The Last Spanish Virgin

Published: January 26th 2007
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U.S. Marines tankU.S. Marines tankU.S. Marines tank

An archaic tank of U.S. Navy, a grisly reminder of the island's past role in the U.S. military.
Sunday, January 21, 2007 - Playa Flamenco, Culebra - Spanish Virgin Island, Puerto Rico

Not many people have heard about the Spanish Virgin Islands, which mostly consists of two archipelago groups of Culebra and Vieques. This is the very spot where the Greater and Lesser Antilles meet. Geographically, these islands should be considered as the U.S. Virgin Islands instead of Puerto Rico; Culebra is only 12 miles west of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands (compared to 17 miles from mainland Puerto Rico).

But, that is just a formality. Culebrenses would consider themselves as the ‘Spanish Virgin Island’. Just like Switzerland, they like to be neutral.

Getting into Culebra is an adventure by itself, as it challenges adventurous souls to find their way from the capital of San Juan to the eastern town of Fajardo, the only place where a daily ferry is offered to the island. I was fortunate enough to be at the dock on time to get my ticket and to get acquainted with my new Finnish travel buddy for the night. She has been backpacking in the Caribbean islands for almost one month now. Besides her, there were two Columbian guys who were
Arid landscapeArid landscapeArid landscape

Culebra is an arid island, with splendid views in every corner.
trying to get to Vieques Island, some seven miles south of Culebra. (One of them told us that he steals cars, legally, for a living in Miami).

Beware, if you’re prone to sea sickness, you’re almost guaranteed to have a green face by the time the ferry arrives in Culebra’s only seaport in the town of Dewey. One hour on a rough ferry ride was long enough for me, but fortunately the cold night air of the island cured me almost instantly. ¡Ay bendito! Poor thing.

There could not be a more irregular group than those on our público ride this evening. Our driver, Willy the Midget, called me in to join six soccer teenagers, one soccer ball, two big coolers, several bags and one German bum. All of us were cramped into a blue minibus, and we were heading out to several places on the island before it finally terminated at my destination, Playa Flamenco, about three miles north of where we orginally started.

By the time I approaced the Area de Acampar under a grove of trees, it was 9:00 pm, and due to lack of development in the region, it was very dark. No
Morning runMorning runMorning run

Well, we need to keep it active, right?
street lights, no information booths, and I had no idea where I was. All I could hear were waves coming ashore somewhere nearby, and the swish of palm tree leaves as a result of the gentle Caribbean breeze. Laying down on my back, high above were thousands of stars, clear against the dark background.

‘Well’, I thought to myself, ‘Welcome to uncivilized early Caribbean life’. The temperature was in the mid 80s, mosquitoes were flying nearby, driven away by the bug repellent I sprayed on myself, coating my bare skin with a thick coat of gooey stuff.

Counting twenty something falling stars, I finally fell asleep, camping out on a beach as I’ve always wished to do.

Monday, January 22, 2007 - Up and around the Island of Culebra - Spanish Virgin Island, Puerto Rico

Everything works like a magic here, and they don't call it ‘Virgin Islands’ for nothing. No words can describe the tranquility when waking up, seeing the sunrise over a ‘virgin’ Caribbean beach. Different shades of emerald green, turquoise and blue ocean is revealed before my very eyes, and I found myself sitting on a white sandy beach, staring at the
Palm trees blowingPalm trees blowingPalm trees blowing

Only one word describing a sunset in Culebra: tranquility.
aquamarine Atlantic. Nearby, I could see a series of giant white waves moving slowly in the middle of the blue ocean.

‘You’ve got to be kidding me’ I thought to myself, a big grin on my face. Only a stones throw from St. Croix, I found my own patch of paradise.

The biggest reason why Culebra is under-developed for tourism is because of the U.S. military presence until as recently as 1999. Playa Flamenco, named after flocks of flamingoes that used to be seen around here, was a U.S. Navy gunnery and bombing practice place. Two corpses of U.S. Marine tanks, once used for this purpose, decorate the beach as silent memorials to the island’s unfortunate dark past.

The taste of being ‘an Island Boy’ (ref. Kenny Chesney) is very satisfying. It is a matter of rearranging my priorities and the sea, without a doubt, is the best place to be. This sleepy little island has so much to offer, in despite its lack of modern development.

So after my morning run along the roughly two miles of horseshoe-shaped Flamenco beach, I jump into the cold ocean to refresh. Life’s a beach, I quickly learned. If

Welcome to Playa Flamenco!
it is too cold, well then back to my towel to lay on my back and sunbathe. If it is too hot, jump back into the water. While doing this, nobody is around, so I have the beach pretty much by myself.

