Mofongo, One and Done: Vieques Trip Report

It just doesn’t make any sense to go to Puerto Rico and skip the mofongo. Mashed fried plantains with bacon is your national dish? Sign me up!

Or so I thought.

Midway through our trip to Vieques over Memorial Day week this year we went up to Isabel Segunda for dinner. Man, is that town dead at night in the offseason—you might see someone riding around on a horse, but then again, you might not. We had already been up there once for dinner at Coqui Fire, but we were ready for some Puerto Rican food. We drove around looking for someplace that was actually open and finally went to Sabores (or Biekes Bistro, I can’t remember which).

Was the food good? Sure…we tried a variety, some fish, some chicken, some beef. I had skirt steak and mofongo and it was amazing that I actually survived the experience. Mofongo may be the heaviest thing that a human being can ingest and live. I almost couldn’t climb into the Jeep. Upon arrival at the rental house I went into the bedroom and groaned. The other person who had mofongo did the same.

You’re thinking, “Well, what did you expect? It’s fried plantain with bacon.” But people eat it daily! How do they survive? It’s a hot climate!

Anyway, on to the trip report.

Getting There, Getting Around

This was our first time in Puerto Rico, but I’m sure it won’t be our last. To get to Vieques or Culebra, its sister island, you need to take a small plane or the ferry. The ferries are supposedly incredibly unreliable and when we were booking the trip I was feeling fairly prosperous, so I booked us on the 15 minute flight from Ceiba airport. It’s about 45 minutes from San Juan, so we took an $80 cab ride down there, passing through areas that looked oddly like Queens but with palm trees (which makes sense when you think about it).

We had some time to kill so we hung around outside looking at birds and chilling with an island dog. I’m always a little ambivalent about island dogs—on one hand, every dog deserves to be loved, cherished, and cared for. On the other, they get to keep their balls, live on an island, and chase crabs. One of our first discoveries on this trip was that even an emaciated island dog hanging around the airport parking lot will turn its nose up at a Twizzler.  Hmm, may need to rethink our airplane snack of choice.

The plane is incredibly small and there’s a strict 25 pound weight limit on baggage. They even weigh you on the baggage scale to make sure you didn’t lie when you booked your tickets and to balance the load. We’re turning into small plane connoissuers and this one was a gem:

Air Flamenco

The wheels don’t retract!

We picked up our Jeep on arrival and you definitely need one on Vieques. The main roads are great, but getting to the good beaches is a little bit of an adventure even with high clearance and four wheel drive.

On the way back we took the ferry to Fajardo: cheap, scenic, pretty much on time. But we did the gringo thing (of course) and sat outside for the views, and the brand new eyeglasses inside my knapsack actually melted in the sun.

Vieques-Fajardo ferry

When ferries are good, they’re very very good

Where We Stayed

Vieques has two towns, Isabel Segunda and Esperanza. Isabel Segunda is larger and has more services: the ferry, the fisherman’s market, government offices. Esperanza on the other hand has the Malecon and tourist-oriented conveniences. We stayed at Casa Anolis in Esperanza and it was a great value: three bedrooms with absolutely essential air conditioning, a totally adequate kitchen, a great back porch with a view of the ocean, and lots of fruit trees in the yard. It also had a huge shower with water pressure that knocked you backwards, plenty of towels, and laundry on the porch (very useful when you’re limited to 25 pounds and bringing a laptop and snorkel gear). It was a good choice.

Food and Drink

Mofongo aside, Vieques is great for chow. There are food trucks on the road toward the beaches during offseason weekends and you can get great, reasonably priced empanadas (fish, shrimp, chicken, crab, conch) and pinchos (pork, chicken, shrimp).

We had a pretty great time at the grocery stores, too. We didn’t do a lot of cooking—one big breakfast, one dinner—but we did a lot of snacking and drinking. Of all of the island grocery stores we’ve shopped, nothing beats the great big Plaza Extra on St. Croix. It’s as big as a Costco! But the Morales supermarkets on Vieques are just fine, with good selections of booze and mixers, Goya wafer cookies, and fairly reasonably priced sunscreen.

