Vieques’ warm. blue waters will dazzle even the most jaded travelers. (Photo: Valerie Conners)
Vieques and Culebra aren’t Puerto Rico’s only outer islands, but they’re certainly the most popular ones to visit.
It’s not hard to understand why: Close enough to access easily but far enough to feel remote and unplugged, the islands are smaller and even more laid-back than mainland Puerto Rico. And the beaches? Oh, the beaches! Culebra’s Flamenco Beach was once ranked among the best in the world by Discovery Channel, and Vieques has dozens of beaches to choose from, meaning that you may have a whole expanse of sand all to yourself.
But how to get there and how to get around once you’re there? These are the two questions that prevent many travelers from exploring beyond mainland Puerto Rico. Here’s everything you need to know about island hopping in Puerto Rico!
Vieques or Culebra?
Vieques and Culebra are the two most popular off-the-mainland Puerto Rico destinations for visitors, but don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re cut from the same cloth: Each one of the islands has its own history, culture and vibe.
Both Vieques and Culebra are marked by histories of having served as military bases for U.S. armed forces, the relics of which are visible on each island in the form of abandoned military tanks on beaches.
Many of the similarities end there, though, especially from the perspective of the visitor.
While both islands are often described by guidebook writers as “sleepy” or “laid-back,” Culebra is perhaps the more relaxed of the two, with fewer services, including places to stay and eat. Vieques, while also relaxed, has a service infrastructure that’s slightly more developed. Which one should you visit? That depends entirely upon your own vacationing preferences.
What Do I Do There?
While it’s true that the infrastructure, services, and amenities differ between Culebra and Vieques, the main activity on both islands is this: RELAXATION. Whether you choose to explore the top-rated Flamenco Beach on Culebra or sand-hop on Vieques until you find a stretch that’s deserted and just for you (we love Playa La Chiva), the idea on the outer islands is always to slow down, unplug and prioritize quality time with yourself or your loved ones.
When on Culebra, be sure to stop by El Polvorín, a former munitions warehouse turned museum. Inquire about the current status of visits to the Culebra lighthouse, which has been undergoing renovations in recent years. And when on Vieques, make an appointment to row out to the bioluminescent bay, one of the most incredible natural wonders of the world.
In terms of food, don’t expect gourmet fare (at least not on Culebra) or endless variety, and keep in mind that almost all food is imported, a fact that’s usually reflected in the prices. On Vieques, El Quenepo and Bilí are among the favorite “upscale” options, but don’t worry — there’s no need to don formal wear. For total laid-back island dining on Vieques, head to the ever-casual and often raucous Bananas. On Culebra, Zaco’s Tacos is beloved by locals and visitors alike, and Dinghy Dock is the local hangout for sea salts, many of whom arrive by boat, tying up at the dock before snagging a seat at the bar or a nearby table.
How Do I Get There and Get Around?
There are two ways to get to Culebra and Vieques from mainland Puerto Rico. One is by air, flying out of an airport in the capital of San Juan or the east-coast town of Fajardo; the other is by sea, taking a ferry from Fajardo.
Taking the ferry is far more economical than flying is; at $2 a ride, it’s a steal. What you save in money, however, may be lost in convenience. The ferry schedule is notoriously idiosyncratic, and a number of factors, including weather conditions, influence whether a boat leaves on time. For travelers prone to sea sickness, flights may be a more attractive alternative; the seas between the Puerto Rican mainland and Vieques or Culebra can be quite rough, and plenty of passengers have been known to spend the trip hanging over the side of the deck rails.
If you choose to take the ferry, note that your rental car from mainland Puerto Rico can’t cross with you. You’ll need to leave your mainland rental in a parking lot near the ferry terminal and schedule a separate car rental on Culebra or Vieques. The same is true if you decide to fly from the mainland to one of the outer islands.
You can leave your mainland rental at the José Aponte de la Torre Airport in Fajardo and rent a second car on either of the outer islands. Reserve your vehicle far in advance if you can; with limited inventories, especially during high season and holidays, you’ll want to make sure you don’t leave this detail for the last minute.
Flying to Culebra or Vieques costs more than the ferry, but the convenience, speed and service may be worth the expense. And if you wait until the last minute or miss your scheduled flight, there’s an affordable air taxi service that can get you there in no time flat.