If you’re looking for a guide for Vieques, you’ve come to the right place! Read on to find all the information you need to plan your vacation to this off-the-beaten-path tropical getaway!
Have you ever heard of Vieques? Until I started researching our girls’ trip to Puerto Rico, I certainly hadn’t. In fact, what led me to discover Vieques was my search for a bioluminescent bay. I had heard that Puerto Rico had some of the best, and as I was trying to decide which one to add to our itinerary I discovered that the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world could be found on another Puerto Rican island called Vieques.
Another Puerto Rican island? Who knew!
As it turns out, Puerto Rico is actually a commonwealth made up of a bunch of islands. Among the largest in the archipelago are Culebra and Vieques, which both sit off the eastern coast of the main island of Puerto Rico. The more I read about these islands, the more I knew we had to visit at least one of them on our trip. They seemed to have it all: a laidback, off-the-beaten-path vibe; gorgeous, pristine beaches; and lots of fun things to do.
Even though Culebra’s Flamenco Beach has been listed as one of the most stunning beaches in the world, the bio bay on Vieques eventually gave it the edge. We decided to spend three of our seven nights in Puerto Rico on Vieques.
That decision was probably the best one we made on the entire trip. We loved Vieques and easily could have spent another day or two there. The beaches were just a breathtaking as the internet had promised, there were tons of great activities, and the strip of beachfront bars and restaurants in Esperanza was a lot of fun at night.
Today, I’m sharing a comprehensive guide to Vieques that will help you plan the perfect vacation to this incredible island!
The Vieques Guide at a Glance
Where is Vieques?
How to Get to Vieques
How to Get Around Vieques
Things to Do in Vieques
What to Eat on Vieques
Where to Stay on Vieques
Is Vieques Safe?
How Long Should I Stay on Vieques?
Downsides to Visiting Vieques
Pre-Columbus, Vieques was populated by the Taíno people. As was the case with many Caribbean islands, invasion by Spanish conquistadors had a devastating effect on the local culture. During the colonial period, Vieques was a bit of an outpost, with the Spanish having ultimate control despite some attempts by other colonial powers to establish a foothold there. It even became a favorite hiding place for pirates; Mosquito Bay, the famous bioluminescent cove, is named not for an overabundance of bloodsucking insects but after a pirate ship nicknamed The Mosquito that used the bay to evade capture.
Vieques became part of Puerto Rico in the mid-19th century and was acquired by the United States in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. In the 1940s, the United States military took control of large chunks of Vieques to use for weapons testing and military exercises. For the next sixty years, the island was battered by bombs, mock seaborne invasions, and other military maneuvers. It wasn’t until 2003, after years of protests, that the military left the island for good.
Rather than selling off the land over to developers, however, it was turned over the US Fish and Wildlife Service to be preserved. Although the presence of the military on the island was tremendously unpopular, every Vieques native with whom we spoke lauded this final parting decision. Rather than being marred by high-rise condos or all-inclusive resorts, many of the best beaches and bays of Vieques are now preserved in their pristine glory to be enjoyed by all.
Today, there are two main towns on the island, Isabel Segunda and Esperanza. Isabel Segunda is on the northern coast and is the bustling administrative center of the island. (“Bustling” being a relative term.) Esperanza, on the southern coast, is a quieter town where most tourists choose to base themselves due to the proximity to the beaches. Because the US military took over the eastern and western ends of the island, you’ll find that everyone lives and works in the middle.
Where is Vieques?
Vieques is located about seven miles off the eastern coast of “mainland” Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea. It’s not tremendously difficult to access (more on that below), but it feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of San Juan.
How to Get to Vieques
There are two ways to get to Vieques: by airplane or by ferry. The quickest, easiest, and most pain-free way to get to the island is to fly there. It is also the most expensive.
You can fly to Vieques from three different airports on the island: the main international airport in San Juan (Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport – SJU); the smaller Isla Grande Airport (SIG), also in San Juan; or the tiny José Aponte de la Torre Airport (RVR) in Ceiba, the same city where the ferry docks. (Ceiba is about an hour from San Juan depending on traffic.)
Flights are most expensive – but most convenient – from SJU, especially if you’re connecting immediately upon arrival in Puerto Rico. If you’re exploring San Juan first, Isla Grande is a great option to save a little money. Finally, the Ceiba airport is perfect for those exploring the island with a rental car and looking for the least expensive flights. Since the return ferry is much more reliable than the one going to Vieques, you could even book a one-way flight from Ceiba and then take the ferry back to save even more cash.
