After leaving Nelson’s Country Home on the South Slope of El Yunque National Forest, we made our way to Fajardo, Puerto Rico’s main port city on the eastern coast. We left behind the car and boarded the 1pm ferry bound for Vieques, one of two Spanish Virgin Islands (the other being Culebra) off the shore of the main island. Transit time was about 1 hour, and a bit disappointing as the ferry had multiple levels but did not allow for passengers to access decks outside. It was a gorgeous day and we had been looking forward to watching boats and islets go by, feeling the wind in our hair, and catching some rays on the top deck, but this was not to be.
Until 2003, the U.S. Navy used a large portion of the island as a bombing range and testing ground. While a series of protests eventually led to the permanent departure of the Navy from the island, more than half of Vieques remains off limits but has since been turned into a national wildlife refuge. The beaches that are accessible to visitors are said to be some of the best in the Caribbean for their turquoise/azul-colored waters, white sands, and relatively few visitors.
The first afternoon in Vieques, we settled into our room at Trade Winds Guesthouse and made our way to the nearby beach at Sun Bay. It’s a nice, if municipal-feeling beach lined with palm trees, a paved road, and even lifeguard shacks every hundred meters or so. The sand is much darker and coarser than the beaches we would go to the next day (Red Beach, Blue Beach, etc.) and like all beaches we visited, there were no servicios (food, beverage vendors, etc.) which is usually a plus, but today I really wanted a cold beer on the beach and ended up walking nearly the length of the beach to find one (in my defense, an elderly woman had a large chair and colorful umbrella that, from the other end of the beach, looked like a portable beer cart…or at least that’s what I had decided it looked like).
It was a bit breezy, and the waves were a bit rough, but the swimming was still good. There was quite a bit of cloud cover, which was actually encouraging considering that we were signed up to go on a tour of Vieques’ famed bioluminescent bay (Bio-Bay) that night.
The Bio Bay contains nearly a million single-celled organisms per gallon of water called dinoflagellates. These half-plant, half-animal organisms emit a flash of bluish light when agitated. The high concentration of these creatures in the Bio Bay can create enough light to read a book from. Needless to say, darker nights provide better conditions for experiencing this unique phenomenon, and being just a few days away from a full moon, thick cloud cover would have been welcomed.We didn’t take any pictures of our own, but here is a sample of the effect on a moonless night:
For our Bio Bay tour we found that there were two main tour companies, Island Adventures and Abe’s. We had heard good things about both, the difference being that Abe’s provides you with kayaks to explore the bay yourself, while Island Adventures takes you out on a pontoon boat. We decided to go with Island Adventures over Abe’s due to the large moon and decreased visibility since Island Adventures came with the added bonus of taking you under the boat (between the pontoons) to be able to fully experience the dinoflagellates.
We were very pleased with Island Adventures. They drive you out to the site in a psychedelic old school bus over a pretty rugged road, which only added to the “island adventure” in our minds. The tour lasted a couple of hours and included a lesson in star gazing and constellation identification. The tour guide was fun and knowledgeable. The night was breezy, but the water was warm. The glowing creatures are attracted to water with a high salt content, so the water was quite slimy, but in a good way. We swam around a bit with our waist floaties, then took turns going underneath the boat, which was awesome. It ended up being a clear night, so we were very glad we had the opportunity to shield ourselves from the big, bright moon. It wouldn’t have been nearly as cool if we hadn’t been able to do this and I felt sorry for the dozens of kayakers from Abe’s who we saw rowing around on our way back to shore.
Day #4 :: Beaches of Vieques
Day #4 in PR began on the small island of Vieques at Trade Winds Guest House right on Calle Flamboyan (the street that fronts the ocean).
As this was our one and only full day on the island, we wanted to take full advantage of it and see as many of the beaches along the southern shore as we possibly could.The best way to accomplish this is by car, as the beaches on Vieques are far apart and public transport is expensive and problematic. However, nearly all rental car companies on the main island explicitly forbid you from taking their rental cars off the main island, and there were no longer any rental cars available on Vieques this particular day, so we decided to pursue another route.
We thought that bicycling would be the next logical avenue to explore the beaches but found that outside of Isabella Segunda (the town on the other side of the Vieques) it is nearly impossible to rent a bike, and even nearly impossible to rent one from Isabella Segunda on the same day.
So, we decided to hire a publico (basically a taxi) to drive us out to the farthest beach, from which e would slowly make our way to the nearest beach, having the publico driver pick us up in the evening.
After arranging our ride to the beach, we had breakfast at Trade Winds overlooking the bay from the front deck. Trade Winds has a continental breakfast included with the price of the room and serves it in their open-air dining deck that dominates the front part of the building. Along with everything else, they conveniently served slices of bread in plastic wrap, with peanut butter and jam. This ended up being a perfect solution for throwing together a quick lunch in a place where quick lunch items were hard to come by.
The publico driver arrived on time and drove us out to the farthest beach we wanted to explore, which was Blue Beach (otherwise known as Playa de la Chiva). I decided early on that day that I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I had made the previous day, getting out to the beach and not having any beer. So the publico driver was kind enough to make a quick stop at a market along the way (which would end up being the one and only favor he did for us). I ran in and grabbed a six pack of Medalla Light, but only had my credit card on hand to purchase it (the minimum for credit was $10). I saw this as more of an opportunity than a problem and grabbed a bottle of champagne and two plastic cups that I thought might come in handy later in the day. I wanted it to be a surprise, but the man behind the counter only had a white plastic bag for me to put it in, so I tried my best to hide it from Lori, but she ended up catching a glimpse. Luckily, she didn’t catch on to my real reason for getting the bottle…
The first beach we visited, Blue Beach, was my favorite – a long strip of fine, white sand, with very few people around…and of course, beautiful turquoise water.
