Vieques: playing Crusoe

For decades, the tiny island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico’s east coast, was known to outsiders — if at all — as a controversial US Navy base. But since the withdrawl of the military eleven years ago, Vieques’s gorgeous beaches and tranquil pace have attracted visitors in search of the “unspoiled.” Philip Sander finds out why

Playa Caracas, also known as Red Beach, was inaccessible to locals and visitors during the decades when Vieques was a US Navy base. Photograph ©ISTOCK.COM/JRROMANThe Malecón in Esperanza, centre of the island’s tourist activity. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe rolling landscape of Vieques still contains relatively few hotels and other tourism infrastructure. Photograph ©ISTOCK.COM/JRROMANThe lighthouse at Punta Mulas is a landmark in Isabel Segunda, capital of Vieques. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe sunset view from the Malecón in Esperanza. Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin

“And you, sir, how much do you weigh?” The agent at the check-in counter looked up from her paperwork and gave me an assessing stare.

Not exactly a question for polite company, but I’d flown on enough small planes before to understand the drill. The ground crew needed to know the combined weight of the six passengers and their luggage to calculate the fuel for our short flight.

Half an hour later, crammed into the small cabin, we were taxing down the runway. One passenger, clearly no fan of air travel in a minibus-size plane, had his eyes squeezed shut. Another was cracking the kinds of jokes guaranteed not to reassure the nervous. The pilot, who’d probably seen and heard it all before, delivered his safety briefing in crisp English and crisper Spanish, and we lifted off from Puerto Rican soil.

There was barely time to enjoy the view of the coast before we were descending towards Vieques, eight miles off Puerto Rico’s easternmost tip. Soon I was in a taxi crossing the island’s spine of low, scrubby hills, heading for Esperanza on the southern coast. The small town, with its one main road, a handful of modest hotels and guesthouses, and half a dozen restaurants, is the equivalent in Vieques of tourist central, but by the standards of most Caribbean tourist islands — like nearby St Croix or St Thomas — it’s positively sleepy.

It was getting to sunset hour as I set off for a first exploratory stroll along Esperanza’s Malecón, the promenade built along the town beach, its concrete arches and balustrade painted a faded yellow. The sea was the approved shades of paradise blue, the beach was occupied mostly by fishermen, and a long concrete jetty pointed out to two uninhabited islets sheltering the bay. Bearings now in place, I turned back at the jetty in search of a sundowner beverage with a view.

Vieques, the tourist guides helpfully explain, takes its name from a Taíno word meaning “small island.” And so it is: twenty-one miles long by four wide. In a much earlier age, it was a stepping-stone in the human colonisation of the Antilles from South America — the remains of “El Hombre de Puerto Ferro,” found at an archaeological site on the island, have been dated to 1900 BC. Historians debate whether Columbus himself spotted Vieques when he sailed past Puerto Rico in 1493, but in any case the island was claimed by Spain in the colonial land-grab.

For three centuries, the Spanish declined to settle Vieques, though pushing off attempts by other European powers: the English, French, and Danish all tried at one time or another, as did the ill-fated Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, the Scots’ own try at having a colonial empire. (Try to imagine a Vieques tartan.) In the early nineteenth century, the authorities in nearby Puerto Rico finally decided to take charge of the island. A governor was appointed, the small town of Isabel Segunda (named for the then queen of Spain) was laid out, and Vieques was divided into a series of large sugar cane plantations.

When Spain lost Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, Vieques changed hands too. Then the sugar industry collapsed in the 1930s, triggering mass emigration. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the economy of Vieques was in a shambles. This is when the military stepped in, decisively changing the face of the island: in 1941, the US Navy bought two thirds of Vieques to establish a base, intended to be a new headquarters for the British Royal Navy, should Nazi Germany succeed in invading the United Kingdom.

Thankfully, His Majesty’s ships never needed this emergency haven. But after the war, the US Navy held on to their chunk of Vieques, over the protests of locals (many of whom had been evicted from their land). And although Vieques never saw actual battle during the war, the military used the eastern part of the island as a training and testing ground — where live munitions were deployed, targeting the landscape.

For more than half a century, in other words, Vieques was a bombing site — the explosions could be heard as far away as the Virgin Islands. Contaminants like mercury, lead, and even depleted uranium were left behind, and the regular shock waves from exploding ordinance led to unexpected health problems for the now reduced population of fishermen and their families.

Locals protested for decades, to no avail. Then a tragic accident in 1999 gave new impetus to their campaign: a civilian security guard was killed during a training exercise, when two massive bombs were dropped near his post. The incident made headlines in the US, and numerous celebrities — from actors and musicians to politicians to an archbishop — joined the cause. Vieques fishermen used their small boats to block the training manoeuvres of navy vessels. The US government finally paid attention, and in 2003 the base was closed, its land transferred to the government of Puerto Rico, and much of the formerly inaccessible military zones declared a National Wildlife Refuge. The way was clear for the latest transformation of Vieques.

