Why You Should Unplug in Vieques – Puerto Rico’s Hidden Gem
On my previous post I gave you a tour of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Now we need a break from the crowds and the bustle of a big city. Let’s discover Vieques (vee-yeh-kehs) together, a gorgeous, laid back neighboring island, with amazing beaches, lingering sunsets and wild horses roaming around.
The unique thing about Vieques is that it became a touristic attraction only in early 2000s, as it was occupied by U.S. Navy until then. A good part of the island is now considered a Wild National Refuge. The beauty of this is place is that new construction and development is still limited to only part of the island. There is enough civilization and conveniences to have comforts, yet you can just as easily find a nook or a beach where you’re the only human in sight. Let’s take a closer look at this Caribbean beauty.
Getting to Vieques
There are two ways to get from San Juan (mainland PR) to Vieques: by plane or ferry. There is a third way, of course, the good old fashioned method of swimming, although that may be rough on the luggage. 🙂
By ferry: The ferry route takes a lot longer, as you first have to drive or take a cab to the Fajardo Port on the northeastern shore, which is about 1 hour and 15 minutes from San Juan, in good traffic. Then, the ferry ride itself takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Therefore, you are looking at at least three hours in transit. This option is much more cost-effective though, a round trip for two people and a car will cost you under $35. The question you need to ask yourself is what’s more important for you during your trip – saving money or maximizing your time in Vieques?
By plane: This is the speedy and more costly option, however, this was the route we chose to minimize travel time and maximize relaxation time. It is also quite an adventure, as you fly on a small eight-passenger plane to get to Vieques. There are a few companies that fly there. We went with Vieques Air Link, as they had the best prices at about $144 per person round trip.
We flew out of the Isla Grande Airport, also known as Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport. From Old San Juan, we grabbed a cab and negotiated a flat fare to get there for $20 plus tip. At the airport, which is literally a waiting room plus a few offices, you check in and that includes providing your weight and weighing your luggage. Ladies, be ready for this. This is not the time to lie about your weight, as everyone’s safety depends on it. The reason they ask for each passenger’s weight is because they need to evenly distribute the weight inside the plane for balance. After you check in, you can wait in the sitting area, quietly telling yourself that it’ll be OK, and that the views will be worth the fear.
A note to over-packers: There are strict limits on luggage weight, so beware of this when deciding whether to go by plane. Each passenger is allowed only 25 pounds, and that includes your personal items. Otherwise, you are looking at additional charges and the risk that your luggage may not be able to fly with you, if the plane weight limit is reached. The good news is that it forces you to pack lightly, which means less hassle when you need to drag the bag to and from places.
When you arrive, whether you get to Vieques by ferry of plane, you are not far from anything, as it’s a small island and most hotels and lodging are no more than a 15-20 minute drive.
Vieques has something for everyone. You can stay at the luxurious W Resort & Spa for $400+ per night, find a budget hotel for $100+ or rent a condo or apartment to your liking. We tried out staying at a budget hotel and renting an apartment, which were more FI-friendly, and simply visited the W for drinks in their swanky lounge.
First, you need to decide which part of the island you want to stay on. The island is split into two halves, so to speak. The western side is open to the public and has lodging, while the eastern side is the Refuge. You can stay on the northern side, around the town of Isabel II, or you can head to the southern town of Esperanza.
Second, pick the type of accommodations you are looking for: high end hotel, budget hotel, or apartment for rent.
W Resort & Spa
While we didn’t stay in the main hotel building, we’re quite certain that the luxurious prices are there for a reason. We came to the lounge in the lobby for drinks and the property is gorgeous. They also have villas in the area for rent, where we attended a friend’s destination wedding, and as you can see the views are quite picturesque. If you’re looking to splurge and be pampered, the W is the place for you. Although, we couldn’t justify staying there and sleep well at night, since we know that we could stay a whole week elsewhere on the island for what 2 nights at the W would cost us. It’s about getting value for our life energy.
There are a few options available if you look on sites such as Hotels.com. This is my favorite site for regular hotel bookings, as I like their rewards program. Stay 10 nights, get one free, the value of which is the average of the 10 nights you paid for.
