Puerto Rico Travel Guide

The Secret Is Out—This Is America’s Coolest Tropical Island

Vieques, an island off of Puerto Rico, has recovered from the hurricanes and is ready for visitors.

If you were blindfolded and teleported to Vieques, Puerto Rico, it would take a while to realize that you’re still in America. Pristine, undeveloped beaches slope toward clear turquoise water, free-roaming ponies lie in the shade of palm trees, and locals speak mostly Spanish. But just a short flight or ferry ride from the mainland, Vieques might be America’s coolest island—and one of the last best places in the Caribbean. Life here is simple, delicious, and beautiful–even after hurricane Maria mostly devastated the island, leaving residents without water, power, and cell service for weeks and months.

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Now, there’s little to no visible damage from the hurricane on Vieques, apart from a few construction projects, a suspiciously fresh coat of paint on most of the buildings, and hand-painted murals and signs across the island with slogans like “We are stronger than Maria.” There’s something special in the air in Vieques, where you get the sense that you’ve suddenly slipped through some sort of space/time continuum to end up in a place that has somehow not been ruined by tourists.

Vieques feels like a secret island, and once you’ve arrived, you’ll be torn by the decision to keep this secret to yourself or shout it from the rooftops.

With amazingly fresh seafood and Spanish-Caribbean flavors, beautiful landscapes, otherworldly adventures, and incredibly friendly people all just a short (passport-free!) trip from mainland USA, Vieques is about to become your new favorite weekend getaway. This island is seriously rugged, surprisingly tourist-friendly, and bursting with charm—and we have the complete guide on where to eat, drink, stay, and play while you’re here.

Magnificent Beaches

Vieques has a fascinating and almost unbelievable history. Beginning in 1941, the island served as a U.S. Military base, and half the land was used as a bomb testing site while the other half was used as a storage site. The dense tropical forest made Vieques an ideal testing ground for some of humanity’s most devastating weapons. Although the military left Vieques in 2003, much of the island is still off-limits because of risks of unexploded ordnance, but many of the beaches have been cleared and are safe for tourists. Completely rugged and undeveloped, beaches in Vieques are picture-perfect—the kind of beaches you dream about but rarely find these days in the Caribbean. The most popular beaches, Media Luna and Caracas, are easily accessible via taxi, motorbike, or golf cart.

 

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If you’re staying in Esperanza and want a beach you can walk to, look no further than Sun Bay, a wide stretch of white sand framing an azure bay, where calm waters ripple against the shore. A fringe of palms along the beach means there’s plenty of shade, so you can stay all day without an umbrella.

For an off-the-beaten-path adventure, follow the road west from Esperanza until you see signs for Playa Negra (Black Sand Beach) and Oro Vieques, an art gallery. Park on the road shoulder and take the trail about 15 minutes through a tropical forest and riverbed until you reach Playa Negra, a narrow black sand beach framed by sandy bluffs. This deserted beach is a forgotten paradise.

Unusual Sights and Unique Souvenirs

Travelers looking for an island that offers more than just beaches should rent a Jeep for some island exploring. Although there’s no more military presence on the island, there are still some relics that feel like something out of an episode of Lost–giant satellites along a mountain ridge, hidden bunkers supposedly filled with office furniture and documents, and overgrown roads that will take you on a wild goose chase to nowhere.

The island’s pre-military history can be explored at the Sugar Mill Ruins, an explore-at-your-own-risk site of an old sugar mill that’s been partially reclaimed by the jungle, with just a few structures here and there, like a stray window arch and a staircase to nowhere. The oldest thing on the island, however, is probably the Ceiba Tree, a massive 300-year old behemoth of a tree that, thankfully, survived the storm.

Artsy types will love walking around the tiny town of Isabel II (pronounced Isabel Segundo) where there are some tiny shops and cafes like Rising Roost, as well as a museum at the old fort perched above the town. For authentic souvenirs, you can buy tiny replicas of papier mâché carnival masks at Vieques Souvenirs in Esperanza, or buy and browse local art at Oro Vieques. Insider Tip: Keep an eye on the calendar at Oro Vieques, as they host monthly artist dinners.

 

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More adventurous travelers can book a horseback ride with Esperanza Riding Company for the ride of a lifetime up into the hills, down through town, and along the beach–even getting the chance to ride into the waves sometimes.

