By Lisa Mullins Bishop, Caribbean Edge Staff Writer
Vieques Island, a tiny island off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, has been getting lots of attention for its beautiful, white sand beaches, its tranquility, and its bioluminescent bay.
Last year, National Geographic Traveler named Vieques as one of its Top 5 Caribbean Hot Spots. Vieques, only 21 miles long and 4 miles wide, offers a quiet alternative to the crowds and commercialism found on some of the other Caribbean islands. With a population that numbers less than 10,000 and much tropical splendor--lush green rainforest, pristine beaches, crystal clear waters, and an abundance of wildlife--Vieques is the perfect island to relax and experience the quiet charms of a truly unspoiled Caribbean island.
For more than 60 years, the U.S. Navy conducted bombing exercises on this island, located 6 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. In May 2003, the Navy left, turning over the compounds at either end of the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission. The Commission maintains the area as an 18,000-acre wildlife refuge.
Various beaches within the refuge that were once closed to the public are slowing being reopened. These unspoiled beaches with colorful names--Red Beach, Blue Beach, Orchid Beach, Green Beach--are for the most part deserted stretches of gorgeous white sand. Green Beach and Blue Beach are known for their excellent snorkeling, with coral reefs that attract a variety of marine life including blue tangs, angelfish, and spotted eagle rays.
The beach town of Esperanza, where visitors will find most of the vendors, guest houses, bars, and restaurants, is close to Sun Beach, one of Vieques's prettiest beaches. Sun Beach is a popular public beach that is rarely crowded. The beach offers picnic and camping areas. Two other public beaches are also worth exploring. The shallow waters surrounding Media Ulna make it ideal for swimming, especially for children. Navio Beach is a favorite of bodysurfers, who enjoy battling the waves.
Those wanting to do more than sunbathe on these pristine shores can choose to scuba dive, snorkel, swim, fish, hike, or horseback ride. Mountain biking is a popular activity. Those looking to do some horseback riding can do so on Pasofino horses, which are bred only in Puerto Rico. This rural island captivates visitors with its pristine beaches, its natural beauty, and its wildlife, everything from rare birds and iguanas to wild horses.
Bioluminiscent Bay (Mosquito Bay)
Vieques's main attraction besides its beauty and tranquility is its bioluminescent bay. Known as "Mosquito Bay," this narrow, shallow bay surrounded by mangroves is home to microscopic organisms that emit a phosphorescent light when the calm saltwater is disturbed. The eerie blue-green light emitted by these protozoans is brighter than that of a flashlight.
The protozoans use the light as a defense mechanism. They carry a chemical known as luciferin that produces light when mixed with oxygen. When the water is agitated, the protozoans use the light to attract larger fish that prey on the organisms that feed on the protozoans. Mosquito Bay has just the right conditions for the protozoans to thrive: a narrow entrance that restricts pollutants, shallow, calm salt water, and mangroves, whose decomposing roots and leaves produce the bacteria that the protozoans feed on.
A visit to the bay is not to be missed. Visitors can kayak or take an electric boat cruise on the bay, and then swim in the waters--an experience that has been likened to "swimming with a cloud of fireflies." To help minimize pollution and protect this natural phenomenon, visitors should book their trip to Bio Bay with one of the established tour operators.
Golden Heron Eco-Tours offers kayak and electric motorboat tours of the bay and surrounding mangroves.
Island Adventures takes visitors on guided nightly excursions in electric pontoon boats.
Those wanting to explore more of the island's heritage can visit Vieques's historic sites.
Dating to 1845, El Fortin Conde de Mirasol was built as a defense by the Spanish, who could control the island from this hilltop spot. However, the fort never saw action and served as the island's prison. The fort was restored in 1991 and now houses the Vieques National Archives. Another historic site is the Punta Malas lighthouse. Built in 1895 with a light beam that stretches 16 miles, the lighthouse stood sentinel over the harbor for many years. Today it is a museum.
Vieques Accommodations and Restaurants
Island accommodations range from sophisticated getaways that have graced the pages of Architectural Digest to unassuming guest houses.
Featured in Architectural Digest, the Inn on the Blue Horizon is located on the site of a former sugar plantation. The inn has a main house, tastefully decorated with antiques, and 17 villas. There is also a large swimming pool on the property.
Bananas is a casual bar and restaurant on Esperanza Beach that also doubles as a 16-room guesthouse. The popular restaurant serves pizzas, sandwiches, burgers, salads, and appetizers.
A visit to rural, unspoiled Vieques is a reminder of what Caribbean life was once like.