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St. Louis Post-Dispatch
All's Quiet In Culebra
By Tom Uhlenbrock
August 11, 2002
ONCE USED FOR TARGET PRACTICE BY THE U.S. MILITARY, THE SMALL ISLAND OFF THE COAST OF PUERTO RICO IS NOW A LAID-BACK HAVEN FOR TRAVELERS WHO REALLY WANT TO GET AWAY.
From his picnic table office across the street from the airport, Jerry can spot the tourists who have arrived in Culebra with mistaken ideas about this tiny Caribbean island.
"The travel magazines may have done us an injustice," said Jerry, who operates Jerry's Jeeps rentals. "When I see people walking out of the airport with golf clubs, I know they've come to the wrong place."
Culebra, you see, has no golf courses -- or fancy resorts, or shopping strips, or McDonald's -- which is fine with most of its more than 2,000 residents.
A longtime secret in the shadow of Puerto Rico , Culebra's beaches and reefs recently won praise on the Travel Channel, and both Conde Nast Traveler and National Geographic Traveler gave Culebra cover treatment in their spring issues.
Culebra (koo-LAY-bruh) is part of the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico , situated a 30-minute puddle-jumper flight east of San Juan. Culebra and its sister, Vieques (vee-ay-kays), are known as the Spanish Virgin Islands. Culebra is Spanish for "snake," although the few found on the island are harmless and seldom seen.
Like Vieques , Culebra once was used for target practice by American destroyers and jet fighters. But the Culebrans revolted, and in 1975 a court halted the bombardment.
Visitors can find evidence of the military past. Two rusted tanks that were used as targets sit mired in the sand of Playa Flamenco, and the concrete formations of shark pens where the Navy did repellent research jut into the surf. Coral-encrusted projectiles lie on the reef on the other side of the island. The week before my visit, the Army Corps of Engineers was making another sweep, looking for old ordnance.
"They were exploding 500- and 1,000-pound bombs out there," said Jerry, the businessman across the street from Culebra's small airfield. "You could hear them from all over the island -- whoom, whoom."
Jerry formerly lived in the St. Louis area but asked that his last name not be mentioned. Like many of the 200 or so Americans who have found refug e in Culebra, he left behind some bad memories.
As Pat Megnin, an Alabaman running the hotel where I stayed, put it: "We don't consider ourselves expatriates because this is still part of the United States. We're more like dropouts."
Many of those dropouts wonder whether Culebra's burst of publicity will bring some travelers not quite prepared for this laid- back island, which up to now has been visited mostly by the yachting crowd.
Tourists who expect Cancun or the Bahamas will find the amenities w anting. We were faced with something of a dilemma when the staff of the Dinghy Dock, easily the best of the island's handful of restaurants, took off at midweek for some R&R. (A footnote: They have corrected the sign, which originally said Dingy Dock.)
Culebra lacks the rain forests and waterfalls of, say, Jamaica or Dominica. Its low-lying hills are covered largely by cactus and acacia, a thorny invader from Africa. Dewey, named after the American admiral, is the only town, and you can walk its skinny streets with six stop signs in half an hour. By vehicle, the entire 3-mile by 7-mile island can be explored in half a day.
Chickens outnumber cars on the three roads, each of which leads to a beach. The only traffic jams come when the ferry from Puerto Rico lands at the municipal pier. The people live in modest homes, many painted in bright island colors. Visitors stay at "guesthouses," which offer rudimentary accommodations.
What Culebra does have, in abundance, are beaches of white sand and aquamarine waters. Often, yours will be the first footprints of the day. The reefs are some of the healthiest in the Caribbean, with giant brain, elkhorn and fan corals teeming with flamboyantly colored fish.
Bring a book -- relaxing is a way of life. A traveling companion, who was making his sixth visit, is fond of saying: "I'm a Type A personality. After a couple days in Culebra, I'm down to a low C."
Its history as a target limited development on the island. Because there are no water or power plants, an underwater pipeline brings those necessities from Vieques . When the U.S. military left, nearly 2,000 of the island's 7,700 acres reverted from bombing range to the Culebra Wildlife Refuge, which is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources.
Most tourists who go to Culebra are birders and beach bums, sailors and surfers, snorkelers and scuba divers. There is no industry or large-scale farming to pollute the waters. No high- rises line the island's wild beaches, such as Brava, where not a single light obscured the blinding display of stars on a moonless night.
Which leads to my biggest frustration during our visit.
