Puerto Rican island is a Caribbean paradise without the frills [column] – LancasterOnline

Posted: August 6, 2017 at 5:29 pm

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico Our family wanted a Caribbean island with the white sand, secluded beaches, aqua water, palm trees, vivid sunsets and great snorkeling, but without wall-to-wall resorts.

Yes, such a place still exists, and it is Vieques, a small island 8 miles off the eastern coast of the Puerto Rican mainland.

We encountered the laid-back vibe as soon as we landed in the eight-seat puddle jumper from San Juan. Exiting the one-room terminal, we walked out the door, suitcases in tow, and were startled to see two wild horses sparring over a mare and foal in the parking lot.

There are some 4,000 free-range horses on the island, and they go everywhere and anywhere, including the main streets in the islands two modest small seaside towns.

The wild horses of Vieques are usually shadowed by cattle egrets, which savor the insects the horses flush when they walk. Sometimes, the egrets perch on the horses back, eating bugs.

A mongoose on Vieques island. The predator from India has played havoc with native wildlife

The remains of the Puerto Ferro lighthouse.

A 300-year-old ceiba tree.

Lounging dogs are part of the open-air restaurant scene in Esperanza on Vieques island.

Clashing clouds during a Vieques sunset.

The wild horses of Vieques are usually shadowed by cattle egrets, which savor the insects the horses flush when they walk. Sometimes, the egrets perch on the horses back, eating bugs.

A mongoose on Vieques island. The predator from India has played havoc with native wildlife

The remains of the Puerto Ferro lighthouse.

A 300-year-old ceiba tree.

Lounging dogs are part of the open-air restaurant scene in Esperanza on Vieques island.

Clashing clouds during a Vieques sunset.

Youll also see dates clip-clopping around town, texting in the saddle. Many of the open-air restaurants in the quaint fishing village of Esperanza have fixtures of dogs on the floor.

Add the unpenned dogs, cats and chickens that also roam as they please, and you may see more animals than the islands 9,000 residents.

The Vieques experience is not for the resort crowd there is only one on the island.

But get yourself a Jeep almost all rentals are Jeeps bounce down lumpy dirt roads, and you have your pick of about two-dozen iconic beaches as found in one of those Corona Find your Beach ads.

The island is a mere 5 miles wide and 21 miles long so youre never far from a new cove, each with its own flavor, color of sand, height of waves and coral reefs.

And then theres Mosquito Bay, the worlds best bioluminescent water where microscopic organisms when disturbed turn each paddle stroke into a silvery streak.

Under a new moon one night in a glass-bottom kayak, we oohed and aahed as a fish zig-zagged away in a shimmering dart.

Its like chasing Tinkerbell, my nephew exclaimed under a sky festooned by the arc of the Milky Way. It looked like shooting stars passing under the glass in our skimming boats. Even the waves were tipped with phosphorescence.

Snorkeling day after day, we lost ourselves in watery worlds following fingers of coral. Reef madness.

Underwater plants bowed to the pulse of currents and sea turtles glided effortlessly through grass beds. I felt like I was floating through a dream.

From our hilltop rental bungalow, we watched daily spectacles where billowy dark storm clouds sailed over outbursts from sunrises and sunsets.

Sunsets on Vieques are spectacular.

All these wonders on Vieques came at a price.

Beginning in World War II, the U.S. military seized the island for bombing practice and to simulate beach invasions. Barbed wire was strung between palm trees and beaches bulldozed. Bombs containing napalm, Agent Orange and radioactive plutonium were dropped over the next 50 years.

After the U.S. bought most of the island from owners of former sugar cane plantations, thousands of self-sufficient islanders with farms and orchards were forced to squeeze into the middle of the island without compensation.

After decades of protests that attracted increasing worldwide sympathy, the island was returned to Puerto Rican control in 2003.

More than half the island was made a national wildlife refuge. No other island in the Caribbean has as much land under conservation.

Though parts of the island still contain unexploded ordnance and are off-limits, the military rule did keep some of the best beaches in the Caribbean from being developed and are now open to the public for free. One morning, we had an entire beach to ourselves.

Environmental degradation goes even further back.

A mongoose on Vieques island. The predator from India has played havoc with native wildlife

Foreign plantation owners brought the mongoose, a predator from India, to control the rat population. The animal controlled ground rats, but not tree rats. With no natural predators of their own, the out-of-control mongoose population has killed many native birds and virtually wiped out snakes.

Yet islanders do not appear to hold a grudge. Several times, locals stopped to offer guidance when I stopped in uncertainty in our Jeep.

There are no friendlier people on the planet, maintains E. Martin Walker, a New York psychologist whose search for an alternative to overdeveloped Mexican beach resorts led him to Vieques 21 years ago.

He arrived sight unseen in a puddle jumper that landed in a field with a cargo container for a terminal. He slept behind a bar his first night.

Now, he spends part of the year in a small house tending to 15 varieties of tropical fruit trees, whose bounty he gives away to neighbors.

I love driving the rough roads that go nowhere because it is impossible to get lost on a tiny island, and breathtaking views are around every corner, he says.

Adds the Rev. Don Bradley, 68, who visited the island from his home in Massachusetts four years ago and has felt the pull ever since, Its just one great place after another.

One morning, on U-shaped Playa Media Luna beach, I spied an islander, face pasted with sunscreen, slowly walking along the beach, picking up flotsam washed in by the sea and stuffing it into a bag.

He walked a long way and when he got close I asked him why he was doing it.

In broken English, he said he does it so that the beach is as it should be.

Panoramic view of a Vieques beach.

Originally posted here:

Puerto Rican island is a Caribbean paradise without the frills [column] - LancasterOnline

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