A former bombing range may not seem the most likely location for a holiday getaway. But that’s exactly how Vieques has reinvented itself, thanks to its gorgeous beaches and laid-back pace. And its history of navy occupation means that the island’s beautiful white-sand bays aren’t lined with massive resorts and trinket shops. True, after a decade of tourism development Vieques can boast a growing number of hotels, restaurants, and boutiques — but this is a case where the tired brochure adjective “unspoiled” actually holds some truth.

The very eastern tip of Vieques, location of the old testing site, remains closed to visitors, but the departure of the navy restored public access to most of the island’s beaches. Some require a drive or hike over rough trails — or you can simply stroll along Esperanza’s Malecón and around the eastern headland to Sun Bay, a sheltered mile of brilliant blue water and white sand backed by palm trees. On a weekday you might easily have the whole thing to yourself — as I did on my first morning there, an ideal opportunity to indulge my Robinson Crusoe fantasy (if Robinson Crusoe had been equipped with luridly striped towel and paperback).

After several hours spent alternating between reading (or, ahm, dozing) in the shade and bobbing in the calm sea, I grew restless. A stroll to the far end of Sun Bay brought me to a patch of dry forest, and a trail rambling up over the hill. Doves cooed around me and lizards scurried through the leaves underfoot as I wandered along to a tiny cove, similarly deserted. I felt I could have Crusoe’d my way along the whole south coast of Vieques without glimpsing another soul.

Give me a quiet beach and a trashy novel, and I’m happy for days. But eventually I decided it was time to learn more about the history of Vieques. It was a twenty-minute taxi ride to Isabel Segunda on the north coast, “capital” of the island, and site of the most prominent artifact of the island’s Spanish heritage. El Fortín Conde de Mirasol was built in 1845 to defend the newly founded town — the last fort constructed by the Spanish in their long history of New World colonisation. Today, meticulously restored, it houses a historical museum, and its ramparts still offer panoramic views of the island and the eight-mile passage to Puerto Rico.

The walk down from the fort’s strategic hilltop and through Isabel Segunda’s quiet streets gave me a crash course in Vieques architecture. Some older houses, built from wood, with steep-pitched roofs and wraparound verandahs, reminded me of the old-time urban architecture of Port of Spain or Castries. Other buildings, like the Alcaldía flying the flags of the United States, Puerto Rico, and Vieques (three blue stripes) were built of solid brick, with concrete balustrades. In Muñoz Rivera Plaza, named for a nineteenth century Puerto Rican writer and politician, I paused for refreshment at a corner establishment called the Bar Plaza, with tall arched doorways in its Spanish colonial façade, painted white and terra cotta. Rather more demure was the local headquarters of the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, the Puerto Rican independence party, in a slightly shabby cottage on a sloping street. Its door was firmly shut and its windows shuttered. But after all, by now it was the siesta hour — time to call my taxi and retreat to my striped beach towel on Sun Bay.

It rained later that afternoon — abruptly, briefly — and then the clouds rolled away and the evening light lit up the sky. I went up to the rooftop terrace of my guesthouse on the outskirts of Esperanza, cool beverage in hand. The terrace was still slick with rainwater and the view in most directions was of treetops, with the Caribbean horizon just visible above a low hill. The guesthouse owner was already there, a smiling woman in her early fifties, enjoying the breeze. She asked me how I’d enjoyed my holiday — I was flying back to San Juan the next day, and thence home to Trinidad. She was about to head off too, on her own vacation — to an even smaller island.

“I love Vieques,” she said. “But I go across to Culebra every chance I get.”

Nine miles north of Vieques, and a fifth the size, Culebra is a sort of little sister island, with a similar history — including its own stint as a US Navy training site. All I knew was that it was home to an extremely rare lizard found nowhere else, and its beaches were reputed to be even lovelier than those on Vieques.

“I know ‘island paradise’ is a cliché,” my hostess was saying, “but there are places where you can believe it’s true. Make sure you visit Culebra next time,” she added, making the unspoken assumption I’d be back to Vieques.

For a moment I felt a pang of regret, wondered about changing my flight, catching the Culebra ferry.

Then I relaxed and smiled. There is always another island, and another one after that. Culebra probably wasn’t going anywhere.

“Yes, next time,” I said, taking a swig of my beverage.

 

Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to Princess Juliana International Airport in Sint Maarten, with connections on other airlines to Vieques via San Juan