Want to go island hopping among Puerto Rico’s 100 or so offshore islands? Here’s information about half a dozen places that you can visit without actually leaving Puerto Rico—no passport required!.
The island municipality of Vieques is six miles from the eastern city of Fajardo. You can get there by air from San Juan or Fajardo or by sea in a government ferry, or you can join a group with a tour operator or charter a private vessel (See lists and schedules in this issue).
Compared to the other outer islands, Vieques is large and lively—some 10,000 people live on the strip of land that straddles the center of the 21-mile long by five-mile-wide island. The settled part of the island has unique and interesting hotels and guesthouses, a score or so places to dine, a picturesque lighthouse, and a Spanish colonial fort.
Most of the land is a wildlife refuge and a haven for fishing, boating, hiking, swimming or soaking up the sun. You’ll want to rent a jeep to navigate the refuge’s rustic roads to some of the most gorgeous and colorfully named beaches in the Caribbean (Red, Blue, Green, and Purple Beach are some examples). Sun Bay, a popular Puerto Rico National Parks Company beach, has changing facilities and allows camping (with a permit, call 787-741-8198).
The most famous attraction in Vieques is the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay, where the waters are teeming with microscopic dinoflaggelates that light up with an eerie glow when disturbed. A swim in the bay on a moonless night is an experience every nature-lover should experience.
Culebra is also an island municipality—it has a mayor, a post office, a bank (with an ATM that frequently runs out of cash on busy weekends), a police station, two gas stations, four grocery stores, a couple of schools, three paved roads, and 2,000 residents who really don’t seem to need anything else.
Much of the seven-mile long by three-and-a-half-mile wide island—and all of the surrounding cays—are a wildlife reserve, open from dawn to dusk. Many of the beaches are accessible only by jeep except for the truly exceptional Flamenco Beach, which is the main reason why savvy travelers love Culebra.
If you can picture the perfect tropical beach—a vast horseshoe of soft, white sand, a seemingly endless expanse of clear, waveless, turquoise water framed by emerald hills and backed by an impossibly blue sky, you have seen Flamenco. A slightly more remote but no less impressive beach is Zoní. It is not as placid as Flamenco (there are waves) but you are more likely to spot a turtle than a crowd there.
Culebra can be reached by ferry from Fajardo, by air or by private sea transportation. There are many cute and quirky guesthouses, some small hotels, and a scattering of restaurants that are “open sometimes, closed others.” For information, see the listings in the Vieques-Culebra section of this issue, or visit www.escapetoculebra.com or www.islaculebra.com.
Caja de Muerto or Coffin Island
This uninhabited island lies six miles off the coast of the southern city of Ponce. Island Venture (787-842-8546) ferries passengers there on weekends from the La Guancha area, leaving early in the morning and returning late in the afternoon. Passengers are required to take water and food with them as a safety measure in the rare case they are stranded overnight! A hat, comfortable shoes, a change of clothing, sunscreen, and insect repellent are also sensible things to take along.
At least one adventure tour company, Acampa (787-706- 0695), leads excursions of up to six people to Caja de Muerto for a day. You travel in a luxurious private 37-foot catamaran, are served lunch, have access to a plentiful supply of cold water, and are accompanied by a trained guide.
However you get to Caja de Muerto, you are in for a tropical treat. Since there is no running water on the island, there is no runoff and the surrounding sea is as clear as glass. Coral reefs encircle it, so there is plenty of aquatic life to see in the shallow waters near the shore. There is something for everyone: idyllic little beaches, dramatic rock formations, and mysterious mangroves. There are caves to explore (or at least to peek into), a patch of dry forest packed with rare flora and fauna, and an ancient lighthouse to hike to atop a hill where you can gaze down upon and photograph your (almost) private Caribbean empire.
Tiny Gilligan Island (yes, the name is inspired by TV’s Gilligan’s Island, which it resembles) in Guánica has no mountains, no lighthouse, and no caves, but what it lacks in monumental attractions it makes up for in its intimate size, its sparkling clear waters, its charming beach, and its imminent accessibility—it’s just a few hundred yards from shore. A small ferry shuttles from the dock near the Copamarina Beach Resort on Road 333. The ferry makes the trip hourly from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily except Mondays—unless Monday is a holiday and then it takes Tuesday off. Call the ferry operator, San Jacinto (787-821-4941) if you want to be sure it is running. Copamarina will make arrangements for San Jacinto to pick up its guests at the hotel’s private pier.