Another thing Vieques does well is the fisherman’s market in Isabel Segunda. It’s a central location for buying fresh fish and lobster. There’s no heading to the beach and haggling with individual fisherman, you just show up in late morning and point at what you want. And it’s in a pretty spot:

Awesome

The fisherman’s pier

Another crazy thing about Puerto Rico is the Gasolinas—little cocktail pouches like juice boxes for grown-ups. We found one in the freezer when we got there and there’s one in our freezer right now.

Beaches and Snorkeling

Vieques is the only island in the Caribbean on which huge tracts of land are closed to the public due to unexploded ordnance. That’s right—for 63 years the U.S. Navy used it as a bombing range and over 8,000 acres are still closed because there are bombs laying around. While it means that this land is going to be preserved forever because it belongs to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s appalling for the economic and physical health of the local population. They have elevated cancer rates (perhaps due to the depleted uranium in the shells) and the environmental disaster is no doubt affecting the tourist numbers.

Perhaps the best beach on the island, La Chiva (Blue Beach), is closed for at least six months because they’ve found unexploded bombs in and around the little cayo just offshore. This was a big disappointment, but we did hit a variety of other beaches: Sombe (or Sun Bay), Caracas (Red Beach), Navio, Media Luna, Punta Arenas (Green Beach), and the Rompeolas (the old Navy pier on the north side of the island).

Over time my standards for beaches have changed. I used to boogie board. I wanted surf. I’ve changed, and now I want to snorkel in calm, clear water. Most of the beaches on Vieques were a little rough and very cloudy (and we found a Portuguese Man O’War washed up on Navio and promptly left). That doesn’t mean that they weren’t fun and great, but we’ve turned into snorkeling snobs and the snorkeling on Vieques simply isn’t up to the standards of the U.S. Virgin Islands. That being said, I crossed a big one off my list:

They are so cool

A spotted eagle ray!

And Buck both a) saw and b) documented a hawksbill turtle hiding under a ledge at Punta Arenas:

 Adventures and Wildlife

We went to Vieques in large part for the bioluminescent bay and for a while we thought it might not happen. Formerly the most consistently bright bio bay in the world, Mosquito Bay went dark this winter. The jury’s still out on what caused it: unusually high tides, salinity, pH, runoff, or other human factors. Regardless, it’s a nightmare for the island. There’s graffiti everywhere saying “Save the Bay.” Tour sizes are now cut by 50%, and for now tours are available only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. They’re finally enforcing the rules about not swimming in the bay (which would be amazing, but sometimes you have to have less fun to avoid killing the things you love) but we found that they didn’t enforce the prohibition against bug spray. We didn’t do it, but people in our group were spraying down like crazy at the edge of the bay.

We set out on Sunday night down the incredibly bumpy road in an enormous van, which promptly got stuck in the muddy lot next to the bay. We hopped into two-man kayaks and spent around an hour.

If this is what the bay is like when it’s dark, I’m really sad we didn’t go a couple of years ago. Here’s what they don’t tell you: despite all of the Photoshopped pictures of an eerie blue glow, the dinoflagellates actually sparkle. It’s even trippier and weirder than I thought it was going to be and Buck kept saying “Stop paddling and put your hand in the water!”

In addition to the bio bay, Vieques was a hotbed of animal life. The island is full of seemingly wild paso fino horses, a small breed known for their pleasant gait. While most of them are owned by someone, they just wander around at will and you have to be careful while driving:

paso fino

Horses in the road

P1010323

People—mostly young men—throw blankets on them and ride them around without stirrups just as basic transportation. Because none of them seem to be gelded, there are tons of baby horses tottering around on their incredibly long legs and lots of pregnant mama horses looking very uncomfortable. Also, because none of them seem to be gelded, there’s a lot of…tumescence going on.  I’m fine with never seeing an aroused male horse ever again, just saying.

