By Martha – (Carrboro, NC)
Recently (late June-early July 2019) I took an off-season snorkeling vacation to the islands of Culebra and Vieques off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, also known as the Spanish Virgin Islands. I am an experienced snorkeler who has snorkeled in the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Southern California. The islands are rebuilding from hurricane damage, and the reefs are rebuilding as well. I had to swim to the far back side of reefs to find living coral.
I would not recommend these destinations for beginners at this point in time. If you have a beginner friend that you want to teach, there are certainly places you can take them, but they will not be able to see the really lush habitats. There was severe damage to reefs near shore.
In Culebra I visited Flamenco, the world famous beach there. I followed instructions I had received from locals and online alike, and snorkeled outward along the far right hand side of the beach, beyond the crowds and food vendors. At first I saw total coral devastation, very sad, although every now and then I would see a large coral that had survived, an impressive pop of color and life in what was otherwise a graveyard.
Eventually, as I swam out and to the right, I saw more lush areas, with lots of purple sea fans and brain coral. Fish became abundant too. Flamenco was one of the best areas I saw. I was told that there are Publicos that transport folks from the downtown area to Flamenco cheaply, but I did not try this. I did see many of these Publico vans, many labeled “Flamenco”.
Another place I snorkeled was Carlos Rosario Beach. From the far side of the parking area for Flamenco Beach, there is a fence with a locked gate. The gate is topsy-turvy, and a person can walk through it. If you walk through this gate and follow the hiking trail (there is a lot of up and down, could take you 20-40 min depending upon the weather and speed you take it), you will reach Carlos Rosario Beach. I found this to be some of the best snorkeling I tried as well, with some good coral and fish on the back of the reef, far out.
I also snorkeled Tamarindo Beach. Almost all the way to Flamenco, on the left hand side of the road, you will see a yellow house and a sign reading, “Tamarindo Estates”. If you take that road (you can drive, or maybe the Publico driver would let you off there), in a short time you will end up at Tamarindo Beach, known for sea turtles.
I was told to snorkel there from 7-9am, and was rewarded with two sea turtle sightings in the sea grass. I was also told by Culebra residents that sea turtle nesting on the island has been disturbed by storms’ redistribution of sand. I did some snorkeling to the left end of the beach, and saw lots of fish, but corals were smaller and more sparse than at Flamenco and Carlos Rosario.
I went to Zoni Beach, but was not able to make it during the preferred low tide, so it did not look do-able. I did not take a water taxi to the tiny islands of Culebrita and Luis Pena either.
On Vieques I enjoyed snorkeling at Punta Arenas Beach (Green Beach), at the far western end of the island, in the wildlife refuge, where I saw another sea turtle. There were a lot of fish there, but the coral, located to the left, was not as lush as off Culebra.
After this I had issues with windy weather and low visibility at other sites. At the airport on my way off of Vieques, I ran into an experienced snorkeler who had been to Vieques several times, and he gave me his favorite Vieques snorkeling sites: 1. The Mosquito Pier, on 200, northeast side of island, on the way to Punta Arenas. He says that even when conditions are generally windy, you can find a spot that is sheltered by the pier. 2. La Chiva.
Getting to these islands is not the easiest, unless you live on the main island of Puerto Rico and have a car you can drive to the ferry dock. I was there during the tourist off season, and most tourists I met were from the main island of Puerto Rico. I flew non-stop from RDU in North Carolina to San Juan, stayed there overnight, then took an Uber to the ferry dock, which is now in Ceiba.
The internet is littered with horror stories about the ferries to these islands, but the ferry system is under new management, has moved its main island dock to Ceiba, and is improving its reputation. I had no trouble getting onto the 4:30 ferry from Ceiba to Culebra, but then I was not trying for the first ferry of the day, in season, where many get into trouble.
In order to travel from Culebra to Vieques, you have to either travel on a chartered plane (only economical if there happen to be others wanting to go at the same time) or take the ferry back to Ceiba and then out again to Vieques. Since I am over 60, I can ride the ferry for $1 each leg of the journey, so I chose the latter option.
I was unable to get reliable info or tickets when I showed up at the ferry dock on Culebra the day before my transfer, so I just showed up mid-morning at the Culebra dock on the day I wanted to sail, and had no trouble getting on the ferries I needed. I am told that you can now reserve tickets at porferry.com, but I did not try this. I did see a special seating area in the Ceiba ferry terminal (a large event-type white tent at this point, with snack bar, food trucks, and restrooms) reserved for folks who had reserved with porferry.com.
For my return to San Juan I was unsure of being able to get an Uber in Ceiba, so I flew Vieques Air ($89) back to the smaller airport in San Juan, and spent my last night in San Juan.
I usually stay in hostels, but these did not work out for me on this trip, so I stayed in AirBnb’s, one of which was a small local inn on Culebra (Ocean View, just outside of town). In Vieques I stayed at an AirBnb just outside Isabel Segunda (Annie and Jimmy’s), cheaper than Esperanza, the more fashionable town for tourists. I visited the Lazy Hostel in Esperanza. I liked it, though I have heard that cigarette smoke can drift in and be bothersome. I suspect that off season it is less of an issue, but I did not know this when I made reservations elsewhere.
It was a hard at times when I was planning my trip to reach vehicle rental agencies because land lines were still out on Culebra and Vieques. On both islands I rented a golf cart for part of my visit. A normal golf cart for Culebra, and a “UTV” golf cart for Vieques, designed for dirt roads but not off-road. Roads were somewhat better on Culebra, and there were more potholes and dirt roads on Vieques. My choices of the different carts worked well for their respective islands.
There were free ranging horses all over Vieques, which is certainly scenic and romantic… also horse manure everywhere. You will see some of the horses not well cared for by their owners. At one point some horses were in the street and came close to hitting me in my cart and a pedestrian on the sidewalk, but luckily it was a miss.
I enjoyed two visits to the fort on Vieques, which also functions as a museum and cultural center.
On my last couple of days on Culebra, a couple of Culebra natives got worried when I told them I was going to Vieques. They told me that Vieques has been used extensively by the US Navy as a bombing range, and that cancer rates there were abysmally high.
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Nicole & Galen – Jul 23, 2019 – Thank You!
Hi Martha, thank you for taking the time to write up your report about snorkeling in Culebra and Vieques. We are sure folks will find it useful. It is sad to hear that hurricanes Irma and Maria were so destructive to the reefs there, but we are glad you reported on your findings.
There are more pages about snorkeling Culebra and Vieques, this one has more about Vieques, this one and this one have info about both islands plus Puerto Rico itself.