Este informe no está disponible en español.
Unspoiled Beaches Draw Laid-Back Visitors To Vieques
By JOHANNA TUCKMAN
April 1, 2001
VIEQUES -- U.S. Navy practice bombings, Puerto Rican politics and environmental lawsuits have brought Vieques an agitated sort of fame. But look beyond all that, and you'll find a laid-back little island trying to carve out a niche as a tranquil tourist destination.
``Not a lot happens here -- but then that's why we like it,'' says Mark Perez, a 29-year-old native of Florida who lives on Puerto Rico's nearby main island.
The pretty, undeveloped beaches and solid -- if basic -- services are an antidote to the stressful highways, casinos, malls and built-up seafronts of mainland Puerto Rico, he says.
Still, some locals hope the U.S. Navy -- which now controls two-thirds of the 21-by-4-mile island -- will leave and be replaced by a big-time tourist industry.
``We need big hotels and big piers so the big ships will come here and tourism will start for real,'' says 56-year-old ``Viequense'' Pedro Herrera, sweeping a sidewalk and staring out to sea as if willing the cruise ships to appear.
About 9,400 civilians live on the island, in the middle third. The eastern third is a bombing range and a munitions warehouse occupies the western end. The controversial practice bombings have been suspended but even if they resume, tourist areas are 10 miles distant.
For now, ferries and the occasional yacht traverse the eight miles of water from Fajardo, Puerto Rico. There is also a 25-minute shuttle flight from San Juan, the capital of this U.S. Caribbean territory of nearly four million Spanish speakers.
About a 10-minute drive from Vieques' tiny airport lies the sleepy town of Isabel Segunda. Despite some decent lodging and restaurants there, most tourists are inclined to head straight for the village of Esperanza, on the southern shore where the prettier beaches are located.
The most accessible are Sun Bay and Media Luna, both boasting curved stretches of yellow sand enclosing clear, turquoise, glasslike water. Farther along a coastal dirt road, you reach the straighter Navio beach, with rougher surf and younger, hipper bathers.
There are few amenities. Esperanza's seafront promenade -- ambitiously called ``the strip'' -- offers a few restaurants and inns where English is spoken and the atmosphere is relaxed.
``Somewhere else I could go to a big hotel and I could sit on their beach full of other tourists, and I could click my fingers and a waiter would bring me the same drink I'm drinking now -- except that I would have paid I don't know how much for it,'' observes Waldo Bird, a Puerto Rican savoring a self-served rum and coke.
It's a fine place to catch a parade of Paso Fino horses whose clip-clopping steps are, as the Spanish name suggests, exactingly dainty.
Those not content with watching can take kayaking, diving and snorkeling tours as well as a night excursion to the island's prized bioluminescent bay. There, you can savor the magic of swimming in what looks like liquid stars while darting fish create an underwater fireworks display.
Back on land, some visitors seem only too aware of the controversy over the Navy's presence -- which bubbled over into mass protests after stray bombs killed a civilian guard in April 1999.
The Navy must leave, says Iliana Bird of San Juan, who fumes at the thought of finer beaches in inaccessible Navy territory, ``Media Luna may look beautiful, but it is ugly compared to them.''
James Weis, a director representing Vieques and Culebra in the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association, says the flurry of U.S. media attention last year ``gave us the worst summer season ever.'' With Billy Knight, Weis is co-owner of the Inn on the Blue Horizon.
``Some people didn't come because they were scared of getting arrested or bombed or contaminated -- and that's just ridiculous,'' Weis says.
Winter kept the inn full -- ``100 percent occupancy'' -- and he and Knight are confident enough to have submitted plans to the local planning board for a $12 million expansion to 40 rooms.
New York City resident Robert Bramvilla -- commonly known in Vieques as The Italian -- also has sparked interest by buying up land around Sun Bay. He also recently bought the Casa del Francés hotel, an airy wooden mansion from a former sugar plantation.
A $50 million luxury resort called Martineau Bay is now complete and may open this summer.
There is much debate too over what to do with 8,000 acres on the western end of the island, which the Navy has said it will turn over. The municipality announced plans for a cruise ship dock and a free-trade area but withdrew them after local residents said they don't want to turn the island into yet another duty-free tourist mecca. That leaves some wondering whether the Navy hasn't inadvertently saved Vieques from excessive development that might overwhelm its charms -- a fate not unknown in the Caribbean.
``I just hope these are all just plans, and that nothing will happen for a while,'' says Briton Anne Harrington, who visits every year. ``It is so tranquil like it is -- we love it.''