The other crazy thing was the scarlet macaw. Our first morning there someone spotted it in a distant tree and we kept seeing it hanging around the neighborhood. They’re not native to Vieques, they’re mostly a Central American species, but perhaps someone had one as a pet and released it when it got inconveniently large. Once it was out it was definitely thriving, eating mangoes and carambola and generally ruling the neighborhood with an iron beak.

One morning we were out on the porch looking at it when it flew directly overhead and landed in our mango tree. It just hung around all morning and allowed us to look at it and get real close for photo ops. Absolutely amazing.

Well, hello to you too

Enough Already!

This is incredibly long and I admire you for reaching the end. Will we go back to Vieques? Maybe, but not for a very long time. There’s so much left to explore, even in Puerto Rico alone.  I want to see the Arecibo observatory and the El Yunque rainforest. I have always wanted to go to Culebra. If we were rich we’d do a crazy expedition to Isla Mona. Etc. But it was a blast and a totally worthy experiment in moving the group beach vacation to a more tropical climate.

 

Anatomy of a Vacation Decision, Part 2

It may be a blog that I don’t publicize much except to my friends (although maybe that will change if I post more frequently) but I feel kind of bad that I haven’t been keeping it up. My excuse is that shortly after I wrote the last post I spent a day in the garden weeding then spent the evening typing and typing and typing for work and basically ruined my right hand for a month. I have carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis and an entire day of extreme overuse made it blow up to enormous size and turn red. It stayed that way for a while and I spent most of my time in splints since I can’t really take a few days off  and rest it. Then we went on vacation and then…anyway, excuses, excuses.

When I left off we had eliminated Cayman Brac, Eleuthera, Roatan and Jamaica while keeping St. John in the U.S Virgin Islands on the list. The list also included a big one that is utterly impractical for most of the year: St. Barthélemy.

Ah yes, St. Barth’s. Swimming pools, movie stars. One of the most expensive places in the world, where a hamburger and a rum punch will leave you $50 poorer. Make that 50 EUROS. But it’s ridiculously gorgeous, which is why the movie stars, record moguls, and Internet billionaires go there.

St-Barthelemy

The thing is, they go there in the WINTER. From late April until August it reverts to a normal, sleepy island, albeit with world-class pastries and expensive hamburgers. (In August Europeans use some of their 1000 vacation days to visit la plage, sans exchange rate difficulties.) It also has one of the world’s most terrifying airports. We need to go just so Buck can film the landing (he’s geeky that way):

There are two hotels on St. Barth’s that provide you with an apartment or cottage, rental car included, for less than 100 euros a night in the offseason. The Auberge de la Petite Anse overhangs a little bay and is next to the trail to the most beautiful and secluded beach on the island. Not fancy, but 60 euros a night. That’s just a hair over $80, INCLUDING rental car. The Auberge de Terre Neuve is a little more money but you get a really nice freestanding cottage (and rental car) for 80 euros. We figured that we would just cook for ourselves most of the time.

Meanwhile, we were still thinking about the snorkeling. St. Barth’s seems to be okay, but maybe not as good as the Virgin Islands. So off I went to my favorite website, ITA Software, to research airfare for both places, multiple tabs open, typing furiously.

Ouch. St. Barth’s was going to be really high. Meanwhile, flights to St. Thomas were the cheapest I’ve seen, so we clicked “buy.”

I shot off an e-mail to this place and waited. And waited. And waited. While we waited, we got to talking and realized we hadn’t used our passports this year. It’s really a waste of such handsome official documents to keep them stashed in my underwear drawer. We’d been to St. Croix and were preparing for Vieques, both of which are lovely and interesting products of U.S. imperialism (more on both some other time), but the passports had been sitting sad, lonely, and unused.

