Spring Break 2019 - Vieques, Puerto Rico

This one was a bit late in coming - this was Spring Break back in April of this year. (For those that aren’t aware - Mudspike is also my personal travel diary…so apologies for the occasional “Life AAR”)

This last Spring Break we wanted a cheap, but unique destination. We started looking at non-rev destinations that had light passenger loads and ran with that.

Our search landed on the small island of Vieques off the coast of Puerto Rico. I had visited the island more than 20 years ago on a vacation as it was emerging from its (largely unwanted) role as a U.S. Navy weapons range. A massive decades long cleanup of the island is still underway, removing toxins, unexploded ordnance, and trying to remediate the damage done to the eastern end of the island. Vieques, being part of Puerto Rico, is a United States territory and the residents are U.S. citizens.

Our adventure began in Charlotte, with a direct flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Kai on the right…his cousin Joseph on the left. We endeavored to travel strictly out of backpacks on this trip.

On final into San Juan, I have to admit I had a lump in my throat returning to the island after the emotional and challenging weeks I had spent there in 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. I was excited and curious to see how things had (or had not) changed in the year and a half since the hurricane impacted the islands.

The colors haven’t quite fully returned to the city…some of the vegetation may have been destroyed to the point where it will take years to fully recover.

Once on the ground, we took a cab from San Juan to the eastern tip of the island and the ferry terminal at Roosevelt Roads / Ceiba. I had done some reading up on the ferry service with varying reports on its reliability, but in recent years it seems they have made good strides in updating their fleet of vessels and improving ticket purchasing. Our back and forth ferry rides to Vieques were fantastic, on-time, and way cheaper than flying a puddle jumper to the island.

Leaving San Juan we drove past the Verdanza - home of the famous “Swamp Room” during the hurricane deployment…and the nearby Embassy Suites where we clung desperately to our nice room there…bunking five or six pilots in one room.

Boarding the ferry at Ceiba…

The boys absolutely loved the ferry ride…playing with other kids on the rail as the salt spray whipped past…

Pulling into the pier on Vieques at Isabel Segunda (II)…

We rented the upper floor of a house just east of Santa Maria. A beautiful concrete structure that was perfect in all regards. Opening the blinds the tradewinds whipped through and kept the place cool at all hours. The super-nice caretaker, Yari, picked us up at the ferry terminal and whisked us up to the house. Unfortunately I was having a very hard time prior to the trip find a rental car since they are very limited on the island. After dropping off luggage, Yari took us to a place to eat near a grocery store to let us do some shopping and she agreed to come back and get us in a couple of hours.

Picture from my drone…which was legal to fly in some areas of Vieques…

After a long, hot day of travel…a cold Medalla hit the spot…

As we were sitting eating our lunch…my eyes wandered to the map on the table in front of me. I spotted an AVIS rental car agency across the street so I walked over, incentivized a deal with some cash, and magically we had a rental jeep for the week!! :sunglasses:

We hit the grocery store, sent Yari a message that we were squared away with a car, and headed back to enjoy the sunset…

Morning coffee and a doughnut will contemplating the day’s activities…

Our first trip we headed to the south side of the island just east of the main town of Esperanza and hit the beautiful crescent of Sun Bay…

The theme in ALL of these vacation reports. Never. Ever. Rent us a car. We don’t read any of the fine print.

Maybe we should have rented an MRAP?

Playa Pata Prieta…

Puerto Ferro Lighthouse…constructed in 1896 in a Spanish architectural style…

Taking a short hike down to the beach below the lighthouse…

Kai with his “coconut thumper”…

We headed up to the old ferry terminal pier and did some snorkeling there. It is a fair spot as far as visibility and clarity goes, but not spectacular with regards to coral formations…

This was Joseph’s first real snorkeling experience…whereas Kai has been to a dozen places all over the world, so we were happy to see Joseph take to it like…well…a fish in water!

The roads to the western end of the island are very cool…

Punta Arenas (aka Green Beach) on the western tip of the island…

300+ year old Ceiba tree…

Spaghetti at the house…

Kai making friends with a local dog down at the beach in front of our house…

Sea Glass Beach in Isabel Segunda…

Playa Negra (Black Sand Beach) was one of the neatest places on the island…

There is a half a mile long or so trail (15 minutes of walking) to get to the beach. Wild horses on the way…

The boys loved it…obviously…

The water was a beautiful green-ish blue, reddish sand, black sand, greenery, blue skies, white clouds…it was beautiful…

And the water was enjoyably rough for the boys…

Wild horses roam the island…you’d occasionally see a local wrangling one of them to press into service, riding one bareback and towing another…

Visiting beaches on Bahia de la Chiva on the southeastern end of the island. This is on the edge of the restricted area and there are instructions not to swim out to any of the islands or wander out of the ordnance cleared areas…

Margarita time!

