Article written by Niels Chaneliere
A 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…
Vieques is known for its unique attraction, Mosquito Bay, otherwise known as the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay.
For those who don’t know what a bioluminescent bay is, it is an ultra-rare and fragile ecosystem in which microscopic single cell organisms called Dinoflagellates (let’s call them Dinos) thrive in the water. When the Dinos are agitated by an external force, they release energy in the form of a bright blue light. In other words, anything that comes into contact with the Dinos makes them glow.
Mosquito Bay is the world’s brightest and most dense bioluminescent bay in the world due to its special characteristics. The very narrow opening to the sea protects the bay from winds, waves and tides, allowing the Dinos to thrive in the calmest of waters. The mangroves surrounding the bay provide a consistent source of nutrients to feed the organisms and the fact that for once, humans (yes, us!) are protecting the area allows this phenomenon to maintain itself. No boats are allowed in the bay and the dense mangrove prevents public access to the area.
Since the bay is protected, the only way to visit it is through a guided tour. One of the guys working at Duffy’s recommended we go with Abe’s Biobay Tour because of the laid-back nature of the tour.
We got to the meeting spot at nightfall and there were about 10 people waiting there. We had already noticed since our arrival that the island was full of free roaming horses everywhere. On the side of the road, on the beaches, in the parking lots and in the small streets of the town. Abe himself was the tour guide and as he was explaining the procedures for the tour we were about to start, 2 horses in the grass beside the parking lot started fighting aggressively.
We watched for about 10 minutes until all the horses ran away. He explained to us that all the wild horses we see on the island are all owned by someone. Vieques horses have ‘free range rights’ and the owners let them roam free to graze in the wild. I still don’t know how the owner finds his horse when he needs it, considering that the island has an area of 350km2, but I guess that doesn’t seem to be an issue for them.
We hopped on a minibus and drove for about 20 minutes along a rugged and bumpy dirt road up to the bay’s edge. It was pitch black upon arrival and Abe sorted us out with a 2-person kayak.
Over the next 2 hours, we kayaked through the mangroves and into the middle of the bay, each paddle stroke lighting up the water a bright blue tone. It was surreal to watch the water glow as the kayaks moved. Abe was a real charismatic and funny guy, making jokes and giving us some history about the place. For a guided tour (which I’m not a big fan of), it was relaxing and entertaining at the same time.
At one point, everyone stayed still in the blissful silence while gazing at the universe of stars that was above our head. Just after, a huge stingray glided underneath our kayak, lighting up the waters in an instant flash, literally highlighting the form of the stingray that was about 2 meters deep.
As we were driving back from the bay on the dirt road, Abe suddenly stopped the minibus and jumped out and went running into a bush. Surprised and unsure of what was going on, he returned a few minutes later with a huge crab in his hands. High on the adrenaline of his catch, he says ‘dinner for tonight!’. We all laughed at the randomness of what had just happened as he threw the live, raw crab into the glove box.
The next morning, we woke up to the sounds of horses neighing in the paddock in front of the house.
We had a light breakfast with the woman who owns the house while she told us a little bit about her story and some of the island’s history. There are only 9000 residents on the island year-round, making it a small and local population. She explained that in the 1940’s, the United States purchased two thirds of the island for military operations, forcing the local citizens to move to the centre part of the island. Those areas are now today’s wildlife refuge areas.
It was a windy and rainy day, as dark and heavy clouds filled the sky. Regardless, we slapped on our ponchos and headed off to the far Western side of the island.
We arrived at Mosquito Pier, a mile-long pier with a road all the way to the to the end of it. While driving, we did not come across anybody, no cars, no people, just abandoned and spooky infrastructure.
At the tip of the pier, there was an old run-down ship terminal, that looked like it had not been used in over 15 years. As you look behind, a breathtaking view of the rugged coastline of the island becomes visible.
There are no buildings, no hotels and no man-made structures visible to the eye.
The entire atmosphere with the dark grey clouds transformed the clear blue waters into a murky abyss, uninviting and gloomy. It felt like we were the only people on the island discovering a once inhabited and used place that was no more, piecing together the puzzle of what once went on in the past.