A few years ago we splurged on a day trip to Virgin Gorda to climb around The Baths. What an amazing place…enormous boulders stacked up in a shallow turquoise sea. While wandering around as the boat crew dealt with customs and immigration we stopped by Bucks Market for a photo op and found a lovely elderly woman selling homemade patties out of a cooler. We bought a conch pattie to munch on while looking at sailboats in the Yacht Harbor and it was one of the best things we’ve ever had. So yeah, we had fond memories.

thebaths

 

bucksmarket

If St. Barth’s is one of the most expensive places in the world, Virgin Gorda isn’t far behind. Put it this way…it’s not hard to run into Richard Branson (who owns Necker Island, just a mile or two away), a Google founder, or an aging rockstar–especially if you’re on a boat at the time. But there are some inexpensive places to stay that are genuinely nice: Fischer’s Cove Beach Hotel and Bayview Vacation Apartments (who really need to get rid of that music on their website).

Normally I’d be all over a cottage directly on the beach like Fischer’s Cove, but in the height of summer even a sea breeze probably wouldn’t keep it cool enough for Buck to sleep. Meanwhile, Bayview is really more like a townhouse than an apartment–two stories, air conditioned bedrooms, upstairs and downstairs porches–and costs even less at $570 a week. The two stories thing is a really unexpected luxury. Buck can sleep in while I go downstairs at my usual ridiculously early hour to guzzle iced coffee and work. And who minds working when you’re doing it from this porch?

bayview

So Virgin Gorda it is. I’m foolishly excited about renting a Suzuki Jimny

800px-1998_Suzuki_Jimny_01

even though the guys on Top Gear hate them because screw those guys. It’s exactly the kind of thing I wish we had here: a tiny four wheel drive vehicle for summer adventuring and winter errands, small enough to park in the city. There’s at least a possibility that we’ll get to test our competence by driving stick with right-hand drive on a mountainous island (left hand drive=no big deal, right hand drive=adventure!).

And there’s a very good possibility that we will spend my 50th birthday doing this:

dinghy

It even looks like us!

I’ll just leave you with this image from the Virgin Gorda underwater webcam, with a banded coral shrimp and some Christmas Tree worms. I promise not to go two months between posts from here on out.

shrimp virgin gorda

Anatomy of a Vacation Decision

I’m turning 50 in July, and while I’m not terribly oppressed by the aging process I really don’t like to spend my birthday at home. There’s just so much awkwardness. Do we throw a party? Do we pretend it’s not happening? And why does no one seem to understand that the best birthday cake is dark chocolate with vanilla buttercream (or gobs, gobs are always good)?

We thought we weren’t going to be able to leave town for this big milestone and it was getting me down. We started planning to go somewhere great a week or two later, or maybe have some sort of extra-special trip in November to make up for it. Here were the criteria:

  1. Limpid blue water.
  2. Lots of fun, sporty things to do: snorkeling, biking, kayaking.
  3. If possible, outside the U.S. I feel like we’re wasting our passports if we don’t use them.

I started going through my huge library of bookmarked vacation properties. St. Bart’s? In the offseason it’s super cheap as long as you don’t start eating too many fancy meals, and you can go around pretending to be a movie star. A fat, 50 year old movie star. Whale sharks? But we were in Mexico just last year.

Narrowing it down based on snorkeling, I started looking at the Caymans, Roatan, Eleuthera, and St. John. Then I threw Jamaica in just for the hell of it because we stayed on the Negril cliffs for a long weekend a couple of years ago, absolutely loved the people and food, and are itching to go back.

Grand Cayman? Holy crap is it expensive, and beaches lined with high rises don’t really appeal. But Cayman Brac looks like our kind of place. It has great snorkeling, most places provide free bicycles and/or kayaks, and there are really cool caves and a parrot sanctuary. I could break my lodging for $100 or less per night rule to stay at Winta Cottage. It’s a house on stilts!

wintacottage

But they serve sea turtle on Grand Cayman (farmed, but still) and even the cheapest island is still a little pricey. Maybe spring break sometime?