We chose the Sea Gate Hotel for a two night stay. It’s located in the town of Isabel II, in a hilly area. The service was nice, and the accommodations were simple and clean. We splurged a bit and got the Standard Suite for about $150 per night, which has a small kitchen, sitting area, bedroom and bathroom. The best part of that suite, however, was…drum roll please…the hammock on the terrace overlooking gorgeous views! The terrace was big and connected two units on the second floor, so the hammock was to be shared. Our neighbors were hardly ever outside though, so we got exclusive chill privileges. Grab a cold drink, kick back and enjoy the enchumbao moment.
They served a continental breakfast that’s included in your stay, which consisted of fresh fruit, coffee or tea, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, boiled eggs and toast. That was plenty to get us started for the day. This was a good option for this stay, as it was only two nights, and buying groceries and cooking didn’t make sense.
Renting a place
After Sea Gate, we decided to stay for a week at a loft in Esperanza, on the southern side of the island. We went through VRBO, which lists condos, apartments and villas for rent, usually with a three night minimum stay required. After plenty of research, we came across the Pink House, which as exactly what we needed. It was a studio loft apartment on the second floor of the house. The first floor is also for rent, by the way. We were only a five minute walk to a grocery store and a 10 minute walk to Esperanza’s main street. The best part about this place was the wraparound porch. We’d brew fresh coffee every morning, Mr. Enchumbao would walk to a local bakery about 10 minutes away and bring us fresh bread every day, which reminded him of his daily childhood bakery walks in the Dominican Republic. Then, we’d sit on the porch, watch the wild horses roam the streets in search of edible plants, and read a book or “mint” for a bit. One word to describe those mornings: ahhhhhhhhh.
The Pink House itself was simple and lovely, and definitely fairly priced at $105 per night in the slow season (we stayed there in May). We considered staying there for three nights, and three nights at another nearby property that was cheaper, however, when I e-mailed the owner and asked if they can offer a discount if we stay the full six nights, we got $5 off per night, which was enough of a compromise to stay the full six night at the Pink House and avoid having to pack and relocate to another property. A win-win situation for us and the Pink House landlord – me likey. 🙂
The loft has a full kitchen, a studio layout with plenty of space to sit around in, and DVDs to watch, as they don’t have cable. We had a night with Rain Man on one rainy day, which meant Mr. Enchumbao was talking like the main character for the next two weeks. “Yes, yes, yes” and “I’m a good drivah”. Oh, boy! The property manager was very helpful in providing tips to explore places that fit our interests and dropped us off at the airport at no extra charge. Overall, we strongly recommend this place and will stay there again when back in Vieques.
If it’s your first visit to Vieques, I would definitely recommend renting a four wheel drive car. The island has many places to discover, which you need a car for to get around. There isn’t a proper public transpiration system in place yet, and taking taxis all over the place can get pricey. The car is essential if you want to discover the more remote beaches on the southeastern side of the island, and a four wheeler is a must to navigate the rough terrain you go through to get to some of those beaches.
We rented an SUV for a few days from the Vieques Car Rental, which was cheaper than some other places, as they have older vehicles. You have plenty of places to choose from though. We ended up needing to call the rental office when our car battery died one day. They arrived within 20 minutes and jump started it. They also offered us a $5 discount per day at check out for the inconvenience, which was a nice touch.
By far the biggest reason I love Vieques are the virgin beaches. The southern beaches are calmer and more serene, while the northern ones has bigger waves and more pebbles in the sand. We got to explore the southern side well. If you start out at Esperanza, and go east, you come to the Sun Bay Beach, pictured below. It is one of the few beaches with facilities onsite, including bathrooms, camp-grounds, and a small cafe. Most of the beaches east of there are virgin and undeveloped. The Sun Bay is a big beach, so you can easily spread out and find a relatively private space. This is where we walked most days from The Pink House, as it was only about 20 minutes away.
