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The Independent - London
Travel: Offshore top-ranking Culebra lies off the coast of Puerto Rico, a tiny island of golden beaches gently lapped by a jade sea. Idyllic? Absolutely. So what's that tank doing rusting away in the sand?
by James Henderson
October 7, 2000
The airstrip on the Caribbean island of Culebra is best described as "sporting". The trouble with it is that where you would normally line up to land, there is a mountain in the way, so you either have to approach at an alarmingly steep angle (and get a close inspection of the grass on the hilltop), or swing around the side of it and graze the scrub with a wingtip as you straighten up. Either way, it's exciting; the sort of thing people pay money for at a fairground.
This isn't the reason, however, that barely anyone visits the island (they can go by ferry if they really want to). It's because Culebra has just never been that well known. The island is politically attached to Puerto Rico , which has seen no reason to trumpet the place. Life is pretty quiet in Culebra; it's classic, laid-back Caribbean with a Latin American edge. Island dogs cock an eyelid as you approach, and let out a long breath as you pass.
Culebra lies off the eastern end of Puerto Rico , an amoebic splurge of land set in a shallow, jade sea. About 2,000 people live there. Time was, in the late Eighties, when the island had a big future ahead of it as a sailing stop-over between the Virgin Islands and the larger island, but then Hurricane Hugo swept through and trashed it. Now there is a small community of Americans among the native islanders, but life continues pretty much as it always has.
At first sight - once I could see straight after the landing - Culebra was a little disappointing. All the houses were breeze-block affairs with rusting cars in the lot and litter blowing up against the chainlink fences. But it was worth persevering. People love Culebra and it has an infectious spirit. The pace of life is benign. You can be happily occupied for a week, without ever quite remembering what happened on any particular day.
On my first evening I walked into Dewey, the main town. Salsa hung on the evening air. At the stadium there was a floodlit softball match, with what seemed to be the entire population of the island in support. In stumbling Spanish I gathered that the islanders were playing a team from the Puerto Rican mainland. Walking on, I came to a completely different crowd - of expatriates - at Mamacitas, a riot of pastel colours on the canal. All the brightly painted tables were occupied, so I paused at the bar. A cheery waitress, tight shorts and hair gathered up into a cascade, breezed up, asked me to wait to be seated and then wiped off another dish on the blackboard. As at many restaurants on Culebra, the supply of fresh fish often runs out.
"Busy night, then," I ventured.
"Busy every night," she replied and raced off, hair a-quiver.
Flamenco Beach rates among the Caribbean's finest, a classic, two- mile curved strip of silken sand, so broad that the waves carve it into huge scallop shapes. At the northwestern limit of the beach, I was surprised to discover an old tank, rusting away and being swallowed up by the sand. Odd, you might think, to see a tank on a tiny Caribbean island, but this is one of Culebra's stranger secrets - and another reason why it has never really been developed. For many years Flamenco Beach was actually a bombing range for the US navy and there was a large military presence on Culebra. (The nearby island of Vieques still is, though bombing has been on hold for more than a year now as the islanders there are disputing the navy's presence, with a sit-in taking place in the impact area.)
On the hill above Flamenco Beach you can still see the fire- control tower, but all has been quiet since 1975 when the range was cleaned up and handed back. Much of the land was made into a National Refuge, so a lot of the island is still undeveloped.
The naval presence also explains the garden of one of the inhabitants of Dewey (the name derives from an admiral who served here years ago, but actually the islanders still call the town Pueblo). Among the usual marinabilia - ropes and glass buoys and the like - stand shells, of both the exploding and non-exploding kind. Next to massive conchs and clams stands ordnance, all painted silver.
It was time to eat again and this time I found a classic Caribbean restaurant, Culebran style. Officially it was called El Caobo, but it was most easily found by wandering the back streets of town and asking for Tina's. It was a tin-roofed house with trellis walls, lino on the floor, plastic roses and the telly wittering in the background. There was a satisfactory air of chaos with people running in and out and the family of the restaurant eating just behind the swing door. The staple fare is generally chicken or fish, so I opted for chicken, served with a hundredweight of rice'n'beans. Heavy, but delightful.
There was a list of rules on the wall, of which No3 was: "No discussing politics in the restaurant, please do it in the street." Unexpectedly there was no sign asking people to be quiet in the street, which, given the passion that politics raise in the island, was probably necessary.
Discussion usually centres on the status of Puerto Rico with regards to the United States. The island and its smaller dependencies ended up in American hands in 1898, when the larger power dismantled the Spanish empire around the world. Cuba was fought over and eventually released to go its independent way under tight US control, but Puerto Rico , without a by-your-leave, was made a "Commonwealth of the USA". As for Culebra, that was simply handed to the US navy for gunnery practice.
To begin with, there were indignant riots and an attempted rebellion, but the debate has shifted now. The islanders have benefited in an economic sense - it just takes a quick look at the Dominican Republic nearby, where many people still live in extreme poverty, to see how things might have been. The Puerto Ricans have considerable autonomy and trade advantages. But their dilemma is that they can never have the pride of complete self- determination. The Puerto Rican flag always flies in the shadow of the Stars and Stripes.
There was even a referendum a couple of years ago, introduced by the pro-statehood party, in which voters were given four options, ranging from full independence to becoming the 51st state. In an untypically Latin but all too practical compromise, politicians managed to introduce a fifth option along the lines of "none of the above", effectively boycotting the referendum. Enough. Back to the beach...
And eventually back to that airstrip. There is of course no mountain in the way as you fly out. Instead you are treated to a view of the massive Ensenada Honda, Deep Bay, which encloses a huge stretch of protected water where just a few yachts stand at anchor; Pueblo, the pint-sized town; Culebrita, an offshore cay, and then the shallow jade sea, as this strange but curiously likeable island recedes to the horizon.
James Henderson is author of the `Cadogan Guide to the Caribbean and the Bahamas', He is presently working on its fifth edition.
Getting to Culebra: there are no longer direct flights between the UK and Puerto Rico . South American Experience (020-7976 5511) has a fare on Iberia from Birmingham, Heathrow or Manchester via Madrid for pounds 484. Most other connections are via a US point; yesterday, Bridge The World (020-7911 0900) quoted a fare on Continental from Gatwick via Newark for pounds 442 return; similar fares apply from Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, and a stopover is allowed in the US.
One of these tickets will get you as far as San Juan's international airport, whence there are light aircraft connections for around $90 (pounds 65) return to Culebra. If you prefer the ferry, there are boats from Fajardo costing a couple of dollars each way; Fajardo is easily reached from San Juan by publico, a crowded minibus.
There is just one hotel on Flamenco Beach: Culebra Beach Villas (001 787 742 0319, www.culebrabeachrentals.com) with self-catering rooms in a three-storey wooden house overlooking the sea and in cabanas behind, pounds 90 per night. Villa Fulladoza (001 787 742 3576, www.fulladoza@culebra- island.com) is a block of self-catering apartments (pounds 35-pounds 55) with a nice deck looking on to the harbour and a book exchange, walking distance to the activity of Dewey. Mamacitas itself (001 787 742 0090) has some small rooms in town, pounds 40-pounds 60. A simple guest house is Villa Nueva (001 787 742 0257), in a modern building with private baths, shared kitchens, book exchange, reading room and video, for about pounds 35. Information is available on www.culebra-island.com.
There are few guides devoted to the island; in a thin field, the Lonely Planet guide to Puerto Rico (pounds 9.99) is probably the best.