And then Roatan. We’ve been thinking of going for years. It’s supposed to be one of the top two places for snorkeling in the Caribbean, right up there with Bonaire (which we’ve also been thinking of for years). There are plenty of reasonably priced places to stay, but it has a reputation as one of the buggiest places around. Google “roatan sand fleas” at your own peril. We’d still like to go, but not in the rainy season. No way.

Eleuthera…well, it’s just the prettiest word. And they know a thing or two about conch in the Bahamas. I’ve had my eye on a little complex of cottages in Gregory Town, five minutes walk from the Friday night fish fry, for years. But then I found Take Ya Time cottage.

takeyatime

A golf cart and two kayaks, that view, and $110 a night? I would love to barrel around the Bahamas in a golf cart. Unfortunately Rainbow Bay seems to be the equivalent of a newly built subdivision in the U.S.

So, Jamaica? My original idea was to fly into Kingston, rent a car, drive to the Great Huts and spend a few days, then gradually work our way back along the north coast and fly home from Montego Bay. But I’ll admit it: I’m afraid to drive in Jamaica. Those people are nuts.

So if we stayed in one place, Treasure Beach seemed like a good option and in the low season we could even afford to stay at Jake’s. The only problem is that I really don’t like to spend an entire week eating out for every meal, and we’d end up spending quite a bit on excursions and such: looking at crocodiles in the Great Morass, trying to make it to Little Ochie’s to eat in a boat on the beach, drinking at the Pelican Bar. I mean, look at the Pelican Bar. Just look at it.

pelicanbar

I’d want to be there every day. But maybe Treasure Beach would be a better group vacation? Jamaica is a place I want to share.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Buck will be able to take my birthday week!

To be continued…

The One That Got Away: Casa Tangamanga, Tulum

tangamanga

I will never deny that we are very fortunate, privileged people. First and foremost, by saving and careful economizing in other areas we usually manage to take four real vacations a year. But above and beyond that, we were incredibly fortunate to make it to Tulum when it was still fairly cheap.

In the world of tourism on the “Riviera Maya,” for a long time Tulum was the place for hippies, backpackers and assorted weirdos. Spring breakers went to Cancun, partiers went there or to Playa del Carmen. The vast proliferation of all-inclusive resorts along the coast gave people who prefer buffets and swim-up bars an excuse to stay at their resort and leave only by tour bus.*

In Tulum, the hotels were (and still are) collections of beach cabanas off the electric grid and not necessarily bursting with creature comforts. For a long time many of them had sand floors, which is cool but means that your bed will turn into a massive exfoliating device after a few days.

But the beach…oh, that beach. It’s one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, lined with palm trees, fluorescent turquoise, and stretching for miles. The whitest, finest sand I’ve ever felt. Literally like powdered sugar. It’s impossible to get rid of it, just like powdered sugar. My Kindle cover had Tulum sand in it until the day the Kindle died.

We went during the financial crisis and stayed in a gorgeous little cabana with a view of the ocean. The bathrooms were shared, but they used conch shells as showerheads. It was ridiculously romantic and it cost around $450 for the week. Now, even one way back near the road will run you about $160 a night. Tulum has turned into a place where you’re more likely to run into a movie star than a naked hippie doing his salute to the sun when you head out for a cup of coffee in the morning.

When this property started up I got really excited. Small, personal, shared outdoor kitchen, and it would hold a bunch of people. At the time, even in high season, you could rent the entire place and sleep up to 12 for around $275 a night. Now it’s around $500 a night for three rooms.

So, goodbye to Tulum. I’m glad we met you when you were still cool. I still love that coast of Mexico but we’re going to have to head farther south.

* We’ve been to all-inclusive resorts twice for a grand total of six nights. And while I can totally murder a decent buffet and make it economically unfeasible for the hotel ownership, it always really got to me that people bring enormous, quart-size insulated mugs to resorts so they can fill them with booze and not have to move for an extra 20 minutes as they lounge around getting absolutely drunk. C’mon now. At least get up once in a while to get another drink.

 

House of the Day: St. John, USVI

Now THIS is a group vacation spot on perhaps the best island of all: St. John.