The solitude of Brava invites a yearly migration of leatherback sea turtles, which crawl onto the beaches by the hundreds to lay eggs on spring nights. At up to 1,600 pounds, these Volkswagen- sized living dinosaurs are the largest reptiles left on Earth.
We arrived during the peak of the migration. Coralations, a local conservation group, is helping the Department of Natural Resources collect data on the egg-laying, a federal project that began two decades ago. I volunteered with the group for an all-night beach patrol. Our job would be to measure the behemoths and count their eggs. The giant turtles shed tears as their eggs drop, and the islanders say they are crying because they will never see their babies.
From 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., our six-member patrol stalked the sands of Brava without benefit of flashlights, which might disorient turtles that use the constellations as their compasses on their long voyage from the north Atlantic.
We saw turtle tracks left behind on the beach from the previous night, as if a convoy of pickup trucks had pulled in from the sea. But on my patrol, the turtles took the night off.
A whim of nature, I said, hiding my disappointment.
The night was not a total loss. Lying on the beach in the darkness between patrols, we saw the lights of St. Thomas in the distance and marveled at what we thought was a string of bright stars climbing nearly straight up from the horizon. Later, I learned it was an alignment of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn that last occurred in February 1940.
Alone in paradise
The pilot of the six-passenger plane taking us 17 miles to Culebra asked before taking off from San Juan: "Have you been to Culebra before?" My two companions, who had been there several times, said the pilot was not being sociable, but merely preparing us for the novel arrival.
After a short flight over an island-studded sea, the pilot made a run over the Culebra airport to check the winds. He then dropped between two scrub-covered hills, veered sharply to the left, dipped in a crosswind, straightened the wings and careened to a stop on the abbreviated runway. I was ready for the Happy Landing bar, situated conveniently at the end of the tarmac.
The bar, by the way, received worldwide exposure several years ago when a wire-service photo showed a small plane tossed by a hurricane onto its roof, just above the Happy Landing sign.
Jerry's Jeeps rented us a vintage Isuzu Trooper, and a 10-minute drive ended at Zoni Beach, where the water changed colors as it stretched into the sea. "It's like Scope in the shallows, then turns to Windex," said my friend.
We rented a one-bedroom apartment at the Posada la Hamaca for $85 a night, with a third bed in the kitchen area. The room opened onto a patio, which overlooked the canal that splits the island in two, providing a shortcut for small boats. Next door was Mamacita's, the town's lone hot spot, where Puerto Ricans visiting from the big island partied late and loud. Locals said the island is swarmed by young Puerto Ricans during spring breaks, and they are greeted by drug-sniffing dogs at the airport.
That afternoon, a few groups of people were at Playa Flamenco, so we took a short hike over the hill to the other side of the peninsula and Carlos Rosario Beach, which was deserted.
Although also known as Impact Beach because of the shells that once landed there, Carlos Rosario offers perhaps the island's top snorkeling.
With plenty of shoreline shade trees to relax under in between swims, we had a Caribbean paradise to ourselves.
Too many changes
Digna Feliciano, a small woman of 60 years, set aside the broom she was using to sweep out her El Batey restaurant and bar to explain how she stopped the U.S. Navy.
"As a child, I remember my mother holding me while there was an explosion in the air," she said. "We would have to abandon our house and go stay with my grandparents. One time I was fishing on the pier, and two bombs exploded next to us. My daughter is still deaf in one ear from that incident."
Feliciano retrieved a folder of clippings and showed a document dated Dec. 1, 1937, when the bombing was being proposed. "It will be necessary for all squatters upon Naval lands to be cleared," it said.
A newspaper article, this one from 1973, told of another military project. The Navy had gathered up shells that had landed unexploded on Culebra. They planned to detonate the cluster of bombs in the water.
"We felt they were destroying our reefs, destroying our way of life," Feliciano said.
Although a group of fishermen obeyed orders from the military to disperse, Feliciano joined another woman in a small boat that headed out onto the water.
"We got there right after they had set a time fuse and the diver was coming up," she said. "They told us to leave, but we stayed and went around and around as they tried to catch us. They used a rope to grab our motor and pull us out.
"At that moment, the whole thing exploded. Thousands of fish were dead. A news camera had recorded it, and when the judge saw that, he issued an injunction."
Feliciano is now helping residents of Vieques , who want to stop the U.S. bombing there, while contemplating a mounting crisis on Culebra's horizon.
"Too many changes," she said. "Too many people are selling and leaving. Prices are very high, more than $80,000 an acre. I've had people come directly, 'How much do you want?'
"It used to be people would come here for the hiking, fishing, the beaches. We're not for big casinos. We want people to enjoy the island as it is."