Insider Tip: Opt for the afternoon ride, which is timed perfectly with the sunset for maximum wow-factor.

 

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Vieques is perhaps most famous with tourists for being the home of one of the brightest bioluminescent bays in the world. Visitors must book with a tour company, so have your hotel arrange a guide for you. Once the sun goes down, head out into the bay on clear kayaks, where specks of phytoplankton shimmer with every splash and paddle. The bioluminescent bay is most enjoyable for expert kayakers on a moonless cloudy night (rain is a good thing!), so if it’s a bright, clear night and you’re not a natural-born athlete, you may want to reconsider.

Caribbean Flavors With Puerto Rican Flair

The flavors of Vieques are surprisingly diverse, from sushi to fine dining to traditional Puerto Rican staples. For breakfast, those looking to get their green juice or caffeine fix can visit Rising Roost, which serves healthy breakfast like oatmeal and avocado toast. For lunch, Duffy’s is an open-air restaurant on the malecón in Esperanza with fish tacos, grilled lobster, and fried snapper. Next door is El Guayacan, a rooftop bar that’s your best bet for Puerto Rican classics like mofongo (a sort of deep-fried mashed plantain number) and arepas. Don’t forget to wash it all down with a famous rum punch.

Though Vieques is an extremely casual island, there are still a few restaurants where you’ll want to make a dinner reservation while you’re here. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, a visit to the restaurant at El Blok is a must. Hip design, candlelit tables, and excellent craft cocktails all set the tone for a special occasion, while the ever-changing menu focuses on internationally-inspired recipes with local ingredients and Puerto Rican panache. There’s not one mediocre dish on the small menu, but you can’t go wrong with Caribbean spiny lobster, served grilled with an herb butter and a side of tostones. Order a ceviche to start, made with fresh melt-in-your-mouth fish and finish it all up with an order of churros.

El Quenepo is probably the most classically “fancy” restaurant on the island, with imported wine and a more formal atmosphere than the rest, but you’ll still get good, unfussy food and friendly service in a beautiful setting.

One of the best restaurants on the island is Tin Box, serving sushi and barbecue, which is an odd combo, but nonetheless delicious. For sushi, order whatever’s fresh (the lobster roll is incredible) and for barbecue, it doesn’t matter what you get because it’s all delicious, and aren’t we all just here for the sides anyway? And the sides do not disappoint: mac and cheese, cornbread, jicama salad, beans, and coleslaw are just a few options. Besides sushi and barbecue, the restaurant is famous for their watermelon cocktails, served as a martini or a margarita.

Boozy Concoctions With a View

Hey, you ARE on vacation, after all. One of the best things about Vieques is that you’ll find no all-inclusive resorts plying their guests with cheap booze. Instead, there are plenty of places to drink that will remind you what you love about drinking and traveling: trying the local booze of choice, making friends with the bartender, and people watching. The best places to drink in Vieques are along the malecón in Esperanza, where you can watch the sun dip behind the island and into the sea. For bougie drinks with a view, the rooftop bar at El Blok is the best bet in town, with occasional live music, a small infinity pool, and hammock chairs. A few doors down is Banana’s, the kind of no shirt, no shoes, no problem kinda place that every beach town needs. (Side note: This is more of a vibe than a dress code. Please wear clothes and shoes to the bar.)

 

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The night always ends at Lazy Jack’s, where you’re likely to run into anyone and everyone you might have met on the island. Buy your new friends a drink.

Chic and Simple Hotels

There’s no bad place to stay on Vieques, with adorable guesthouses and chic Airbnbs scattered around. But if you’re looking for style and simplicity, El Blok is your best bet. The beautifully-designed cement building is meant to be naturally cooling (and hurricane-proof!), and the rooms are spacious and beautifully-furnished with funky accents and unique artworks. It’s a few steps from the beach and a few steps from the malecón, making it an ideal location for those traveling without a car. The remote Hix Island House is seriously chic, with minimalist open-air rooms and mosquito net-draped beds.

 

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The island was also once home to a W Hotel, but there are no plans to reopen the hotel after the hurricane and it seems the property is in limbo. (Side Note: Who wants to go in on a hotel on Vieques with me?) Trust me: once you’ve set foot here, you’ll be planning your imminent return.

All Photos Courtesy Of Teddy Minford