Links to all Articles & Photos:
Vieques: A State of Mind
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
There is the concrete Vieques (pronounced vee-ache-us). The name is derived from a native Indian word, bieques, which means small island. Vieques is the second largest of Puerto Rico's islands. It encompasses 50.7 square miles of sun-blessed, blue sea-surrounded, virtually undiscovered delight. It is located seven miles off Puerto Rico's eastern shore. The terrain is hilly. The Island is 21 miles long and three miles wide. It is a mostly agricultural island: the limestone which makes up the island has weathered until it supports cattle farming, sugarcane growing, that sort of thing. Vieques has two main towns: Isabel Segunda on the north shore and Esperanza on the south shore. It was in Isabel Segunda, in 1843 during the reign of Queen Isabella II, for whom the town is named, that construction was started on what would have been the last Spanish fort to be built in the New World. The fort was never completed. Today, Isabel Segunda is the island's capital. Esperanza is a small fishing village, but it is here that most of the fine eating establishments are located. That is a basic, concrete description of Vieques. However, Vieques is more, much more.
There is the abstract Vieques. This Vieques cannot be adequately described using the limitations of language. It is a nebulous idea of ideal place, an indefinable concept in the mind of each visitor. This Vieques must be experienced to be understood. If you were to ask those who have sampled Vieques' charms to describe their experience, you would receive a seemingly endless variety of descriptions. Each visitor has a personal mental snapshot of Vieques in his or her mind.
Vieques holds a special appeal for us. It was on our first visit to the island, in 1979, waiting for the ferry that we met. We made small talk during the wait, sat together on the ferry, then toured the island together. In Isabel Segunda, we shared a chocolate-covered, frozen banana at an outdoor cafe under cover of a table umbrella while a brief shower passed through. The rest, as they say, is history.
There is something irresistible about Vieques that keeps calling us back. It is not a major tourist destination. It is an escape. There are no high-rise hotels, no casinos to be found. Vieques is a quiet destination where one may revel in the sun, sand, and sea in relative solitude. Many have visited Vieques looking to get away from the fast-paced life of home, only to later decide to make that escape permanent. Vieques has its share of expatriates living there. These range from sailors and marines who did tours of duty on the island to doctors and lawyers, who have made the consummate lifestyle change.
In many ways, Vieques represents the ultimate in laid-back living. You need no passport. The currency is the United States dollar. The official language is Spanish, but you will find most people speak or understand English. Wonderful opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, and diving abound. A word of caution: swim-wear is fine for the beach, but not recommended in town or at restaurants. If the ladies make that mistake, they will receive long, unwanted stares from the men and nasty scowls from the women.
Most of the island accommodations are guest houses. Some have more features than others, such as pools and air conditioning. Camping is an alternative that appeals to some. Another option is to get in touch with some of the island real estate agents. Many agents manage the vacation homes of prominent folks living in the United States, and these homes are available to rent by the week when not in use by the owners. We spent our most recent Vieques stay in the vacation home of a Washington DC area doctor. The home was fully equipped (full kitchen, laundry room, television), all the comforts of home on an island paradise. Several forms of transportation are used on the island: bicycles; horses; and autos are all available as rentals. Auto rental representatives are located in the airport. Public transportation is available via publicos (public cars or vans where a small fee is paid and the driver picks up as many people along the way as he or she can haul). We've used publicos many times for transportation. They are an inexpensive way to get about the island, but can be crowded at times. Be prepared to scrunch together.
The island sports some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, which must be a well-kept secret. Many times we were the only ones at the beach. At other times, we would see a few others. Once it was a couple of ladies, strolling, lost in conversation. On another occasion it was a local gentleman that brought his paso fino horse to the beach for some exercise. He stood in the water up to his neck, reins in hand, gently guiding his horse as the horse swam circles around him.
We spent a good deal of time at Gringo Beach on the north shore. This beach is bordered on each end by rocky outcrops, with one-quarter mile of 40 yard-wide beach in between. Isabel Segunda, the north shore village, is visible in the distance. On rare occasions a cloud drizzling rain would drift over us. We merely jumped into our rented four-wheel drive vehicle and headed to Sun Bay on the south shore . There we found the sun brightly beaming. Sun Bay features an even longer stretch of beach--probably close to a mile long. There are a number of sheltered picnic tables and a campground. Camping permits are available from the Recreation and Sports Department. If the same cloud made its way to the southern shore, we merely headed back to the north shore, which would be once again sun-drenched. It was amazing to be able to travel such a short distance and find a change in weather, but that's Vieques.
The snorkeling is fantastic. If you don't bring your own gear (we didn't), it can be rented in Esperanza. The waters are crystal-clear and variety of color found in the undersea life is astounding. Snorkeling off Gringo Beach, we were amazed at the beautiful coral and purple sea fans. It looked like a beautiful underwater forest. The sea fans swayed in the current, gracefully, as the waves rolled in on the surface above.
One night we decided to visit Mosquito Bay. Mosquito Bay is one of the few phosphorescent bays in the world. The correct term is "bioluminescent" because the glow is produced by organisms in the water. It is a biological function of dinoflagellates in which mechanical stimulation produces a chemical reaction causing the glow. Any disturbance to the water will cause the organisms to flash, thus causing the water to appear to glow. While canoeing, one may drag the oar in the water and watch as the oar's wake appears to glow.
The night we visited, the surf was up and large waves were rolling in. As each wave crashed into the sea, it appeared as if lightning were flashing in the water. We briskly ran our hands through the water, watching as the water lit up. We had never seen anything quite like it. We decided to go for a swim. We never thought we would swim in water that glowed in the dark, but we did that night.
Text and Photos [c] Thomas R. Fletcher/PROSE & PHOTOS