• Laine Alan

Vieques - Heaven Can Wait, Leave Me Here For A Bit

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

If you look around enough, you'll find spaces that you like, and spaces that you need. Vieques is that needed space. A half hour off the coast by plane, albeit small, small plane or ferry, if you can manage a ferry ride as of this writing, Vieques is a contrast of beauty, poverty and a delectable madness. There are no major chains here of any type, restaurants, stores or the like. Quaint and small, rustic and left for dead it feels at times, it is a jewel. There are views that are unsurpassed and unrivaled anywhere. Unspoiled beaches, aging expats, and hearty locals, it's a mashup of everything. It is a rare and unpolished stone.

Video - Playa Sun Bay Beach, Esperanza, Puerto Rico

On Vieques there are two towns separated by 9 kilometers, Esperanza in the south and Isabel in the north. Isabel could be considered the commerce hub, as that is where the ferry and airport are located, as well as the "mercados" (supermarkets) that you can stock your Airbnb rental with, it is recommended that you do so. The two towns run on their own time, dedicated seemingly to when tourists are most available, and when the general population might frequent an establishment. It is not a bad thing, but it will take some getting used to. If you are used to getting anything, anytime you want, Vieques is not that place, consider this your warning.

Photo - Old Ceiba Tree, Vieques, Puerto Rico

Our Airbnb was located in the hills of the Destino neighborhood, facing south toward Esperanza. It was a modest structure, recently renovated and offered every necessary amenity. The road, or I should say the roads throughout the island are littered with potholes and horsesh*t. We invented a game called Horsesh*t or Pothole, trying to avoid each equally. If you are looking for free range animals, they are here. Horses and chickens roam freely everywhere, including the beaches and roadways, tread lightly to avoid them. The livestock or wildlife, call them what you want, are pretty used to vehicles going up and down the unpainted, yet narrow two lane highways. Like all things Puerto Rican, you get used to them or you don't, we decided on the former.

Photo - Playa Sun Bay Beach, Esperanza, Vieques

There are gorgeous beaches here, and they lack the crowds of the mainland. Depending on when you visit any of the many beaches in Vieques, you might have the entire beach to yourself, and it is not a soulless experience, as the beauty here resonates calm, charm and an ode to resolute splendor. Our favorite beaches were Las Caracas and Sun Bay Beach. While Las Caracas is free to the public, Sun Bay Beach Monday thru Saturday has an entrance fee of $2.00.

Las Caracas is a horseshoe shaped gem of a beach with calm waves, close to Esperanza. There are shaded areas, but best to bring an umbrella or chairs in case those select spaces are occupied. One additional matter that might take some getting used to, are the horses that are used to humans, and what humans bring to the beach...food. Much like a hungry canine, the curious equines have no problem searching out beach goers for food, especially those in the shaded pavilions. They rarely venture down to the beach proper. We witnessed horses rummaging through trash, personal belongings, literally tossing non food items aside. There were many flying flip-flops or backpacks on one day of our visit. Comical, yet semi-frightening as a thousand plus pound creature, begs, cajoles and on occasion, forcefully help themselves to your beach snacks. It was a kind of Orwellian experience, thank you George. Las Caracas, being part of the VIeques National Wildlife Reserve, shares its coastline with several other nearby beaches, should you explore further inland into the reserve.

Photo - Playa Las Caracas, Esperanza, Vieques

Sun Bay Beach lacks the equine drama, as most of the equine population sticks to being far off the beach, grazing as they want to do with their days. Sun Bay Beach is a wider, flatter beach than Las Caracas. There are no supporting vendors for beach chairs or umbrellas, so bring your own, or find one of the many shaded spots to relax, and relax you will. Calm waters reside here as well, with great views to the horizon, and a modest cliffside to the east. This is a sit down, do nothing place, if ever one could ever be imagined. Every breath here seems to count double, it is that picturesque, that tranquil, that beautiful.

Photo - La Playa Negra aka Black Sand Beach

La Playa Negra Beach is a little off the beaten path, sitting just west of Esperanza, but well worth the visit. Just south of Route 997, you will know you've arrived when you see the Playa Negra sign. Park on the right, and follow the winding trail, about 1/2 a mile, until it opens to an ocean view. Playa Negra consists of low rise cliffs, with a narrow beach corridor that seems to stretch out for just under a mile. There is, of course, the famed black sand of Playa Negra. It is a wonder to see, with a nice view of the beach and cliff line east and west. There are no amenities at Playa Negra, so you will have to trek your own refreshments, chairs, umbrellas, down the dirt, sand path to the beach, which thankfully is covered by flora, but it is still tropical hot. Once there, you and a pittance of other curiosity seekers will find a dark sand netherworld of natural wonder.

The Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. A grand misnomer if you will. Pinocchio's lying nose at length. Vieques has had a troubled history with the United States Navy. US Naval Operations used the island for military practice, war games, chemical and missile testing from the early 1900's up until 2003. Most of the area categorized as "Wildlife Refuge" is inadmissible to residents and visitors, due to possible unexploded ordnance, and whatever latent chemistry experiments that were conducted there. The Wildlife Refuge to the west cautions travelers to these areas, not to leave the marked trails or roadways. From our reading and speaking with locals, cancer rates on the island were running at 27% higher than the mainland. The United States government to this day, still denies this information or simply refuses to fully own it. Some areas are still classified as Superfund CleanUp Sites, due to the severe degradation employed by US Naval Operations. Depleted uranium, TNT and significant heavy metals were deployed here, and even today, still pose a health threat. To see the island in this context, in conjunction with the little support received from the US in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria, saddens me to no end. Like the heaviness of a dark plague on one's soul.

Photo - The Tin Box Restaurant, Vieques

In Vieques, we found our rhythm, our peace, our place to be, unfortunately it is shrouded in a backdrop of willful malfeasance.

Dining in Vieques, you will find your dining space, our space was the Coqui Fire Cafe. During our six day stay, we ate there three consecutive nights. Had we discovered it sooner, I can almost guarantee it would have been all six nights. A clever fusion of Puerto Rican and Mexican cuisine, this is your heaven, your peace, your reason for being. Delightful hosts, wait staff and bartenders, Coqui Fire Cafe is pure delight, pure fire. For me, it encapsulated, if not highlighted, our visit to Puerto Rico. I left here feeling happy every night. It got to a point where we simply asked the staff what we should have, yes we trusted them that much. The one appetizer we had every time we dined were the Cuban Tacos. You won't find better pulled pork taco in all of Puerto Rico. Time is taken, so is care, it is applied liberally, and it is exhibited in every bite of their offerings. Open from just 5 to 9pm Monday through Friday, you'd best make reservations.

Photo - A view, with a view, Esperanza, Vieques

Another place for good eats is the Tin Box. Just north of Esperanza, it is a funky, festive casual dining roadhouse, though much fancier than a roadhouse. From smoked meats to sushi, they have your cravings covered. The atmosphere is relaxed, seating a little tight, but all that disappears with the ample servings of delectable food and drink that come your way. Feels like fine island dining, and to a degree, it most certainly is. We had a table on the back side of the restaurant which overlooked the jungle, and their vegetable garden where they harvest all manner of goodness to be served directly to its patrons. The farm to table concept demonstrates its goodness when the food hits your table. You will leave the Tin Box with a full belly, and a smile on your face. Feels right.

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