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.

The Last Hurrah

All good things must come to an end, and we were rapidly approaching the end of Sanitas’ 2019 cruising season. So Capt. Mike and I decided to end the season on a high note. While our buddy boats continued on to Culebra and then to the US Virgin Islands, we decided to spend our last few days quietly at anchor off the coast of Vieques. I’m so glad we did! The public beach at Sun Bay is the prettiest we saw in Puerto Rico – white sand stretching for over a mile, with strategically placed palm trees for shade, calm blue water, and wild horses! And only two boats anchored here!

Each morning, we’d check off a couple of items on the “get Sanitas ready for hurricane season” checklist. Then we’d go ashore and walk the length of the beach (stopping by the cafe, just in case they might actually be open one day and willing to sell us a pina colada) and we’d visit our horse buddies. That cafe never actually was open. Sigh. Since it was spring, it was baby season, and I saw some of the cutest wobbly new-born foals I’d ever seen. Don’t worry! I kept my distance so mama wouldn’t get nervous. One small herd of wild horses staked out a primo spot by the outdoor beach showers, and Capt. Mike would turn the showers on for a few minutes each day to give them fresh drinking water. Watch out for those big teeth and sharp hooves, though!

On our last full night at Sun Bay, we booked a tour with Jak Water Sports to visit the bioluminescent bay at Mosquito Bay. Remember when we visited the bioluminescent bay at La Paguara? Well, everyone told us that the bright and active bioluminescence here on Vieques would make La Paguera look like a dim has-been by comparison. We dinghied ashore around 8:30 and the tour bus picked us up at the end of the dirt road. For $50pp, they set us up with a glass-bottomed kayak, paddles, PFDs, and a super knowledgeable guide. We probably spent an hour and a half gliding across the bay, watching the bioluminescence streak like warp speed beneath the glass bottom of our boat. We were encouraged to dip our hands and feet into the water and to watch the glowing sparkles run down our arms. The only no-no was swimming in it. Apparently, prohibiting swimming and motor boats has protected the bay and its microscopic inhabitants. It really was considerably brighter than La Paguara, although being able to swim in the bioluminescence was a true highlight, so I am very glad that we had the privilege of experiencing both.

One our last day of cruising, we had a lovely short sail around to the west coast of Vieques to anchor at Green Beach. It was wonderful to sail downwind after weeks of sailing straight into the trades. We didn’t even turn on our motor on this last beautiful day! This section of the island used to be controlled by the US Navy who performed armaments testing on Vieques. But today, the few military buildings have been abandoned, and all that remains is a lovely and quiet small beach. If we hadn’t just come from beautiful Sun Bay, I might have even considered it the most beautiful beach on the island. Of course, there’s also the famous Black Beach that we didn’t visit- sounds like another trip to Vieques is in order!

We toasted to our success in traveling all the way from St Petersburg Florida with our last bottle of Prosecco. It’s truly amazing to me that we got ourselves and our boat all this way! Capt. Mike agrees that our second cruising season has been much more relaxing and enjoyable than our first. This last quiet night was a chance review the stories, adventures, and wonderful people we met this season, and to prepare ourselves for the long list of jobs awaiting us in the marina. Cheers to a wonderful cruising season!

Puerto Rico’s South Coast

Now I warn you… my impressions of the south coast of Puerto Rico may be slightly influenced by how unpleasant the sailing conditions were while we traveled there. You know – those 25 knot trade winds I keep griping about. I’ll stop complaining, but you may notice a certain lack of enthusiasm that might not be completely warranted….

The highlight of our south coast crossing was a stop in Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico. Not only because the boardwalk of restaurants and bars is a two-minute dinghy ride from the anchorage. Or because we shopped at the first American grocery store and Walmart shopping center since Florida. The colonial old town of Ponce is delightful. There are beautiful Spanish colonial buildings, piazzas and parks, and a world class art museum.

The flag of the city of Ponce is red and black, honoring its historic fire station. The station has been renovated and it’s beautiful, plus the historic firefighting equipment on display is fascinating.

Did I mention that the mascot of Ponce is the lion? No accident that you’ve seen lions in most of these photos – even on the ice cream truck!

From Ponce, we made a short hop to Isla Cana de Muertos, or Coffin Island. I was looking forward to a beach day, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Instead, the island made us work to discover its treasures. It was difficult to find a safe place to dinghy ashore, and when we did, the trail was overgrown with cactus plants of every shape and size. They were beautiful, and fascinating, but still prickly! I wished many times for a machete for a little DIY trail maintenance. Capt. Mike wished the same after a baby cactus hitched a ride on his leg.

But we persevered, and climbed up to the spine of the island where a lighthouse dating back to the Spanish colonial days holds the position of honor. We did a little breaking and entering to earn the best views of the island and surrounding seas.

Back at sea level, we hiked to the beach where day trippers visit from Ponce, and after the ferry departed, Capt Mike did a little American Ninja Warrior practice.

