Cruising Guide to the Spanish Virgin Islands

I ran a charter business in the US and British Virgin Islands aboard my Lagoon 410, the Guiding Light, for the last eight years. Due to this I have left Charlotte Amalia harbor many, many times over the last couple of years, but I have always turned left and headed upwind to St John and the BVI. This time my parents came to visit and I wanted to show them a more tranquil side of the Virgin Islands that few guests chose to see, so we turned to the right instead and sailed the same distance as the BVI in order to visit the Spanish Virgin Islands. 

I am surprised how many people don’t know there are islands close to the western coast of St Thomas. In fact there are two main islands, Culebra and Vieques, along with many smaller islands before you get to Puerto Rico. I think this lack of knowledge is due to the US Navy restricting access in the past in order to use the islands for target practice and training, but that stopped in 1975 and 2008 respectively. The islands are all part of Puerto Rico, where Spanish is the primary language, giving them the moniker of the Spanish VI in order to keep with the USVI and BVI naming practice.

Vieques, West End
Vieques, West End

Ensenada Dakity

One of my favorite anchorages is Ensenada Dakity at the harbor entrance of Ensenada Honda, where even with 20+ knots of wind it is flat calm behind the reef. You will never find a cooler anchorage as the wind sweeps over the reef in this quiet, calm, and uncrowded place to pick up a free mooring. From here you can dinghy into the great little town of Dewey where you might have to go to the airport to finish clearing customs, which you have to do even if coming from the USVI. Once in town make sure to check out the Dinghy Dock (both a place to tie the tender and a restaurant), the lift bridge (which was raised one time got stuck and was never raised again), Zaco Taco (a wonderfully relaxed backdoor patio restaurant), the post office (it looked like it was out of the old west), and the museum (note it is a long way from town and is only open on certain days).

Culebrita

From here we sailed to the north harbor of Culebrita, a wonderful island a couple miles from Culebra. This island has it all from a fantastic beach on the north and west side (use this side during the north swell), to wonderful hiking trails, an unbelievable lighthouse (typical Spanish design built in 1882), a “Jacuzzi” (a calm pool of water on the wild windward coast), eye popping snorkeling, and free moorings to boot. What a great way to spend a day.

Culebra, Spanish Virgin Islands
SVI—Culebra—Rock-Throwing-Statue

Another great place to spend a day is at Flamenco Beach. I recommend walking, biking, or taking a cab from Dewey due to the exposure from the north. I usually anchor in Bahia de Sardinas on the west coast as this puts you right into town through the natural cut of water. The beach is beautiful and crescent shaped with fantastic sand, but the coolest feature is two WW2 Sherman tanks on the beach. These tanks were used as target practice by the Navy and when they stopped using the island back in 1975 they left them to rust on the beach. Now it is super cool to have your photo taken on them, near them, and of them.

Culebra

Since we are on now on the west coast of Culebra I recommend snorkeling at the southernmost bay on the west side just north of Punta del Soldado, where you will find a coral farm and research area. A spot I like to snorkel even more is two thirds of the way up the west coast in the bay just south of Point Tamerindo Grande. This is a quarter mile due north of Luis Pena Island, which is part of the National Wildlife Refuge and affords a great place to pick up another free mooring in one of four bays. On this island you can enjoy the beach on the north side, two anchorages on the west side, another on the southeast corner, and you can take your dinghy to the islets strung off to the west.

Palmintoes
Palmintoes

Vieques

It is also a perfect place to spend a quiet night before you sail 10 miles south to Vieques. You could visit Isabel II, which sits about midway along the north shore. One of the best features of this town is the fort that sits on a hill over the town. This was the last fortification built by Spain in the new world. Apparently it cost so much to build, the Queen asked if they were using actual gold bricks for the construction material. I find the bay to be too bumpy so usually skip it. Instead I took my parents around the eastern tip of Vieques and would have loved to stopped at Bahia Icacos on the north side right at the eastern tip, which is considered to be one of the best in the Caribbean, but the anchorage has been closed for years now as the Navy cleans up the ordinance left after their years of bombing the island. Once we whipped around the eastern tip of the island I anchored in Bahia Salina del Sur on the south coast. This bay is only about half a mile overland from Bahia Icacos. The Navy has not completed cleaning up this anchorage therefore not a lot of cruisers think of coming here, but as long as you don’t go past the beach (and watch where you anchor) you should be fine. My mother and I snorkeled for over an hour looking at all the debris left behind. We found two shipwrecks and several pieces of ordinance. I found it fascinating, but I think my mom was a little disturbed.

