Culebra Trip Report: Golf Cart Paradise

In a nutshell: this island is super-duper fun. But if you want details, read on!

We were on Culebra in March and had an absolute blast. It’s a perfect mixture in a variety of ways: it’s very small but has enough activities to keep you busy for a week. It’s relatively undeveloped but has plenty of variety in terms of accommodation and restaurants. It’s incredibly laid-back and relaxing, but offers amazing outdoor adventures.

We’d go back.

Getting There and Getting Around

In an earlier post I discussed the massive analytical task of figuring out what combination of big-plane flights and little-plane flights and ferries will get you to Culebra within a reasonable timeframe and budget. Even though we usually love ferry rides we took a little (tiny!) plane back and forth from San Juan and it was absolutely worth every penny, particularly for anyone who isn’t afraid of flying. It was the most exciting plane ride of our lives.

Culebra Plane

Leaving from San Juan, you fly down the northern coast of Puerto Rico, then make the crossing to Culebra by flying over a bunch of cays and turquoise water. The approach to the airport is over Flamenco Beach and between two mountains, then you bank sharply and land. The exciting part? It was windy. Very windy. The pilot had to judge exactly how much wind was coming from what direction and let it blow us onto the runway! We saw another plane land shortly after ours and it actually bounced a few times.

And for getting around…there’s a lot of debate on Culebra travel forums about Jeeps versus golf cart, and here’s my two cents. Unless you’re staying miles out of town or on a road where Jeeps are specifically recommended, or unless you have a large group that includes very young children, go with the golf cart.

  1. It’s cheaper and more environmentally sound.
  2. Parking is scarce and tight…unless you’re in a golf cart. Then you can squeeze in almost anywhere!
  3. It is incredibly, ridiculously fun.

I had a huge, goofy grin on my face every time I got behind the wheel. And we did go pretty much everywhere in that thing, including the steepest roads with the biggest potholes. In the rain. I want one.

SO MUCH FUN

Buck fastening the GoPro to the canopy. Check out the cooler fastened with bungie cords, our cargo carrier!

Where We Stayed

We stayed in Green Villas Seastar in the Punta Aloe neighborhood, a mile or so down the road from the pueblo overlooking Ensenada Honda. I’ve already reviewed it on HomeAway, but I’ll talk a little bit more about Culebra lodging  in general. For the budget traveler who doesn’t need stuff like pools and marble tiles, Culebra is a great place. There are lots of reasonably priced places with kitchenettes, and most of them have nice water views. Our view was seriously world class, and even though we had some bug issues I’d definitely consider staying there again because a) this view and b) what a fantastic location! It was exactly the right distance from the pueblo: far enough, but still close.

Nice porch!

My office for the week.

It was a great apartment for a porch lover (which I am) because the outdoor square footage may have been higher than the indoor, and because we had a visiting rooster:

Porch poultry

Porch Poultry

What We Ate

Let me just say this up front: I get four weeks of vacation every year, and for the rest of my career I’d be happy to spend one of them stuffing my face in Puerto Rico. And when my career is over, I’d be happy to spend the coldest months there, gaining weight.

We didn’t bother with fine dining even though there were a couple of places that qualified. We were happiest eating tacos and fish and churrasco. And sandwiches and street food. Frankly, it is pretty much my ideal diet, especially when there are a lot of strong drinks thrown into the mix.

Flamenco Beach has a cluster of food kioskos that sell Puerto Rican street food like pinchos and pastellitos, plus sandwiches and pizzas and beer and stuff like sunscreen and refrigerator magnets. My favorite thing there was the helado man:

Helado de parche

If I had a Star Trek transporter I’d go get one RIGHT NOW.

Helados are like Italian ices, but you can get them in a huge cone. There was a cart at the beach that had coconut and mango and guava and passionfruit. This one is a helado de parcha (passionfruit) but I’d like to go back (tomorrow would be nice!) and get half parcha and half guayaba (guava).

We enjoyed our dinners at Zaco’s Tacos (go for anything derived from pig) and the Dinghy Dock. Frankly, the Dinghy Dock had good food but really exceptional cocktails, so teetotalers might not like it so much. But it’s a great place to eat and drink and look at the water and throw your mahi scraps to the lurking tarpon:

Food, drink, and wildlife

Food, drink, and wildlife

Strangely enough, despite the location, we may have liked their churrasco and mashed potatoes better than anything else on the menu.

The real gem, though, was the local bakery, Pan Deli. It gets crowded at breakfast because they sell delicious breakfast sandwiches and one of the best breakfast pastries ever: quesitos! Puff pastry stuffed with cream cheese, then drizzled with syrup or sugar or something that gets all crunchy. Oh my god, so delicious. Pan Deli also sells enormous inexpensive sandwiches that are great to pack up and eat at the beach. So, so good.

Beaches, Snorkeling, and Adventures

Culebra has beaches that rival the best you’ll find anywhere, and Playa Flamenco deserves every bit of its reputation. It is an absolutely stunning, huge horseshoe of white sand with water exactly the color that you’d expect in a tropical paradise.

