Now that you have settled into this island paradise of Vieques, it’s time for some exploration, you intrepid journeyer!
(Also, don’t miss my earlier post: A Perfect Day in Vieques!)
Beaches: The island of Vieques was previously utilized by the U.S. Navy as a bombing range and weapons testing ground. The Navy left the island about 12 years ago, and today a portion of Vieques is home to a national wildlife refuge and picture perfect, remote beaches. These island beaches are open to the public and pristine in their natural, undeveloped form. However, there remains a large area of Vieques which is restricted land and off-limits due to the hazard of contamination and un-exploded munitions.
Many of Vieques’ best beaches are located down a long dirt and gravel road in the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge with a Jeep making for an accessible, albeit bumpy, drive. Each beach is clearly marked with signage and beach hopping between a few different playas makes for a perfect afternoon.
Here are just a few beaches worth the expedition:
Caracus Beach (Red Beach). Playa Caracus was one of my favorites. The beach is generously sized, gorgeous, clean and easily reachable on a paved road (carros publicos, or taxis, even go there). For these reasons, Caracus tends to be busier than some of Vieques’ more secluded beaches located farther into the wildlife refuge The sugar sand is relatively seaweed-free, and the aquamarine water is calm and enticingly swimmable. As with most Vieques beaches, there are no concessions here, so plan accordingly. On Caracus Beach, you will find a few gazebos that offer a welcome respite from the Caribbean sun, but plan to arrive early in the day to stake your claim.
Pata Prieta (Secret Beach). Pata Prieta, or Secret Beach, is more difficult to access than Playa Caracus. As a result, it is more secluded. But truth be told, this beach is really not-so-secret. The proverbial cat is certainly out of the bag about this horseshoe-shaped sliver of paradise. At Pata Prieta, you will find a smaller, cozy beach whose edge is lined with trees making shade relatively easy to come by. Do not expect any amenities whatsoever at this beach, but do expect a more private setting with silky white sand, crystal-clear water and excellent snorkeling that is worth the jarring Jeep ride.
La Chiva (formerly known as Blue Beach). As with Pata Prieta, a jeep is a prerequisite
for reaching La Chiva which is situated just past Pata Prieta in the wildlife preserve. La Chiva is a vast, largely uninhabited beach that stretches along a large bay. Playa La Chiva also lacks amenities such as concessions and restrooms, but it is an idyllic spot to relax, sunbathe, escape the crowds and maybe even spot a sea turtle. The glimmering, azure water is rife with opportunities to swim, snorkel near the rocks and discover marine life. Squint your eyes and you just may think that you have been transported to a desert island utopia- in the best way possible of course, because chances are your Jeep is parked nearby.
Sol Food food truck is a Vieques institution and rightfully so. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the food truck craze sweeping our nation’s cities had found its way to the island. Conveniently parked at the corner of Route 997 and the entrance to the wildlife preserve, Sol Food is an essential pit stop on your way to or from the beach. (Okay, Sol Food is also worth a detour if you are not headed that direction). Inexpensive sandwiches, empanadas, meat on a stick, and salads are the name of the game at this foodie enclave. To this day, I am still dreaming about the O.M.G.-SO-GOOD empanadas, including one filled with gooey ham and three cheeses, and swoon-worthy carnitas. Trust me: Sol Food is not-to-be-missed.
Travelers World Cafe food truck, parked directly across the street from Sol Food, was an experience in and of itself. The truck was run by affable gents (Chris and Brian) and operated on somewhat of an island schedule. Travelers offered tasty, fresh sodas with flavors including passion fruit, tamarind and guava along with handmade flat bread sandwiches with an emphasis on international street fare. With flat bread fillings ranging from Thai-style chicken and chicken tikka masala to Moroccan beef gyro, Travelers excelled at bringing international flair to Puerto Rico. A visit to Travelers Facebook page shows that they are currently taking a break but may be back up and running soon. Stay tuned…
Exploring Isabel Segunda. Isabel Segunda, or Isabel II, is Vieques’ port town and capital situated on the northern shore of the island. If you chose to ferry over from the big island of Puerto Rico, Isabel II is where you will arrive. This seaside village is home to most of the island’s population and offers a more gritty, local vibe than more tourist-oriented Esperanza. Isabel II also has its share of bars and restaurants and is worth a stroll to take in the beautiful Spanish architecture and local flavor.
Coqui Fire Cafe is a casual, open air Mexican eatery with a serious cult-following. For those who are unfamiliar with coquíes, they are small, singing frogs common to Puerto Rico and the bona fide mascot of Puerto Rico. Coqui Fire also produces popular, local hot sauce with a variety of “sweat factors” and unique flavors such as Piña Colada Mustard and Mango Garlic. Gargantuan burritos, shrimp with mole sauce, carnitas and tangy margaritas are among the many stand-outs at Coqui Fire Cafe. A visit to this hot spot is requirement for any Vieques vacation, just be sure to call ahead for reservations.
Al’s Mar Azul Bar is a wonderful island dive bar that plays host to a healthy mix of locals and tourists. Mar Azul has a drink list divided into libations for “beginners,” “semi-pros,” and “professionals” alongside a decent food menu. With a deck boasting an enviable view of the Atlantic Ocean and incredibly idyllic sunsets, this is a hangout you can settle into for awhile.
Isla Nena Cafe. [FYI: Vieques is sometimes referred to as “Isla Nena,” or Spanish for “little sister,” as Vieques is often described as the main island’s little sister.] I stumbled upon the somewhat hidden gem of Isla Nena Cafe soon after landing at Vieques’ tiny airport. With time to kill before my traveling companion’s arrival, I followed a sign publicizing “cold beer” up a flight of stairs outside the airport. I then encountered a group of friendly patrons, many of them locals, engaging in lively banter and imbibing outside a trailer-like structure in the airport parking lot. The proprietor, Lyman, a die-hard Green Bay Cheese-head expat and lively character, was pouring the drinks. It could be our shared Midwestern roots, but I found Lyman to be immediately likable and felt right at home. He even served me a traditional Puerto Rican Chichaito shot, a concoction of Puerto Rican white rum and anise liqueur, on the house. After a stiff drink, or two, (try the painkiller) and the discovery of Lyman’s Chinese wife’s seriously to-DIE-for, handmade dumplings (vegetarian or pork), I knew I was in the right place. Don’t miss a drink or bite to eat at this unlikely airport cafe upon either your arrival or departure from Vieques. After all, it is typically safe to assume that a congregation of seasoned locals know something that we don’t.