Much of Culebra’s southern shoreline looks as if Robinson Crusoe would feel at home there. Near deserted strips of white sand beaches are dotted with palm trees, the rocky coastline is inhabited primarily by seabirds, and the green hillsides are nearly barren of any signs of civilization. It is only when you continue to cruise west, past Punta Vaca, or east past Punta Soldado and turn north that civilization shows itself like a welcome smile in the U-shaped bay of Ensenada Honda. Translated to ‘Deep Cove’ in English, this is the largest cove on Puerto Rico’s offshore island of Culebra and it’s usually filled with boats – live-aboard sailors, day-tripping power boaters, skiff fishermen and kayakers.
On shore, the scene is equally charming with seaside eateries, small inns and local shops lining the streets of the island’s one and only town, Dewey. It’s this laidback vibe combined with just enough creature comforts that makes Culebra so much fun to visit.
Early nautical charts list this seven-mile long by three-and-a-half mile wide island as Isla Pasaje or Passage Island. This may very well have come from the route sailors took during Columbus’ era, from Puerto Rico’s mainland 17 miles to the west en route to the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas, 12 miles to the east. It wasn’t until 1875 that Culebra was first settled with an appointed governor, over three centuries after Spain first planted its flag on the mainland.
Much of Culebra was turned over to the U.S. military to use as a firing range in the early 1900s in the wake of the Spanish-American war. It’s still possible to see military remnants, specifically a rusted tank albeit gaily painted with graffiti, partially submerged in the sand at Flamenco Beach. Vieques, another of Puerto Rico’s offshore islands located 19 miles south of Culebra, was also used for military exercises up until 2003.
Most visitors arrive to Culebra by boat, either private pleasure craft or aboard one of the public municipal ferries that departs daily from Fajardo. There is an airport, the Culebra Airport, which has one short runway that can only handle inter-island prop planes with eight to ten seats.
The best ways to spend the days here is to focus on nature and nurture.
On a clear day you can see St. Thomas in the distance and in the more immediate foreground the neighboring island of Culebrita, reachable only by private boat or water taxi.
As for nature, Culebra’s beaches are the biggest draw. Flamenco Beach, on the northwest of the island, is the most popular and the only one where you’re likely to find a crowd on local holidays especially at Easter. Here, there is a mile-long arc of sheltered white sand bay, with lifeguards, vendor kiosks, a picnic area and campground. The bay is perfect for swimming and the reef is alive with fish and coral for excellent snorkeling. Zoni Beach on Culebra’s eastern side is popular with the locals for its idyllic isolation. On a clear day you can see St. Thomas in the distance and in the more immediate foreground the neighboring island of Culebrita, reachable only by private boat or water taxi. There are a couple of beautiful picture-postcard beaches here, including the favorite Playa Tortuga. The offshore reefs make the waters calm, while the sight of the abandoned yet historic lighthouse creates an awesome scenic background.
On the nurture front, there are several homey bars and restaurants perfect for relaxing and refueling. The most well-known are Mamacitas and the Dinghy Dock. Mamacitas, which offers a guesthouse as well as eatery, is famous for its bushwhackers and local seafood like lobster, conch and fresh fish. The Dinghy Dock serves everything from hamburgers to creole-style seafood. It’s easy to find these two places. They’re located right in Culebra’s ‘nautical’ downtown. That is, right on the water in Ensenada Honda.
FUEL AND PROVISIONS
There are two gas stations on the island, one in the lagoon next to the ferry terminals that accommodates dinghies and small power boats. There are also two hardware stores on the island, one in Downtown Dewey that has limited marine supplies. For provisioning, Mayra’s has the largest food selection. Colmado Milka’s has an in-house butcher and good selection of fresh produce. Both are in Dewey.
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.