Culebra Tropical Escape, Part 2: Culebrita

Culebrita all to ourselves

Looking back towards Culebra from Culebrita

We went to Culebra to “get away from it all.” We chose an island off the beaten track so we could exhale, explore, indulge in sunshine and nature, and enjoy without being around hordes of others in a heavily commercialized place. To pursue this idea even further we decided to spend a day exploring an even smaller, more secluded place: Culebrita (little Culebra), an uninhabited island to Culebra’s east. Upon the suggestion of the dive shop employee (hint, always ask at the dive shop for suggestions) we called Captain Sebastian and he agreed to show us around Culebrita on our last full day of vacation. We assured him we were “Four healthy people in our 30’s who wanted to snorkel, hike and relax on the beach.” Sebastian was about our age and the son of a yacht delivery captain who grew up throughout the Caribbean. Culebra is most definitely Sebastian’s home, though. When asked about Vieques, Culebra’s larger neighbor, he shook his head, “Too big for me man, too many people.”

Culebrtia beach

We met Sebastian at 8 am at the dock by Mamacita’s restaurant. It might seem punishing to get up so early on vacation, but trust me, getting into a small boat to chill out and take in the beautiful, tropical sights is nothing like getting to work at 8 am, so why worry about it? You can always nap on the beach later! We began our adventure by taking a tour of a mangrove forest on Culebra, marveling at the tangled roots and the watery passages between them. Then it was off to Culebrita.  The wind was blowing strongly and the waves were super choppy, with white caps even in deep water. It was a fun, ride. Having grown up on boats myself I could tell Sebastian was super skilled at handling the the wind and the waves. So I let myself relax.

Exploring the mangrove forest by boat

When we got to Culebria we were the only ones there. Sebastian explained that it usually fills up by 11 am, so it’s good to get an early start. Because of the high winds the only other boat we saw the whole time was that of Captain Sebastian’s friend, Captain Bill. Bill has a catamaran and will fish and cook you a huge meal as he shows you around. The beach was on the leeward side of the island, so we soaked in the view and the sun out of the wind and then motivated to take the 15 minute hike to the lighthouse on the highest point of the island.

Hiking to the lighthouse on Culebrita

Close up of the abandoned lighthouse on Culebrita

A word of caution about hiking in Culebra and Culebrita: watch out for the thorns! Sebastian carried a machete to cut them back and I can see why. Those thorn bushes are intense and a brush with a thorn and your bare ankle or arms would be really painful. Thorns aside, the hike was lovely and mellow and the view rivaled those we saw from our hike along the spine of Jost Van Dyke last winter.  Speaking of our trip to Jost, Culebra and Culebrita are only 17 miles from St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, so the British Virgin islands are not too far off. In my own ignorance of the region I had no idea how close the Virgin Island and Puerto Rico are to each other. Answer: very.

View from the top of the lighthouse: Tortuga Beach

View from the top of the lighthouse: looking towards St. Thomas

Lighthouse stairs: totally terrifying

Sebastian fearlessly lead us up the lighthouse tower, which is not at all safe or a journey for the weak at heart. SMH and S. followed him right up to the top, sitting on the edge of the tower in the howling wind. Just writing about it makes my palms sweat. A. and I poked our heads out, took in the view and retreated. I’m glad I mustered my courage to do it, but climbing crumbling cast iron steps is clearly not an activity for worry warts like me.

Totuga beach, lighthouse in background, Culebrita

After lunching and snorkeling (do I even need to tell you it was amazing?) we took another walk across Culebrita to a beach that was even more perfect that any of the ones we had seen so far. White sand, palm trees, crystal water, the whole lot. Tortuga beach is also a national wildlife preserve where turtles nest in the spring, hence its name. While I would have been content to laze on the sand, the adventure continued and I went along.

On the way to the baths

Sebastian led us over craggy rocks to a series of tide pools fed by the waves. We stared at them admiringly, watching the surf crash in and feeling the wind whistle by our ears. Suddenly Sebastian stripped off his shirt, dropped his bag, and jumped in! We stared, slack jawed. We were sure our Captain was going to be swept out to sea. He waved at us, “What are you waiting for!” One by one we plunged in. The sea water was bubbly from the surf and felt as if we were swimming in seltzer.

The baths, Culebrita

Photo by Captain Sebastian

But we didn’t stop there. We hiked up yet another rocky outcropping to stare out at the sea and watch the waves crash into the tide pools. There’s nothing that settles me and puts me at peace more than watching the waves and staring across the sea towards the horizon. When I was flying to Culebra I joked that I was looking for paradise. I dare say that we found it.

Wind and waves, Culebrita

Culebrita, Tortuga Beach

I highly recommend Captain Sebastian’s tours. He’s fun, knowledgeable and will customize where he takes you to what you want to do. He also goes to Luis Pena, the islands you can see in my sunset photos in my previous Culebra entry, which have incredible snorkeling. He brings water, fruit and fruit juice for you! The price is extremely reasonable and as I said, he’s a great skipper to boot. He doesn’t have a website, but you can call him at 1-787-435-4498 to make a reservation. Don’t worry, he said it was OK for me to put his number on my blog.

You can see a full set of my Culebra and Culebrita photos on Flickr.

Finally, because pop culture never gets old (until it does) we of course, could not stop humming this song while we were boating:

Culebra Tropical Escape, Part 1

Flamenco Beach, Culebra, PR

New York winter is terrible. It grinds on and whether it snows or not, it feels like it never ends. To survive it you need to plot your escape. Our escape all started with the a flyer for the “Bruisecruise” – an indie rock cruise that features bands, DJ’s and plenty of sun starved hipsters. A. and I seriously considered it for awhile – three days on a boat with rock bands and warmth. We were thiiiis close to buying a ticket when we realized 1. the bands that were playing play in New York frequently and 2. do we really want to be stuck on a cruise ship with half of Williamsburg? and 3. for the money we could create our own tropical getaway.