The ferry is very inexpensive, but it’s also a bit of a pain. The dock is an hour or more from San Juan, so you’ll need a rental car to get there. Even if you have a ticket, it’s possible to get bumped from your sailing for reasons ranging from Vieques residents getting priority to mechanical issues, bad weather, or the boat being oversold. The crossing itself takes longer (between 45-60 minutes compared to 10-30 minutes), though it’s a pretty ride on a nice day.
For us, it was worth the hassle to take the ferry. It would have cost anywhere from $240 (from Ceiba) to at least $900 (from SJU) for the three of us to fly. Roundtrip on the ferry, however, was only $43. Taking the ferry also allowed us to experience the town of Luquillo and its famous food kiosks, which I’ll talk about in a future post, and it’s always enjoyable to be out on the sea when the weather is fine.
Make sure to check out my tips for taking the ferry to Vieques to make your crossing as smooth as possible!
How to Get Around Vieques
The easiest way to get around Vieques is by renting a car or golf cart. Make sure to do this well in advance, as places do sell out. Keep in mind that it is not permitted to bring a rental car from mainland Puerto Rico, so you’ll need to rent a separate vehicle for when you arrive.
When choosing a vehicle, I recommend getting a 4-wheel-drive rather than a sedan. The dirt roads to some of the farther-flung beaches can get pretty rough, and you won’t want anything to hold you back from exploring. I would also advise you to choose a car over a golf cart, as we were told by multiple locals that they are unsafe for many of the roads. Our publico driver from the ferry to our hotel was all too happy to regale us with stories of the frequent (and sometimes horrific) crashes involving tourists on golf carts.
If you are unable to rent a car or choose not to, your best bet to visit the beaches is to use a private taxi or “publico” (taxi van). We were able to get a shared publico from the ferry terminal in Isabel Segunda to Esperanza for $5 per person. The disadvantage to using a publico is that they won’t necessarily go to all the beaches because of the rough terrain, so you may need to hire a private driver instead.
One of the most popular and reliable services for public vans and private taxis is 741-TAXI (787-741-8294). Your hotel or guest house may also be able to help you arrange transportation.
Things to Do in Vieques
Tourist activity on Vieques largely revolves around the beaches and the Bio Bay, but there are plenty of other fun things to do.
Kayak the Bio Bay
If you do nothing else on Vieques, don’t miss a kayaking tour of bioluminescent Mosquito Bay. Not only is it the most popular thing to do on the island, but it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in all my travels.
Mosquito Bay is full of microorganisms called dinoflagellates that radiate a brief glow of light when disturbed. When you kayak through the bay, the movement of your kayak and especially your paddle causes the dinoflagellates in the water around you to glow. It’s an unbelievable sight, like you’re floating on a sea of tiny stars.
It is incredibly difficult to photograph or film of this phenomenon, but this video does a great job in capturing just how unreal it is:
I can’t say it enough: do not miss the Bio Bay.
Hit the Beaches
The beaches on Vieques are some of the best in the Caribbean. I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere that had a higher density of gorgeous, secluded beaches. There are so many and so few other tourists that it’s completely possible to feel like you have an entire paradise all to yourself.
Check out my guide to the best beaches on Vieques to learn more!
Admire the Horses
Vieques is home to a population of not-quite-wild horses that freely roam the island. While each horse technically belongs to someone, they are only wrangled on special occasions. Otherwise, you’ll find them grazing in the wildlife preserve, swishing away flies along the road, or trotting down the street along the malecón. It’s such a fun quirk of the island!
Explore the Mangrove Forests
One of the coolest things we did on Vieques was to kayak through a mangrove forest and learn more about these fascinating ecosystems.
It is the mangrove forests that are responsible for the dinoflagellates that light up Mosquito Bay. They also provide essential habitats for fish, birds, and other creatures, including shelter from predators and a safe haven for spawning. It was such a cool experience to kayak through the dimly-lit, narrow maze of mangroves and feel the richness of nature surrounding us.
Do Some Watersports
In addition to the mangrove forests, there are numerous other places to kayak around the island. Vieques is also home to great snorkeling, and there are stand up paddleboarding (SUP) and scuba diving opportunities as well.