Culebra, Lighthouse up close
Culebra, Lighthouse up close

After the nice lunch stop we sailed a couple miles west to another Ensenada Honda. This one is devoid of building on the surrounding hillsides and offers wonderfully calm anchoring at the head of the bay. Before you go though there is amazing snorkeling on the reef at the harbor entrance, if conditions are not too rough.

Esperanza

The next day we sailed to the town of Esperanza and I highly recommend paying for a mooring in this bay since the holding is not very good. While walking around Esperanza you will notice a bit more of a touristy feel. This is due to it being the best place in the entire world to see bioluminescent (microscopic creatures which light up when disturbed) and there are several companies offering two hour night tours for around $40. Seeing the water light up when you move around in it was pretty amazing and quite captivating. You may also want to check out the snorkeling around Cayo Real and the beach at Ensenada Sun Bay. One final stop in this town is the local “Stonehenge”, which is a rock outcropping on a small hill. I am told the native Taino Indians moved some of them here to form a religious site. If you seek this site out I guarantee you will see something few others visit.

The Bridge at Culebra
The Bridge at Culebra

We spent our final night on Vieques on the west coast. Here you will find beaches all along the coast and all you have to do is pick the secluded spot you want to call your own private beach. Be careful though you might end up wasting away several days as you enjoy the beaches, snorkeling, and solitude on this end of the island before you head towards the east coast of Puerto Rico.

We bid Vieques a fond farewell as we sailed away from the west coast one morning with just the jib up. It was a fast, dead downwind 10 mile sail to Cayo Santiago, also known as Monkey Island. This island is home to a research facility established in 1938 with the importation of 409 rhesus monkeys from India. Now there are around 700 monkeys roaming around the island. This is still an active research facility so you are prohibited from stepping on the island, but you are allowed to observe the monkeys by staying well offshore. This is always a hit when I bring people there and my parents were no different.

SVI---PR---Santiago--Monkey-Closeup
SVI—PR, Santiago–Monkey Closeup

Roosevelt Roads

The next morning we motored upwind about 8 miles in order to round a point just past Roosevelt Roads, which is a closed naval base. Once around the point we anchored in the lee of Isla Pineros. This island is only a mile or so from Puerto Rico and causes a natural channel, but if you get to the middle of the west coast and go directly to the beach you will be able to anchor out of the way of boat traffic. Just head in until the depth is appropriate for your draft. The anchorage is a good strategic location, but the beach and snorkeling off the boat are not worth the effort due to grass and mud. However, there is decent snorkeling at either point on the west coast and some rocks across the channel hold lots of promise.

After another peaceful night we sailed to the north end of the east coast and explored Cayo Lobos (be careful since it seems there are at least three different islands called Lobo). This anchorage is not quite as protected and is against a private island with lots of guard dog signs. There was some very nice snorkeling right off the back of the boat. Cayo Icacos is half a mile away and has a wonderful beach that is very popular with day boats. Plus between the two islands are lots of reefs and rocks to explore with the dinghy.

Isla Palominos

We spent our final night at Isla Palominos, which is the best island on the east coast of Puerto Rico. Let me clarify this statement by saying the monkeys were amazing, but that is all there is to do on Cayo Santiago. While Palominos has free moorings, reefs to snorkel right in the middle of the mooring fields, a beach club, and a small islet right next to it called Palomintos. This islet was not much more than a sand bar with some brush on it and walking around it took all of about 2 and a half minutes, but it is so easy to relax and before you know it half the day is gone.

Guiding Light at anchor
Guiding Light at anchor

Puerto Del Rey

Our final destination this cruise was Puerto Del Rey, the largest marina in the Caribbean. In fact it is so popular the Pirates of the Caribbean leave their movie prop boat here some times. I was having the Guiding Light hauled out of the water and stored on land for the hurricane season for the 6th year in a row. On the way to the Puerto Del Rey we sailed past Isleta Marina, the first marina on this side of Puerto Rico. It features two high rise condos, an extensive dock, some boatyard capabilities, and an anchorage in the cradle of this island. 

The best part about hauling the boat out after a great week long cruise with my parents is that I got to spend another several days showing them the land side sites of Puerto Rico including El Yunque Rain Forest, old San Juan, and the Arecibo radio telescope. 

 

After 8 years of running charters in the Virgin Islands, Captain Shane has moved the Guiding Light down island to explore and show off the Windward Islands to guest in 2020. The Great Antilles, including Cuba, and Belize are planned for 2021.

Shane McClellan
Visit www.svGuidingLight.com to read more from Captain Shane about the Bahamas, Caribbean, life aboard, and more.