Swimming at Flamenco beach

First we defined our criteria: direct flight from New York, easy, but not something that was just an all inclusive resort or tourist trap. Not too pricey. We decided on Puerto Rico because we don’t need a passport to go there and would not have to change money. I remembered when SMH and I were doing research for our tropical vacation last year we seriously considered Culebra, a small island to the east of Puerto Rico. It features one gas station, one ATM, and nary an all inclusive resort. Perfect. We mustered the troops: SMH, S., A. and myself and a few weeks of research and a few conferences calls later and we were set.

Waves, Flamenco beach

Here’s why you go to Culebra: you love beautiful beaches with hardly anyone on them, nature, and a slow pace of life. You don’t go there if you want all inclusive packages or jumpin’ nightlife or high fashion.

Beach essentials

Flamenco beach from the air as we approach Culebra

The flight itself is worth it. While there is a ferry from Fajardo, we were advised not to take it and I can see why. It was cancelled two out of the four days we were there. Instead we flew Vieques Air Link (you can also take Air Flamenco) from Isla Grande Airport in San Juan to Culebra – a half an hour flight. Limited to 30 pounds of luggage a piece before we got on the plane we joked that there would be a public shaming ritual where everyone was asked their weight. It turned out to be true! The plane is small enough it needs to be weight balanced and I felt like we were in van that happened to fly. For the landing we flew right over Flamenco beach, one of the world’s best beaches and where were staying. After the beach it looked like we were headed right for the trees! We flew in between two mountains, banked hard to the left and landed. I admit it, I was whimpering. As we were getting out the pilot was laughing and said, “Someone back there was scared!” I sheepishly admitted to it. At the airport we sipped a perfect cafe con leche and waited for our rental jeep to arrive.

Coming in for a landing in paradise

Culebra is a small island, but not so tiny that you can walk everywhere. The roads are narrow and twisty and it’s helpful to have some kind of transportation. After looking into the three car rental options available S. found the perfect one for us: Dick and Cathie’s Jeep Rental, which features the very strange Volkswagen “Thing,” a car that has a cultish following in the US. It’s got 4 gears and feels a little like driving a riding lawn mower, but with speed limits that max out at 35 miles an hour who needs a sleek jeep with frivolous features like windows and a roof? Cruising around in the Thing, top down, made it clear we were on vacation. We adored the Thing and “thinging” became a verb for driving somewhere in our vacation parlance. Dick also showed us where to park in town, where the super markets were, pointed out the vegetable seller that came to the island once a week (score!) and warned us about a pothole so big it tipped over a cement mixer. Dick and Cathie also offer bike rentals. We rented mountain bikes for 2 days, but were so busy with doing nothing, we never used them.

Driving the Thing

Party in the Thing!

Trunk in the front

For lodging we stayed at Culebra Beach Rentals on Flamenco beach, which has been rated one of the top 10 beaches in the world. The rentals featured everything we needed, and have full kitchens, so it was easy to prepare our own food. The highlight of our place was the huge porch with rocking chairs, a hammock, a dining table and grill. We prepared our dinners and ate family style every night, joined by a group of feral cats who seduced us with their sweet ways and were treated to a gourmet diet of chicken, fish and beef while were there.  Of course the best part was that the beach was steps away and we walked out at every hour to soak in the sun, sunset or stars.

The "villas" at Culebra beach rentals - so cute!

Porch friend. The mellowest one-eyed cat ever. I almost brought this one home.

Flamenco beach was wide, vast and even though some grumbled it had been “discovered” at maximum we counted 35 people there. There’s also a cluster of food stalls you can walk down to that feature homemade mofungo, shark kebabs, and from the “Mexican” themed one the best pina colada we had on the island.

Showing off my new Esther Williams suit on Flamenco beach

Thanks to the Thing we also explored some of the island’s other beaches: Zoni beach, which was the locals secret 10 years ago, but is now well known to locals and visitors. These included some nudists, who we were surprised to discover far down the beach.

Zoni beach, Culebra, PR

Enjoying the beach life

We also went to Tamarindo beach, which features a reef full of sea life that is perfect for snorkeling. You have to be sure not to touch anything though – Culebra was used by the US Navy for training exercises and there are still unexplored bombs on the ocean floor! Tamarindo is also one of the few beaches on the island that faces west, making it prime real estate for sunset watching.

Sunset from Tamarindo beach, Culebra, PR

Tamarindo beach, before sunset

Beach chickens

For the inside scoop on beaches and snorkeling we asked at the dive shop on the main street by the ferry dock. They also recommended Captain Sebastian to us for a boating adventure, but I’ll write more about that in part 2.

I’ll leave you with a few more scenes that I hope will transport you out of winter for a moment. I remember my former dubiousness about going to the Caribbean, which I have since shed. I think it’s really about finding the places off the beaten track that are strong on local flavor and pride. It’s about respecting the unique culture of a place and appreciating the rhythm of island life. In addition to the sun, sand and time away I appreciated that we found a place that felt so “us.” For a getaway from winter with some of my best friends I couldn’t ask for more.

Frozen mojito at Mamacita's

Bakery in downtown Culebra. Delicious pastries!

Culebra Dive Shop

Hotel Kokomo, downtown Culebra

Note: This was the inaugural trip for my new digital SLR camera – a Canon Rebel T3i. These photos are mostly taken from this, but the airplane shots are from my trusty Canon PowerShot (and taken by SMH) because I needed something quickly at hand (and he had a better view in the plane).

Note 2: For more information on all things Culebra visit this sweet website.