Culebra Island, Puerto Rico: Where to go to get away from it all

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The tiny island of Culebra, just off the coast of Puerto Rico, is still the sleepy, laid-back island paradise that we search for, but so rarely find. Don't look for glitz or glamour here, instead, look for friendly people, and laid-back island lifestyle, fresh seafood, and delicious traditional Puerto Rican cooking. Swim, snorkle, explore the coral reefs, eat, rest, kayak, and hike. Enjoy some of the finest beaches in the world.

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Many people have heard of Vieques, the island that had been used for weapons practice until 2003. But there was another island as well. Tiny Culebra, only 7 miles long and 3.5 miles wide, was also used for military purposes until 1973. Today, except for the occasional stranded tank, there is little left of its military past. Instead, it’s a rural retreat and nature preserve -- part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge (along with 22 adjacent islands) – one of the oldest under the US Fishing and Wildlife Service.

Culebra National Wildlife Refuge

Culebra National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1909. But that didn't stop the government from using the sparsely populated island for target practice. Numerous islands of the archipelago as well as the Flamenco Peninsula were used for gunnery and bombing practice by the U.S. Navy until 1976.

But those days are over. Today, approximately one quarter of the Culebra archipelago’s total land mass is under the protection of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and included within the Refuge.

In fact, the US Fish and Wildlife Service notes that the refuge supports a tropical island fauna and flora representative of the most healthy coastal resources viewable in Puerto Rico today. The reason goes back to the small population and lack of development that protects the ecosystems and keeps the water that gorgeous clear turquoise. Ironically, it might have been the island use for target practice that saved it from rampant development.

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Geologically, Culebra is closer to the Virgin Islands (it is sometimes called the Spanish Virgin Islands) and on clear days, the Virgin Islands can be seen on the horizon. It's a fairly arid island with no rivers or streams. This means not only is the weather generally sunny, but there's little soil runoff to muddy the crystal clear water.

The island refuge is home to nesting turtles, to the delight of residents and visitors, particularly from April/May to June/July. Leatherback and Hawksbill are the most common and their nesting sites are closed off to the public. Some of the most endangered turtles in the world nest on Culebra, protected both by the government and the people of the island.

Beaches of Paradise

The lure of Culebra is its beaches -- and the relaxed island life-style that makes even the rest of Puerto Rico look frenetic.

Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco)

This beach could be the icon for Tropical Paradise. On the north side of the island, sprawling around a quiet bay, it offers pure white sands and clear calm turquoise water. Camp sites are available (reservations are required) but with miles of beach, even on weekends, it’s not crowded.

The largest seabird nesting colony occurs at Peninsula Flamenco, where 50,000 Sooty Terns nest. the northwest tip of Flamenco Peninsula) is our largest colony of nesting seabirds, the site where Sooty Terns

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Zoni Beach

On the east side Zoni Beach is another spectacular beach, as well as a sea turtle nesting site. More secluded and without the services offered by Flamenco Beach, it is smaller and almost empty, but also with calm turquoise water. The turtle nests are cordoned off for the protection of the eggs but the rest of the beach is open to visitors, and there are fewer of them, despite being a truly beautiful spot.

For a quiet picnic this is one of the best places to go. It has no facilities, which is probably the reason it sees so few visitors.

Melones Beach

Melones Beach on the west side is even emptier with a small, wilder beach, strewn with rocks and old coral brought up by the ocean and tides. It’s a good place for exploring and snorkeling in relative isolation.

When you land in Dewey (the only town on the island) stop at the tourist information office and pick up a good map of the island. Then head off to explore the other beaches. Culebra has only two paved roads - Route 250 and Route 251 - so it's easy to navigate the island and explore the other beaches.

More Exploring

Mount Resaca, also part of the Refuge, is one of the rare dry tropical forests. An area of rock-strewn canyons and ravines it supports unusual trees (such as cupey and jaguey trees) as well as orchids, bromeliads, and other exotic plants. The island is also dotted with lagoons and bays.

And if Culebra isn’t remote enough, try the tiny cays that hover near Culebra.

Hiking, wild-life watching, and nature photography are the activities of choice on Cayo Luis Pena and Isla Culebrita. Open daily from sunrise to sunset, there are no overnight visits permitted. Water taxis from the town of Dewey offer transportation. There are no facilities on these isles so visitors must bring in everything needed for their day trip. Culebrita also boasts the old lighthouse of the Caribbean, built in 1886.

Going to Culebra

Located about 17 miles off the south east coast of Puerto Rico, take a taxi from San Juan to the coastal town of Fajardo (or drive there) then catch the public ferry. Or, fly from San Juan into Culebra's the tiny airport. Find air service information at Culebra Air Service

Reservations are required if you wish to bring a car and highly recommended even for personal travel to avoid incredibly long lines and guarantee a seat on the ferry. Learn more about the ferry at Culebra Ferry.

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If You Go

For more information on Puerto Rico visit their official website: Learn more about the Culebra refuge at - Culebra

Food and Lodging

The only town, Dewey offers shops, guest houses, small restaurants. On the southern tip is Club Seabourne. The small charming Caribbean style hotel is the best place to stay on the island. Just south of Dewey, it has offers private villas doting the grounds, excellent food, and a delightful pool and poolside bar on Fulladoza Bay. There is free ground transportation from ferry or the airport to and from the hotel, plus use of their kayaks and bicycles. The restaurant at Club Seabourne is excellent, but if you crave a visit to a good local restaurant Seabourne owner Cecilia Rodriguez will be happy to advise.

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Neala McCarten

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