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Greensboro News & Record

Paradise, Locked And Loaded


April 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Greensboro News & Record. All Rights Reserved.

Ahhh, your final approach to paradise.

The prop job from San Juan circles over the island. Frigatebirds soar over scrubby green hills. Several cays and the Virgin Islands float by. Beans and rice, conch and lobster, here we come.

But paradise comes with a price, and it's rapidly filling the cockpit window. Mountain!

Gulp. Men and women start murmering. The name Jesus is invoked often - even for a Sunday. The trees of the hill are closing in and there's no sign of a runway. The guy next to me is starting to sweat.

"Hang on," the pilot says. "This is routine."

The plane banks right, the wheels barely passing over the trees before we dip down onto the runway.

Feet firmly on the ground, this tourist hazing seems a small price to pay for paradise. And make no mistake: Culebra is as close to perfection as it gets.

Rich in natural beauty, Culebra is a watery landscape whose barrier islands are fringed with lovely white-sand beaches and Windex-blue cays.

It's hard to believe this slip of an island - 19 miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico 's mainland - is part of the United States. Where are the casinos? The high-rise cruise ships? There's not even a single Gap Outlet. A pharmeceutical company, where many of the locals are employed, is the only sign of Yankee capitalism at work.

What Culebra does have is some of the Carribean's best, most secluded beaches. And it delivers them with spectacular variety.

On the south side of the island, the sea meets the land in a turbulent crash of waves against rocks. A short bicycle ride away, the north side is considerably gentler. Here, where sea and land embrace, the two are so entangled that you really don't know where the Atlantic ends and the island begins.

Hard to believe that, 30 years ago, Culebra was on its way to becoming an ecological wasteland.

In the early 1970s, the Navy used the island for bombing practice. The bombing drove many islanders back to Puerto Rico , so many that the population dropped from 1,400 to 580. Humans weren't the only ones affected. Flamingos, which once edged the beaches, disappeared. Belly-up fish from the coral reefs washed ashore after every bombing drill.

That's when the locals banded together in what became a nationally-publicized protest that reached Washington. The Navy left the island in 1975.

Since then the human population has grown to about 3,000 - barely eclipsing the island's contingency of roosters that run wild through city streets and country hills (Tip: Leave the travel alarm clock at home - you won't need it).

Culebra's hidden beauty awaits those willing to bushwhack through overgrown trails and beachwalk along rocky shores and over boulders. This may not be everybody's idea of rest and relaxation, but the reward is hours without seeing another person along what has to be some of the most pristine series of coral reefs so close to any shore on a Caribbean island.

We had not exactly planned on it, but my wife Marcia and I spent most of our five days on Culebra in a hypnotic rhythm of exploring and snorkeling.

Once out of Dewey, the lone town on the island, Culebra becomes a place where the only sounds are that of cackling roosters, braying goats, crickets and tree frogs. There are no hotels, only an assortment of villas and guesthouses. There are classic beaches that are reachable by car and therefore are the most visited: Flamenco for swimming, Zoni for surf and Melones for effort-free snorkeling.

The island is a favorite of many Puerto Rican mainlanders, who hop the ferry for weekends. Locals all have their favorite story to tell about pop singer Ricky Martin, who frequents the island.

Not that anyone is livin' la vida loca on Culebra. Its nightlife consists of good food and little else.

Culebra is an arid island, having no rivers or streams, part of the reason for its undeveloped nature. Because of the lack of run- off, however, Culebra boasts clear waters with sixty feet of visibility on a bad day.

Because Culebra is so relatively undeveloped, its coral is king. On Melones Beach, my wife Marcia and I had waded barely 10 feet into the surf when the floor yielded to a magnificent reef.

We drifted with a light current over a forest of green boulder and golden brain corals, some the size of small automobiles. Among them were tall orange sea whips and purple sea fans, and golden- bronze staghorn coral.

Not that the fish let us down. Over such a vast field, a back angelfish glided by as if an eagle. Blue chromis dangled in midwater, twinkling like stars.

What was most striking was the reef's endlessness. We went in one direction for a half-hour, and it appeared we could have kept going for just as long. We turned around partially because we - OK, I - became scared we were too far from our gear on shore.

Even two people fixated on nature have to get out of the water sometime. Fortunately, several trails cross through Culebra's hilly terrain, making for several nice hikes to secluded beaches.

There's even a national park, where $10 and a tent buys you beachfront property on Flamenco Beach for the night.

Culebra's night life, what little there is, revolves around downtown. If you don't rent a bike, you are at the mercy of the islands publicos (taxis). Warning: On Culebra, no one is in a hurry, so plan on waiting (and waiting) for your ride into Dewey.

By day, Dewey is where ferries come to dock from the main island, and where people congregate to chat on a small plaza while buying out the fresh vegetable and fruit truck. By night, the brightly painted, cinder-block buildings that line Dewey's narrow streets are closed, save for the restaurateurs peddling their fresh seafood. You can dine indoors, but why? On Culebra, the mean monthly temperature ranges from 76 in January to 82 in August.

Your choices after dinner are limited to a baseball game at Municipal Stadium or the occassional tent revival (sans the tent) on the nearby basketball court.

We kept our last night on the island simple, watching the sun slip into the sea before feasting on fresh seafood outdoors. The owner of the native restaurant flicked the outdoor lights on and off at 9:45 sharp to signal to lingering guests that it's time to go home and tuck into bed. And on Culebra, you smile and pay the bill, hop into your Jeep and drive home through a jungle of tree-canopied streets, satisfied by another day in paradise.

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