Birds and Bio Bay
The island, as it is, can be a fascinating playground.
After a meal of jerked chicken at a friend's house one night, three of us took a swim in what locals call Bio Bay, after a similar, better-known bay in Vieques . Under a black sky full of stars, each stroke caused the water to be illuminated with stars of its own. The glow, called bioluminescence, is caused when microscopic organisms in the water are agitated.
An underwater swimmer coming toward me looked like a neon angel. Hold still, and the water went black. Flick a finger and silver streaks shot out from a fingertip.
The phenomenon apparently is a natural defense system. The tiny organisms cause a chemical reaction that emits light when they are being attacked in hopes of attracting a bigger predator to eat their attackers.
I learned this from my friend, a zoologist, after whirling around in the water to create a glowing ball. "You know what we call that?" she asked. "Shark dinner."
The sun was shining brightly the next morning when we took off in Teresa Tallevast's powerboat. Tallevast manages the Culebra Wildlife Refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Part of her job is monitoring the terns, gulls and boobies that nest on the surrounding cays.
"The first census in the 1970s found an estimated 67,000 birds, but that declined dramatically to about 8,000 because of people taking the eggs for consumption," she said. "The population is increasing now. It's back up to around 60,000."
She paused to use binoculars to tally the birds that shown up to nest on a jagged spit of barren rock. "We hadn't been able to get in and band them because there were bombs here," she said. "Now that the bombs have been cleared, we can start banding to see where they go for the winter."
Tallevast also watches over beaches where endangered hawksbill sea turtles nest. "We have about 60 activities a year, which is significant for the Caribbean," she said.
We took a bouncing boat ride to the small island of Culebrita to visit Tortuga Bay, where green sea turtles gather to eat the turtle grass. We counted six, but the bay used to have many more, before it became popular with yachters.
"On a long weekend, we have as many as 200 boats in here, and their anchors just rip the grass up," Tallevast said. "I tell people that turtles that come here now have to bring their own lunch."
I told Tallevast about my disappointing night spent waiting for a leatherback to show up.
"The leatherback population here has quadrupled," she said. "The locals have been educated and are helping in the program. They're starting to make a little tourist money off a natural resource. This is a conservation program that actually works.
"Culebra's really ripe for that type of ecotourism. But you've got to make sure you don't destroy the resource for the tourist dollar."
On our final morning in Culebra, we drove to the highest point, where the military had left behind a helicopter pad. The viewpoint looked down on the waves pounding secluded Resaca Beach. Fresh ruts led from the water up the sand, as if giant birds had flopped in for a landing.
The leatherbacks had been busy again last night.
If you go
Getting there: American Airlines offers direct flights from St. Louis to San Juan, Puerto Rico . Because of the timing of our flights, we had to lay over a night in San Juan going both ways. No problem. Old San Juan was a fascinating place to visit. Isla Nena Air and Vieques Air Link have several flights a day from San Juan to Culebra for about $115 round-trip. A ferry also runs to Culebra. The hour-long ferry ride cost $2.25, but the cab ride from the international airport in San Juan to the ferry terminal in Fajardo was $65.
Where to stay: The guesthouses in Culebra offer rooms that are clean but simple. Culebra Beach Villas and Flamenco Beach Villas are on the island's most famous beach. Villa Boheme and Villa Fulladoza on the harbor in Dewey may be the nicest. Harbor View Villa ($550 a week) has individual cabanas perched on a hill overlooking, of course, the harbor. They are rustic but charming. The secluded Tamarindo Estates is $1,000 a week, but that includes pool, air conditioning and a car. There are private homes for rent, some lavish, at www.culebraislandrealty.com.
Where to eat: The Dinghy Dock, on the water, is the best for the money. The scallops and shrimp broiled in butter, followed by pecan praline ice cream pie, was fattening and fabulous. Club Seabourne offers fine dining. El Caobo, known locally as Tina's, is a bit ramshackle but another favorite. El Oasis has excellent pizza, and El Patio next to the airport makes great sandwiches. There are several small grocery stores, but suppli es are hit and miss. "I asked for bread, and the woman said not till Friday, and it was Wednesday," said Chris Underhill, a visitor from California. "You've got to expect the unexpected."
More information: Puerto Rico Tourism Company, 1-800-866-7827 and www.gotopuertorico.com. For diving, see www.divepuertorico.com and www.culebradivers.com. Vacation Planners is on Culebra and helpful at 1-866-285-3272. Also, The Tourist Times tells you everything you need to know and is available at 1-787-742-0816; the e-mail is email@example.com.