The combination of white sand and turquoise water has long been the travel agent's favoured remedy for sun starved urbanites jonesing for a break from grey concrete and greyer skies. The suggestion is that once your toes touch the sand you will completely forget your boss is an asshole and your spouse is cheating on you. Providing you aren't on holiday with either you can guarantee the beaches of Vieques quell the urge to go on a killing spree in the office/family home (for a few months at least).
With that in mind, coming to Vieques without visiting the wildlife refuge beaches is like going to Oktoberfest and have a mineral water with your salad. These are the jewels in the Vieques crown and are not to be missed. When the Viequenses kicked the Navy out in 2003 they not only waved off their supposed oppressors but achieved the added bonus of suddenly having access to miles of pristine coastline that was previously out of bounds to the general public.
Seventy years of Navy control has meant no hotels, restaurants, vendors and all the other man made crap built in the name of convenience that clutters up most of world's natural beauty. What we have left is a smorgasbord of postcard pretty beaches you can now explore at your leisure.
Despite their undeniable beauty there is a darker side to the Navy's occupation. The EPA has confirmed there are still residual traces of ambient pollution in the form of mercury, lead, uranium and napalm from all the munitions testing that has taken place over the years. It's not enough to cause you to grow an extra head but probably not going to increase your life expectancy.
In fact the Puerto Rican Health Department has deemed this pollution to be the cause for a 27% increase in cancer rates on the island compared to the mainland. Lawyers have been rubbing their hands with glee at this news and have served legal proceedings faster than Usain Bolt ordering some McNuggets.
Nowadays, it is hard to believe the Navy were the polluting ogres they are claimed to be. I cycled all over the preserve and there is hardly any visible evidence the Navy were ever even there. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service now manage the site which is the largest national refuge in the Caribbean.
Appearances can be deceiving though. Critics have argued that much of the inaccessible eastern area have been converted to refuge status purely as a ploy to keep humans out and avoid the expensive large scale clean up required or remove all unexploded ordinance and toxic chemicals from the island. Until they teach the manatee to sweep for bombs and drink the chemicals they will remain out of sight and out of mind in the dense foliage and Caribbean waters.
Whilst the damage to humans is still a matter of conjecture I have to say, outside of the sea, I noticed a distinct lack of nature within the preserve. Very few birds, lizards or other mammals are visible in an area which has had little or no human habitation gives me cause for concern. This may have to do with pollution or possibly be caused by the numerous mongoose you will see flitting in and out of bushes. They seem to be the island's success story and no doubt have played a part in reducing the number of birds.
One thing I want to clear up is the out of date info on the Internet about roads being so treacherous you need a Hummer to navigate them. This may have been the case a few years ago but is not so now. From Esperanza its a smooth, pleasant 7 mile cycle to Blue Beach via the PR997 on a mixture of asphalt and hard grit roads and the bonus is there are no large hills. In fact the road is completely paved all the way to Red Beach. You could roller skate there! (if you were mental). If you want to investigate Orchid Beach and Secret Beach you could easily park up and walk as these roads are still a bit "rustic" but not as bad as I was expecting.
The first main beach of note past the Old Camp Garcia gates is Playa Caracas or Red Beach (the old Navy names seem to be on their way out now). I was there on a Tuesday (it might have been a holiday)and the car park was bumper to bumper with SUV's. Caracas is a broad bay of light sand with calm turquoise water which is perfect for families. A group of youngsters were getting their drink on and were using their van as a makehift sound system with reggaeton up to 11 . It's not a beach to come if you want solitude as it is likely to be full of sociable Puerto Ricans.
Of course us Europeans are more introspective and seek out the furthest most untouched beaches to fulfil some sort of Robinson Crusoe fantasy. Don't worry, a bit further along there is something for the castaways amongst you . Heading out from Caracas the road stops being tarmac and goes into a dusty hard grit bordered by thick forests of sea grape and sand spurs.
Its about 3 miles to Blue Beach (Playa Chiva) which is not just one beach but a large stretch of coastline (over a mile at least) with multiple access points (I counted at least 12 numbered entrances) each with their own little lane or car park area. You can dip down into one of the lanes emerge onto the beach and see if that stretch takes your fancy (or is secluded enough for you). If not just carry on down the road.
I choose a spot just left of Cayo Chiva, a rocky pancake of an island within swimming distance, and comandeer a nice little beach amongst the rocks with some shade and some prime snorkeling. I had planned on swimming out to the island only to be put off by the conspicuous notices warning that I might be blown up by unexploded ordinance. Chatting to the locals I was told that people have been swimming here for years but because of the rise of recent litigation warning notices have been plastered all over the area just in case any one was stupid enough to want to take home a souvenir.
Banned from swimming out I console myself with some excellent snorkeling from the shore. I spot some fearsome barracuda (they look mean but won't hurt you unless provoked) peering at the abundant schools of fish in a healthy looking coral system. There are tons of spiny sea urchins in this area so swim shoes are advised.
Just as I am about to head back in I see one of the most beautiful sights a snorkeller could wish for. A huge green sea turtle about the size of an SUV hubcap floats by in front of my eyes and gracefully flaps away like a lazy bird flying through treacle. I follow at a respectful distance as it munches away on the plentful sea grass and occasionally it comes to the surface to open its beak and gulp down some sea air.
I shout over to a couple I met from St Thomas whose wife has been looking for a turtle all holiday and she comes bounding out into the sea. It is only then I realised turtles can really motor when they feel disturbed as at top speed we are unable to keep up with it any further.
