Culebra 2012: Carribean Beaches

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Culebra, Puerto Rico



Five of us were sitting outside a bar at the end of the runway of Culebra’s tiny airport.  There weren’t any planes whizzing overhead, but along came three Paso Fino horses prancing past us to a gate that opened on to the grounds at the end of the runway.  Sleek animals that seemed sure of their elegance and worthy of their name, which means “fine step”.  It turns out that Puerto Rico, which Culebra is a part of, has been famous for breeding them for centuries, from the time that Columbus left 20 horses and 5 mares on a nearby island in 1493.  On the next evening, perched on bar stools, we not only got to see the horses again but also a long-legged runner strutting his stuff nearby to impress the ladies.  He should have been there on the first evening when a few mature ladies were enjoying a raucous girls night out. Describing Bar Delicioso as a bar is a stretch.  It was a shack with two rooms.  One end had an L shaped bar, partly outside and partly inside with a few stools on each side.  Behind the inside section was another tiny room lit by huge colorful neon signs for beer and a wide-screen TV on a wall bracket.   It had a pinball machine and a table or two.   I ordered a rum and coke, hoping to feel as local as I looked.  It came in a small plastic glass with ice, all rum with a whisper of coke.  I was totally ripped after one drink and definitely could not pass as a local, who, I assume can hold their liquor.
Culebra (Snake Island) is small (7×5 miles) about 20 miles from the main island of Puerto Rico.  It has about 2,000 permanent residents and not many tourists.  One time-share complex failed, but small hotels and guesthouses seemed busy.  The downtown area, with the unlikely name of Dewey, is better known as Culebra pueblo.   The houses and shops are small, even tiny, but painted in bright pastel shades that glow in the sunshine.  Many houses in the outskirts look unfinished with concrete pillars jutting out in front or on top of the first level.  They are additions in progress whenever savings permit continuing work.   Expectedly, the main economic activities are tourism and construction.
Culebra Pueblo
Culebra is a rocky, hilly archipelago with 23 smaller islands off its coast.  These islands, and parts of Culebra, are classified as nature reserves.  It also has turtle nesting sites and a bird sanctuary, established by President Teddy Roosevelt, who had earlier been Governor of Puerto Rico.  It is semi-arid and needs water piped in from the main island.  Agriculture is obviously not a major activity as most plants need irrigation and fertilizer to grow.  Some animals do manage to survive though.  We met goats and chickens along the road, one turtle passing the municipal dock and two impressive two feet long iguanas that were probably responsible for leaving their droppings just outside the front door of our house to mark their territory. The island was used as a refuge for pirates and eventually settled in the late 19th Century.  For its small population, it has a really diverse group of immigrants including Amerindians, Spanish, Africans, French, German, Italian, Lebanese, Chinese, Scots, Irish and finally, and most recently, Cubans fleeing Castro’s communism.   Most seem to have survived it being used for gunnery and bombing practice by the American navy between 1939 and 1975.  A dead tank on the best beach is a reminder of that era.
We were a group of seven staying in our host’s comfortable house built on a promontory a few hundred feet above the sea.  Virtually all rooms in the house had a spectacular view: on one side the sea was strewn with a few islands before it opened; and on the other side was a bay with one island and several anchored boats.  The sky at night was clear with visibility deep into the Milky Way and beyond to Andromeda.  I know this because an ipad 2 app called StarWalk showed it.  At the weekend, visitors from the main island chose this bay to anchor boats alongside one another to ease the flow of people, music and booze.
View from Chrisine's house
The color of the sea was several shades of blue, light where there was sand underneath and darker where there were weeds or rocks.  The temperature of the water varied too, depending on the flows from the open sea, which were colder.   The nearest beach was a walk down the hill.  To not make it sound too idyllic, it was windy up on the hill, strong for long periods; there were short bursts of light rain every now and again; and the bugs freely attacked my calves and ankles, paying no attention whatsoever to the liberally sprayed bug repellant.The best beaches, with protective reefs to dampen waves, were 20 minutes drive away in the north shore of the island.  Flamenco, with a mile stretch of pure white coral sand framed by tree-covered hills, was my favorite, but Zoni, which was smaller, was fine too.  Flamenco reminded me of Malindi, a beach near Mombasa in Kenya.  I didn’t swim that much, but nevertheless really enjoyed being in the water, breathing refreshing air, taking in the scenery and, one day, body-surfing small waves.   Others in the group took to the water for longer swims and snorkeling.

A few of us ventured to take a yoga class under a canopy at the end of the municipal dock in the middle of the main bay that was peppered with anchored sailboats.   The blue sky with small, slowly moving white clouds, the sound of water gently beating on the shore and birds flying around made for an ideal setting.   Most of the yogis in the class were under shade, but I was not.  The sun was bright and uncomfortably hot.  Nevertheless, I appreciated my surroundings and got unusual views of the bay from a variety of yoga positions.   Yoga has gained popularity everywhere in the US and now has more than 20 million people that practice regularly.
View from the harbour
Except for a lunch at Zaco’s Taco, which was good, we did not venture out to taste local fare.  On the way in, I did try a plate of Comida Criollas at a cafeteria near the small airport in San Juan.  For a vegetarian, it was just unexciting beans and rice that I had to shower with chilly sauce for taste.  We ate very well at the house.  Indeed, it was great fun putting together three meals a day collectively.  The food and drinks were good, thanks to a couple of chefs and drink mixers in the group.  I made a modest contribution as a bus-boy and dish-washer.

Zaco Taco RestaurantCulebra is not easy to get to.  From San Juan International Airport, I had to transfer to Isla Grande, a tiny airport.  The short flight to Culebra was in a small propeller plane that seated 8 passengers.  The young man next to me had never been on such a tiny plane.  Poor guy had a white-knuckled grip on the seat in front through the 30 minute journey, made longer by an unscheduled stop at another island to drop off one passenger.  On the way back, I had an interesting chat with a retiree from New York’s health care workers union who had worked on Obama’s health care law.

Fruit Juice Shack


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