Prickly Politics on the islands that time forgot

So here we are re-learning some very important words, these being,” ¡Hola!”, “Buenos Días”, “Dos Medalla por favor”, “Gracias” and “Chao”, and it won’t have taken you very long at all to have worked out that “Medalla” is the name of a beer! As you know, we do like to try to make at least some effort with the local language though fortunately for us, because Puerto Rico is an American commonwealth, most of the local people speak English – but not all of them as we found out when we tried to get around Fajardo….but more of that later.

Before that I want to ask you a question. “What do you expect to find on a beach”? Well, maybe sand, maybe a bucket and spade, maybe a young child making a sandcastle? Hmm – all true. But would you expect to find this…..

His name is “Ziggy” and it seems that he goes for regular walks along the beach in Cruz Bay, St John. I overheard the owner saying something along the lines of “Oh, Ziggy, if you want a bucket to put sand in I can buy you one” but, having been a dog owner then I don’t suppose I can say too much about people who talk to their pig in this way!

Meanwhile, as you will have worked out from the opening paragraph we have moved from the US Virgin Islands to what are sometimes called the Spanish Virgin Islands and sometimes the Passage Islands and which are to be found on the east side of Puerto Rico. They are the islands of “Culebra” and “Vieques”.

We completed the 31 mile crossing in just under 6 hours but, as the 21st December had dawned rather too bright and also humid – signalling possible rain to come, about an hour out from St. John it started to drizzle. However, that didn’t actually detract too much from the passage across as we had fair winds and the drizzle didn’t last too long and we were able to sail right up to the buoyed channel at the mouth of “Ensenada Honda”, Culebra’s main anchorage. There are reefs on either side of the narrow passage and as it was the first time we had entered this bay we opted for motor power for the last part.

Even though we had cleared in to the United States in St. Croix and didn’t have to clear out of St. John [we asked] we did have to visit customs and immigration in Puerto Rico to get a cruising permit which lasts for 12 months for anywhere in the US. If we cleared out and back in again we wouldn’t need to purchase a new permit which, incidentally, cost US$37 [about £24] though we would, of course, have to go through all the other clearance procedures. We aren’t quite sure why the cruising permit isn’t issued in the USVI’s. The customs guy was really helpful, doubling up as a tourist information officer advising us on the things to see and places to visit on the small islands and on the “Big Island” i.e. Puerto Rico. It didn’t take him very long to tell us what to see on Culebra. By the time we had walked from the town dock to the customs office at the small airport we had seen most of what there is to see of the town and so, that just left the beaches – of which there are several – and the museum.

There is a free map of Culebra which can be picked up just about everywhere and which is really bright and colourful and has little pictures of flamingos and snorkelers and boats. What it lacks is accurate scale! The aforementioned museum is only open Thursday to Sunday and as we weren’t sure how long we were going to remain on Culebra after Xmas Day [which you will remember was a Tuesday] we decided that we would walk to it on Sunday 23rd. Having studied the map from the cockpit, from where we could see all of the bay and the roads, we worked out a good place to take the dingy. Well, it looked like it was going to be a good place. Unfortunately it was nowhere near the museum which we finally found having walked for about 20 minutes, spoken to a local who gave us advice, walked back 20 minutes to the dingy, motored down to practically the opposite end of the bay and tried again.

Although only small, the museum provided us with some entertaining moments. On the serious side there was quite a lot of interesting written and pictorial information, as well as a video, about life on the island between 1912 and 1976 when a large part of it was a US Army/Navy base. In fact, the museum itself was originally part of “Lower Camp”. On the more humorous side there was an exhibition of stone axes, pestles, cutting tools and grinding stones. If you were to go to Cleveleys beach, or any pebble beach in the UK, and take a random sample of the stones there and put them in a case and label them you would find them transformed into stone axes……etc.  Later, over a glass of rum and therefore feeling mellow and at one with the world, we told ourselves that the reason the archaeologists [or whoever] knew that the pebbles were tools was because of the place they had found them. Certainly there was little else to distinguish them from any old pebble. It was when Mike had sidled up to me in the museum and whispered “Have you seen that exhibition case over there” that I knew it wasn’t just me!