Our weather was far from perfect—some rain most days, lots of wind, and very rough water. We spent a lot of time at Playa Melones because it seemed calmer and less rainy than other beaches, and we also hit Playa Tamarindo (both grande and pequeño).  As usual, the rockier beaches had much better snorkeling than the postcard beaches.

Big chunks of Culebra are a national wildlife preserve, with no fishing and no development. It shows under the water—lots of healthy reef, mostly featuring the biggest, most colorful seafan forests we’ve ever seen.

About 20 feet off the beach at Playa Tamarindo Grande.

About 20 feet off the beach at Playa Tamarindo Grande.

Seriously, there were seafans everywhere, as far as the eye could see, except when there were also hard corals or when it switched to seagrass to make the turtles happy. And they take their turtles seriously in Culebra. Every beach had a “don’t pester the turtles” sign in English and Spanish.

Seriously, don't bother the turtles. Please.

Seriously, don’t bother the turtles. Please.

There were a bunch of places we didn’t go because of rough seas, but we spent an afternoon kayaking out to Cayo Luis Pena without landing out there because of high surf. I’d love to go back sometime like June, when the seas would probably be calmer, to swim and snorkel at Playa Zoni and Culebrita and Carlos Rosario without taking our lives in our hands. Kayak rentals are really reasonable, by the way—$45 for a double for half a day.

Weather aside, we really didn’t get skunked on snorkeling at all. Aside from the seafans, just check out these grey angelfish!

Culebra 241

I’ve never seen two together at once, and these seemed to be buddies. I love their blue lips.

And to sum it all up…

Culebra has an interesting history—after being used as target practice for decades they kicked the Navy out in the 1970s through sheer force of will and nonviolent protest—and a really unique atmosphere. Everyone who lives there, whether they were born there or got there last month, is incredibly proud of it. They’re proud of their unspoiled beaches, their mangroves, their turtles, their murals. They are really happy when you agree that it’s nicer than Vieques (“it’s more like the big island,” they say). It’s the kind of place where a little eccentricity is  more than accepted. It’s welcomed. It’s celebrated.

I’d love to go back.

Culebra Planning Update

As a travel blogger I’m a bust. The best bloggers are committed. They post all the damn time. I guess that’s just not me. And I’m not going to make any excuses about all of the other things happening in my life because I spend at least a half hour every day just wasting time.

Now, on to this post.

Villa Fulladoza was all booked so we went with Seastar at the Green Villas. I’m pretty excited about it…the owner has been friendly and helpful and knocked a night’s rent off the price, which is very satisfying to my inner frugal person.

And the more I think about Culebra the happier I am about where we’re heading. It’s the island that Puerto Ricans go to for a day or a weekend when they want to get away from it all. Try to wrap your head around that one: where do people who live in a tropical paradise go when they need a minibreak? Culebra, as it turns out. (There were also a bunch of people from Puerto Rico anchored off of Virgin Gorda when we were there.)

We’ve also finalized our transportation plans. When I booked the trip I thought we would be able to rent a Volkswagen Thing. I have wanted a Thing since before I could drive. I’m totally comfortable with driving a rickety stick-shift vehicle in mountainous terrain–after all, I spend a lot of time in Pittsburgh in an uninspected 1998 Golf–but they’ve stopped renting the Things! I guess they got to the point where they couldn’t keep them on the road. I am very disappointed that we’re six months too late. But we are renting a golf cart! I am foolishly excited about this. It’s the next best thing, really.

If you ever want to go to Culebra (or Vieques, for that matter), there are only two ways to get there unless you charter a yacht: ferry or eight-seat puddle-jumper. The ferry is the budget option: it costs less than $10 after an $80 cab ride to Fajardo. There are frequent delays and you can get bumped because it’s really there for the people who live on the islands (after all, every now and then you need to go to a real store). Even so, we would have taken the ferry because ferries are fun, but the times just weren’t working for us. The afternoon ferry was a little too early and then we would have had to have waited until 7:00 p.m. and gotten there after dark. Coming back, the only ferry that would have worked was for commuters and left at some ungodly hour like 6:00 a.m.

So we’re flying. There are three airlines serving the offshore islands, and they all fly from three separate airports (San Juan’s big airport, Isla Grande in San Juan, and Ceiba outside Fajardo). These are the three airlines, in case you ever want to go:

This was a surprisingly difficult analytical task that worked best with a spreadsheet. What combination of flight schedules, airports, and airlines would get us to and from Culebra at the best times and at a reasonable price? There were hundreds of possible combinations but we ended up buying tickets on Vieques Air Link from Isla Grande for the arrival date and Cape Air to SJU for departure.

So now we’re less than a month out and all we’ve got to do is wait. We’re passing the time by thinking about excursions (definitely want to go to Culebrita, might want to kayak to Cayo Luis Peña) and food. I am dying for pinchos and empanadas.