Vieques is one of Puerto Rico’s barrier islands, known for the former military base and the wild horses that have their run with the place. Most people choose between it and Culebra as a way to get back to nature. You won’t find the crowds of tourists like you do in Old San Juan, but instead people who have left in search for something different. On our flight, we met a girl who had moved from Atlanta, looking for a change. Later in the week, we met people from Georgia, Ohio and Florida who had done the same. There’s something about the island that sucks you in. You can drive its entirety in half an hour.
The island is made up of two main towns, Isabel II and Esperanza, that but most of the island is protected wildlife zone not open to the public. Both are full of casual beach bars and a few fine dining restaurants. Tour operators running trips to the bioluminescent bay, scuba dive companies and rentals of snorkels and paddle boards line the narrow streets. Prices for basics like food and gas are higher here than on the main island, mostly because of the cost of bringing things in. Bring cash, as ATMs are scarce.
You have a few options when it comes to getting to Vieques. From San Juan, you’ll need to drive to the east coast of the main island to Fajardo, where you’ll either fly or take a ferry. Flights to Vieques can be on the pricey side, but run every day by airlines Vieques Air Link, Air Flamenco (the one we used), Air Sunshine, Cape Air, M&N Aviation or Seaborne Airlines from Ceiba. They’re all small 10 seater planes, so be prepared, but the flights only last 10 minutes.
The ferries can be a bit hit or miss in comparison, but we took it from Vieques back to Fajardo. You can’t book them in advance and can only buy them the day of, but they’ll set you back $4 per person. You can choose from the passenger ferry or the car ferry, which run multiple times per day. I’ve heard of problems with them running late, but we had no issues with the 90 minute crossing.
Once you’re there, you’ll want to rent a car if you don’t have one already. Jeeps are the standard vehicle and you can rent them by the day. We used Vieques Car Rental, which picked us up from the airport and let us drop the car off near the ferry terminal on the way back. There’s 2 gas stations in town, both near the rental office.
You can find a handful of resorts and small hotels on the island, including the lavish W Retreat & Spa – Vieques Island, but we rented a house in the mountains for the week. Many people rent out their homes for tourists in the high season, so book in advance. El Dormilon is a gorgeous house with my dream furnishings, a stocked shelf of books and horses for neighbors.
For budget travelers, there’s also Lazy Jack’s Hostel on the main drag of Esperanza, which has an in-house bar, WiFi and starts at $25 per night.
Our plan was to buy groceries and cook meals at the house, but since the house wasn’t very close to the stores, we ended up only having breakfast and lunches at the house. Thankfully, for such a small island, there are plenty of great places to eat and enough options that it was okay to go back to the same places.
We mostly ate in Esperanza, but one morning for breakfast, we headed over to Isabel II to see what we could find. La Viequense is a traditional Puerto Rican bakery that usually has a line out the door. I indulged in the sugar doughnuts, while my dad had a ham sandwich and Rachel a Spanish omelette.
Over in Esperanza, we tried nearly everywhere once. Duffy’s became our favorite, for its great craft beer selection and their buffalo shrimp wrap with potato salad. Lazy Jack’s is a casual restaurant and hostel, serving up cheap drinks and pizza, but I opted for fish and chips. Bananas Restaurant was the nicest of the restaurants we tried, but still very casual, serving daiquiris to a packed bar. I had the mahi mahi pictured above. Belly Buttons is another casual spot with homemade barbecue, burgers and chicken salad sandwiches on delicious local bread.
Set in the woods between towns, Tin Box was our last meal in Vieques and most memorable. The restaurant has its own vegetable garden and very popular cocktail bar. They have oysters and locally inspired dishes like barbecue smoked chicken. Their brunch is also said to be delicious, but we didn’t get to try it.
We drove past many street side vendors and trucks, but never stopped to try them, but I’ve heard good things about what you can find.
There aren’t traditional “things to do” in Vieques like on the main island, but people come here to see nature. Bioluminescent bay tours are the most popular, but aren’t as visible as they once were. Many tour operators cancel at the last minute due to weather and whether or not you’ll see anything. We didn’t end up taking a tour, but I recommend doing one in Fajardo before coming to Vieques. Government restrictions are also in place to protect the area, which blocks off the beach for weeks. Scuba diving, snorkeling and paddle boarding are also available through companies in town. I tried to book a dive, but called too late and the weather caused them to cancel some, so be prepared for that.
The beaches are the true gem of Vieques, as the water is as blue as you’ll see anywhere and you can easily find a beach without anyone else on it. I fell in love immediately, especially after being disappointed by the trash filled beaches of Asia. Red Beach (Caracas Beach) was the first we visited, where there were a few other people and plenty of parking. We also visited Green Beach and Playa Grande, but spent the most time in Balneario Sun Bay, the most popular, where you’ll have to pay a park fee. For the best snorkeling, head over to the pier by the airport, where you can wade in and see starfish, sea cucumbers and small fish. The island also has some abandoned Army bunkers worth checking out if you’re into urban exploration.