I also mentioned beaches. There are eight main beaches, all of which are visible from the boat if sailing around the island, but none of them accessible that way. The most famous is Flamenco Beach and, even with the strangely scaled map, we decided it was within reasonable walking distance. It took us about an hour each way and was certainly worth the walk. Part of the beach area is devoted to small huts serving food and Mike sampled his first “Empanadilla” which is basically a soft tortilla stuffed with meat, fish or veg, then crimped round the edge a bit like a pasty and then fried – and it’s not actually as greasy as it possibly sounds. As you might imagine, the nearer to this hut area the more people but it took only a couple of minutes walking the beach to escape the small crowd and find deserted stretches of sand….

Deserted that is until one comes across yet another rather unexpected sight for a beach….

And another in the vegetation behind….

….a legacy of the time the US military used Culebra [and Vieques] as target practice – hence the “prickly politics” bit in the title of this post because there was an awful lot of lobbying and local men sent to jail and islanders maimed and killed before the islands were finally returned to the locals [Culebra in 1976 and Vieques as recently as 2003]. Wandering the beach it is really hard to believe that these beautiful islands were shelled, bombed and mined all in the name of weapons testing. Couldn’t they have found somewhere more ugly for this? Or at least somewhere without people trying to live on it? Somehow the reefs survived and the beaches and landscape recovered but most islanders remember it as a very difficult period in their islands history.

Speaking of reefs, although we didn’t actually manage to get to Zoni beach – for reasons which will become clear later- we were reliably informed by our friend Jack’s brother [who happened to be holidaying with his family on Culebra when we were there] that there is spectacular snorkelling to be had at Zoni and, for those divers among you, several dive sites as well.

But, going back to the title, since the military left the islands have, in the main, become the islands that time forgot. The pace of life is almost horizontal, there is no real “tourism” and there is a strong emphasis on family. This was most evident during the festive celebrations. We expected that Xmas Eve would be really busy in the few restaurants that we had seen dotted around the town – 1 Taco restaurant, 1 Pizza place, 1Chinese, 3 Bar/Restaurants [2 of which hadn’t been open in the days we had been there], 1 place which we weren’t entirely sure what it was and 1 place that was supposedly “up-market”. So, we headed for “Heathers Pizzas” at around 7pm to find the town square almost deserted.

As it turned out the Pizza was excellent, the bar next door [“The Spot”] opened up and served until the early hours and seemed to attract the few people who did come out. We were told to look out for the “Carollers” and they turned up on their golf cart with a few small instruments and sang some Puerto Rican songs [we think that’s what they were anyway – it certainly wasn’t “The Holly and the Ivy” or anything of that ilk!]

The bigger celebration, and I use the word “bigger” only as a comparator, was Xmas Day. We had a nice quiet lazy day opening our cards and pressies [the star of these being a miniature pestle and mortar from Dave and Mag which enhances our culinary arrangements], sharing a bottle of fizz and some smoked trout nibbles and reading.

At 5.30pm we went into the square to ready ourselves for the big event – the Xmas Parade. So we mingled with what was actually quite a crowd, promenaded up and down the main street a couple of times saying ?Hola! and Buenas Noches [it’s what you have to do you know] and waited for the floats to arrive. In all there were three floats. One from a kind of garden centre with children dressed as elves appearing from inside boxes…..

One from the car hire company with a Snoopy theme….

And a third one with Santa on – but Mike was so excited by now that all the photos he took of that one were blurred!

It was a brilliant atmosphere though and there was free popcorn, juice and candy floss for the kids….

….and Nachos and Cheese for the adults and the whole of the island seemed to be there showing off their new Christmas clothes [including fur boots!] and their new toys [phones for the adults and skateboards for the kids – or was that the other way round?!]

Our Xmas dinner was eaten on Boxing Day and accompanied by the last of our bottles of red wine from the UK [Well France actually – but you know what I mean].

At least it was a good one and complimented the steak wonderfully. We had Xmas puds for dessert and, because there is no cream for sale here we bought some Haagen Das Vanilla ice cream which melted nicely [as our fridge doesn’t freeze anything] and it worked a treat.

It’s not just cream that the island doesn’t have available to buy. Although the two “supermarkets” are quite well stocked with tins and packets and frozen stuff there is not much in the way of meat – unless you want Chicken or maybe Pork Chops. Now there is nothing wrong with chicken or chops – and we did purchase some of both later in our stay – but for Xmas we wanted something different and had therefore taken a trip to the “big island” on the day following our arrival in Culebra.

There are three ferries per day each way to Fajardo. We decided against the 6.30am ferry out [much to Mike’s relief] and therefore left at 1pm for a 45 minute crossing on the new Hovercat.

