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17th July
2010
written by Tony

Playa Pata Prieta, Vieques, Puerto Rico

Part One: Getting There, Vieques, Beaches. The photos have been edited, the receipts tallied and the bags unpacked, so now it’s time to set down in writing our experiences in the verdant paradise that is Puerto Rico. Thanks to the diversity of this tiny kaleidoscope of an island we’ll be breaking this review into several posts, those roughly corresponding to the stages of our trip and one final post giving a general overview of our impressions of Puerto Rico as a whole, some handy travel advice and a book review (or two) of sorts concerning some of the travel guides that we used on our trip. So, let’s get right to it. We began our trip with a generally unremarkable drive to Atlanta (the bargain tickets were available from ATL, unfortunately bargain tickets to places of interest are not generally to be had out of Nashville), which was fine once we fought our way out of some unusually bad long-weekend Nashville traffic. We stayed at the airport Westin long enough to kick the clammy sheets into a ball and get up the next day for our 8 a.m. flight to San Juan.

Flying out of Fajardo

Landing in San Juan the weather was remarkably similar to what we are used to here in Tennessee, but with a touch more humidity. We immediately hired a cab and headed to Fajardo where we planned to catch the 3 p.m. ferry to Vieques in order to pick up our rental car by 5 and make it to our room by 6. As with any tightly scheduled plan relying on timing and a dash of luck, things quickly fell apart after the hour-long cab ride, beginning with the ferry. Apparently, arriving an hour early is not early enough, because the tickets appeared to be long sold out by the time we arrived. How this happened remains a bit of a mystery to us, as there is no apparent way to reserve tickets and they only start selling the tickets an hour early. We arrived at 2:10, which was 10 minutes too late it seems. The woman behind us in line was a vacationing New Yorker and unfortunately upheld most of the poor stereotypes. She changed hotels because the water wasn’t “blue enough” in San Juan at her “boutique hotel.” They were going to stay at the Ritz, but wanted to do something more “edgy”, blah, blah, blah.

The very calm passenger behind me. I wish all children on planes were this good.

She claimed New York has nice blue water, so why couldn’t they here too? I noted, silently, that this is kind of an insane sentiment (New Yorkers feel free to correct me here, but your beach bears little resemblance to the Caribbean in my experience). She proceeded to argue with the locals about a policy that gives residents of Vieques priority over other people waiting for the ferry. She then called one of the airlines recommended by the desk agent at the ferry and frustrated the woman on the other end to the point that the agent hung up and, apparently, said “I’m tired of your English.” Amazing. Steph called, which went much better, despite Steph speaking English. Her lack of inane questions about the type of airplane probably helped. After waiting until 3 to find out if they could stuff a few more passengers on the ferry, or possibly shuttle us in with the next cargo ferry at 4, the heat and frustration of our impending deadlines got the better of us and we headed to the nearby airport in Cieba that the desk agent recommended and booked a 10 minute flight to our island destination for $24.00 per person, each direction. Let me just say that we are both immensely glad that we paid the extra $22.00 over the ferry’s $2.00 fare and took the flight. Not only did we beat the 3:00 ferry to the island, but the flight itself was a delight and everything else on our schedule went off without a hitch. If you’ve never been in a tiny 10-seater plane, it’s truly a flying experience like no other. So exhilarating and the views are spectacular!

The airport at Isabelle II

After they unloaded the car parts, pizza boxes and our luggage, we took a publico (van for hire) to our car rental agency (Maritza’s, very friendly and knowledgeable) picked our Jeep up and headed off to our guest room at the Villa Coral. The gentleman at Maritza’s noted, in no uncertain terms, that we were not to hit the horses with our Jeep. Ah, well. As we had been planning a horse hit-and-run spree this put a damper on our spirits for obvious reasons. Just kidding ponies! In all seriousness, it’s easy to see why they give this warning, as wild horses essentially run this island and wander the roads, yards and forests with impunity. Add to this wild roosters, chickens and stray dogs and you have a unique mélange of animals staring at you as you drive the narrow roads, barely avoiding being run off the road if you meet an oncoming car. We navigated the largely unmarked roads southward to Esperanza and our guesthouse, Villa Coral which is situated north of the beach in the upper roads of the village. Despite the fact that Esperanza has no more than 10 roads, we managed to become thoroughly turned around, as there are a total of not more than three street signs for the whole place. There are, I assure you, more than three intersections. Villa Coral was everything we needed it to be: clean, quiet, well kept and air-conditioned. The room was a bit small, but since our plans revolved mostly around schlepping around the beaches and doing little else besides sleeping in the room this was fine by us. Our first meal was, at the innkeeper’s excellent recommendation, El Quenepo. It’s fair to say that this is one of the best meals we’ve had in a very, very long time. The seafood was fresh, as it should be, the flavors were impeccable and we had the best flan I’ve ever had (it was Steph’s first flan and the beginning of a new obsession). Oh, and we got to try conch (in the form of fritters) and it was delicious! After that high note we wandered the Malecón (sea-front promenade) a bit, until the mosquitoes became too much, at which point we limped back to our room and fell into bed.

