Saturday, January 19, 2013

Culebra versus Vieques

Sun Bay, Vieques, Puerto Rico.
 Which to visit: Culebra or Vieques?  This was the question looming on my mind as I was preparing a recent eleven day visit to Puerto Rico.  I was traveling on somewhat of a budget, on winter break from law school, and wanted to relax and enjoy some camping with my wife away from the cold weather of New York.  So what would it be? I asked myself.  I had spent days reading as much information as I could about both islands and wanted to make sure that we would get the most of out of our vacation. 

Looking at various websites and travel guides, it was very hard to make the decision.  After having spent a month meandering our way through Central America and two months exploring Thailand, an eleven day trip seemed somewhat brief.  However, since I would be camping, or "roughing it" as some call it, I figured that eleven days may be enough before I find myself missing the futon in my shoe box sized Manhattan apartment. 

It then hit me, why not do both?  It would be cheaper than renting a car on the main island of Puerto Rico or a lot less of a hassle than dealing with getting around by publico to various campsites.  I also realized that it would probably be a lot cheaper in the end.  I have since learned that when budget traveling, a good way to save money includes not moving from place to place as much.  Therefore, planning to spend most of our Puerto Rico vacation on the islands of Vieques and Culebra seemed like a great idea.  Furthermore, since both of the campgrounds, Sun Bay on Vieques and Flamenco on Culebra, did not require advance reservations, it seemed like a great idea for a trip.

Vieques


Sun Bay Sunset on Vieques.
The next question was "which island to visit first?"  This question was immediately answered upon reaching the ferry terminal in Fajardo.  The line snaked down the block and around the corner for the ferry to Culebra.  Yet, there was a small line of only a few people for the Vieques ferry.  Vieques it would be.  We were told we could reserve a ticket for Culebra and we gladly did.  This was rather easy, but I could not help but feel bad for those who would be spending most of the day waiting for a ferry to Culebra.  As we left the ticket booth we noticed that the ferry to Culebra would be full and everyone would have to wait for a 1:00 ticket.  A wait of almost 5 hours! 

Arriving at Vieques was exciting.  The ferry pulled up to the ferry terminal after a long voyage on rough seas.  People spilled off the ferry into the town of Isabel II, making their way to publicos and taxis that were headed to various spots around the island.  At first it was chaos.  We stood, waiting with our gear, until a publico for Sun Bay arrived.  A few minutes later we were taken across the green and hilly interior of the island and over a crest where we could see the Caribbean before us.  What an awesome view!  We were let off at Sun Bay and began to look for the campground.

Sun Bay was different than expected.  Maybe it was the fact that I had been stuck with the cold weather of the north for a while now, but I was greatly impressed with the beach.  Palm trees were scattered everywhere, sand went on as the beach curved in the distance.  Toward the horizon was an island with shallow water that one could wade across to get to.  But that would have to wait.  It was time to find the campground. 

The first thing I noticed upon reaching the camp site was that there were hardly anyone present.  In fact, even the registration office was closed.  Luckily, we met a couple of men who were camping for a month and they told us that the office was generally closed later in the day, but we could pay the $10 a night fee in the morning.  That seemed to be the norm there, after talking to others that were arriving or who had been at the campsite.  We were even told that one person lived at the campsite and worked at a restaurant in the nearby town.  After seeing the beach and comparing the slow laid back lifestyle of Vieques with the more hectic lifestyle that I was used to, I can see why a person would be drawn to live like that for at least a while. 

After setting up camp, we made our way to the town of Esperanza.  Most of the town flanks the coast, with small restaurants and tour companies for the bio bay commanding the best real estate (and views).  There was a couple small grocery stores in town to purchase needed provisions.  The walk along the beach into town is picturesque.  In fact, I noticed a few campers opted out of staying in the campground, instead setting up elaborate camps near the shore and on the peninsula close to town.  One such set up reminded me of something one may see on an African safari, with a military style green tent that could fit perhaps a dozen men and a couple of jeeps parked near by.  I was immediately jealous.

My four day, three night stay on Vieques allowed me to visit the bio bay, explore Isabel II and Esperanza, and take in some of the sites of the interior of the island.  There is much to see on Vieques, and frankly, four days is not enough.  With that said, I enjoyed the island greatly and would love to one day return.  It is a quiet island full of surprises.  Snorkeling near Sun Bay was excellent, and there are chances to see Barracuda, Eagle Rays and even some Nurse Sharks (sadly I did not see the latter two). 