Having been to St. John first, even while camping, tends to spoil one for every other island. It’s so beautiful you just go around gaping and gasping the whole time. The other Virgin Islands call it the “Millionaire Island.” But you can always stay in a shipping container with a kitchen on the screened porch for $60 a night!

By the way, they appear to have made their window treatments out of the IKEA shower curtain that’s currently in our bathroom.

House of the Day: Isla Holbox, Mexico

I really, really want to snorkel with whale sharks:

whale shark

They’re 40-foot gentle giants who scoop up plankton and have cool spots. One of the best places to see them is Isla Holbox, Mexico, just off the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. This house sleeps seven for $120 a night.

On Holbox there’s not much to do except walk on the beach, go see the whale sharks, eat seafood, and drink margaritas. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

House of the Day: Casa Anolis, Vieques

This is the next house!

casa anolis

For years–maybe 20?–we’ve gone to Cape May with a group of friends every summer. I love it still. As East Coast beach towns go it’s about as good as it gets…so pretty, with all of the Victorian houses and big trees and narrow streets. Plus there’s The Lobster House, which between the fishing fleet, cheap seafood to eat on the dock, and fish market to supply the grill, is my favorite restaurant in the entire world.

But it’s just so expensive! We could rent a cottage in St. Bart’s for the same week for less. And for the past few years the water’s been so ridiculously cold (c’mon now, 60 degrees in August?) that it’s almost unbearable to go in. Last summer as we were leaving I said goodbye for a year or two and vowed to find a beach house for a group that would be fun, affordable, and in close proximity to warm turquoise seas.

And so, Vieques. Bioluminescent bay! Horses roaming around everywhere! Mofongo!

For a cheap tropical holiday Puerto Rico’s the way to go. Airfare is really reasonable, the rentals are inexpensive, and you don’t even need to drive on the wrong side of the road. We’re bringing it in at less than $650 per person for all transportation and lodging for a week, and I defy anyone to get to the Caribbean for less.

Plus the house is cute, named after a lizard, has a coconut palm and a distant view of the sea, and appears to have lawn furniture in the living room. We win again.

Why the name?

Every time we go somewhere we do something that’s maybe a little…gauche. Gringo-ish.

The first time we realized it was in Tulum. Buck was going around saying grazie instead of gracias (and no, he doesn’t speak Italian). Then we couldn’t unlock our Fiat Panda because we were trying to open it with the remote for our own car, which was sitting in the airport parking lot thousands of miles away.

After spending most of a day wondering how we were ever going to drive anywhere it dawned on me and I held up both remotes and said “I feel like such a gringo.”

We have used the line at least once during every trip since. Thanks, Minutemen!

 

The beach is a vacation. Everything else is just travel.

It’s my manifesto.

Not that there’s anything wrong with travel. I love to travel. But for someone who has a tendency to think three steps ahead at all times there’s no substitute for sitting on a beach. Things that I don’t do on the beach:

  1. Make to-do lists.
  2. Cross items off of to-do lists.
  3. Care about how I look.
  4. Have imaginary conversations in which I tell people what I really think.

Things that I do on the beach:

  1. Look at the water.
  2. Roll over.
  3. Read trashy fiction.
  4. Eat a sandwich.
  5. Have a drink.
  6. Go for a swim.

And repeat.

Ifeltlikeagringo.com is mostly going to talk about going to the beach. Amazing beaches, with white sand and turquoise water and gently swaying palm trees. Because that’s what I like, and all of my best to-do lists are about how to do it on a budget that’s realistic for people who aren’t rich.

Some other stuff is going to creep in every now and then, of course–I have many expensive, time-consuming hobbies. I read books, grow flowers and vegetables, live with the world’s cutest dog, and paint pictures.  I make cocktails and dance around the kitchen. But many people do those things, and not many people find cool houses on tropical islands for less than $100 a night.

The plan is to post links to cheap, cool places to stay and share pictures and stories of amazing vacations, but plans change. No matter what, thanks for reading.