We drove deeper into the jungle, searching for the bunkers. The roads became smaller, thinner and overgrown by the thick layer of forest beneath the canopy. The occasional horse was seen grazing on the side of the road.
Finally, out of nowhere, we came across the hidden bunkers. They have been incorporated into the ground, with the forest growing over them. Once again, an eerie vibe took over with all these concrete military structures that had been left abandoned for years.
For kilometres, there are a whole line of bunkers, some of them open and some of them closed. We stopped at an open bunker, and it was full of computer screens and office debris. On the ground, there were literally thousands of shotgun casings scattered everywhere. We spent the entire afternoon driving alone in these winding roads, stopping at different types of bunkers, spotting hidden underground ones with their chimneys popping out of the ground. It definitely looked like there was a big hidden operation going on here in the past.
You could distinguish the power station from the office spaces and the different storage spaces. It looked like the map of a World War II video game. The roads didn’t seem to end, and neither did the bunkers. After a few hours of visiting all the open bunkers we could, we got low on fuel, and since we were alone, without a phone and many kilometres away from the closest town, we made our way back to Isabel II.
That evening, we returned to Esperanza for dinner. We had so many questions from that afternoon. Why were the bunkers there? What were they used for? What are all the used ammunition shells and casings on the ground? Why is the pier that long and abandoned? Why did the guy who rented us the moped not want to talk about the story behind the bunkers? Why are they so strict about the wildlife regeneration area?
Back at Duffy’s, Sam (the guy we met 2 days before) had just finished his shift and hung out for a bit with us at our table. We started chatting and talking about what we had seen during the day. Sam is a Vieques local who gave us the low down on everything to piece the puzzle together.
So as mentioned earlier, two thirds of Vieques was purchased by the US Military in the 1940’s. On one side of the island, the Marine Corps occupied the island for training purposes and on the other side, the US Navy occupied the Western end as an ammunition depot and secret base in the Caribbean.
This was a strategic move as the US entered WWII. The bunkers were built so deep inland so that any plane flying over the island would only see dense forest. This is where Mosquito Pier comes in.
The US created the secret base in the 1940’s. The original plan was to build a pier/breakwater wall connecting Vieques to the Porto Rican mainland, making it one of America’s biggest offshore naval bases.
Midway through its construction, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour led the Navy to abandon this plan (to avoid having all ships in the same spot). When the Second World War finished, the military and navy continued to use and store their armaments and weapons in the bunkers on the island.
For the next 60 years, Vieques became a testing ground for new weapons, bombs and missiles.
This destroyed not only the ecology but the local communities living on the island. Today, 30% of the population suffers from cancer or serious illnesses due to the extremely high levels of uranium, mercury and lead still present on Vieques. So, what any innocent tourist may believe is a wildlife regeneration area, is actually, and still up to today, a dangerous minefield with unexploded bombs and dangerous debris lying around. This is why they are so strict about not entering the area. Pellets, casings and old rusted weapons cover the ground.
Sam continued to explain that after intense protests in the late 1990’s that got international coverage, George W. Bush signed a treaty in 2001 with the Porto Rican Governor to withdraw the military by 2003. In 2003, the military and navy left the island leaving behind a trail of destruction and contamination. The occupied land was handed over to the U.S. National Fish & Wildlife Service who have since then been conducting a huge cleanup operation, funded by the US Navy.
Today, 15 years after leaving Vieques Island, locals still have a bitter taste about the last 80 years and the mark it has left on their precious piece of land that they call home. Everything now made sense.
On our last day, we sunbathed and swam at a local beach called Playa Caracas, enjoying the last of our days in the sun, away from the world, on this beautiful island with a shady history. One last time, the turquoise water and sun kissed our tanned skin before we returned to reality.
The next morning was rush hour as we got the woman from the house to drop us off at the airport at 7 in the morning. We then had to fly back over to Ceiba, then catch a transfer (1h30mins) in time for our 11.30am flight in San Juan.