Need a coconut? Step into your front yard.

The next morning started with roosters chasing a wild pony down our street, and then a 45-minute fight with the Jeep trying to peel its God forsaken top off, to no avail. Buckets of sweat and several nylon-induced blisters later we took a trip to a general store and then the neighboring bakery just down the road from our guesthouse, with the top very much up, but all windows torn out so we could catch a little breeze. From there we headed west, saw a random lechonera (suckling pig vendor) decided to stop and bought $10.00 of some of the best pork we’ve ever had. He included the savory plantains (as opposed to the sweet variety), which are essentially like mealy, long potatoes. Lechon solamente, por favor. Now prepared to face the day, we headed into the nature reserve to the “secret” beach recommended by our innkeeper, Playa Pata Prieta (also, this beach’s official name, which appears on maps, is “Secret Beach”, which seems odd given that it’s ON A MAP). Despite this being a holiday weekend and throngs of vacationing puertorriqueños having taken over the island, we had the beach entirely to ourselves. After an hour a random couple showed up, went to the opposite end of the beach and may as well have not been there. A small boat rolled in, stayed away and we essentially had over half this considerable beach to ourselves. After vacationing in Florida and visiting other beaches, both on the west and east coast, this Caribbean isolation was a revelation. If you want to go to the beach and not have to use a passport there is simply no other choice. Puerto Rico’s beaches are second to none and are astonishingly deserted.

Isabelle II's city hall

After 4 hours in the surf it became apparent that I had sweated off my supposedly sweat-proof sunscreen and that I was headed for a rather severe burn. As my skin is essentially transparent (I’m really one step away from albino) I get burned just looking at the sun. Delightful, but also worth it. Steph, naturally, became a few shades darker but was none the worse for wear. We packed up shop and headed up to the north side of the island to see what we could find in Vieques’ other city, Isabelle Segundo (Isabelle II). On our way at the entrance to the reserve we stopped at a little food truck called Sol Food run by two ex-New Yorkers. The food was good and cheap, and my pinchos (skewered meat) and Steph’s pastille (empanada) were a good way to take care of a light lunch.

Off the main square, downtown Isabelle II

Isabelle II is blessed with far better bones than Esperanza, but is also clearly the working half of the island. While Isabelle II is more interesting to wander around, Esperanza is better suited for vacationing visitors (as the south side of the island has the better beaches). Isabelle II has the last Spanish fort built in the new world, an interesting lighthouse, a stunningly beautiful graveyard, colorful and well-kept buildings, restaurants, and the excellent Blackbeard’s surf shop, where we later rented our snorkel gear. As we drove aimlessly we began to wonder just what it would cost to buy a house here, as the idyllic nature of the island was beginning to overtake us. Our later research reveled that if you want a burned out shack that has no roof be ready to pay $180,000. Everything goes up from there. Holy. Shit. After eating a delicious mango that Steph found on the ground (no joking! It had just fallen from its tree!) we headed south again to try the Malecón and see what we could find. Not much, most of it looked too touristy for our taste, so we went back to the room to regroup.

Isabelle II's seaside graveyard

I utilized the internets and found out how to correctly drop the top on the Jeep. The process was just as I thought, but closer to breaking than disassembling. After some nervous tugging the top came down and it became obvious that rag-top Jeeps are really nothing more than shitty tents on wheels. Ay! We drove aimlessly some more to try and find dinner and ended up at The Next Course. Drinks were good, Steph’s dinner of fresh caught Ahi tuna was great and my steak came out well done (I had had requested medium rare) and then came out blue. I decided nearly raw was better than waiting more. Early to bed for an early morning.

The tiny dot off the left side is island one, the other bump about 3/4 of the way to the right is island two.