After relaxing for several hours at Blue Beach – swimming, exploring the long shoreline, sipping warm Medalla Lights – we made our way to the next beach, Secret Beach (and by make our way, I mean walk a couple of kilometers in our beach attire in the scorching heat). Had we thought this through thoroughly? Perhaps not. But we had sunscreen, water, and the will to find Secret Beach (ironically labeled as such on all of the maps). We followed the road that was supposed to lead to the beach, but became a bit confused and ended up near an embankment that led down to a very rocky beach, which certainly did not match the description we had. Perhaps the Beach was secret after all? Rather than search for the beach in the hot midday sun, we decided to push on to Red Beach (Playa Caracas).
After several more kilometers of walking along the deserted highway, we finally arrived at Red Beach. Now in Mozambique or the Dominican Republic we would have most certainly scored a ride with a passing car on the beach road, but not on Vieques. Though the highway was mostly empty, we were forced to dodge the occasional vehicle. But the few that passed us looked to be driven by tourists or gringo transplants, so it may have been that good ol’ fashioned American mentality of “hitchhiker=serial killer” that was working against us.
After relaxing for a while at Red Beach, a storm started to brew off to the south, filling the sky with dark clouds. While we found ourselves utterly without a single piña colada between the two of us, we thought for sure we would be…getting caught in the rain…(um, sorry)…but it never materialized. We did, however, enjoy watching the rains come down with a fury just off the coastline. We did not enjoy the cold gusts of wind they brought.
Lori and I had arranged for our publico driver to pick us up at 4pm. We saw his van swing by the parking lot at around 3pm, but simply thought he was making rounds for other people. Little did we know he would not be holding up his end of the deal we made to pick us up an hour later. We were very clear (Lori clarified a few times in Spanish and he definitely understood). 4pm rolled around, then 4:30, then 5pm. We tried to call his cell phone when we had coverage but he would hang up every time. We tried to arrange for another ride – no luck. We even called Trade Winds to ask if they could arrange a pickup (mind you we were about 6 miles away) and they told us that that would not be possible (this is from a couple from Massachusetts, not a Puerto Rican) and that drivers do this all the time and no one will agree to come and pick us up “this late in the day.”
This made me pretty angry. I’ve been in many situations in other countries where taxis are late, buses don’t show up when they are scheduled, etc., but never, ever have I encountered a scenario where someone drops you off 6 miles away, makes a deal to pick you up later and completely blows you off, knowing full well they are leaving the people with few other options for transport back to town. But according to the owners of Trade Winds, in Vieques, it happens all…the…time.
In the end, a middle-aged couple from Virginia, by way of California, took pity on us and gave us a ride back to town. They did not find our story unusual or surprising. By the time we caught a ride with them, it looked like we were going to have to walk the 6 miles back to the guest house. I had plans that night and didn’t like the delay one bit. I really wanted to get back for the sunset. I had a feeling we might want to.
After the couple dropped us off at Trade Winds, we cleaned up and headed back out just in time to see the storm pass and the sun start poking out. It looked like we had about 15 minutes before sunset. I told Lori we should consider going on a walk to try and catch it before it passed. We walked across the street and climbed down the rickety old steps to the rocky beach. I had my camera and it was shaping up to be a gorgeous sunset, so Lori naturally thought I wanted to get out on a far boulder at the end of a point to take some pictures (as I am known to do from time to time). We climbed over other boulders and made our way out to the point. I also brought along my trusty backpack that contained my camera case and the bottle of champagne.
When we finally made it out to the boulder on the point I had Lori sit down on the rock as if to take her picture. I asked her if she was comfortable (much of this relayed to me after the fact as I had other things on my mind) and started fumbling with my pack. Lori said, “you should take a picture before the sun goes down,” and I said something cheesy like “some things are more important than pictures” or “pictures can wait but somethings can’t.” Later, I learned that Lori thought that I was alluding to the large bottle of champagne, waiting in my pack, but instead, I pulled out a little black box, got down on one knee and asked Lori to marry me. Her reply, of course, being, “are you kidding me!?” Not exactly the response you want to hear in this situation, but I was confident in our relationship enough to know she meant that in the best possible way, though I did ask her “you mean that in a good way, right?”
The ring fit about as perfect as one could hope for in a surprise proposal, and had finally made it to its intended destination (I was very pleased to have it out of my custody and into a more secure location).
After snapping some photos, we finally popped open the champagne (after a long day of carrying it around with me). The bottle had a twist top, rather than the standard pop cork (or so I thought). Unfortunately, it was a funky twist top pop cork, so when I twisted it, the substantial pressure of the bottle yanked my hand back violently…but even a tweaked out wrist that ached for the next few days couldn’t dampen the celebration. Finishing off a bottle of champagne between the two of us in one sitting probably helped a bit too…
By the time we finished the champagne, it had grown quite dark and the tide was beginning to come in. We made our way back up to the Malecón and sought out what appeared to be one of the finer restaurants in Esperanza. For our engagement dinner we celebrated at Bili Restaurant with piña coladas and split the huge surf and turf platter of lobster and New York steak. Looking back, I’m not sure I could have planned the whole thing better if I had tried.
Day #5 :: Isabella II & heading back to the main island
The next morning, we began our day with breakfast on the front deck of Trade Winds followed by a nice leisurely stroll along the Malecón.
The rocks below the large palm tree near the center of the photo [above] is where I proposed the night before.
After a leisurely morning in the island sun, we caught a Publico for the 6 mile trip across the island to the port town of Isabella II to catch the midday ferry back to Fajardo on the main island of Puerto Rico. We arrived in Isabella II with plenty of time to spare, so I went off for about 20 minutes to take pictures in a nearby neighborhood which is home to the town’s landmark lighthouse.