The trip takes only a few minutes and on weekends (especially in the summer) the ferry is often packed with picnickers lugging coolers full of food and refreshments. The island is part of the Guánica Dry Forest Preserve and rangers ask that you take no glass with you and leave nothing behind—but be sure to bring back memories of paddling around the shallow waters and swimming and snorkeling through the natural channel that divides the island in half. Don’t forget your mask and gear—a kaleidoscope of exotic aquatic life revolves around it clear waters.
Certainly the most fascinating (and distant) Puerto Rican island is Mona, a reserve managed by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This mysterious land emerges from some of the deepest water on Earth between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The island is about twice the size of Culebra (seven miles long by four miles wide), and resembles a massive limestone slab tilted on its side, where 200 ft. cliffs confront the sea. The remnants of a rail system can be found in its vast cave system, where a guano-extraction business once thrived. Cables guided the containers of guano—a fertilizer and gunpowder ingredient— to waiting ships.
The island has a rich history. Aboriginals settled there, Columbus claimed it in 1493, and Ponce de León is known to have visited it. Pirate gold is said to buried there and the remnants of a few sporadic attempts at modern settlement can still be seen, including a few structures, a pier, and an abandoned airstrip. Feral pigs and goats remain as an unwelcome heritage of those times. The U.S. Coast Guard maintained a lighthouse there (designed by Gustave Eiffel) from 1900 to 1976. Today only DNR rangers and scientists live on Mona.
Among the 100 endangered species of flora and fauna that can be seen on this “Puerto Rican Galápagos” is the Mona Iguana, a shy and harmless vegetarian that reaches four feet in length and can be found nowhere else. Hiking, bird watching, snorkeling, scuba, cave exploring, and sunbathing on the island’s pristine beaches are the most popular activities. DNR permits are required for camping (787-999-2200 ext. 5120 & 5158).
You can get to Mona Island by making arrangements with our local fishermen in the towns of Cabo Rojo and Mayagüez, who usually make the six-hour trip at night when the waters are less rough, but your best bet is to join an eco-tour. Acampa (787-706- 0695) offers a four-day excursion for physically fit travelers and includes transportation, equipment, meals, tents, and trained guides. In addition, Copladet (787-765-8595) and Excursiones Guariquén (787-831-6447) organize excursions to Mona.
La Cordillera Natural Reserve
There are a dozen or so deserted cays and coral reefs in the Reserva Natural de la Cordillera, three or four miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico near Fajardo. Icacos and Palominos are among the best known, and the smaller cays of Diablo, Lobos, Ratones, and Palominitos are among the most picturesque.
The reserve is under the protection of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources and is open from dawn to dusk. Most of the wildlife on and around the cays consists of endangered species and visitors are asked not to remove anything, not to leave anything behind, and never to step on or touch the coral. If you follow these simple rules, you are more than welcome there!
Sail and snorkel tour operators take small groups of happy visitors for day trips to the white sand beaches, clear waters, and colorful coral reef ecosystems around these cays. Most trips begin mid-morning at Puerto del Rey or Fajardo Marina (transportation from major hotels is available). After a short sail, the boat anchors off one of the cays for an hour or so of snorkeling, swimming, beachcombing, bird watching or soaking up the sun. After lunch onboard, the ship sails to another location for a second turn. Spectacular underwater views are virtually guaranteed.
The best part of the trip is that you don’t have to have any experience—there is plenty of help for both adults and children to learn to snorkel—and you don’t have to bring along masks, fins or life vests, since and all equipment is included. You don’t even have to know how to swim! There are usually plenty of rinks, snacks, down island music, and pleasant company to make these excursions popular. Operators report more than half of their passengers are repeat visitors.
If you are a guest of El Conquistador Resort, you don’t need to take a sail and snorkel trip to see Palominos. The resort leases much of the island as it’s beach and runs regular ferry service for you to get there and back.
To plan your trip to La Cordillera Natural Reserve, see the Sail and Snorkel Adventures page in the Having Fun section of this issue.