Flamenco Beach, Puerto Rico

The second week of spring break, my roommates and I decided to challenge ourselves to find the most remote location a U.S. citizen can travel to without using a passport. The result was a small island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico (closer to the Virgin Islands) with a population just over 1,000. The island, named Culebra, was a pilgrimage that was well worth it.

To start, we flew into San Juan where we spent a day exploring the old Spanish forts and performing a deep analysis of Puerto Rico’s economy (by that, I mean taste testing one of their main exports: Bacardi Rum). After spending the late afternoon at the beach, we enjoyed our first of many mofongo dishes. Mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican dinner that combines mashed fried plantains with spices and generally a meat.

We indulged ourselves the second day with a late 6 a.m. wakeup call. We then left our AirBnB (and the last air conditioning we would have), and drove our rental car to El Yunque National Forest. After spending the morning hiking, swimming and listening to the native coquis, we ventured just outside of the park to find Las Paylas, or the natural waterslides. This quest resulted with us parking at a random man’s house, paying him $5, and him directing us to the trailhead.

After separating a fierce fight between a snake and an iguana, we arrived at the riverbed. With fast rapids, no helmets and no direction we were very hesitant to find the sections that served as waterslides by ourselves. Thankfully, a group of locals picnicking nearby demonstrated for us. Once we were sufficiently covered in bruises and our adrenaline levels returned to normal, we left to catch the ferry to our first destination island.

We opted to pay the $2 for the two-hour ferry instead of $40 to take a small bush plane across to Vieques. The ferry is predominately used by locals and has a reputation of being horrifically unreliable. Luckily, after waiting in line for about four hours, we finally were on our way (surrounded by about 70 noisy school children). From 1941-2003 over two-thirds of Vieques was designated for U.S. Navy munitions testing; after a long period of protests which included many celebrities, this area was designated as a national wildlife refuge.

Now, the greatest employer of the people of Vieques is munitions cleanup after the Navy’s departure. After we settled into our AirBnB, which we shared with lizards, cats, and roosters, we paid a local woman $50 to rent her car for the day. The beat-up Suzuki 4x4 lasted us pretty well while we navigated the potholes in the dirt road and the countless wild horses that seemed to outnumber the human population.

After spending the day snorkeling the amazing reefs, we took a kayak tour of the best preserved bioluminescent bay in the country. Bio-bays are brackish water areas where micro-organisms called dinoflagellate thrive. When exposed to friction, this organism lights up bright blue illuminating the water. After exploring Mosquito Bay, we quickly returned to our room in preparation of our 3:30 a.m. wake-up.

The longest day of our trip was taking the ferry back to the mainland and then to Culebra. After an easy early-morning ferry to the mainland, we faced an enormous line to purchase tickets to Culebra. After being told repeatedly that we will not be able to buy tickets, the captain felt an ounce of generosity and decided to allow everyone to ride. This meant a completely full boat ride. Culebra, being much farther from the mainland than Vieques, made way to a very rocky ride.

Close to sea sickness, we finally arrived. The only problem was, we had no plans for transportation from the port (believe it or not, Uber and Lyft do not operate there). After walking for about 1-2 hours in the 95 degree heat, we finally were able to rent a car. With a 4x4 Jeep and air conditioning, we immediately left for Flamenco Beach, which is voted the most beautiful beach in the world.

Culebra was also host to a naval reservation, and the memories of this lives on through the bombed-out tanks that remain on Flamenco Beach. When it was incorporated into the U.S., President Theodore Roosevelt allocated a large part of the island as a national wildlife refuge. The best way to describe Culebra is remote and rustic. Our AirBnB was literally a cabin that floated on the water, which provided a great opportunity for stargazing.

This remoteness provided peace from the hectic life of Valpo students. Overall, Puerto Rico provided a relatively inexpensive adventure outside the traditional U.S. traveling experience.

The views expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The Torch.

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