On our first full day on Vieques, we took an all-day tour that included the mangrove kayaking, a little sea kayaking, and snorkeling at a deserted beach. While we were slightly spoiled by our snorkeling trip in Belize, it was still a great experience. We saw tons of colorful fish and coral, lobsters and lionfish and eels. I would highly recommend trying to do some snorkeling, either with a tour or just renting your own equipment, while you’re in Vieques.
I can’t think of a more perfect way to end a day on Vieques than with a sunset cruise along the island’s coastline. There are lots of ways to set sail around Vieques, from chartering a private boat to joining a tour that includes snorkeling and lunch. You can even take a sailing trip to Culebra to experience the beautiful beaches there.
Step into History
Whether you’re a fan of lighthouses, colonial forts, plantation ruins, or all three, there’s something for you on Vieques.
El Fortín Conde de Mirasol is a Spanish fort located in Isabel Segunda. It’s free to visit (though donations are appreciated) and beautifully maintained. You can also visit the ruins of Playa Grande sugar plantation toward the western side of the island. It’s possible to explore on your own, but you can learn more about the area by taking a tour through the Conservation Trust Museum in Esperanza.
Lighthouse enthusiasts shouldn’t miss Faro Punta Mulas in Isabel Segunda. It has a pretty garden area and museum. Another lighthouse, Puerto Farro, is available to visit on the southern coast. It’s crumbling a bit and you can’t go inside, but the views absolutely cannot be beaten. Just make sure you don’t stray from marked paths in this area.
What to Eat on Vieques
Even the pickiest palate can find something delicious on Vieques, and especially in Esperanza. Many of the bars and restaurants on the malecón like Duffy’s, Bananas, and Lazy Jacks have menus full of American bar and international fusion food. You can find everything from mozzarella sticks to Caesar salads, fried plantains to fish tacos.
Here are some places we enjoyed during our time on Vieques:
- Rancho Choli. If you’re looking for Puerto Rican food, this is the place to go. Rancho Choli has an unassuming storefront with a cute open-air dining area in the back. The food is delicious – Mom, Brooke, and I destroyed some roast pork (lechon) with rice and beans after a long day of beach hopping – and the staff were incredibly kind.
- El Guayacan serves great Puerto Rican food right on the malecón. Because it’s not as big and flashy as some of the other places, it feels a bit like a hidden gem. Our kayaking and bio bay excursion included a home-cooked takeaway dinner from El Guayacan that was fantastic.
- El Quenepo came very highly recommended to us as the best restaurant on the island. We didn’t end up eating there, as it was more high-end than we wanted at the time, but it’s a beautiful place and everything we heard about it was glowing.
- Trade Winds has a very tasty brunch on Sundays. We split an omelette, French toast, and a side order of bacon and it was the perfect breakfast for the three of us. Our server was also one of the most friendly we encountered on the island.
- Duffy’s and Bananas are side-by-side beach bars that have similar menus and a similar island vibe. Both have good food, good drinks, and a fun atmosphere, though I will say that we liked Duffy’s a bit more.
Where to Stay on Vieques
Due to its close proximity to the beaches, good restaurants, and pretty seaside setting, I recommend basing yourself in Esperanza.
We stayed in the lovely Malecón House, which was a real treat This boutique hotel is located at the quiet end of the malecón within easy walking distance of the restaurants, bars, and tour meeting points. Across the street is one of the most picturesque viewpoints in town, and the sunset panorama from the roof is not to be missed. (There’s even a bench up there to sit and enjoy it.)
The rooms are bright and airy, and the whole hotel is beautifully decorated. There was plenty of room for the three of us, which isn’t always the case when traveling in a trio. My only complaint was that the shower was a bit tempramental. It was hard to maintain a consistent temperature, so I went from being scalded to frozen multiple times during the course of a shower.
Many accommodations in Esperanza offer some beach amenities, and Malecón House was no exception. Beach chairs, coolers, umbrellas, beach towels, and other gear are all free for guest use. This was invaluable, as we obviously hadn’t brought any of that stuff from home.
Malecón House also served a simple but tasty breakfast each morning by the pool area.
Other recommended places to stay on Vieques:
- El Blok Hotel. Friends of mine honeymooned here and had good things to say, as did my blogger friend Merry. There’s a rooftop area with an incredible view and a great restaurant onsite.
- Hacienda Tamarindo. This place was highly recommended by our driver-guide during our beach hopping tour. It’s located a little outside of town, so you won’t be within easy walking distance, but the views – and the reviews – are divine.
