Esperanza – Vieques, Puerto Rico
Lying just a boat ride jaunt from the eastern Puerto Rican mainland can be found a slice of Caribbean perfection known as Vieques. Extra-special in every way, this small tropical jewel will have instant appeal to all those who want to leave the hustle and bustle of 21st century living far behind and swap it for 55 square miles of stunning beaches and natural beauty. This is an island that mass tourism has yet to touch, where life is slow and tranquil along its dirt roads and where paso fino horses roam the landscape, often with an elegant white egret perched upon their backs.
It was the Spanish who claimed Vieques for their own a few centuries ago although they all but ignored it, only taking an interest if some other colonial power of the time looked as if they might have their own sights set on it. As a result Vieques became something of an enclave for camped out pirates and outlaws and much later in its history –in the 1940s –it became a military base for the US which only ceased to be the case in 2003 after a series of protests.
Such a history has left a patchwork of historical sites to explore which include forts, crumbling sugar mill ruins, military bunkers and lighthouses –one of which is the site where 4,000 year old human remains were discovered some years ago. Explore the small but fascinating museums or take a tour of some of these sites which give a window onto the island’s bygone days including the brutal practice of slavery.
While man-made landmarks and historical leftovers make up part of the things to see and do on Vieques it is really Mother Nature who is the star of the show here, with any number of beaches where the only footprints weaving their way across the white sands will be your own and some stunning natural flora and fauna to discover. Get among this magnificence in a variety of ways ranging from snorkeling to sailing and hiking to horse riding but no matter how you decide to spend your hours on this back-to-nature and enchanting island make sure you leave time to experience Vieques most dazzling jewel –its incredible bioluminescent bay.
A Morning in and Around Esperanza
Begin your island adventures with a journey into the colonial past at the Condin Fort with its breathtaking views or a wander around the evocative ruins of a sugar mill from the 1800s. After a break for coffee you can head off again to take in one of the island’s small but excellent museums.
Fortin Conde de Mirasol
Although Mother Nature and the glorious beaches are the best known stars of the Vieques show there are some wonderful historical leftovers dotted around which will help you get to know various elements of the island’s past. One of these is the remains of a fort constructed in 1845 which perches above the town of Isabel II and which, although never finished, represents one of the last Spanish military fortifications built on this continent.
Along with Puerto Rico, Vieques was claimed by the Spanish but had little to maintain their interest and as a result the island was never notably colonized. However, as disregarded as this Caribbean prize was for the Spaniards they did strive to defend it from other colonizing powers at the time such as the English and French and raised forts in order to repel any attacks.
Today, this small-scale colonial military leftover’s outer walls are still partially intact and home to a few period cannons but it is really the dazzling views from here which steal the scene. Below you is the color-splashed town of Isabel II while the sweeping panoramas also take in swathes of tropical green, the vivid blues of the ocean and Puerto Rico to the north-east.
At the site’s center is a restored building which houses a history museum and a lovely art gallery which are both small but well curated and definitely worth giving a little time to, especially as they are free. The interior is also home to a charming little gift shop which you might want to visit if you are looking for island souvenirs.
The Sugar Mill Ruins
If you want to stay closer to Esperanza just west along the coast from here can be found another set of historical ruins, this time of a 19th century sugar mill. Gradually being reclaimed by the jungle, this collection of crumbling structures, rusting machinery and a staircase which leads into space are especially atmospheric. A working mill until the US Navy claimed the island in the 1940s, today you can wander these half vine-strangled leftovers from the past on your own or take a guided tour with the Vieques Conservation & Historical Trust.
Morning Coffee on Vieques
Isabel II and Esperanza are the island’s two biggest settlements and depending on whether you decided to start your morning with the fort or the sugar mill ruins you will be conveniently near to one or other of these when it’s time for a coffee break.