The ocean is very nurturing, calming and forgiving. Somehow inside me, I’m in a process of healing, setting up my peace with God and, even deeper, comprehending myself.

Many ‘white’ Americans live here in the community. Mostly were tourists about fifteen years ago they visited Culebra for the first time, fell in love with what they saw, and never left this peaceful little island. The island is very laid back. Business owners only open their establishements when they feel like it. Siesta is widely observed throughout Culebra, and only gringos complain about everything they’ve experienced here in the island.

Heading down to Puebla, or ‘da town', as Culebrenses refer to the only community in this 7,000-acre island, I rented a bike after having my ‘fish and chips’ lunch at Barbara Rosa’s. Everybody seems to know everyone here in Culebra and, soon enough, I feel like I am part of the community. Today is just the
Chillin' like a MarineChillin' like a MarineChillin' like a Marine

After a morning run, chilling by the archaic tank.
same old, regular day in this island, as it has been for many years. I intended to rent a sea kayak from Ocean Safaris, but due to the strong wind, Jim, the kayak owner, advised any non-experienced kayakers to think twice before getting stranded somewhere (like, for example, getting pushed 12 miles east off original route to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.) So instead, I have a conversation with Jim, Barbara’s husband, about weather and politics (he has a strong opinion on Social Welfare issues and Bush!)

“Are you an Oriental?” Jim asked me in an observing tone all of the sudden. I started back at him, I was a little concerned by the term he used. For most Asian-Americans, the term ‘oriental’ best describes items, like food or rugs, as in ‘oriental food’ or ‘oriental rugs’. It doesn't describe humans and is definitely a big no-no.
“Hum, I was born in Indonesia, but my grandparents were from China” I murmured in as neutral tone as possible. Surely he didn’t mean to offend anyone, and I thought that was a good short answer to his question.
“Oh, so will you guys give us a free welfare when
Deep sea fishingDeep sea fishingDeep sea fishing

This guy really enjoys his deep sea fishing in the Flamenco. Not sure on what he's getting his hands on today.
you guys take over?” he laughed so hard. Then the conversation continued on to China in general.

It is easy not to take anything too seriously around here, as Dick finally arrived in his rusty VolksWagen with his best four mountain bikes. We talked like old friends, and as soon as the restaurant owner, Barbara, heard his voice, she left Dick with three dessert dishes for his wife Cathy, and everybody moved on.

I was traveling south along the winding path of Culebra, referring to my simple map and pedalling my rusty bike at the same time. The destination was Punta Soldado, on the very southern tip of the island famous for its rocky beach and great diving site. Culebra is definitely an arid island. I found out a little too late that, besides many cactii, one of the native plants in Culebra includes the big thorny Mesquite, whose branches litter the road. After about four miles down the road, I was stranded near Pulladoza. I looked down, and saw a big thorn was sticking out of my flat tire. So I was forced to stop on top of a hill, overlooking the majestic view of the emerald

Nothing is better than leaving fresh footprints on a clean beach.
Caribbean Sea, until my second bike arrived about half an hour later, and I continued on with my journey around the island.

I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. Así es la vida - That’s life.

Rolling back into town a couple hours later, Dinghy Dock Pub sounded like a fun place to be, and I didn’t hesitate to ask for two piña coladas - served with a light body of smooth flavor Puerto Rican rum. Another American establishment, right by the grand marina, it was just a perfect moment to enjoy and celebrate the day.

As I was flying by with my bike, many Culebrenses gave me suspicious looks. Who is this guy? Where does he come from? Is he going to stay on our island, as many Americans do? Meanwhile I was concentrating on ducking many potholes in the streets. The number of potholes exceeds the human population of this whole island.

Later that night, sipping my official Puerto Rican ‘Medalla’ beer at Mamacita’s restaurant, I looked around and saw many happy faces, all Americans, with a skin color of café con leche. There are many things to ponder. I am rearranging my priorities.
White SandWhite SandWhite Sand

There is nobody here!
This is how life should be, and this is a perfect day for me.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007 - Dewey ‘Puebla’, Culebra - Spanish Virgin Island, Puerto Rico

Culebra occupies a special place in my heart, and now I understand how many tourists came here and never left.

