The thrill of traversing the peaks and valleys of Culebra came to an abrupt halt when we found ourselves teetering at the top of a hill above a pristine beach called Playa Zoni. Ahead of us was a long, nearly 45-degree slope covered in massive potholes. Snippets of conversation came back to us as we recalled islanders debating whether we could make it down the hill safely in our rented car. "Park at the top and hike down," one had said. "No problem," said another. With pounding hearts, we recklessly took the latter advice, slipping and bumping down the hill. What a way to spend the first day of a vacation.
Indeed, the beach made me almost forget the adrenaline rush I'd just gotten. To our backs were palm trees and low bushes. In front was the crystal clear sea, gentle waves rolling in on soft, clean sand. The water turned out to be the temperature of a bath, and we floated languorously all afternoon.
When a neighbor asked if my husband, Paul, and I had ever been to Culebra, a tiny island 18 miles east of Puerto Rico, I responded, "Cu-what?" I had never heard of it, but it seemed like the kind of place we'd like. We had talked about visiting Puerto Rico, but our real goal was to find a smaller island with a laid-back atmosphere and an abundance of natural attractions. Our main agenda was snorkeling, and reading about Culebra revealed that there was plenty of it. I discovered that a large portion of the island is a national wildlife refuge protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Natural Resources.
Culebra, about 4 by 7 miles, is one of a chain often referred to as the "Spanish Virgin Islands," though technically it is part of the Greater Antilles and is U.S. territory. Several smaller islands surround Culebra, and St. Thomas is just 12 miles away.
En route last April, we practiced Spanish on the plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico. When we got off the ferry the next day in Dewey, Culebra's main town, we were met by Dick Schultz, our car rental agent. He had a long mustache and the laid-back attitude of a surfer, and he showed up in a bright orange Volkswagen Thing.
These vehicles from the 1970s consist of a roofless metal box with doors, huge tires and a powerful clutch. When I'd told Schultz over the phone, "I want your cheapest thing," I had no idea he'd interpret me literally. At first we had our doubts about the Thing, but it proved indispensable on Culebra's rolling terrain, taking steep potholed roads in stride.
Schultz took us on a tour of the island, acquainting us with the narrow, hilly streets and rambling off a list of instructions about the eccentricities and legalities of parking on the island. We were sternly advised to always wear our seat belts, because island police ticket people who don't. Men who drive around shirtless also get ticketed.
Then we had a chance to explore Dewey. It didn't take long. There's a tourism office, a liquor store, a few restaurants, a dive shop, a few other shops and hotels. We walked the zigzagging hillside streets, listening to crowing roosters and congregations of islanders singing and clapping in the churches.
About 2,000 people make their home on Culebra, many of them finding work in the construction and tourism industries. The island has fewer than 20 hotels and resorts, ranging from about $60 per night to $130. Prices are highest from December through April.
Another day, another beach
Tourists like us come for the beaches, which are unspoiled for the most part. On our second day on the island, we took the half-mile hike to Carlos Rosario Beach, known for its expansive reef. We walked the muddy path through the woods, exiting on the small beach. After a 20-minute siesta on the sand, we headed into the water. By this time the wind had picked up slightly and the water was a little choppy, but it didn't look like anything we couldn't manage. We were wrong.
The reef here is spectacular, but we weren't able to enjoy it because, as the wind kicked up, so did the current, pushing us between two huge columns of coral. We managed to escape unscathed, but we'd learned an important lesson: Go with a dive shop on your first outing. They know the best places for beginners to dive and snorkel, and how weather conditions will affect the area.
We made the most of the situation by taking a short walk to the next beach, Tamarindo. Unlike Carlos Rosario, this much narrower strip of sand is almost entirely sheltered on both sides by low hills. There was no wind, and the reef was much closer to shore. The only people on the beach were a couple from Brooklyn we'd met the night before during dinner at a cafe in Dewey. The four of us went into the water and were stunned by what we saw: huge, round brain coral; multicolored parrotfish; purple fan coral waving in the slight current; spiny sea urchins and more.
Back on the beach, I screamed when I saw what looked like arms and legs scampering all over my towel. A large orange crab was examining our things, and several others skittered into holes in the sand as we approached. The one casing my towel let me take its picture, its black, probing eyes peering up at me.
A front moved in the next day, and the weather became windy. So we cased the island in our Thing, hopping from beach to beach. We investigated Playa Flamenco, named one of the best beaches in America by the Travel Channel. We found it so windy we felt we'd been pummeled by the time we left. This broad white beach is one of Culebra's prizes when the weather cooperates. The Caribbean -- now crashing on the sand -- normally laps the shore in bath-like ripples.
That night we dined at the Oasis, an Italian restaurant in Dewey, with Rico Rossy, the owner of Villa Boheme, the comfortable guesthouse where we were staying. Rossy, a native Puerto Rican, is now retired from his stint as a baseball player for the Seattle Mariners. We spent the evening sharing stories with Rossy and other tourists over pizza and beer. Much of the food has strong Creole influences. Since the island has no agriculture, vegetables are sometimes scarce on menus.
The weather that night was formidable, with rain and strong winds. As I lay in bed feeling like Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz," I wondered what would become of the rest of our vacation. I later found out that Ensenada Honda Bay, where Villa Boheme is located, is considered one of the Caribbean's safest bays. Legend has it that some of history's most infamous pirates hid their ships here. None of the locals batted an eyelash the next day at what we thought had been pretty radical weather.
Wildlife refuge beckons
Although the wind was still whipping the island, we spent the next morning at Playa Melones, another sheltered beach that fooled us into thinking the weather wasn't so bad after all. We snorkeled again with the usual gang and collected some of the most unusual shells I'd ever seen. But as I soaked up the sun, my mind wandered and I began to think about visiting Culebrita, an out island about 15 minutes away by boat.
Rossy was more than willing to accommodate us in his mid-size powerboat, but he warned us that it was going to be a "rough" ride. Had we known what "rough" meant, I'm not sure we would have attempted the trip. Even as we were slamming down on the water on our way to the island, we could see huge breakers on the horizon. Foolhardiness aside, Culebrita was one of the highlights of our trip. This uninhabited island is part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge.
Rossy anchored in a calm spot so we could snorkel. Paul and I hiked through brush to the other side of the island to search for a tide pool we'd heard about. When we arrived, we were rewarded by a crescent beach of extraordinary beauty. We could see the tide pool less than half a mile down the sand. Though protected by boulders, it was being pounded mercilessly by the restless Caribbean. But its sheer beauty erased any disappointment about the less-than-favorable snorkeling conditions. The only other sign of activity we saw on the island was one sailboat, waiting out the front in a sheltered bay.
When we returned to Culebra that night, we found a note (leaving them is a popular pastime on the island) in our Thing. It was from Schultz, instructing us to leave the car at the airport with the keys in it. We were going to miss this place.
Rather than test the choppy water by returning to Puerto Rico on the ferry, we left the next day in a small plane from Culebra's tiny Benjamin Rivera Noriega Airport. The whine of the six-passenger plane's propeller made us feel like Indiana Jones and his sidekick taking whatever transportation they could get on their rush to the next adventure. I looked down at Culebra, a green jewel rimmed in white, floating in a vast blue sea. It was an adventure I'm happy I didn't miss.
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