The next morning we headed up to Isabelle II and got our snorkel gear. After a criollo breakfast (it means “Creole,” but how that is interpreted appears to mean with peppers and onions). After, we headed to Playa Plata (aka Orchid Beach) where I got my sea legs and became comfortable with the equipment (we had to get goggles with lenses so I could see). Steph had never snorkeled before, but took to it like a natural. I got used to using my snorkel vest to compensate for my negative buoyancy. True story: if left to my own devices I simply sink. Even with a flotation device it’s not easy for me to stay afloat. Swimming, for me, is quite literally trying not to drown. After an hour at Orchid beach we had seen some small coral and fishes, so we decided to move on to Playa Chiva (Blue Beach) and try our luck there, as the guide at Blackbeard’s had said there was some good snorkeling to be had around the island in the bay there. There are two little islands in the bay, and at the first, smaller, island we saw: coral of all types, a purple eel (which looked very threatening when it was six inches from my face) and lots of sea grass. On our way across the bay to the larger island we saw what appeared to be a conch graveyard. The shells were enormous, some over a foot across or larger, and numerous — there were at least 50 that we could see.

Local artwork in Esperanza

Once we reached the west side of the island the real fun began. We ran into a full-on coral reef, replete with fishes of all kinds, sea urchins and all and sundry types of coral, in six to 12 feet of water. It was simply breathtaking. We paddled around for another hour or so here and decided to head back across the bay and call it a day. We ran into a huge school of tiny fish and watched their synchronized gyrations all around us. It was a very BBC Planet Earth moment. About halfway back our slog was rewarded with the highlight of the day (trip?): a giant sea turtle. This guy had to be at least six to seven feet long and must have weighed easily over 300 pounds. He (or she) was just chilling out on the bottom and paid us little mind. It was spectacular. More swimming and we washed up on the beach like two pieces of driftwood, just minutes before an all out downpour. Perfect timing, and among the most idyllic five hours we’ve ever spent. We wandered about a bit trying to find some food, had little luck, but ended up at Chicken King and Ice Cream (Vieques’ best fried chicken!). The chicken was good, but no southern fried chicken, that’s for sure. Bed!

One of the MANY wild roosters on the island

Woke up at 8:30ish, stiff, sore and one of us burnt (guess who!). We limped down to the Malecón to pick up some breakfast (finally taking pictures of the environs), but not before stopping at La Dulce Esperanza for some pastries! We wound up eating at Bellybutton’s, where we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food and the freshly squeezed lemonade. Breakfast was peaceful as we lounged about deserted and sleepy Malecón… I guess everyone was still sleeping or gone now that the long weekend was over!

A mango tree in the streets of Esperanza

After breakfast we hiked back up to our guesthouse, taking ample breaks due to the heat and humidity. When we made it back to our hotel, we both crashed for a nap… that took us until about 3 p.m. There went our plans to make it to Green Beach for more snorkeling, but given my painful sunburn and Steph’s headache, maybe that was for the best. Headed into Isabel II to drop off our snorkel gear and figure out dinner plans. Decided on El Meson Criollo (which apparently has rave-worthy mofongo). Outside Blackbeard’s Steph tripped and destroyed her upper leg. Not awesome. Thankfully, just a flesh wound, nothing broken, but her upper leg was now quite tender. El Meson Criollo was an interesting experience. We managed to order entirely in Spanish, and were dealing with a waitress who was not altogether very helpful or sympathetic to our lack of functional Spanish skills. Let’s just say that when Steph ordered “agua” she was told they didn’t have any… Alas, they had just served up the last order of fried pork (carne frita) mofongo, so Steph had to settle for pork loin. I ordered a pechuga empanada, which we thought would be a chicken empanada, but it turns out that it’s actually a breaded chicken cutlet. Tasty, but unexpected. Steph’s mofongo was very flavorful, but also very starchy, so we were glad for the side salad! Lots of good garlic, onion, and green pepper flavors, but even the two of us wouldn’t have been able to slay that mountain of mashed plantains! In the future we’ll probably pass on tostones, because while most things are better fried, fried mashed savory plantains aren’t all that interesting.

More Isabelle II, since we don't have images of the BioBay...

Headed back to the guesthouse and were intending to relax on the front porch and do some reading before heading out to tour one of Vieques’ bioluminescent bays, but wound up chatting with another couple staying at the place who were doing the same tour that evening. They were from Atlanta and the girl was a grad student in microbiology and the boyfriend (now living in Boston) was a post doc the in the same. They were weird but nice. I had an eerie premonition that they would turn out to be grad students before it was revealed. Ever since meeting Steph, my grad-dar has become quite accurate. They decided to walk to the tour location, while we drove. Somehow they made it in good time, despite distance being far greater than imagined. The tour staff at Island Adventures was friendly and funny, and did a great job throughout. We decided to do the electric pontoon boat tour, rather than the kayak tour, due to sore muscles. Cue one crazy bus ride, the huge bus squeezing through tiny openings in jungle, branches lashing everywhere. To Steph: “I’ve seen school busses used for a lot of things, but off-roading is a new one.” There was a brief rain, but nothing terrible. It was an overcast night, which was perfect, actually — no moon. The 9 o’clock tour was half as full compared to previous group, and we had the bay to ourselves. We got to get in the water, which was lovely. There are no words for how cool the luminescence is when you are in the water.