If you go east from Sun Bay Beach, past the wild horses grazing the nearby fields, and follow the dirt path road, you come to Media Luna Beach, which is great for snorkeling. This was about an hour walk from The Pink House, so that’s as far as we went down that path. We didn’t mind it though, as we like walking, however, we had to time it right, as you don’t want to be walking in the dark. There are no street lights in the gravel roads that lead you to the remote beaches and there is plenty of wildlife in the bushes, the sounds of which can creep out even grown adults. Adventure, anyone?
When we had a car though, we drove through the Wildlife Reserve entrance to the most remote beaches. We stopped at four of them along the drive. My favorite was the Blue Beach, now called Chiva. The views are spectacular, the water is so transparent, and we only saw three other humans there during our three hours stay. Be sure to bring everything you need with you, as the only thing the beach has are palm trees, sand and water.
Site-seeing and tours
When you aren’t being a beach bum, you can visit the different towns and walk around a bit. Don’t expect historic sights like those in Old San Juan though. Most of the construction is relatively modern. Below is what we did while in Vieques.
Town of Esperanza
Personally, I like Esperanza more than Isabel II. It has a chill, hippie-like atmosphere, and the main street that runs along the coast offers many restaurants to choose from, a few shops and bars. You can easily spend a few hours here bar-hopping and people watching. At night, they have some local vendors selling jewelry and other hand-made things along the street.
Bio Bay Tour
This tour, consisting of kayaking through the Bio Bay at night, was an amazing experience you simply have to try. We went on the 10 p.m. tour, which meant it was pitch dark, and you could see the bioluminescent organisms that much better. It truly was an out of this world experience. You kayak through the bay with your guide and others on the tour, and every time someone touches the water with an oar or a hand, the bio organisms in the water start glowing as a defense mechanism. Then, you can look up at the sky and see an amazing array of stars, like nowhere else. The bay area prohibits any construction or outside lights within a several miles radius, so you have the rare opportunity to be in true natural darkness. When planning your trip, be sure to check the full moon calendar. Your goal is to go on the tour when there is as little of the moon showing as possible, for the best contrast of darkness to bioluminescent organisms. Also, be sure to check with the tour company you choose on the current condition of the bay. A big hurricane a few years back diluted the bio bay concentration of organisms, which means it’ll take time for the bay to replenish the concentration for the full glow effect again.
Old Ceiba Tree
This is the oldest resident of Vieques and the kind of tree that makes you realize that life goes on before and after you’re born. It’s located in the northwestern side of the island, just off the main road. Any local map of Vieques will have an indicator of where to find it. Most of the lodging places give out free maps upon check in with local landmarks on them and beach guides, so worry not.
Dancing the night away
This is not a party island by any means, but you can still break a sweat here. Come to Esperanza at night and you won’t miss Latin music blasting from a local hole in the wall place in the middle of main street. It’s really more of a bar with a roof in the back above a concrete dance floor. But it’s free, casual and fun.
Indulging and savoring
We tried numerous places for food and drinks, and most of them were pretty good. In Esperanza, we had a nice lunch at Bili’s, which served strong mojitos and a great octopus appetizer. We also tried Bananas for dinner, which was meh, so I would skip this one. In Isabel II, we had a decent mofongo at Sabores, and also tried a well-reviewed Conuco, which turned out to be overpriced for just OK food. Mostly, we cooked at our loft though, which is the best restaurant in town, as Mr. Enchumbao is quite the chef.
Overall, Vieques is very safe. Petty crime like theft is common, so keep an eye on your belongings at all times. For example, when we rented a car, the employee advised us to leave the car doors unlocked, so that thieves would know there is nothing of value in the car, and won’t break your window to get in. Needless to say, he also told us to never leave anything in the car that looked worthy of stealing. They don’t bother stealing the cars there, since it’s a small island, and the only way to transport a stolen vehicle is by ferry, which the police would easily stop in progress.
A note on Culebra
This is another neighboring island, which looks gorgeous from all the pictures we saw of it online, however, we didn’t make it there yet. If you visit during the high dry season of December-April, there are ferries going between Vieques and Culebra. However, during the low season starting in May, when we visited, you have to go back to Fajardo first and then go to Culebra, which was too much hassle. We’ll just have to make a separate trip to Culebra in the future.