We had been warned that there is not a lot at Fajardo port – just basically a dock for about three or four ferries – but that there would be clearly marked “taxi buses” waiting at the dockside to take us into town or to the shopping mall. Well, our Spanish isn’t good but there was nothing we could see marked either taxi or bus in sight and everyone else on the ferry was either walking to the car park to collect their own vehicle or being met by family/friends. So we set off to walk, not really knowing which direction we were supposed to go in. It was at this point that a bit more Spanish would have come in very handy because the few people we did come across did not speak English at all. We finally found a young guy who understood “centre” and who pointed us in the right direction which, as it happens, was the direction we had been going in – but after 30 minutes walking we had started to get somewhat concerned as there was still no town in sight.

But we got there and had a brief look round the small town….

…before calling in at the Police Station to get directions to the mall – as this still wasn’t obvious. Clue 1 – to find a shopping mall, first find the dual carriageway/town by-pass. This seems to work quite well.

Whilst we had been wandering around at the ferry dock I had spotted a Tapas type bar and we decided that it would be a good place to while away the last hour or so before the return ferry at 7pm. So, having made our purchases we walked back to the dock to find that the Tapas Bar was a lunch time only thing! Two hours staring at not a lot did not seem like a good option. The 45 minute walk back to the town was also a non starter so Mike followed his nose and found a small bar tucked away in what looked rather like a garage with a workshop attached. The workshop turned out to be the kitchen. We didn’t eat there! However, the beer was cheap; the clientele friendly and there was horse racing on the TV. Yes, Horse Racing. Not something Mike and I would normally watch and certainly not something we know much about but it made a change from American football and meant that we could “join in” and do what the Fajardo locals do on a Saturday afternoon in the “pub”.

After all this excitement we waited for the return ferry only to find that because there were only a few passengers returning to Culebra and also a few cars [which don’t go on the Hovercat]  the company was only running the car ferry. Well, you can’t exactly blame them. Our return trip only cost US$9 [approx £6] for the two of us so why on earth would any company run two ferries when one will do. The car ferry took about twice the time [1 hour 20 minutes] and had its air conditioning running at full pelt so after sitting in the lounge area for about ten minutes I decided enough was enough and we went outside where even in the night breeze it was much warmer. It made for a pleasant journey as well gazing at the stars and the ferry wake.

I mentioned earlier that two restaurants/bars were closed on our arrival and these were the two which appeared in the cruising pilot and which other yachties had told us about – namely “The Dinghy Dock” and “Mamacita’s”. It transpired that the people who used to own Mamacita’s have bought the Dinghy Dock and were doing it up for opening on Xmas Eve. They missed the deadline! However, the new owners of Mamacita’s did get their act together and it opened and turned into our “local”. Sis and John will be proud of us. The view of the canal was certainly worth returning for.

We decided that we couldn’t leave Culebra until we had visited the small island of Culrebritta just off its NW corner and this also gave us the opportunity to stay at the anchorage at the entrance to Ensenada Honda i.e. Dalkity. You might remember from earlier in this post that I mentioned the narrow channel and the reefs. It is quite disconcerting to approach these reefs with the intention of staying the night – but others clearly did it and, therefore, so did we.

The cruising guide shows two anchorages on the drawn chart for Culebritta but only goes into detail about one of them and suggests that this is the better anchorage. It is on the north of the islet and therefore open to the prevailing NE winds. The winds were ESE when we went and, having experienced the bumpy passage in and the rolling anchorage once in, I am not sure that doing it in a wind north of east would be very comfortable at all. But it is a lovely bay for a day anchorage….

…. and we walked a couple of short trails. The first took us to the beach near the second anchorage. The beach was very narrow but the anchorage was beautiful and calm and would have been fine overnight. The second trail [leading off the first] climbed the hill to the old lighthouse

Of course we had to climb it and the iron staircase had actually fared quite well. It was a bit precarious at the top though I did manage to take the above photo of the anchorage and also this one looking back to Culebra

We had decided that following our short trip [approx 7 miles each way] we would return to Culebra rather than sail onto Vieques and, having had to motor out to the small island we thoroughly enjoyed the sail back, including – this time – sailing through the reef passage as we now had a clearer idea of what was what. Thus, by the evening of 29th December we were still in Culebra and undecided about where to be at New Year. I mentioned above that Zoni Beach had come highly recommended and would be worth a visit. The main form of transport on the island is hired golf cart and so we thought it might be fun to get one on 31st and have a nice trip round the island before celebrating New Year in a place we know rather than going somewhere unknown. Unfortunately, what we found when we went to the hire place on Sunday 30th was that all businesses close on 31st Dec. as well as the 1st Jan. so, unless we hired the cart from 30th Dec to 2nd Jan we couldn’t have one. So – that master plan had to be set aside but, when the morning of 31st was actually rather damp and dismal we thought that perhaps it was better that we didn’t have the cart.

