Sailing into Puerto Rico instead of St. John had saved us several rough days offshore… or so we thought. We made up one of them on our passage from San Juan to Culebra. Much has already been said about the unpleasantness of sailing in heavy seas and high winds. So let’s just skip to the fun part.
What many do not realize is that the Puerto Rico is not just a single island, but also includes two other populated islands, Vieques and Culebra, east of the main island. Although technically a part of Puerto Rico, Culebra felt worlds away from San Juan’s urban sprawl. When we made it to Culebra it felt like we had finally arrived: a protected harbor full of anchored cruiser boats, a sleepy town of pastel houses and scattered one-room shops, and even a dockside restaurant. Here were the white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, and swaying palms we had been looking forward to for months. Culebra was the Caribbean as I remembered it from our first trip 12 years ago, despite the fact that I’d never been here before.
We were told a trip to Culebra would not be complete without a trip to Playa Flamenco, allegedly one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, so off we went. The only bad thing about it was the location—a solid 2 mile hike along shoulderless roads from where we were anchored, with little to no shade. Of course there were taxis available, but did we take them? Of course not!
So Scott, Molly, Isaac, and I set off with swimsuits, towels, and water bottles in our backpacks. We apprehensively went onto the unmowed shoulder whenever we approached a blind turn. At least one taxi slowed down and offered us a ride at a discount, but we were determined to walk. We were joined by small flocks of chickens scurrying into the undergrowth. We even saw several crossing the road! Although we’re not sure why. We passed several crabapple-like trees that we inspected, and were unable to identify. Later we learned they may have been the poisonous Manchineel tree, or death apple. Thankfully, we had the sense not to sample the odd fruit. After making a bit of a wrong turn, we reached Playa Flamenco.
With it’s big U of white sand with turquoise on one side and vibrant green hills on the other, we could definitely see how this beach had earned international notoriety. Isaac enjoyed body surfing on the large rollers, while I somehow always ended up with water up my nose. I quite enjoyed the borderline-tame fish that would curiously swim right around your legs if you stood still long enough. Scott and Molly built a sandcastle, with a moat to protect it from the oncoming tide. Because of the beach’s popularity, small restaurant shacks had popped up just inshore. Isaac and I sipped piña coladas while chickens and feral cats scurried about. We particularly enjoyed watching one rooster apprehensively peck at a Hostess cupcake someone had dropped. He would peck at it and run away, peck, run, peck, run. Eventually some other chickens that were not afraid of cupcakes showed up and had at it, wiping their crème covered beaks on the ground.
Farther along the beach were campgrounds, and it seemed like an absolutely marvelous spot to camp. Beyond that were art covered tanks, leftovers from Culebra’s use as a marine base, one on the beach and one a bit further inland with flowers stuffed into the gun barrel. Both were completely covered with colorful graffiti.
That evening we ate at the local cruiser hangout, the Dinghy Dock restaurant, which is quite literally a dinghy dock. A school of enormous fish live right off the dock, waiting for someone to throw a piece of their dinner. I had mahi-mahi with a cilantro-lime aioli and tostones—fried flattened green plantains. It was like the Caribbean on a plate. We watched bats dive after insects as we dinghied back to Koukla.
At the Dinghy Dock, we met a delightful British couple and made a date to exchange info with them, as they were making our route in reverse. They came up through the southern Caribbean, and were headed to Maine this summer. They came over for drinks the following afternoon and exchanged information and sea stories. It was quite the tête-à-tête, as charts and guidebooks of Maine and the Caribbean were hauled out and copious notes were taken.
Meanwhile, we had yet another visitor from a neighboring boat—a dismasted high-tech racing yacht, apparently with the mast intentionally left off. He was a yacht designer/refurbisher and his unconventional ideas were fascinating. He had gotten a great deal on it due to the dismasting, but left the mast off, covered the exposed area with solar panels, and had plans to rig up a large kite to further increase the boat’s already excellent fuel efficiency. Apparently he made enough electricity from his solar panels to run his refrigeration, and planned to have air conditioning. Unheard of!
On one of our wanderings ashore, Scott, Molly, Isaac and I walked to where the ferry comes in, and came across an uncharacteristically rocky, New England type beach. As we walked a along the shore we noticed it was filled with tons of perfectly smoothed seaglass. Normally you come across a piece or two every so often while beachcombing, but you could just squat down in one place and gather a handful of seaglass. We spent a solid hour or so exploring and beachcombing and we had bags full of high quality sea glass and a few shells to show for our efforts.
Some maps of Culebra that we picked up showed a beach just around the corner from town, called Playa Melones. It seemed like a good alternative to the long trek or taxi to Playa Flamenco. Shortly outside of town, it obvious the map wasn’t quite to scale, as the road turned into an undulating wave following the natural, extremely hilly shape of the land. It would probably be exciting in a car, but on foot it was just a workout. Eventually the road petered out into a patch of dirt. A couple of picnic tables under trees, a barracuda skull resting on the ground, a small stretch of gravel shoreline… was this it? We rested at the tables and walked along the water, unsure if we had reached Melones Beach or not. Later, my dad checked with a local at the Dingy Dock Restaurant. “Oh yeah, Melones, with all the picnic tables? Great beach!”
“Now the only thing this place is missing are some showers,” my mom remarked to a local. Ask and ye shall receive. Apparently the owner of a hostel lent out his bathroom to cruisers. So off we went with our soap and towels to the plant covered building in search of the proprietor, who lived on the top floor of the place. Since there were 6 of us and only one bathroom, we spent quite a bit of time chatting with the Tennessee native. While he’d been a resident of Culebra for over a decade, his southern twang was still intact. Now that we were all clean again, it was time to be moving on. Next stop the Virgin Islands!