One Isabel II choice is the lovely Rising Roost which besides its other attractions has a full espresso menu and is often said to serve the best coffee on the island. This chilled little place has some tables out front on its wooden deck set behind its pink stone balustrade but to tuck yourself away head out back. Here you will find a sprinkling of patio tables along with a charming little cubby-hole filled with cushion-scattered sofas and chairs. Screened off on three sides by material drapes this is a cool and shady little hideaway in which to enjoy your latte or one of the Rising Roost’s wonderful fresh juices, another thing for which this cafe is known for.
There is also a charming little gift shop attached to this cafe choice which you will definitely want to browse if you are on the lookout for gifts and Vieques souvenirs.
For an ocean-side beach-bar choice you can head to Lazy Jacks located on the lovely Malecon in Esperanza. Brightly decorated and infused with the whole laid-back tropical island-living vibe, this open-sided all-day spot is sleepy during the day and a lively cocktail option after dark. Attached to Lazy Jacks is the Window Cafe and after you’ve ordered up your coffee (there is even a rum-infused option for those who might want to put a kick in their morning) you can relax in the lounge area to people watch, take a seat at one of the barrel tables or simply prop yourself on a high stool at the bar.
With coffee break over and provided you haven’t overindulged on Lazy Jacks rum coffee you can now head off again to explore some further Vieques highlights. The options here are the small but wonderful Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust Museum or some rewarding views from the island’s picturesque north coast lighthouse.
Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust Museum
Less than 200m from the Lazy Jack’s beach bar on the Malecon can be found one of the island’s must-visit places -the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust Museum. This gem of a museum is small so it won’t take you long to explore but has a range of exhibits both interesting and educational covering a diversity of subjects. During your visit you can learn about Vieques first indigenous people, the wildlife, the intriguing cultural elements of yesterday and today and in the Biobay room understand why the island’s bioluminescent bay has such global significance. It was in fact to protect and conserve this exceptionally special natural phenomenon that the non-profit trust was first founded back in the 1980s and such a mission continues today to be one of its guiding principles, along with its educational and research elements.
Also on site is an art gallery, a garden, a gift store and outside a line of saltwater aquarium tanks. This latter typically house a collection of fascinating marine creatures which are returned to their natural ocean environment after a week or two.
The Punta Mulas Lighthouse and Museum
Just over 1km north of the fort at which you may have started your day and a few minutes’ walk from Isabel II’s center can be found one of the island’s historic lighthouses. This particular square-shaped building which dates from the late 1800s has been beautifully restored and gazes down at Isabel II from its rock perch beyond the town’s ferry dock.
Free to visit, this small squat landmark houses a tiny maritime-themed history museum which you may be lucky enough to find open. If your visit doesn’t happen to coincide with the erratic opening hours you can still enjoy some incredible views from this elevated spot which allows you to take in the colored palette of Isabel II, the island’s northern coast and the brightly-painted fishing boats bobbing in the bay. Ona clear day you will also be able to make out the main island of Puerto Rico off to the north-west.
Vieques also has another lighthouse of around the same age and design as Punta Mulas although this one is in ruins and located on the south coast. It was close to here that a 4,000 year old skeleton was unearthed, known to islanders as the Puerto Ferro man, and whose remains can today be seen in Puerto Rico’s San Juan museum. One of the most exciting ways to visit this atmospheric ruin is by kayak from Tres Palmitas Bay where guided tours first take you through the Mosquito Bay mangroves before venturing into open ocean and the lighthouse site.
Lunch in and Around Esperanza and Vieques
Vieques is a compact little island which can be driven from end to end in 30 minutes or less. The major bonus of this is that nowhere is out of reach so when it comes to lunch spots you have the whole island to choose from. Not surprisingly the greatest density of options are clustered around its two towns –Isabel II on the north coast and Esperanza on the island’s southern edge.
