On paper, Vieques is idyllic: a Caribbean island, 21 miles long by 4 miles wide, with only 9,000 residents, no stoplights, no megaresorts, and an airport that can’t handle anything larger than a Cessna. There are gorgeous sandy beaches with water in more shades of blue than you thought the sea was capable of. Most of the beaches are completely untouched by development – and they’re never crowded.
The reality is somewhat more complicated, as is always the case with utopian-sounding places. Until local protests in the late 1990’s, the US Navy occupied two thirds of the island. They used it for target practice…a fact which boggles the mind after you see the beauty of the place. Luckily, the Navy left about a decade ago and the government wisely turned the land into a wildlife refuge. It’s also a Superfund site, and the cleanup of toxic waste and munititions (spent & otherwise) is ongoing.
I’m happy to report that the beach situation is just as promised, however. In a week’s stay we didn’t even come close to running out of great ones to visit. None were crowded, and most were quite secluded and natural…not to mention beautiful. Although a couple beaches do have basic facilities (bathrooms, shelters), none are marred by the kind of development that can ruin great beachs: there are no hotels, condos, vacation homes, casinos or nightclubs to be found. The only downside is that you won’t find lodging that’s walking distance to the beach…if you want a car-free vacation, Vieques isn’t your place.
What it is a good place for is a relaxing, low-key vacation focused mostly on beachgoing and lounging. There aren’t many non-beach “activities,” and the tourist sightseeing opportunities are limited. You don’t come here to eat; we found a few decent restaurants, but overall the food is quite forgettable. There’s almost zero shopping or nightlife to be found. If these facts dissuade you from going, good…you’re probably not a Vieques person. You’ll appreciate this island most if you’re looking for a slow-paced trip and you’re prepared to relax, take it easy, and enjoy sun, sand, and water.
The one non-beach activity I do highly recommend, though, is visiting the Bio Bay. Puerto Mosquito (trust me, there are plenty of ’em) is purported to be the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay. Microscopic plankton, nourished by the surrounding mangroves, get trapped here and give off a tiny glimmer of light when disturbed. They’re in such abundance that, at night, you can easily see your hand outlined in an eerie green glow when you stick it in the water. Thousands of tiny dots of greenish light fly by underneath the transparent kayaks you paddle around in. It’s a strange effect that’s difficult to describe and impossible to photograph. The whole experience is a key feather in the cap of Vieques’ attempt to market itself as an eco-tourism destination. Although it’s not a life-changing experience, it’s definitely unique and completely worth it.
Adminstratively and culturally, Vieques is a part of Puerto Rico, but it’s geographically distinct from “mainland” PR. Along with it’s island neighbor, Culebra, Vieques forms what are referred to as the “Spanish Virgin Islands.” St. Thomas, in the US Virgin islands, is easily visible in the East. If history had gone just a little differently, Vieques & Culebra could have been part of the USVIs, which are mostly populated by the English-speaking descendants of freed African slaves. Instead, these islands were ruled from San Juan by the Spanish for many years, and the culture is firmly Latin. For me, the dramatically different cultures you experience on an island-by-island basis, all caused by the random turns of history over the centuries, is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Caribbean.
That said, if you’re considering going to Vieques, it’s probably for the beaches. Navio was my favorite, with Pata Prieta and Playa Caracas runners up. Some of the beaches had a lot of seagrass washed up on the shore, but that could just be the time of year (and it was never enough to be a big problem). We didn’t find any awesome, sheltered, a-few-feet-from-shore snorkeling spots, but there must be some. Or maybe I’m just be spoiled by my trips to Hawaii. The water in Vieques is warmer, though, and the beaches have more breathtaking layers of azure and indigo than anywhere I’ve been.