Trip Report : Vieques, Puerto Rico Part 1- Mozzies, Mares and Malecons
There are very few parts of the world not tainted by the avaricious tentacles of corporate America. In the depths of the Guatemalan Highlands I distinctly remember sitting in a Burger King complete with 16th century colonial courtyard offering majestic views of a live volcano whilst I chowed down on a Whopper.
You can buy yourself an iPhone from the Apple store in the Vientiane and rent a car with Avis in Nairobi. The battles between tradition, progress and convienence are fought the world over.
So, its refreshing to know that right in America's back yard there is a place you can go with no chain restaurants, no big hotels and no traffic lights. Your biggest worry is which beach you should visit and whether you have packed enough sunscreen. The place is Vieques and I predict it won't remain untouched for that much longer.
Part of the Spanish Virgin Islands, Vieques is a sliver of jungle covered rock 8 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico boasting wild landscapes and an attitude so laid back you will have to hold a mirror under its nose to check its still breathing. Its pristine nature is due in part to a 60 year period of enforced isolation when the island was under the control of the US military that used the east of the island for munitions testing.
Following the tragic death of a civilian guard in 1999 at the hands of an errant bomb the islanders pushed ahead with a protractracted campaign to boot them out. The Navy left in 2003 with its tail between its legs dragging behind it a trail of lawsuits.
From San Juan its a 30 min buzz in a twin prop (Vieques Airlink and Cape Air do returns for between $150 to $210 depending on departure airport) over lush countryside and aquamarine ocean to the island's compact airport. From here it's a choice of the island's only two towns Isabella Segunda or Esperanza.
I stayed in Esperanza as this is closer to the prettier south side beaches. Prior to arriving I was warned that hiring a car in advance is a necessity. This is baloney. I didn't bother with a car for the duration of my stay and got everywhere I needed to go using a combination of publico buses, walking and pedal power with no problem at all.
In my opinion cars are needed on Vieques only by the elderly, families with young children and the lazy. You can do without one providing you are reasonably fit and have a sense of adventure.
Esperanza itself is a strange and beguiling backwater. Historically a fishing village whose practioners can still be seen bobbing about on boats in the bay or slinging their nets off the broken down pier it now exists as a tourist gateway to the newly opened beaches and unique bio-bay.
With its tiny strip of bars and restuarants located on the pretty ocean front malecon I would say it is the typical, tropical one horse town. Only you are likely to see more than just the one horse. Wild Paso Fino horses run wild throughout the island (a relic of Spanish colonialism) and once in a while you will see a young local gallop up and done the high street to a clatter of hooves and dust. It is the Vieques equivalent of the boy racer and his XR3i trying to impress passersby with his alloy wheels and body kit.
I stayed at the charming Esperanza Inn looked after by genial hosts Lisa and J, transplantees from Key West, Florida who bought the place 6 years and renovated the grounds and added additional apartments to create their corner of paradise amongst the mangoes and chickens. J admits it was a bit of a struggle adapting to island ways at first where appointments with contractors weren't kept and red tape hindered progress. It seems Vieques is a place where its not what you know but who you know but slowly civilisation is creeping in.
You can snag a room for $95 or an apartment for $125. Apart from the uber-helpful hosts I particularly liked the communal kitchen where you can chat over the breakfast table or save a few bucks cooking (Vieques like the rest of Puerto Rico is expensive). Every rose has its thorn though. Vieques is very rural and I had my own personaI battles with its resident mass of hungry mosquitoes and noisy cockerels (earliest crow 2am!). DEET, frequent room checks, ear plugs and moving rooms put pay to those problems.
Fun can be had within walking distance of strip. There is some particularly enjoyable snorkelling to be had under the fishing pier where I saw a platoon of squid, huge barracuda and the largest school of fish I have ever seen (I literally could not see the ocean floor).
For those with more energy it is possible to swim out to Cayo Afuera either directly from the pier or walking out to Cayo de Tierra and swimming west with the current. Flippers are handy and watch for the motorboats. Alternatively Fun Brothers will take you out there by kayak for $35. There is some healthy coral by the boulders where you can spot rays, puffer fish and trigger fish.
If that all sounds too much like hard work you can stroll along to pretty Sun Bay balenario (public beach with facilities) a picturesque crescent of palm-backed tanned coastline with a great view of the keys . We were there mid week and had the entire mile and a half to ourselves.
Visiting as I did at the end of hurricane season meant the pace was even more somnolent then usual. Night time options were limited. Best of the bunch was Duffy's, an open sided restuarant with a nice vibe and a varied menu where you can sit at the bar watch some sports and shoot the breeze with the predominantly American tourists. Lazy Jack's is a dive bar that had a bit of action mostly in the shape of ex-pats with faraway looks in their eyes who perhaps have spent too much time glued to their bar stools. Worth a beer or two.
For brekky the only place serving was Belly Buttons which was nice and varied enough but I got tired of frittering away my money on tips so ended up finding a decent bakery, La Dulce Esperanza on Calle Almendro, (by the baseball field) that opens only in the morning and only when it feels like it. It has much more of a local vibe some decent pastries (the guy behind the counter gets his share of freebies), fresh pan de agua (local sweet bread) and sandwiches for under $5.
Worth mentioning that the guidebooks are out of date regarding ATM's in Esperanza. Before you had to travel to Isabella Segunda to get money. Now there are at least two portable machines (one in Duffy's and one in Colmado Lydia) where you can get out money for a small fee. Do make sure your card actually works though as my magnetic strip packed up and I had to budget my remaining cash and put everything else on credit.