Should you have your heart set on an ocean-front lunch you will find a string of choices in Esperanza, all dotted along the lovely Calle Flamboyan which is more commonly referred to as the Malecon. One of the choices on this Caribbean-lapped strip is Duffy’s, a popular mingling spot with locals who gather to share beers and plates of seafood. With such a location breathtaking sea views are a given at this laid-back venue and the open-sided spacious deck gives you plenty of room to enjoy them from.
The menu here –both set and with daily specials –is an eclectic one of upscale bar fare with plenty of options for seafood fans such as crab cakes, calamari, fish tacos and some incredible fisherman’splatters. Other possibilities are burgers, wraps, salads and chicken wings and Duffy’s has a great range of bottled craft beers and cocktails for those who enjoy their drinks a little stronger than tropical juices at lunchtime.
Should you want to sample some authentic Puerto Rican cuisine and lunch as many of the locals do head to one of the island’s incredible food trucks for a feast. The parking lot at the end of the Malecon has one choice but arguably the best on the island can be found a couple of kilometers south of Isabel II just off the main road which runs along the northern coast. Rincon del Sabor has been described by many who have been here as the best criolla food on Vieques and its traditional mofongo and trifongo tend to get rave reviews. Otherwise your wide range of menu choices include such delights as octopus or conch salad, grilled salmon, a range of wraps and feast-like platters with a mixture of chicken, pork, shrimp and fish. To wash it all down Rincon del Sabor has some wonderful tropical smoothies too. Once you’ve ordered and collected your food you can head to one of the wooden bench seats to enjoy it in the cool of the palm-thatch shades.
An Afternoon In and Around Esperanza and Vieques
There are a variety of ways to explore Vieques beautiful coast and get into its crystal waters ranging from kayaking and stand up paddle-boarding which skirt the gorgeous bays and coves to fishing charters and boat tours which take you far from shore.
Snorkeling the Coral Gardens
One of the most accessible and popular choices on the island’s water activities menu is snorkeling with a range of hot-spot sites, some of them possible to explore directly from the beach such as at Punta Arenas.
Snorkel and mask rental are available from several outfits for those who choose to do things independently but there are also operators who offer snorkel tours which have a number of benefits over going it alone. Tour choices are ideal for both those who are less confident in the water as well as those who want to explore what lives beneath the surface at sites only accessible by boat. A further advantage of snorkeling with a guide is that you can learn some fascinating facts about the reef systems as well as the creatures that inhabit them, an element which can significantly enrich your experience.
Whether you choose to go solo or with a knowledgeable guide the underwater Vieques world is nothing short of spectacular with rich coral gardens sprouting fragile sea fans and alien-like brain corals. Literally teeming with life, these multi-colored environments are inhabited by vast quantities of magnificently-hued and patterned tropical fish while other possible sightings include turtles, manatees, rays and even dolphins.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Esperanza and Vieques
Sipping on pina coladas with dazzling sunset views and dining at some idyllically tropical restaurants are what await you on sleepy back-to-nature Vieques. Open-air venues are plentiful here for those who enjoy cooling breezes with their cocktails or eating alfresco, with both Esperanza and Isabel II the two island hot-spots for bars and restaurants.
While cuisine type, price range and ambiance all differ considerably there are some standard inclusions almost anywhere you go and these are some amazing varieties of rum punch and an abundance of succulent seafood.
There are a number of Vieques watering holes which can give you that idyllic Caribbean combination of cocktails and epic sunsets at the beach, one of which is Isabel II’s Saint Voodoo’s Mar Azul.
Describing itself as the ‘best little dive bar in the Caribbean’, Saint Voodoo’s is one for those who prefer the laid-back island living atmosphere of a rustic, tiki-like place to that of a slick cocktail bar. The surroundings might be wonderfully relaxed but there is no compromise made on the quality of the drinks. Order up a rum-based Painkiller or pina colada –both are excellent here –or try one of the bar’s very own concoctions for a whole new experience. What’s more, the daily happy hours mean you can try a variety without breaking the bank.
