Exploring the Spanish Virgin Islands

If you’ve ever dreamed on sailing in the Caribbean, you probably have a picture in your mind of the Virgin Islands – St Thomas and St John in the USVI, and Tortola and Virgin Gorda. The Soggy Dollar Bar and Willy T’s. But have you heard of the Spanish Virgins? Just east of mainland Puerto Rico, the islands of Culebra and Vieques are technically part of PR, but have a much more laid back, island-time feel.

We untied the lines from the Puerto del Rey marina on Thanksgiving Day, and made the short trip to Los Palominos island. We celebrated the holiday with a quasi-traditional thanksgiving dinner (substituting the worlds smallest rotisserie chicken for turkey) and a mojito float party with Zach and Lindy of SV Holiday. Sanitas’ third year of cruising is off to a good start!

The next day, we sailed for 5.5 hours to Vieques and anchored back in Sun Bay where we finished our journeys last May. We were super lucky to be able to sail the whole way without motoring, because it’s pretty much straight east from the mainland. It gave Capt. Mike the opportunity to brush off those rusty sail trimming skills, and first mate Jenn the chance to tack and tack and tack! I measured the length of the white sand beach at Sun Bay while jogging barefoot one morning – 1.1 miles from the dinghy drop off on the east side on the bay to the last point of land on the west near Esperanza. It’s a gorgeous place to relax and wind down after the never ending boat chores and trips to Costco, Walmart, and West Marine in San Juan traffic!

It’s also a great place to check out all of the boat systems that we didn’t need to use in the marina….and to find new problems. Our dinghy outboard motor is super reliable. It always starts with one or two pulls. Until it doesn’t. Capt. Mike sweated through his t-shirt pulling the outboard starter dozens of times with just a small cloud of grey smoke to show for his efforts. We decided we must have gotten some bad gasoline, and luckily Zach on Holiday had some SeaFoam fuel conditioning additive to lend us. Over the next couple of days of frequent use, she went back to purring like a kitten.

But then our water maker broke. Ok, maybe it didn’t exactly break, but the water that came out smelled foul, and measured at 750-900 ppm. Might be better off just drinking seawater! So we replaced the filter, ran an alkaline cleaning cycle, put it all back together, and tried again. STILL over 600 ppm. Good thing we stayed close to civilization on this shakedown cruise! We ordered a new water maker membrane from Defender and had it sent to the USPO General Delivery in St Thomas. Phew! That’s a lot of work for our first few days of cruising life!

We recovered by hanging out on the beach, walking to nearby Playa Media Luna, and dinghying over to the town of Esperanza to check out the tourist scene and the beach bars. I give two thumbs up to Lazy Jacks for drinks, and Duffy’s for food!

One of the highlights of our stay on Vieques was a tour of the island with Angie of Vieques Tours and Transportation. Angie’s a native of Vieques and she and her entire family have lived here her whole life, except for a year of college in Connecticut (Too cold. Too far from home) She knows everything about the history of the island, and what she doesn’t know, she’ll make up! She described the sugar cane plantation history of the island, and how that led to a diverse population that came here from islands all over the Caribbean, and how the last names of prominent families still show those origins. She took us to Isabela Segunda, the capital of Vieques, where pastel painted colonial architecture abounds and the one main road is known to locals as “the wide street”. Compare it to the rest of the island roads that look pretty much like bike paths and you’ll get it! Fort Conde de Mirasol was the last fort built by the Spanish in the New World, constructed between 1845 and 1855. Pretty much, they ran out of money and colonial power right about then, but the building is almost entirely original and it sits on a lovely viewpoint and contains a museum of archeological finds dating back to the Taino indigenous people. Robert, the tour guide and caretaker of the fort, was Angies’s high school social studies teacher back when he first arrived from the mainland US and didn’t speak any Spanish!

But the most interesting part of the tour was learning how life on Vieques has changed since hurricanes Irma and Maria back in 2017. Angie’s family had no electricity for nine months after Maria. Since then, half of the schools on the island as well as the only hospital have closed with no plans to reopen. There’s no longer any landline telephone service on the island – the provider couldn’t come up with the money to replace the poles and wires. Most families started to grow their own fruit and produce because grocery shipments were so unreliable. And many of the mature trees that used to form a shady canopy of green over the island roads are gone. Many small businesses have closed, and tourism (particularly the stellar bioluminescent bay tours) is the only industry. Now, none of this is meant to scare you away! I’ve only visited Vieques after the storms and I found it stunningly gorgeous. There are cute boutique hotels and delicious seafood restaurants and beautiful beaches that put the ones on mainland Puerto Rico to shame. But when you hear of the problems Puerto Ricans had in the aftermath of the storms, just think of their small island brethren who feel completely abandoned by the government and by FEMA.

From Vieques, we sailed over to Culebra – a new island to explore! From calm Ensenada Honda, we dinghied over to the one main town of Dewey and watched the ferries come and go, and watched the town put up Christmas decorations. I don’t know about you, but doesn’t it seem weird to decorate with snowmen in the tropics? And shouldn’t southern Santa have a more weather-appropriate outfit?

Capt. Mike and I sweated our way to the only beach within walking distance from the town dock. Within two minutes of hopping into the water, Mike kicked a sea urchin and had to perform emergency surgery to remove painful spines from his second toe. Good thing I’m always prepared and carry a Swiss Army knife! His injury made the walk back seem longer than the walk to the beach, but I made it up to him with a Painkiller at the Dinghy Bar

Still milking the great toe injury of 2019 🤣 we shared a rental car with SV Holiday for $45 per day and explored pretty much every beach on the island. I can see why you need a Jeep if you live here! Those island roads run straight up, and straight down, and suddenly and unexpectedly turn to dirt! But at the end of every road in another stunning white sand beach, and I made it my mission to walk the length of every one.

After all that exertion, I think I earned the right to sit in our fabulous new beach chairs on the white sand of Flamenco Beach, sipping a Pina Colada from the beach shacks and enjoying the fabulous people watching. (Are people really still wearing neon? And thongs? Who is Daddy Yankee? So THAT’S how you keep a beach umbrella from blowing away)

Two military tanks sit on the west end of Flamenco Beach, reminding folks of the controversial history of the US Navy in these islands. Back in the 40s and 50s the navy took over large portions of Culebra, forcing the folks who lived there to pack up and move. Then they performed military exercises and target practice with live munitions for decades. Even now, large parts of the islands are off limits to visits because of the huge amount of unexploded ordinance. While sailing to Vieques, we heard the Coast Guard announcing ordinance removal activities. In the 70’s residents of Culebra staged protests and called world-wide attention to what they considered an occupation of their home island. Eventually, their tactics worked, and the Navy left Culebra in 1975, but stayed active in Vieques until 2003. The rusting, graffitied tanks remain on the beach as a memorial to the protestors and a symbol of peace.

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