The Spanish Virgins are a chain of islands and coral reefs extending from Las Cucarachas in the north, through La Cordillera, a national wildlife refuge made up of dozens of reefs and islets, east to Culebra and south to Vieques—a total of about 400 square miles.
Culebra and Vieques are the two largest and best known islands. Culebra was a bombing range for the U.S. Navy from the 1940s until 1975. Vieques was used for target practice until 2003. Fortunately, specific areas were designated for Navy use, so there is no outward evidence of damage today, although the environmental impact is still being assessed. As a result, both islands seem to be frozen in the 1950s, with little development interfering with the sea grapes and palms that extend unimpeded to the sugar-sand beaches.
Our first stop was Dewey, Culebra’s sleepy commercial center at the north end of sheltering Ensenada Honda. After clearing customs, we anchored at the head of the Dewey harbor one night, and then on the west side of Dewey (Bahia de Sardinas) the next. Both sides are well protected with plentiful moorings. The two anchorages are connected via a dinghy cut that passes through town, where we found a bakery, supermarket, tourist bureau, dive shop and a collection of small tiendas. We were also pleased to find a number of good restaurants, including Mamacita’s and the Dinghy Dock.
Of Culebra’s 7,000 acres, 2,800 have been set aside as national park. Culebra is surrounded by other small islands, including Cayo Norte, Culebrita and Cayo de Luis Pea, the latter two of which are also National Wildlife Refuges. To limit reef damage, the Park Service provides free mooring balls to visitors, and we found that the reefs are staging a valiant comeback as a result. Unlike the BVI or the Grenadines, the beaches and bays were deserted—not a footprint in sight. The snorkeling was also fantastic: we saw tarpon, leopard rays, puffer fish, barracuda, sea turtles, every type of coral and many varieties of anemone.
Next it was off to Vieques, the largest of the Spanish Virgins at 21 miles long and over three miles wide. Early on in the island’s history, the indigenous Tainos were enslaved to work the sugar plantations of Puerto Rico. At one time or another, the English, French and Dutch all tried to settle the island, but were thwarted either by the Spanish or pirates. In 1898, The United States took over, and in 1941, the U.S. Navy purchased two-thirds of the island, most of it farmland, to begin work on a naval base. At the time, Vieques had over 10,000 inhabitants and produced 8,000 tons of sugar annually. At first, naval yard construction jobs kept the population busy, but that boom quickly went bust. Over 3,000 locals moved to St. Croix, and the economy was left in shambles. The Navy left in 2003, and Vieques is just now recovering from the economic devastation.
To preserve its natural resources on land and offshore, Vieques plans to attract visitors seeking a destination free of Trump Hotels, McDonalds and traffic lights. Chickens, goats and horses share the road with small pickup trucks and cars, and the locals always wave as they pass by. During our stay, we ventured to Puerto Mosquito, one of the brightest bioluminescent bays in the world, for a nighttime kayak ride and swim. The clear ink-black water magically lit up with incandescent fairy dust every time one of us dove in.
We also made our way to Esperanza on the island’s southern shore and spent a night at anchor in spacious Sun Bay. We took the dinghy ashore and walked the boardwalk that lines the shore, a place where visitors stroll, play with their children and catch up on news. On the other side of the street, half a dozen open-air restaurants offer plenty of reasonably priced food.