As laid-back as Vieques is, it’s practically Las Vegas compared to Culebra. Halfway between mainland Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, the tiny amoeba-shaped archipelago with 23 surrounding cays is just four miles by seven miles. The island is home to 3,000 residents and has one small community—Dewey (commonly called “Pueblo” or “Town”)—on Ensenada Honda harbor, where the ferry docks.
Culebra has yet to be discovered by the tourism industry, but experienced divers know it as one of the best diving spots in the Caribbean. The clear clean waters are practically untouched by people and their polluting by-products, thanks in part to the arid island’s absence of rivers or streams. The result is superb underwater visibility and healthy, intact coral systems that support a wide variety of sea life.
Recognizing the island’s vital role as a natural wildlife habitat, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed much of the island a National Wildlife Refuge in 1909, which today encompasses 1,568 acres. Nonetheless, in 1939 the U.S. Navy made Culebra its primary gunnery and bomb practice site and continued its operations here until 1975, when it turned its focus to Vieques.
The island is a combination of hilly terrain with dry subtropical forest and a highly irregular coastline punctuated by cliffs, mangrove forests, and spectacular sandy coral beaches. Because it is so sparsely inhabited, Culebra is home to many endangered species and is an important nesting site for birds and sea turtles. Playa Flamenco is celebrated as one of the best beaches in the United States. But there are many other smaller beaches to discover, some completely deserted much of the time.
Accommodations in Culebra are mostly small mom-and-pop guesthouses, some little more than spare bedrooms. The operations here are mostly self-serve. In fact, it’s not unusual for visitors to have the run of the place when owners decide to head to the beach or bar to while away the day. But there are a handful of small luxury hotels and condo rental units for travelers who want more modern-day amenities or services. There are a dozen or so restaurants, where service typically moves at a snail’s pace, and a couple of bars, but little real nightlife.
Because water is shipped from San Juan, shortages are not unusual, and pressure is often low. Some smaller properties have limited hot water or none at all. Plumbing in general can be problematic—the standard practice is to discard toilet paper in the trash instead of flushing it. And alarm clocks are never necessary, because you’re sure to be woken by one of the roosters that roam the island. An anomaly in the world, Culebra is virtually crime-free. Instead of petty theft, visitors need only brace themselves against the voracious mosquitoes and sand gnats that tend to invade around dusk.
Culebra is one of the last vestiges of pre-tourism Puerto Rico. Nobody’s in a hurry, modern conveniences are few, and all anybody really wants to do is go to the beach. That’s the way people in Culebra like it, and most of them want to keep it that way. Visitors are advised to embrace the island’s quirky inconveniences and sleepy pace of life to fully appreciate its many rare charms.
Getting to Culebra
The Puerto Rico Port Authority (in Culebra 787/742-3161, 787/741-4761, 787/863-0705, or 800/981-2005) operates a daily ferry service between Culebra and Fajardo from the town of Dewey.
The passenger ferry is primarily a commuter operation, and it can often be crowded—especially on the weekends and holidays. Reservations are not accepted, but you can buy tickets in advance. Be aware that on weekends and holidays, the ferry can sell out, leaving disappointed travelers behind. The trip typically takes about 1.5 hours to travel between Fajardo and Culebra. The fare is $4.50 round-trip per person, with an additional charge of $2 for beach or camping equipment. Note that ferry schedules can change, but the schedule was as follows:
- Fajardo to Culebra: Daily 9 a.m., 3 p.m., 7 p.m.
- Culebra to Fajardo: Daily 6:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 5 p.m.
There is also a weekday cargo/car ferry between Culebra and Fajardo, for which reservations are required. But be aware that most car-rental agencies in Puerto Rico do not permit their automobiles to leave the main island. The best option is to leave your car in Fajardo and rent another car on Culebra. The trip usually takes about 2.5 hours, and the cost is $15 for small vehicles and $19 for large vehicles. The schedule is as follows:
- Fajardo to Culebra: Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday 4 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.; Wednesday and Friday 4 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 4:30 p.m.
- Culebra to Fajardo: Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.; Wednesday and Friday 7 a.m., 1 p.m., 6 p.m.
There are several small airlines that fly to Culebra from the main island, and the flights are fairly inexpensive and speedy. The only catch is that it’s not for the faint of heart. Landing on the tiny island requires a steep descent over a mountaintop that takes your breath away.
In San Juan, flights can be arranged from Isla Grande Airport for about $190 round-trip, or from the new Jose Aponte de la Torre Airport in Ceiba, on the east coast of the big island, for about $66 round-trip. Service providers include Isla Nena Air Service (787/863-4447, 787/863-4449, or 877/812-5144, islanenapr [at] centennialpr [dot] net, www.islanena.8m.com); Vieques Air Link (787/741-8331 or 888/901-9247, valair [at] coqui [dot] net, www.viequesairlink.com); M&N Aviation (787/791-7008, www.mnaviation.com); and Air Flamenco (787/724- 1818, airflamenco [at] hotmail [dot] com, www.airflamenco.net).
Isla Nena Air Service also provides service between Culebra and Vieques for about $70.
© Suzanne Van Atten from Moon Puerto Rico, 2nd Edition