invited the second couple to join me. They were all very nice...but I did feel a little bad infringing upon their romantic moments with the usual chit chat you have with people you have just met. There was live music that night which was nice. The food was ok...or maybe I was just past being hungry at that point:) I had grilled mahi mahi and that was good, the salad bar and options that went with the entree were ok. They also have lots of drink options at the bar.
I had caught wind of the murmuring about the ferry being cancelled the day before I left and the mayhem that ensued with people trying to get off of the island. Islanders that I spoke to made it sound like the ferry would probably be cancelled the day I was leaving as well, but maybe not. They also seemed to think that I could easily get a flight out on demand, no worries. So i didn't worry...until I met that second couple at dinner and she was all freaked out, happy she had a flight the next afternoon already booked, and raised her eyebrows at any indication that I would just go in the morning and figured I would eventually get a flight. There was really no other option as I had decided not to stand in line the day before and had realized a few hours previous that my phone was dead and I had forgotten my charger (even though I could remember pulling it out of the outlet at home...hmmm...a little maddening). So I got up earlier than I had planned or wanted and there were a few people at the airport, but I easily got on the next flight out. They indicated that once noon hit that it would probably get absolutely insane and by the afternoon that people who had not booked flights may not get off the island. So, if that happens while you are there I suggest getting there in the AM:)
Culebra is beautiful, natural, quiet, and a more "off the beaten track" Caribbean experience. I suppose if you are looking for more excitement, Culebra isn't for you or just take the ferry over for the day or come during Holy Week and join in with the folks who bring the party over from the big island!:) I was able to spend a lot of time reading, napping on the beach, getting rid of all of the knots in my back that were waging war before I left (although a massage would have been much cheaper!), and doing a lot of thinking and sorting out some bigger life issues that I knew I needed to spend some time investing my energy upon (I will spare you all of those details!:) )