Vieques a peaceful, relaxing, low-key island of rolling hills, is located 11 km across the sea from Puerto Rico. It was catapulted into the limelight in 1999-2000 when locals campaigned for the removal of the US military from their bases at the east and west ends of the island. The island is about 34 km long by 6 km wide, the inhabitants mostly concentrated in the main town of Isabel Segunda. The island was named Graciosa by Columbus, after a friend’s mother, but was better known as Crab Island by pirates who frequented its waters.
There is an excellent historical museum at the beautifully restored fort, El Fortin Conde de Mirasol which was the last fort begun by the Spanish in the Western Hemisphere. Week days by appointment, T7411717, 7418651 evenings. Wed-Sun 1000-1600. There is another interesting exhibit at the Punta Mulas Lighthouse. T7415000. Daily 0800-1630. The biggest ‘action’ is on Sat night in Esperanza. Everyone promenades along the sea front dressed in their finest, talking & flirting, before going to a nightclub or bar.
The US Military owns two thirds of the island, the east third and west third, with the civilian population living on the middle strip. Both bases are theoretically open to the public upon presentation of any photo identification except on days when the red flag is up: when manoeuvers and/or bombing practice are underway. However, since December 1999 Naval security guards have prevented tourists gaining access to beaches even when no exercises have been taking place. The beaches can still be reached by boat. The Navy’s reaction was as a result of the establishment of a protest camp at the gates. The US Navy is under pressure to leave and return the land to the people. In 1999 the Governor requested an immediate end of US weapons training on the island after a civilian was killed in a bombing error, see page 516. The military is heard but not much seen, planes and helicopters fly low but since only a handful of personnel are permanently stationed on the island, it is not a base town atmosphere. The land owned by the military is mostly untouched, creating a bird sanctuary and nature preserve.
Vieques has over 52 beaches in secluded coves, the few developed beaches have people and exuberant groups of picnickers, the rest are deserted. Public Sun Bay has picnic and camping areas (no shade in camping area, but there is lots of petty theft so not many people camp there).
Tourism is an infant industry on this island, but is rapidly being promoted to provide employment and reduce poverty. Hotel construction includes the US$30 mn Casa de Playa Beach Villages a condo-hotel with 210 rooms and 70 villas. The port and airport are also being expanded and modernized. The small beach town of Esperanza is the main area of guest houses and tourist related restaurants, bars, dive companies (Blue Caribe Dive Center, SSI facility, full service, T7412522, PO Box 1574), et cetera. The museum in Esperanza has archaeological and natural history exhibits. Tue-Sun, 1100-1500, T7418850.
Small, hardy, island horses, most with paso fino blood lines (that means smooth gaits with no bouncing) are still used as transport, and wild horses roam the island. Renting a horse is an exciting way to explore the beaches and coves.
Mosquito Bay, also known as Phosphorescent Bay (the BBC broadcast a documentary about this in 1994), is a large, but very shallow bay, surrounded by mangrove trees and full of bioluminescent organisms. Sightseeing trips go at night (recommended are the tours that use non polluting electric boats or kayaks), US$15-18. The organisms glow when disturbed. The glow generated by a 13 cm fish is about a 39 cm circle of light brighter than a light bulb. Swimming in this glow is a wonderful experience. Clark, T7417600, has a small boat; Sharon Grasso at Island Adventures, T741-0717/0720, www.biobay.com, has an electric boat, naturalist; Blue Caribe Divers, T7412522, SSI, PADI, for kayak tours and night scuba dives.