Article written by Niels Chaneliere
This is part 1 of an epic 2 part story about Vieques Island, Puerto Rico…
It was mid-August, and after spending a few months apart, my girlfriend and I were looking for some quality R&R. She was in Paris, spending time with her family and travelling around Europe while I was in New York, living and working in Lower Manhattan for a menswear company in SOHO. Burnt out by the oppressive city life, we were looking for some tropical thalassotherapy.
We found some cheap tickets to Puerto Rico and a few weeks later, we were boarding to the Caribbean.
Torn between having an easygoing time and our sense of adventure, we mixed it up to incorporate a bit of both. We really struggle with all-inclusive vacations and like to travel at our own pace, avoiding crowds and groups at all costs.
Our idea of a vacation often starts around a conversation that gets us hyped up to go, so we sit around the computer for a few hours contemplating the possible options, tailoring our trip based on our preferences and budget, even though, most of the time we go over budget due to excitement and anticipation (also because I’m a serial spender once we’re on location).
We spent the first day of our trip visiting Old San Juan, walking through its cobblestone streets filled with colourful colonial buildings and impressive ocean-sweeping fortresses. You can definitely feel the strong Spanish influence that resides on the island, long after it became an unincorporated territory of the United States.
After an entire day of walking around, which is more than enough to get the vibe of San Juan and its cultural side, we went down to the local beach for a swim where we were staying in Condado.
You’re not on holiday until you’ve had a swim in the warm waters of your destination.
It’s one of the main city beaches of San Juan, so there was nothing exceedingly tropical and isolated about it. Tall apartment and hotel buildings line the thin strip of beach. The hordes of sunbeds and tourists follow suit.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast we headed to El Conquistador Resort located in Fajardo, a region on the Eastern side of the island. As we were in the taxi van, we couldn’t help but notice the uniqueness of Puerto Rico.
You’re in a tropically warm and humid destination, with relatively underdeveloped housing and villages (out of the city), yet you find yourself paying in US dollars, driving in American cars with all the big name fast food joints lining the streets. The contrast between the two worlds is omnipresent.
As we entered the grounds of the resort, we drove for about 10 minutes through a lavishly green golf course winding its way towards the top of a hill where the reception roundabout was located. This was our relaxing part of the trip, and what treatment we got!
It turns out that El Conquistador is a Waldorf Astoria resort (check out the Waldorf Astoria in New York on Google to get an idea). I had found discounted tickets through an online booking agent and it was just within our budget.
The resort is situated on the top of a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. As we walked on to the reception balcony, we were greeted with a terrace field of pools, palm trees and tropical jungle. Now this is what we’re talking about! The receptionist must’ve thought that we were getting married or something because she gave us a junior ocean view suite upgrade which we didn’t say no to.
We checked in to our now huge room overlooking the resort and the sea. First things first, we went for a walk around the premises to see what was going on. The resort is so big that there is a cable car that takes you down to the second part of it. With a total of 8 pools, a private island only a short catamaran ride away, a waterpark, tennis courts, fitness centre, golf course and a choice of over 6 restaurants to eat from.
There was everything we needed to disconnect from real life for a few days.
Sounds like a factory style resort coming and going with families and children everywhere, doesn’t it? I’m sure that during high season it must be, but to our surprise there were only a few guests, enough to make us feel like we weren’t the only ones there and few enough for us to have intimacy and not feel like just a number.
The only thing that we had not anticipated was that the resort was a 20-minute drive away from the closest village, which meant that we ended up eating and drinking from the various restaurants and bars of the resort, which were nice, but the total over four days was quite pricey.
The days that followed were spent relaxing on Palomino island, the resort’s private island, a 25-minute boat ride off the coast. It’s the water sports playground of the area.
We snorkelled in turquoise waters, swam with turtles, schools of fish, jet skied out into the open waters and sunbathed while drinking cocktails in the sun. We spotted a sandbank about 500 meters off the island that was popping out of the water and snorkelled there.
It’s an incredible feeling being alone on a 100 metre square sandbank in the middle of the ocean surrounded by shades of blue, sun and without a soul in sight except for the one person you love spending time with.
Puerto Rico is home to the only tropical rainforest in the United States, El Yunque National Forest. We met a local guy who was hanging around the reception who offered to drive us up to the rainforest. We agreed on a set price for the afternoon (best practice to avoid unpleasant and sometimes heated conversations at the end of a day trip) and he drove us up to the top of the rainforest.
He explained that all the paths ended up at the same spot further down the mountain. He would wait for us there while we spent the afternoon cruising amongst the humid and muddy paths of the rainforest.
It was gloomy and it rained on and off the whole afternoon. We strayed off the path at one point and followed a small river, hiking over the rocks, up and over the trees and found ourselves in a hidden natural pool with a little waterfall. Mathilde and I stopped off and had a swim in the very cool waters of the pool surrounded by the crashing waterfall noises with a backdrop melody of birds chirping.
It was quite incredible to be to be so deep in the rainforest considering that in the morning we were having breakfast by the pool in the sun.
Our stay in El Conquistador definitely slowed down time and allowed us to sit back, relax and spend some well-deserved time together. At that point, we were just over half way through the trip, and the next morning, we headed off to Ceiba to catch a tiny plane over to the island of Vieques.
Vieques is a small island off the East side of Puerto Rico that is accessible by boat or small plane from a tiny airport next to the town of Ceiba. Flights to the island were only $35 each way, which is very reasonable. We arrived at this tiny airfield mid-morning and ‘checked-in’ at the only desk there.
There was no security check, luggage drop or gate, just a big room with glass-paned windows looking out to a big stretch of asphalt.
There were only 5 other people waiting in the room with us, and none of them seemed to be on holiday. Two women were environmental conservationists going on a mission to the island and the others were locals traveling solo with only a backpack. Just before boarding we were weighed (yes us, not our luggage) so that the weight distribution in the plane would be equal.
It’s at this point we started realising that the tiny plane sitting on the runway in front of us was the one we were getting on.
As we walked out onto the tarmac, the pilot was smoking a cigarette next to the plane and greeted us. Like in a car, we literally threw our stuff in the back and were told to sit on the back seat. There were only 2 seats per row and 4 rows in total. Definitely the smallest plane I had ever been on.
Fifteen minutes later, we landed on Vieques island and hitched a ride from a local. A small house in the mountains with a private room that over-looked a horse enclosure was going to be our base for the next few days. As we looked at a map of Vieques to see how it was set up, we noticed that half of the island was a National Wildlife Refuge.
There are only two towns on the island, Isabel II, the main town and Esperanza, a cozy little village on the other side of the island. That afternoon we took a taxi to Esperanza which went through the mountains in the middle of the island. This was what we were looking for, raw and undeveloped island life.
The taxi was quite pricey and there was no way we were going to be taking taxis around for 3 days. We met a guy in Esperanza that hooked us up with a moped for a few days. As we talked with him, we asked about the wildlife refuge areas and he told us that it was strictly off limits and that guards patrolled the entire area.
He also warned us that trespassers get prosecuted.
Thinking nothing of it, we also asked him about the other side of the island that seemed to have bunkers in the dense rainforest. His response was brief (yes) and he moved on to something else straight away. I asked him what the bunkers were there for and he avoided the question and didn’t want to talk about it. Regardless, we now had the independence to roam the island as we wished.
We had some food at Duffy’s in Esperanza on their outside patio facing the ocean and headed towards Puerto Mosquito…
Want to find out how this island paradise and the locals who live there were left to deal with something they never asked for? Click here to read part 2 of this travel story.