Culebra

It was now time to change islands.  Although I was leaving Vieques, I was thrilled to be getting to see Culebra.  Even though Culebra is less populated than Vieques, it seems to be the popular choice for a visit.  At first, I wondered what could be so different about these two islands?  I soon would find out.

Even though I purchased tickets in advance for the ferry to Culebra, I wondered if I would actually get a seat.  I spent most of the time on the ferry back from Vieques wondering, but upon arriving at the ferry terminal in Fajardo, I found that the ferry would not even be filling up.  There were maybe thirty or forty people on board when the ferry finally pulled out, and many of these people were locals who lived on Culebra. 

The journey to Culebra was far more interesting than that to Vieques.  I was able to sit up top outside and take in the view of many small islands and the seemingly unending Atlantic on the horizon.  An hour later the ferry arrived in Dewey, the main town of Culebra, and I was starting to really get excited. 

Carlos Rosario Beach on Culebra.
Dewey is a picturesque little town that fills up the area between the ocean and Ensenada Honda, the inlet where many boats drop anchor.  Publicos, like on Vieques, are plentiful and getting a ride to Flamenco Beach was a breeze.  Unlike Sun Bay, Flamenco Beach Campground was packed.  This would change as I spent the next week or so on the island.  Unlike Sun Bay, where the campsites are open to the ocean, the Flamenco campsites are mostly blocked by palm trees and thick bushes.  That means that unless you are one of the lucky few in area E, your tent won't face the ocean.  That wasn't a big deal to me, however, as the beach was a few steps away from where I finally set up camp.

Unlike Sun Bay, Flamenco Beach has a few kiosks where one can easily eat.  However, Sun Bay was much closer to a town with cheap groceries.  On Culebra, if you do not want to pay the higher prices for food at the kiosks, you have to either walk to town (30 minutes one way) or pay $3 one way for a publico.  This wasn't a huge deal to me, but it may be for someone who is staying long term or who is budgeting. 

Both Flamenco Beach and Sun Bay are close to other beaches that one can walk to.  Carlos Rosario and Playa Tamirindo are very close to Flamenco Beach and are relatively unvisited compared to Flamenco Beach.  Hiking to these beaches was a pleasure and I really enjoyed the time that I was able to spend snorkeling here.

Another thing I loved about Culebra was the ability to hunt for fresh coconut.  Finding and drinking from a young coconut on Culebra was a pleasure that I had not experienced before.  Many people were hunting for coconuts and sometimes it was a challenge to find one. 

I must say, when I finally did leave Culebra I was sad to go.  I really enjoyed my time on Culebra, and would have loved to stay longer.  I can see why some people spend months on the island. 

Conclusion


I am very glad I went to both islands.  It is hard for me to pick a favorite.  I think that most people probably choose Culebra to visit.  Flamenco Beach is a wonderful campsite and, tucked in between the hills and the sea, it's truly a slice of Paradise.  With that said, I had a great time at Sun Bay and would definitely go back.  Sun Bay is truly an underrated beach.  If I had to choose one and had never beach camped before, I may go with Flamenco Beach on Culebra.  This would be true, especially if I did not rent a car.  Hiking to the nearby beaches of Carlos Rosario and Playa Tamarindo was a pleasure, and an amazing place to watch the sunset.  Both Culebra and Vieques, however, are quite different and are both worth a visit if you have the time.    Vieques has a lot to see that I was unable to see, and I wish I would have been able to take the time and visit some of the other beaches as well as the mile long pier that is said to offer amazing snorkeling.  I am sure that one day I will return and be able to do that.

Further Points


  • Both beaches have nearby snorkeling.  I liked the snorkeling a little more at Carlos Rosario on Culebra.
  • Sun Bay on Vieques has less people than Flamenco Beach on Culebra.  It is also $10 per night to camp on Sun Bay instead of $20 a night for Flamenco Beach.  With that said both beaches are gorgeous.
  • Sun Bay is closer to a town, but does not have kiosks on site.  Vieques also has the best Bio Bay in the world according to most sources.
  • Vieques is a larger island with more to explore, but having a vehicle on Vieques is a good idea if you really want to see everything.  I found that not having a vehicle is fine on Culebra, but would want to rent one if I went back to Vieques.
  • Getting to Vieques is a lot easier than getting to Culebra during the weekend and busy times.
  • Both beaches get quiet at night, but Sun Bay is truly silent once the sun goes down.  However, if you are interested in getting out at night, Esperanza is close by. 
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This post is a guest post by J.R.A. creator of the blog The Vegan Gypsies.

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