Once you have your favored drink in hand you are perfectly placed to bask in the glow of an island sunset with views over the Caribbean and the small ferry dock from the lovely upper wooden deck at the back of the bar.
For perhaps the best sinking-sun views of all sign up for one of Vieques ultra-special sunset cruises which typically take care of pre-dinner drinks (which can be anything from rum punches to champagne cocktails), dinner and incredible views all at the same time. From catamarans to sailboats which tranquilly drift beneath the multi-streaked skies under canvas, getting out on the water for sunset immediately gives an air of romance to any sundowners making this the ideal way to spend an evening with someone special.
If tucking into seafood feasts in the open-air beneath a star-studded Caribbean sky sounds like your ideal dining experience then Vieques is going to feel like heaven. This kind of restaurant choice is not hard to find and although the bounty of the sea tends to be the focus of many menus it isn’t all you will find here either. For those who prefer to tap into the easy-island living vibe Esperanza’s Malecon-located beach-front Bananas is as idyllic as you can find anywhere on the island. This airy timber-built venue has a beautiful upper deck speckled with fairy lights which gives directly onto ocean views as far as the eye can see. The menu here is large so you’ll have time toorder up a pina colada or mojito as you peruse your options of everything from lobster bisque to burgers and chicken pasta to steaks. If you can tear your eyes away from the glorious sunset you will be able to watch the restaurant’s chefs cooking up your food in the open kitchen too.
Vieques also has options for those who like their dining to be a more elegant affair with the well-respected El Quenepo leading the choices here. Located on the water-front Malecon in Esperanza, the linen-dressed tables, gorgeous decor and mood-lighting all offer a touch of class but despite such things El Quenepo is refreshingly free of the pretension which can often accompany similar fine-dining experiences elsewhere. Said by many to be the island’s most romantic restaurant, El Quenepo’s open arches allow a continuous sea breeze through while the upstairs balcony gives you a further choice of seating.
While both the setting and the expertise of the husband and wife ex-pat team which run things add elements of quality it is the delectable menu which steals the scene. Seafood specials based around the freshest catch of the day tend to be a highlight with the spiny lobster and tuna the in-house signature dishes. Utilizing island herbs, plants and fruits, the dishes here give some amazingly creative twists on some traditional food such as with the shrimp and lobster stuffed mofongo with criolla salsa while the excellent wine list allows you to make some perfect pairings.
An Evening in Esperanza and Vieques
If you need nothing more in your evening than a perfectly mixed cocktail in hand then the island’s collection of rustic beach bars, drinking decks and town watering holes will be able to give you just that. Some of these venues also offer music and entertainment on a regular basis such as the Esperanza waterfront’s Lazy Jack’s where most nights of the week there is something going on.Alternatively you can simply stroll the beautiful Malecon in Esperanza whose paved walkway fronted by elegant stone balustrades and studded with coconut palms, bars and restaurants makes for a lovely way to work off any dining indulgences.
However, Vieques has one truly extra-special reward for those who are here after dark –the amazing Mosquito Bay which is so spectacular it ranks as the ultimate island highlight for many. This mangrove area is recognized as one of the planet’s brightest bioluminescent bays and should you have the opportunity to visit this spot it is certain it will stay forever indelibly carved in your memory.
Although rare there are other places in the world which have bioluminescence present in their waters but the exceptionally large quantity of dinoflagellates –the micro-organisms which create this glow-in-the-dark phenomenon –found in the Vieques waters make this particular location one of the most dazzling sights of its kind anywhere on Earth.
One of the best ways to view this magical light show is by kayak which not only allows you to place yourself completely amid the natural extravaganza but lets you experience it in the most complete way. If these waters are still they will appear just as any other body of water in the dark but once agitated and stirred they emanate an astonishingly beautiful and other-worldly blue glow and the movement of kayak paddles in the water is just the kind of thing needed to set it all off. Ready to have the experience of your life in Esperanza? Get in touch with one of our vacation planners today and find the right cruise to Esperanza for you!