Overall the snorkeling wasn’t the greatest in Vieques. Keep in mind…it has just been raked by a Category 4/5 hurricane a year and a half prior…so no doubt there was some damage. That said…you can find some cool stuff…

One day we went on a drive to the western “highlands” of the island - a mysterious spread of old bunkers, sugar mill ruins, and a massive over-the-horizon radar installation. Apparently it is used for maritime target detection all the way to South America…or something…

Exploring the Central Playa Grande sugar mill ruins. Apparently dating back to the mid 1800s, the sugar mill ceased operations in 1941…

I’m not sure where these boys learned about proper hiking footwear…you’d think given the hikes we’ve been on…well…nevermind…

Care must be taken scrambling around the ruins…there are plenty of places to take a bad step and the condition of the ruins leave some sketchy areas…

Continuing on into the highlands…there are dozens of bunkers that are filled with all kinds of weird stuff. Obviously they were used for weapons or something at one point during the Navy’s tenure, now they are storing…well…junk…

Hurricane proof classroom…

Anthrax bunker? You go first…this is how a movie starts out…

The seaside malecon in Esperanza was obviously repaired to good effect after the hurricane. I saw photos from immediately after the hurricane and it was really beat up hard.

Cayo de Tierra which is adjacent to the town of Esperanza…a very nice walking beach…

More east end beaches…Playa Caracas…

Some of the beaches are fantastic for beachcombing…

Meeting on the Malecon in Esperanza for a night paddle to the Bioluminscent Bay. We had sort of bad lighting conditions (a lot of moonlight), but it was still a great experience. I had done the same tour over 20 years ago, but it was on a pontoon boat and they let you swim in the bio-bay. It has become far more regulated as they seek to protect the bay.

Lots of cool creatures snorkeling around the southeast end beaches…

And some beautiful shells that we left…

Banana pancakes with a view…

The western point beaches were probably our favorite for snorkeling…Punta Arenas. You’d frequently see private boats pulling up and tours…

This…this is OK…

Coconut ball…sure…

Eating in Esperanza…

That looks delicious…!

The boy and his dog…I’m surprised we didn’t find him in our luggage (the dog that is…)

Did some light fishing at Punta Arenas…

Sunsets were…always spectacular…

The steep driveway up to our house…

A couple of drone pictures…

Lots of birds all over the island of course…

Moon taken with my P900…

The kids jumping off the dock in Esperanza with the locals…fun is universal…

We booked the Fast Ferry back to Ceiba…which was really nice. A very modern ship with great speed and comfort…

Departing Isabela Segunda…

Upon arrival at Ceiba, we had pre-arranged our return cab to San Juan, which worked out great. We stayed at the Sheraton for a couple of nights to spend some time in San Juan…

The boys loved the pool and took up immediately with some island kids that were also vacationing…

We had an awesome Uber driver that took us to a special beach a bit off the beaten path that he recommended. In chatting with him on the way…it was again emotional to hear him talk of the hurricane and how grateful he was for both the immediate assistance (not thrown paper-towels) rendered and the return of tourism to the island. Every single person we met on the trip were warm, friendly, and just exceedingly nice. We’ve actually batted around the idea of retiring to Puerto Rico or Vieques…decisions, decisions…

I lined up a special trip for the family…something they weren’t really expecting but turned out to be a highlight of the trip. A jet-ski tour of San Juan with this dude named Crazy Ivan. What is unique about his tour is that…well…he really does take you out into the ocean and it is pretty awesome out there in the deep blue rollers. It was great…

The tour was full of history, pirate calls, and just flat out ridiculous speeding…

Non-rev travel can be the greatest thing in the world…or the worst. Largely we’ve had great experiences, but occasionally (always around Spring Break) we run into some problems. Thankfully, we got seats on an outbound flight from San Juan to Miami, but our connection got oversold for a mechanical issue. So we hopped a flight to Tampa since a connection out of there to Charlotte looked good…and that one went oversold too. After deliberating for a bit, looking at the rest of the flight schedule, we rented a car and drove home from Tampa. Win some - lose some…

Early morning departure from San Juan…

Arriving Miami…

Our trip was awesome. A really unique location with a special feel that is worth experiencing. Vieques is safe, affordable, friendly, and there is a ton of stuff to do and see. I can’t recommend it enough…

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