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The San Diego Union-Tribune
Don't Bother To Bring Your Golf Clubs | Just Relax, That's All
November 17, 2002
DEWEY, Culebra, Puerto Rico -- 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, however, can find evidence of the military past, including two rusted tanks that were used as targets and coral- encrusted projectiles.
A new beginning
Jerry formerly lived in the St. Louis, Mo., area but asked that his last name not be used. Like many of the 200 or so Americans who have found refuge 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 wanting. 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.
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.
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.
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, they are the largest reptiles left on Earth.
Scope then Windex
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 dropped between two scrub-covered hills and careened to a stop on the abbreviated runway.
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. Next door was Mamacita's, 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.
That afternoon, we took a short hike to Carlos Rosario Beach, which was deserted; it offers top snorkeling.
The island can be a fascinating playground. After a meal of jerked chicken, 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. The glow, called bioluminescence, is caused when microscopic organisms in the water are agitated.
On this island, 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."
IF YOU GO / Culebra, Puerto Rico
Getting there: 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 costs $2.25, but the cab ride from the international airport in San Juan to the ferry terminal in Fajardo was $65.
Lodging: 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 has individual cabanas that are rustic but charming. Private homes (some lavish) can be rented at www.culebraislandrealty.com.
Dining: The Dinghy Dock, on the water, is the best for the money. 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 makes great sandwiches. There are several small grocery stores, but supplies are hit and miss.
Information: Puerto Rico Tourism, (800) 866-7827 or www.gotopuertorico.com.