Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Traveling to Vieques, Puerto Rico

If you have the time and the itch to travel, you really should check out the little island just east of Puerto Rico. Lush forests, empty beaches, exceptional views of the ocean and year round warm breezes were just a couple of the characteristics that pulled us down there. We also chose to go there because the US dollar is the currency; they speak English and are actually a territory of the United States. As new travelers, we wanted to explore far and distance exotic lands but knew we needed to get a little experience under our belt.  Vieques satisfied our wanderlust in full.

Flying was relatively inexpensive as we could get a direct flight to San Juan from Baltimore. Once there, we had the choice of  taking a ferry to the island or buying a plane ticket. Of course, since we are water lovers, we thought we would take the ferry and enjoy the ocean. However, after studying the timing of our flight and when we would finally get to Vieques, we realized we had to fly. Flying was just awesome. If you have never experienced flying in a small six seater plane, you are missing a treat. But let me back up a little. 

We landed in San Juan and immediately felt like we were in another country. It was warm and sunny and most everyone around us was speaking Spanish. The airport was bare bones compared to the large airports of the eastern coast of the US. We had been advised to grab a taxi to get to another even smaller airport to get to our next flight. (Since then, the smaller airport joined with the Luis Munoz Airport.) This one was more like a warehouse with planes out back. We filed into a small office where our luggage was weighed. If you plan to travel here, be sure to check the regulations as the small planes can only carry so much weight and it would be no fun to have to leave your luggage behind.

The plane was clean but well used. The pilot helped us lift our bags into the back and explained how the seatbelts fastened. I felt like I was in a seat from a 1980's van that rocked around with my every movement. But don't get me wrong, I was loving every second of it. The pilot clicked a few buttons and drove out to a little runway and after looking around, he took off, lifting our plane up into the clouds. My stomach was jumping around with every puff of wind that lifted and dropped the plane, but I forced myself to breathe deeply and just enjoy the excitement. I felt like the pilot was totally at ease as he would turn and talk to us while filling out paperwork on a clipboard and still flying the plane. We landed at the relatively modern airport on the island and our explorations began.

In case you didn't know, Vieques was the site of a US Navy testing and bombing range up until just a few years ago. Since then, the navy moved out and most of the land is part of a national wildlife refuge. Although our host told us what to expect, actually driving through the roads where warning signs of land mines still are necessary really shocked us. Although we like exploring, we did not feel like getting blown up. Our rental car was more like a four-wheeler as the roads are so bumpy, only cars with high clearance can pass. The life expectancy of the cars there can't be much more than a year or two. Again, we still loved it.

Our first night, we got to our destination - a bed and breakfast on the southern side of the island facing the Caribbean. We had not brought any food and were hungry for something, anything after a full day of travel. The only place around was a small corner store with barred windows and a weather worn sign in Spanish that we could not understand. A few locals stared at us but we ventured in - determined to find something for dinner. The fresh foods were gone for the day but we did find a couple of day-old rolls, a big chunk of blue cheese for a cheap price, a few apples, some sort of dried sausage and some bottles of wine. We sat out on our balcony and watched the night sky while sipping wine and eating delicious cheese on stale bread feeling like royalty.

Every morning after, mobs of black birds in the nearby mango trees woke us up. The view from our balcony was the ocean. There were a couple of coconut palms and two large mango trees but since we were on a hill, they did not block our view. We were surprised to find that the wildlife was very different than what we had at at home. Seemingly wild horses wandered around, some goats here and there, lots of lizards, chickens, ducks, and plenty of dogs and cats. Beautiful birds were everywhere and wonderfully fun to spot. 

On the island, we found that many of the locals were living on US aid, but there was a second level of locals made up of retired US business men and women who had moved to Vieques to start restaurants and small shops. We really enjoyed the chance to talk with them about the island and what their life was like in this paradise. I liked the southern side of Vieques where small shops and stores line the main road that circles the island. On the north, large hotels were moving in to provide fancy housing for tourists who don't like risking staying in a smaller hotel or bed and breakfast. 

Vieques is a quiet laid-back place where you have to relax and understand that life moves at a slower pace and that's okay. We walked along empty beaches, some flanked by sharp coral but some with soft white sand. The temperatures were warm in the middle of the day but the constant breeze made it comfortable. Even at night, we did not need air conditioning. We lost the sense of time and were able to relax without feeling the pull of agendas or even television to watch,

We found our way back home, finding it ironic that we had the same pilot fly us back to San Juan. We loved Vieques. It is an island destination for quiet, relaxing destressing. 

Now that I know how easy it is to get to, I hope to return again many times.

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