It had however cleared up by the afternoon and we enjoyed a few hours relaxing…

…and watching the “Big Boats” arrive from Puerto Rico to party the night away

Of course, NYE in the UK is four hours before NYE in Culebra and we weren’t going to let that opportunity pass us by. In fact, we sat on the boat at 5pm saying “Da Svidaniya”, 6pm “Yammas” and 7pm “Prost”, before going into town for the 8pm toast to all family and friends.

[Just as an aside…. Mike has decided that Da Svidaniya is what cockerals “say”….just listen!]

When we got to the square we were quite surprised to see tables set out everywhere, many of them unoccupied but with family names written on them. No one violated what is obviously a ritual here and just accepted that if a space was taken they had to find a different one.

Again, the atmosphere was excellent and children were safely running from one group to another and everyone was meeting and greeting . There was a band

and some fireworks which people just let off in part of the street which had been designated for this purpose. Nothing fancy – just normal fireworks

and everyone had a jolly good time

We got to bed about 1am but were ready to sail to Vieques by 10.15am on New Year’s Day. It was another fabulous sail with the wind between 11 and 17 knots. For the first two hours we were on a reach with the main fully out and a single roll in the genoa then, having rounded Punta Este on the SE corner of Vieques, we furled the main, let the genoa out and sailed down the island to Baia de Chiva.

We only spent 3 nights on Vieques, each time in a different anchorage

with Sun Bay and Esperanza following the Baia de Chiva. All the anchorages were beautiful and calm with a backdrop of green hills. Again, there is fortunately no obvious sign that this island was also bombarded though there are a number of areas where you aren’t allowed to anchor or walk because of unexploded ordnance.

The next but one bay east of Sun Bay is, apparently, the most bio-phosphorescent bay in the world. The cruising guide suggested that it was possible to anchor in the outer bay. Maybe with a 30 foot boat and a 1 metre draught???? We decided to give it a miss. It would have been brilliant to have been able to stay there and take the dingy into the inner bay [oars only allowed as engine fuel kills the creatures which create the luminescence]. It was possible to walk from Sun Bay – which we did at sundown with the idea of seeing the glow after dark. Unfortunately you have to be on the water looking down and make sufficient movement to cause the reaction. So, we didn’t see anything though we did enjoy the adventure of trekking through the woodland with our trusty head torch. We were carrying a spare as well in case it wasn’t so trusty!

On another, daytime, walk we came across a campsite though no-one was using it. Seemed to us like a fine place to pitch a tent

Esperanza is the second largest town on Vieques. Isabel Segunda, the “capital” is on the north coast and, although it is possible to anchor there to visit during the day our passage didn’t take us that way. However, Esperanza had everything we needed for our short stay.

Boulders are to be found lying around the town and surrounding fields and on the small island in the middle of the bay but we aren’t sure how they got there. We don’t really know enough about the geological events of the island to know if there were glaciers which could have brought them but there is certainly no sign that the island was ever a volcano which could have spewed them. Could it have been a result of explosions caused by the military? Whatever, some people had taken advantage of them and turned them into works of art…

For a small place the town had a disproportionately high number of bars and restaurants and Mike was delighted on visiting “Duffy’s” to find a whole menu of beer.

We fully enjoyed our night out in Esperanza sampling free nibbles at the happy hour at “Bananas” followed by Mexican food [and beer] as above and then finishing the evening at “Lazy Jacks” where we met a really interesting guy who, whilst serving in “Nam”, had ordered delivery of the “Manchester Guardian” so that he could “get another perspective on things because even though all newspapers bend the truth it was a fairer view than anything the US was telling us”. Contrary to our expectations we are beginning to really enjoy the company of many Americans that we meet. Maybe because – in their words – “we are the ones that get out!”

So, a very Happy New Year to you all from Puerto Rico and its fabulous small islands of Culebra and Vieques.




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1 comment

    • JT on February 26, 2013 at 7:35 pm
    • Reply

    It’s great to see you two so happy – keep it rockin’ babes !! 🙂 x

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