If you want even more isolation you can head a mile or so over to Playa Escondida (Secret Beach) at a clearly sign posted fork in the road. If driving, a SUV is essential as the access road to this beach is steep and rocky with barely enough room for two cars. This narrow beach really is tucked away behind verdant hills and almost hidden from view. There were remenants of makeshift chairs and tables in the surrounding vegetation. I can only imagine what a cool party you could throw on this beach if you could be bothered to lug all the gear here with you.
The last accesible beach in this area is Playa La Plata (Orchid Beach). The terrain changes once again on the way here as huge Mesquite cacti loom out of the bush. This really is not a good time to get a puncture as you are miles from "civilisation", the mobile signal is non existant and the thorns of these bad boys go through car tyres like a knife through butter.
I pay careful attention to the road and suddenly emerge through the sea grape onto a rustic swathe of open white sand facing the broad bay of Ensenada Honda. There are a few intrepid visitors on this beach (maybe the "end of the line" kudos as attracted the castaways) and an enterprising couple have made a fort out of palm tree fronds and bamboo poles to protect themselves from the tropical sun.
After a few minutes relaxing on this beach you may well consider moving in with them and giving your boss the middle finger. There is no better life then that of a castaway.
After yesterday's adventures I felt confident enough to tackle a long ride today. They don't come much longer or hotter then cycling from Esperanza via Isabel Segunda to Playa Arenas on the North-western tip. You need to take plenty of water and fill up when you can because its definitely thirsty work.
From Esperanza the easiest way to the North coast (if not necessarily the quickest) is to head up PR201 over the spine of the island past the turn off for the Wildlife Refuge beaches. The road is perfect with forest on either side and respectful motorists even though I saw only one either cyclist the entire day. Its only 5 miles to Isabel II but you do have to negotiate a reasonably large hill. The freewheel down kind of makes up for it though (I'm lying).
Compared to soporific Esperanza, Isabel II is a bustling metropolis with that typical faded Latin port charm that you find in the Caribbean. It has a lot more locals here so you do get more of a Boricueño experience. There are banks, hardware stores and estate agents but its not a particularly pretty town as all the original Spanish architecture has no doubt been wiped out by the regular hurricanes that lash the coast.
I grab some provisions from a colmado and head to the only historical structure of note, Fortin Conde de Mirasol, situated on a bluff overlooking the town. It a nice enough fort with some cannons, a museum and impressive views of the town but compared with the grand offerings in Old San Juan its like watching your local park football team after seeing a Barcelona master class at the Nou Camp.
From Isabel II its 10 miles west to Laguna Arenas and the first leg out of town isn't the most picturesque. People wonder why I bang on about cycling but there are a disproportionate amount of cars for such a lightly populated island and most of them congregate on this stretch. Luckily, you only have to put up with exhaust fumes for the first 4 miles of the PR200 because as soon as you get past the airport the traffic melts away and you are left with some wonderful countryside with a 28 Days Later vibe.
Just past the airport is the island's famous 300 yr old Ceiba tree. The Ceiba tree is respected in this part of the world and rumoured to have mystical powers and connections to the underworld. It just looks like a big thorny tree to me. There is a little beach here where I hang out with a Puerto Rican family doing what they do best; chilling on the beach. They pull their van into the shade of some palm trees, crank up the salsa music and get the barbeque going. Bliss.
A bit further along, Mosquito Pier is something of a curate's egg. A mile long stretch of concrete sea wall built in the 1940's it was initially planned to stretch all the way to the mainland and would have housed a huge naval base to rival Pearl Harbour. However, the project was abandoned early in its construction after the US realised it was unnecessary and risky have all their naval eggs in one basket.
Despite being over 70 years old it looks like there is some newer construction in the distance so I cycle to the end only to be stopped by a chain link fence protecting a run down guard house and little else. A forlorn security guard plods about and is only too happy to have someone to talk to when I make eye contact.
He tells me that six years ago the end of the pier was refurbished and there were grand plans to turn the structure into a cruise ship port. Unfortunately the project has been mired in red tape and "politica" and the poor guy had been made to stand there, like a character in a Franz Kafka novel, mindlessly protecting a few planks of wood for no discernable reason. To combat the boredom he has taken to livening up his empty days by creating little stone sculptures on the surrounding rocks. I humour him by taking some photos whilst simultaneously feeling his ennui.
Carrying on a few miles down the road there isn't a soul to be seen. The countryside opens up and the horses wander about freely oblivious to my presence. There is a derelict creeper covered church silently rotting by the side of the road. For me this part of the island is the biggest draw as aside from the strip of grey asphalt snaking its way through the foliage you get a sense that the island has looked much this way for thousands of years.
Another reason to come this far out is to have a snoop round the military bunkers the Navy used to store ammo. These Cold War remnants are not that well sign posted so you have take a left about 4 miles past Mosquito Pier to discover these bizarre concrete relics cut into the earth and camouflaged from the sky by the constant threat of impending jungle.
You could hold one amazing Tomb Raider themed game of paintball in this area with its maze of paths, abandoned structures and verdant slopes. If you look carefully there is still some faded military paraphernalia lying around indicating this was a hive of activity at one point. Now the area is merely a curio, an anachronism, a fragment of a bygone era.
From here its a comparatively short hop to Green Beach and its excellent snorkelling but it was getting late and I had more pressing concerns, namely, cycling the 15 miles back to Esperanza. I was beginning to think that 4x4 wasn't such a bad idea after all.