May 14, 2019

The Spanish Virgin Islands: A Hidden Gem

We left the southern coast of Patillas, Puerto Rico on Thursday, April 18 towards the Spanish Virgin Islands, a chain of small islands covering 400 square miles between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.


Like the Bahamas, the Spanish Virgin Islands have spectacular white sandy beaches, clear blue waters and quaint little settlements. But unlike the rest of the Caribbean, the massive cruise ships and hordes of tourists haven't yet found their way to this small chain of islands, which primarily consist of Culebra, Culebrita and Vieques, which was our first stop.

With 10-20 knots of wind directly on the nose and 3-4 foot mixed seas, it was a wet and sloshy motorsail upwind towards Punta Arenas on the northwestern tip of Vieques. After a 3 a.m. departure from Patillas because of a rolling swell that made sleeping impossible, we arrived to Vieques just after breakfast, and after a quick nap, we swam towards shore to snorkel the rocky shoreline. We came up with several large conch, which we enjoyed for dinner that evening.

While we would have loved to explore more of Vieques, the following morning we left for Culebra since weather was headed our way and we were in search of a more protected anchorage from the coming winds and swell. Once again, we bashed, smashed and crashed our way directly upwind in 15-18 knot winds and 3-5 foot seas for 5 hours until we arrived in charming Ensenada Honda just after lunch. This is a popular anchorage for cruisers, many of whom make it their home base for the winter months.

We went ashore our first evening to explore the cute little downtown, boasting a few shops, restaurants and markets. After several days straight of upwind motorsailing, we toasted our continued eastward progress with a Bushwacker, the local run drink, at Mamacita's restaurant.

The following morning we headed toward Culebra's popular and spectacularly beautiful Flamenco Beach. The island is large enough that a car or golf cart are necessary to get around, but we found ourselves on the island over Easter weekend, which is the height of the busy season, and not a single car, cart or scooter was available. Thankfully, friendly tourists offered us a ride on our way to the beach and back!

Riding in the back of a local’s pickup truck to the beach

We enjoyed an afternoon relaxing on Flamenco beach, which regularly makes the list of the Caribbean's best beaches, before heading on a short hike towards Playa Rosario to snorkel the coral reef. For almost five decades, the US military used large portions of Vieques and Culebra for bombing practice and old munitions still litter much of the island today, and we saw signs everywhere warning visitors to use caution and stay on roads and marked trails.

The snorkeling at Playa Rosario was some of the best we've had since the Bahamas with lots of coral and schools of colorful fish. We also came across our very first reef shark(eeeks!), which mostly ignored us as we snorkeled past. The following day, we snorkeled the coral and rocks around Playa Melones on Culebra's west coast and saw just as many fish.

With most of the stores and restaurants closed on Easter Sunday, we enjoyed a quiet morning aboard before heading ashore to find place to work out, since exercise can sometimes be hard to come by on the boat. Later that day, we enjoyed a nice meal aboard Borealis.


On Tuesday, April 23, we made the short hop from Culebra to Culebrita, an undeveloped and uninhabited island 5 nm to the east with clear blue water and white beaches. We thought Culebrita was the best of the Spanish Virgin Islands, untouched and unspoiled by development and very peaceful - we were anchored with no more than three or four boats during the few days we spent there.

They were hard to catch on camera, but we saw dozens of turtles while anchored in the bay, especially in the mornings when they seemed to be most active and swimming around the boat.

On the east side of the island are large tidal pools or "baths" for lounging and trails with some spectacular views of St. Thomas on the horizon.

During our hike around Culebrita's lighthouse - the oldest in the Caribbean - we were lucky to meet several archaeologists and scientists who are launching an extensive restoration project to excavate and restore the lighthouse and transform it into a visitor and research center, as well as a watershed project to prevent soil erosion and protect coral from damage and pollution.

The scientists told us the island was once populated by as many as 2-3,000 goats, which were brought to the island by a Puerto Rican farmer who thought the uninhabited island . Since the animals aren't native to the island and quickly became overpopulated, they are slowly working to remove them from the island, which is one of the oldest wildlife refuges for migratory sea birds and endangered sea turtles, and was established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1909. Surprisingly, it took several days of hiking around the island before we finally came across a goat - and then we saw several dozen of them!

Efforts are underway to prevent soil erosion and protect the coral below

They are hard to spot, but a dozen small wild goats are hiding in the trees
What we did see on the trails were hundreds of hermit crabs, from very small to baseball size, making their way across the trails between tree roots and leaves as we hiked past.

We absolutely loved the off-the-beaten track Spanish Virgin Islands and would recommend a day trip or longer to anyone visiting Puerto Rico, since the islands are easily accessible via boat from the mainland.

Next up, we head to the Virgin Islands and the island of St. Croix!

No comments:

Post a Comment