Sixth in a series on Puerto Rico
Though Puerto Rico’s high poverty rate is not really evident among the colorful buildings of Old San Juan, it’s impossible to ignore on Vieques. The homes and businesses are frequently run down. I’d read online that the best practice when leaving a rental car parked somewhere was to leave the doors unlocked. I was surprised when Avis actually confirmed the advice: thieves may look through an unlocked car and find nothing of value, but if they find a locked car they assume there is something inside worth breaking a window to steal. We followed the advice and never had any problem. If thieves did look through our car, they had little interest in maps, clothes, or shoes.
The US Navy held most of the land on Vieques for decades. Unlike other military bases which contributed greatly to their local economies, the ammunition storage bunkers, amphibious exercises, and bombing ranges resulted in little transfer of hard currency into the local economy. The Navy reportedly restricted flights and ferry service. The current troubled ferry route from Fajardo to Isabel is a legacy of the Navy’s involvement. The route is three times as long as a previous one between Punta Arenas in western Vieques and Ceiba on the mainland before the area was placed off limits.
Local resentments exploded into large scale protests in 1999 after a stray bomb killed a local worker. When the Navy withdrew a few years later, Vieques was faced with reinventing its local economy beyond the base and fishing. The sugar fields of yesteryear were long gone. Large tracts of Vieques are still restricted to the public including the top of Mt. Pirata with is communications facilities, the ROTHR radar facility west of Esperanza, and largest of all, the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge (which was perhaps established as much due to concern over insurmountable difficulties in removing unexploded ordinance from the bombing range as any concern for protecting wildlife). That being said, Vieques is blessed with pristine beaches and, more uniquely, a bioluminescent bay. As a result, the local tourist economy has steadily developed during the past twelve years. Numerous companies offer excursions and plenty of restaurants cater to tourists. Unfortunately for points collectors, the only large chain hotel on the island is the W Resort west of Isabel II. Smaller hotels and guesthouses abound and are available at reasonable prices. Due to the delay in development caused by the Navy, combined with the accessibility issues which no doubt deter many potential visitors, Vieques has avoided some of the problems that affect other sites in Puerto Rico; one mainland “Bio Bay” has had a negative impact from pollution stemming from heavy visitation in diesel boats.
Vieques has two main towns: Isabel II to the north and Esperanza to the south. Isabel II or Isabel Segunda is located on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. It is close to the airport, gas stations, and it is where ferries from the mainland arrive. Isabel has useful facilities including grocery stores, a bank, and post office, but not as many restaurants or nightlife as Esperanza. Esperanza, on the Caribbean side of the island, has a main street of sorts (Calle Flamboyan) that has plenty of restaurants, guesthouses, and a few gift shops. Some of the best beaches on Vieques are very close to Esperanza and Sun Bay is walking distance from town. Isabel was usually quiet and deserted even when Esperanza’s restaurants were still crowded. In general, we found we spent more time in Esperanza due to beaches, excursions, and dining. With a rental car the drive between the two isn’t more than about 15 minutes, but I speculated that we might have been able to do most of what we wanted to do without a car if we’d stayed in Esperanza and occasionally used a cab.
The roads in Vieques are among the most challenging I’ve driven. The town streets can be quite narrow and sometimes a car will have to back up when ending up facing oncoming traffic on a road that would have been made “one way” at home. Oddly, though actually stopping at stop signs appears to be optional, I sometimes observed that cross traffic without a stop sign would sometimes yield to someone who had stopped at one! Many roads on the island are narrow, with no shoulder and poor sight lines around corners. Local advice is to honk before driving around a blind corner. Potholes are common and are especially severe on beach access roads, like those leading to Mosquito Bay or Punta Arenas. The only roads in good condition are PR-997, which connects Isabel and Esperanza, and parts of PR-200, which connects Isabel and the airport and continues towards Punta Arenas on the west end of the island.
On Vieques chickens and horses roam free. The former are a small enough nuisance during the day, but nighttime is a different matter. Roosters do indeed crow at dawn, but it seems that one will occasionally start at, oh, 3am. Naturally this cannot go unchallenged by its neighbors regardless of the late hour. Hope your air conditioning makes enough white noise to drown them out! The horses are not exactly feral per se. The wry local explanation is that if a horse damages a car or other property, then it’s feral. But corral another horse and it seems someone will show up demanding the horse be returned! The moral of the story seems to be that you should corral damaging horses, since you will end up with either a horse free of charge or somebody to pay for the damages. But I digress.
Although most of our activities took us to Esperanza, the guesthouse I wanted to stay at was located in Isabel. Casa de Amistad is a bright yellow oasis on an otherwise dilapidated street. It’s not far from the ferry dock as well as Isabel’s central square. The staff is friendly and the rooms very nice and quiet – except for the roosters of course. The guesthouse’s grounds are perfectly designed for relaxation, from the hammocks on the front porch to the comfortable upstairs lounge to its beautifully decorated back courtyard with a pool and artificial waterfall. My full review of Casa de Amistad may be viewed here, lest I be accused of plagiarizing myself.
We were very happy with our stay at Casa de Amistad, but there’s another place we’d like to stay on our next visit to Vieques. While scouting out the Esperanza Riding Company in preparation for a horseback tour, we came across Hector’s by the Sea at the end of a dirt road off PR-997 west of Esperanza. There was a sign for a restaurant parking. We wandered onto the grounds, where a trio of the happiest horses I’d ever seen were frolicking. Hector was quite friendly and explained that the restaurant wasn’t open yet- I forget if he said it was only open on weekends or not yet open for the season. He manages three casitas with a view of the Caribbean.
And the view is very good. The cliffs on Hector’s property provide a panoramic view of the Caribbean coast of southern Vieques. To the west, Mt. Pirata looms in the distance; to the west, waves crash against Cayo Real, a small island off the coast of Esperanza.
- “Beauty and the Bomb: Puerto Rico’s Vieques” by Christopher R. Cox (Nov-Dec 2006 issue of Audubon magazine)
- Vieques, a Photographically Illustrated Guide to the Island, Its History and Culture by Gerald Singer (2004, second edition 2011)
Series about Puerto Rico
- Planning a Trip to Puerto Rico
- Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
- El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico
- Dinner in Loíza
- The Flight to Vieques Island, Puerto Rico
- Isla de Vieques
- The Bioluminescent Bay on Vieques
- Snorkeling, Skeeters, and Paso Finos on Vieques