As of today, January 23, 2007, a new regulation comes from the U.S. Homeland Security that requires everybody, including U.S. Citizens, to present a valid passport in order to re-enter the U.S. by air and ship - from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. This regulation has a tremendous effect on Caribbean tourism, and it has been a concern raised by island nations that depends on U.S. tourists dollars as their main income. Jamaica, Aruba, and the Bahamas are expecting a big drop in the income due to a U.S.tourist decline, which comprise of more than 70%!o(MISSING)f their customers.

On the other hand, this regulation has the opposite effect on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as they are expecting a sharp increase on U.S. visitors. These regions are in ‘status quo’ with the U.S.A., and passports are not required to enter the territory and to

Awww water is cold! Let the whining begins.
re-enter the U.S. mainland. Therefore all U.S. Citizens who are hungry for a paradise and don’t want the hassle of obtaining passports will flock to the region, including the Spanish Virgin Islands of Culebra and Vieques.

It just a matter of time that my patch of paradise will be ‘discovered.’ Just like Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ Puerto Rico with the Taino people in 1493,my paradise will be exploited by tourism. Chain hotels, time-share condos, franchise and fast food restaurants, street vendors with souvenirs and tacky tourists with pressed pants and camera cases will fill this island paradise and change it for the better. Or the worse.

They will find my Culebra, the Last Spanish Virgin.

Additional photos below
Photos: 31, Displayed: 29


Hues of blueHues of blue
Hues of blue

How many different shades of 'blue' can you identify in this pic?
Life's a beachLife's a beach
Life's a beach

I know, I know, I have an extremely tough life here.
My travel buddy CyMy travel buddy Cy
My travel buddy Cy

We're having a good time together at Flamenco.
This is my patch of paradise.This is my patch of paradise.
This is my patch of paradise.

See, I told you nobody is around! This is my beach.
Coconut treeCoconut tree
Coconut tree

I'm hungry! Do you think I should climb up there and grab myself a fresh coconut?
Biking around the islandBiking around the island
Biking around the island

This is the best way to go around the island, and by the end of the day, you're guaranteed to be more familiar with the island's landscape.
Flat tireFlat tire
Flat tire

This is where I got stranded, after biking over thorny Mesquites. I can't complain much of the view, I guess.
Two boatsTwo boats
Two boats

All of the sudden, there are two boats cruising through the clear water.

Culebra is an arid island, there are many cactii in the southern region of the island.

Some coralie details in Punta Soldado, Culebra.
Gimme two piña coladasGimme two piña coladas
Gimme two piña coladas

One out of two. One the best piña coladas I've ever tasted.

29th January 2007

Thanks for sharing those lovely pictures and sharing the world with us. How are you?
31st January 2007

iriiii gua iriiiiii..... i truly truly envy you.....hikz.....
31st January 2007

I love Culebra also
I'm headed back to Culebra in a few weeks, so I do a search to see who has been there and to see if anything has changed. Apparently not! The only bad thing about going there is coming back -- re-entry to the rat race seems overwhelmingly pointless...
9th March 2007

Thinking about going
My husband and I are looking for somewhere tropical to spend our 25th anniversary. We need somewhere affordable. We do not want anything touristy. Culebra was suggested. What do you think?
9th March 2007

Culebra is the place to be
Joanie - I would highly recommend Culebra to visit on a budget and a 'real' Caribbean experience. That said, if your ideal anniversary is having a pampered accomodation in a high class resort (ie spas, drivers etc), your best bet is maybe St John in US Virgin Island or Bahamas, or Bermudas. Culebra is definitely a much slower pace place where you can have a beach by yourself, camping out by the shore for 10 bucks a night, and biking around the island in comfort. Simple roads with potholes, sleepy bars and restaurants with no set open hours, and not many cars. Not touristy, relatively not too expensive, especially if you bring your basic essentials and some food from mainland PR. Culebrenses still need to import many things from the mainland.
29th November 2007

Not a Cessna!
As a Caribbean pilot I can't let the "Cessna" remark go un-commented. The airplane you travelled in was actually an old British airplane, the Britten-Norman Islander. It is almost standard-issue in the Caribbean because it gets into the tiny restricted airports with few problems. Its joy to be in the Caribbean (even the northern parts! :) but even more of a joy to fly for a living in the Caribbean.
5th July 2008

culebra changes
Havent been to Culebra since my son was 1 he is 18 now, alot of changes . What should we expect, looking forward to our visit Aug 5. Lisa
8th September 2010
U.S. Marines tank

thats not a us tank
2nd February 2011
U.S. Marines tank

Yes it is, an M4 Sherman

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