After a few days exploring on land, we headed east again. Set the alarm for 4:00am and headed out before sunrise to try to catch a period of calm before the daily trades kicked up. It didn’t work. We actually experienced some of the worst weather and roughest seas we’d seen all season. I tell people that I don’t get seasick, but that day, I might have been lying. On the plus side, I got some great pictures of our buddy boat Soluna riding on one hull in the big waves.

We lived to tell the tale, and soon anchored in Patillas harbor for a few days. Since we were here during the week, rather than on a weekend, town was quiet with very few restaurants open. But Paraiso Bar was open, and here Capt. Mike began his love affair with mofongo rellanos – mashed plantains cooked in garlic and oil and stuffed with fried pork or grilled shrimp.

¡Que Viva Puerto Rico!

SV Sanitas has arrived at our final country for this cruising season! We’ve been exploring for the past two weeks as we slowly cruise east along the island toward our goal of Fajardo for hurricane season. Our first stop was La Parguera, or as I like to call it – the Jersey Shore of Puerto Rico. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, just as things were getting hopping, and we dinghied in with SV Sava to check out the town. The waterfront is lined with colorful wooden house boats that make me want to move to La Parguera. Jose, from the Puerto Real marina, had given us a tip that we could tie up to “Frank’s” dinghy dock (just ignore the Privado signs) so we quietly did so.

La Parguera was a bit of culture shock after a month in the Dominican Republic. CocaCola and Medalla beer signs everywhere, a pervasive smell of fried food, and everyone dressed for fun – in tight clothing and lots of bling. We made a lap of the entire town in about ten minutes, and then gave up our search for culture or history, and just joined the party.

First stop- El Karacol, a world-famous cocktail bar, known for their fresh fruit mojitos. Forget boring old lime mojitos! Our group was evenly split between coconut lovers and passion fruit lovers.

We sat at picnic tables outside a restaurant filled with local families. However, the smell of old fryer grease was a bit overwhelming. I excused myself for a moment, just to check out the menu at Moons Tapas Bar a couple of block up the hill. Oh yeah! Now this is where we need to eat! Apparently, the rest of our group agreed, because soon we left the grease haze below us, settled in on a breezy patio, and tasted six different flavors of homemade sangria before deciding on a pitcher of Arancino flavor. The food here was the best I’ve had since Florida – grouper ceviche, chimichurri skirt steak, lobster tacos wrapped in taro root tortillas…. nom,nom,nom!

Capt. Mike was obsessed with this old fashioned, hand-carved horse racing game called Pica. Because it was all in Spanish, we didn’t really understand how the betting worked, or even how to tell which horse had won – the track was a circle, and there was no obvious finish line. But everyone who threw down a dollar was so enthusiastic, and everyone was cheering, jumping, and shouting, so the game was impossible to resist. After watching a long time, Capt. Mike thought he had it figured out, and threw $1 down on his lucky number 3. The carny slapped a double 3’s domino down to keep it from blowing away – more lucky threes! We crossed our fingers, and held our breath, and cheered and encouraged….. and horse #3 won! Mike’s $1 bet nabbed him $20 and the most excited face I’ve seen in a very long time! We went right back to El Karacol for another one of those delicious mojitos!

After our big night on the town, we kept it quiet on Saturday. Explored the mangrove rivers by dinghy, hoping to spot an elusive monkey, but no luck. We snorkeled a bit too, but there were only a few small fish hiding in the mangrove roots. By early afternoon, we raised anchor to move the big boats east to an anchorage closer to the Bioluminescent Bay. However, when we rounded the corner and caught sight of Cayo Caracoles, Capt. Mike shouted, “We are missing out on one heck of a party!” I poked my head up into the cockpit and saw that he was absolutely right. At least 50 powerboats were moored and anchored in the shallow waters just off the Cayo, some with flags flying, loud salsa music blaring, all with a drift of floating partiers hanging out in the pool formed by the circle of boats. Well what’s the point of being a cruiser on no particular schedule if you can’t change your plans? So we threw an anchor down right there, piled in our dinghies along with Sava, and floated over to join in the fun. We enjoyed meeting local Puerto Rican boaters, including two who keep their boats in the Puerto del Rey marina where we’ll be storing Sanitas. We also had the chance to talk a bit with folks who had lived through hurricane Maria in 2017 to learn firsthand what life in Puerto Rico had been like without water or electricity for months after the storm, and how many villages are still struggling today.

On Sunday, as the weekend was winding down in this party town, Sava continued sailing eastward but Capt. Mike and I stayed put. We had one item left on our La Parguera bucket list – visiting the bioluminescent bay. There are several bays around the world where the conditions are just right to grow a high concentration of microscopic dinoflagellates and therefore, for the salt water to glow at night when agitated. Puerto Rico is lucky enough to have three of these magical bays. We were excited to visit the one near La Parguera, because you are allowed to swim there. So we moved the big boat again, for the third time in three days, close to the mouth of the bay. That turned into more of an adventure than expected. We’d followed a tip on Active Captain (sort of the Yelp reviews of the sailing world) recommending a safe anchorage that did not appear on any of our charts. We discovered the risk of believing “some guy” over believing the charts, because when we approached the coordinates he’d provided, we suddenly found ourselves in super shallow water. So Capt. Mike slammed it into reverse, and we circled looking for a deeper anchorage. I dropped the anchor in a small sandy patch, but the anchor rode immediately fouled on a craig of Rock that surrounded it. Poor Mike had to dive to free the chain and it was almost sunset before we found a safer anchorage nearby.