The view from above the Isabelle II graveyard

Anyone who decided to stay out made a poor decision. When you lift your hands out of the water it’s like a river of 1000 tiny stars flowing over your skin. Absolutely magical. Even the fear of jellyfish did not deter us. We hope this is still here when we come back, as it is very rare and easily destroyed. Apparently thie biobay here is the best one in the world, so you know, if you already didn’t have 3-full days worth of reasons to go to Puerto Rico, here’s yet another one! We headed home to wash the extra 30% of salinity from the bay off, jumped into bed and got ready for an early start the next day, which kicked off the start of our time on the Big Island... Stay tuned for our next installment where we drive the Ruta Panoramica, visit the Pork Highway, stumble upon a yoga retreat, and visit the Surfer Capital of Puerto Rico!

11 Comments

  1. 07/17/2010

    Sounds perfect, looks gorgeous! And I can definitely relate about the transparent skin as I myself am a genetic prescription for skin cancer – of English, Welsh, Irish and Austrian descent. My husband is similarly kind about coming out of the sun with me when it becomes too much.

    Perhaps I could have skipped off-roading in a school bus though!

  2. 07/17/2010

    This sounds so wonderful. Love all the details! And love the bit about the grad-dar! Looking forward to Part Two…

  3. 07/17/2010

    @Frances: My Irish and German roots have pretty much guaranteed that I’ll be feeling the sun’s wrath forever. I must say, that while the bus ride was slightly dreadful, I would take it every time to get to the BioBay, so worth it!

    @rhapsody: Thanks! We’ll keep the ball rolling.

  4. It sounds as though you had a fabulous time! I’m a big fan of luminescence – I’ve been diving in the dark a few times and having the sea light up as you move is amazing. I wish more people could experience it!

  5. 07/18/2010

    Wow!! This makes me even more keen to get to Puerto Rico one day! Though I think I will wait until my youngest has had a few more years in his Spanish emergence class and I’ll take him to order for me!

    My husband can’t float at all. No one in his family can, they get it from their dad.

  6. 07/18/2010

    Great post! I go to Puerto Rico at least a couple times a year (I have a condo in San Juan/Condado) and for me, Vieques Island is one of the most amazing side trips I’ve ever taken. The phosphorescent bay is simply AMAZING. It’s like being in a science fiction movie!

  7. taryn
    07/18/2010

    Right, so i actually haven’t read all of this yet, but i just wanted to say before i forgot: TONY, I TOO AM A SINKER!! I can remember in swimming lessons as a child, being told to just float on my back, and wondering “Am i doing something wrong?” as my body would slowly start to sink, generally starting with my feet. It has baffled my mother for years, let me tell you.

    So i’m glad such a thing as “negative buoyancy” exists! So much so that i don’t even care if this is a term that you made up; it exists to me.

  8. 07/18/2010

    @ Amanda: Spanish certainly won’t lead you astray in Puerto Rico, but pretty much everyone there does speak English! We only had two instances where no one would speak English to us, and that was at two small restaurants on Vieques. Both Tony & I were operating on highschool Spanish (read: Spanish that is 10+ years old at this point) and we were totally fine, so don’t use language as a reason to delay your trip!

  9. 07/19/2010

    It sounds like it was a paradise for you. I have never had a mashed plantain before, but I am not all that sure that I would enjoy it. I also think that the luminescence in the water is cool, and would really like to see something like that one day. I am now convinced that this would be the perfect place for a romantic getaway with my husband. We tried the Bahamas, on a cruise, but it was vastly overrated in my opinion. Your trip sounds much better. Can’t wait to hear about the rest of it!!

  10. 07/19/2010

    Sounds like good times! I’m eagerly awaiting your post on the Surfer Capital…my only hope of ever getting Hamburger to travel anywhere different is if there’s surf to be found.

  11. kay
    07/19/2010

    It looks like you two had a wonderful time! Puerto Rico looks beautiful, I’m glad yo hear you had a great time. Can’t wait to read part 2!

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