- The Vieques Guesthouse. Despite billing itself as the “World’s Okayest Guesthouse,” this budget-friendly option is a great find.
- Finca Victoria. Your Instagram feed will never be more on point than during you stay at this trendy bed and breakfast in the mountains.
- Villa Coral Guesthouse. It’s hard to beat the $89 base rate at this cozy little guesthouse located away from the hustle and bustle.
- Lazy Hostel. Located right on the malecón near one of the more bustling beach bars, Lazy hostel offers mixed and female-only dormitories as well as private rooms.
Is Vieques Safe?
Although we were warned by our server in Luquillo that “Vieques is not Disney[land],” we never felt unsafe walking along the malecón in the evening. Esperanza, especially along the waterfront, is a tourist-dense area with a lot of activity, so you should be fine there. We did see one or two beggars and a few small groups of young people smoking pot and minding their own business, but that was the extent of it.
Like any place, make sure to use normal precautions. From what locals told us, most of the violence on the island is associated with the drug gang. Thus, if you don’t buy, sell, or use drugs, you should face no more threat than the usual petty theft that you’ll find anywhere. Use good sense and keep an eye on your belongings on the beaches.
Speaking of beaches, one unique danger on Vieques is the risk of encountering unexploded ordnance. While the main beaches have been cleared (including all of those in my guide), there are still some areas in the nature preserve where it’s possible to encounter munitions left behind after the military occupation. Pay attention to posted signs and do not go wandering on your own through the wildlife refuge. Also, do not attempt to swim out to the island in the middle Bahía de la Chiva (La Chiva Bay).
How Long Should I Stay in Vieques?
It seems like many people come to Vieques to do the Bio Bay and then leave soon after. In my opinion, though, the island deserves more than a two-night stay. You’d be doing yourself a disservice by not spending at least one day beach hopping, let alone exploring the sugar mill, kayaking through mangroves, going on a catamaran cruise, or any of the other fun things to do mentioned above.
If you’re going to make the effort to get to Vieques, I recommend planning to stay for a minimum of two full days, if not three. If you’re really a beach bum, make sure you allot at least three or four.
What Isn’t Great About Traveling to Vieques?
Even though we really loved Vieques overall, there were a couple of things we did not like about the island:
It’s not an easy place to get around.
This is especially true if you don’t have your own vehicle. We found that the publicos were not as reliable as most taxis or rideshare services in other places. It took almost two hours of calling around to find someone to take us to the ferry terminal for our return trip to Puerto Rico.
It was more expensive than we anticipated.
Main courses at the restaurants along the malecón in Esperanza were easily between $16-$25 on average. The hotels we considered cost more per night than we would have guessed. While you can find cheaper options, like delicious Rancho Choli or one of the hostels lining the malecón, make sure that your budget has some wiggle room.
The ferry system to get to Vieques, while inexpensive, is not easy and reliable.
Choosing to travel to Vieques by ferry dictated how we spent many hours of our time in Puerto Rico beyond the actual passage itself. We chose to stay close to the ferry terminal on the main island the night before, so the whole balance of our arrival day was centered around setting us up for success on the ferry in the morning. We also got bumped from our original ferry to Vieques and had to wait for another. Because of that experience, we made sure to arrive extra early to the terminal on Vieques so that we wouldn’t get bumped on our return trip. If you add all that all the time lost to parking shuttles, taxis, driving from and to San Juan, etc., it’s a significant investment of time if you’re already on a short vacation.
The vibe was not quite what I was expecting.
Granted, we stayed in the most tourist-friendly area of Vieques – along the malecón in Esperanza – so I can’t speak for other parts of the island like Isabel Segunda. But I was surprised at how many of the locals we encountered were transplants from the mainland US or other places outside of Puerto Rico. It was hard to find the Puerto Rican, Creole, or other Caribbean dishes we were looking forward to trying, and the music was primarily in English. In a lot of ways, we didn’t feel like we were experiencing much Puerto Rican culture.
That said, once we readjusted our expectations we really liked the relaxed, beachy vibe we found in Esperanza. We never felt like we had to get dressed up, and everyone we encountered was friendly and in love with the island. I love a sandy, beach shack restaurant and bar, of which Esperanza has plenty, and all the food we had was very tasty.
As you can see, Vieques is a really special destination that deserves a spot on your Caribbean bucket list. I hope that this guide to Vieques helps you plan one of your best vacations yet!
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