It was worth it though! On a Sunday evening, there were only about three other small boats in the bay after sunset and before moonrise. We anchored the dinghy and took turns jumping in. Mike made “snow angels” in the water, trails of phosphorescence following his arms and legs. I pretended I was Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, shooting streams of sparkles out of both hands like a wizard. And then spinning around in circles, gazing through my snorkel mask, feeling as though I was inside a snow globe. Sorry that there are no photos of this magical phenomenon, but the bioluminescence doesn’t show up in pictures or video. If you see it in advertisements, it’s been photoshopped! (Now you know) So if you want to experience this amazing natural wonder, you’ll have to add a visit to Puerto Rico to your bucket list, and come see it yourself!

Our last stop in the Dominican Republic – Los Haitses National Park

The whole time we were in the Dominican Republic, we’d been hearing folks rave about the huge, wild national park located on the south side of the Bay of Samana. So although I still firmly believe I could have happily lived the rest of my life in the Puerto Bahia Marina, we tore ourselves away for a couple of nights to sail over to the park. Making it even more fun, our friends Damon and Marcie from Denver sailed over with us on SV Wanderlust.

For the first time in ages, we found ourselves on a broad reach and had a lovely downwind sail across the bay. In no time, we reached the park and anchored next to the sort of dramatic, verdant, craggy island that I’ve previously only seen in photos of Thailand. Thanks for the gorgeous photo of Sanitas, Marcie!

After ensuring we were safely settled in to the anchorage, we all hopped in the dinghy and set out to explore the park’s famous mangrove rivers. Mangroves are an important part of the marine ecosystem. They filter pollutants from the water, protect coastal areas from erosion during storms, and they provide a habitat for many species of animals and birds. And they’re beautiful! This park has a particularly lush mangrove forest that was lovely, cool, and mysterious in the dappled afternoon light.

After a dinghy ride down one of these winding streams, we came across a small wooden dock, and stepped ashore to explore the Cuava de La Linea. Since we came to the park after the busy Easter holiday weekend, we had this massive cave all to ourselves. I toddled slowly across the uneven stone floor in the dark and used my cell phone flashlight to illuminate a huge collection of ancient petroglyphs drawn by the Taino indigenous tribes. My camera didn’t do them justice, but it was awe-inspiring to look upon the artifacts of an ancient people and to try to imagine their lives.

Marcie treated us to a fabulous gourmet meal aboard Wanderlust that evening, and we had a chance to catch up on each others’ lives. We met Marcie and Damon in Denver in 2016 at a meetup for YouTube video blog celebrities “Chase the Story” It was lots of fun to meet like-minded, adventurous people and Marcie and Damon blew us away by sharing that they had already bought a sailboat -IN TURKEY- and they were getting their lives in order and preparing to fly there and move aboard before spending a couple of years cruising in the Med. Wow! So real people actually do this kind of stuff? And therefore, maybe WE could actually do it? At that point, buying a boat and cruising the sea was still just a faint dream for Capt. Mike and me. So basically, they were our first ever cruising friends, and we really enjoyed Seeing them years later in the Dominican Republic and hearing their stories of cruising in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Croatia and then crossing an ocean to reach the Caribbean.

The next day, we set out to do more exploring by dinghy, hopefully with a little bit of hiking thrown in. We saw gorgeous white herons, and heard countless smaller birds singing in the shadows of the mangroves. Eventually, we beached the dinghy near colorful park headquarters and paid 100 pesos per person entry fee.

A park guide showed us around a second cave. This one didn’t contain petroglyphs, but lots of stunning rock formations. Some were natural:

And some formations had a little help from humans (those Taino tribes again)

I’m not sure we understood all of the details from the guided tour. The guide only spoke Spanish, we speak English with a few words of Spanish here and there. But through recognizing a few words and basically playing charades, we got the gist of it! From the mangrove river, we hiked past cow pastures and rice paddies to visit the Eco Lodge Paraiso Cano Honda. This resort looks as if it sprang from the mind of a creative mad genius. All of the buildings are constructed from local golden stones, mosaicked into patterns and swirls and animal shapes. I don’t think there’s a straight line anywhere on the property. A series of “natural” pools flow one into the next via mini waterfalls. We wandered for about an hour, soaking it all in. It would be a very fun place to fly in guests to visit Sanitas!

I’m really glad we made time to stop in this gorgeous park and to explore another off the beaten path area of the Dominican Republic. And the timing was perfect! Our 30-day cruising permit for the DR expired on the day we left. Thanks for the beaches, the friendly people, the yummy food, and of course, the pineapples! We had a wonderful month exploring this beautiful island nation.