ALL THINGS TO SEE, DO AND EAT IN VIEQUES
For a tiny island, Puerto Rico has so much to offer. We spent an amazing week relaxing on the best beaches in Vieques, hiking El Yunque (the rainforest) and exploring San Juan. And of course, the FOOD! So much delicious food.
When it comes to vacations, I like to do my research before booking anything. Like a lot of research. I want to know the best places to stay, things to see and what to eat, especially when we weren’t staying in any one place for too long. Let me tell you, it paid off…
GETTING TO VIEQUES AND DAY 1
We started our trip with four nights on Vieques, a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico accessible by a puddle jumper flight from San Juan or ferry from Fajardo. From everything I read, I learned that taking the ferry from Fajardo to Vieques could be nightmarish (which was confirmed by a local in Vieques later in the week) and being an anxious traveler as it is, we decided on the puddle jumper on the way in.
Our luggage was too heavy to come with us on our flight, but CapeAir was great in tracking it down in San Juan and having it delivered to us at our AirBnb in Esperanza so we didn’t have to wait at the airport. Though, they are definitely on island time so it took 3 hours to get to us after it landed even though we were only a 15 minute drive away.
We checked into Pura Vida where Joe, the caretaker, gave us a rundown of the island – everything from the best beaches and food to security and gas stations. It was interesting when Joe told us the main laws for the island, seeming to think they’d bother us. They included:
- Wear your seat belt
- Don’t drive with an open container
- Don’t get nude at the beach
We knew then that this was a pretty laid back place…
Joe also had brought over some fresh mangoes from the trees in his yard along with star fruit and quenepas (a small round tropical fruit with an orange fleshy inside and hard green peel). All of them were absolutely delicious!
While we waited for our luggage, I headed over to La Tienda Verde around the corner from where we were staying to pick up some supplies for our few days. They have most basic things you’d need food and toiletry wise, but if you’re looking for fresh produce you’ll need to head over the Isabel Segunda for the main grocery stores. I grabbed some bread, eggs and OJ for breakfast and some ice cold Medalla Lights to enjoy in our hammocks that afternoon.
By the time the luggage arrived, it was time for dinner so we headed to the Malecón which is a no frills strip of restaurants and bars along the water in Esperanza. Tom wasn’t sure he’d like Puerto Rican food, so we decided to check out Bananas for our first night since it has a huge menu with both American style dishes and local fare. Tom decided on a traditional burger, though he was tempted by the Tripleta which is a local favorite consisting of roast ham, ground beef, pulled pork, fried plantains and swiss cheese. I went with the Caribbean salad with local fried fish. And of course, two Medalla Lights. Everything was very tasty and, lucky enough, happy hour goes until 7pm so both our beers and Tom’s burger were on special!
We walked a little along the Malecón after dinner but ultimately decided to turn in early given the long day of traveling we had.
VIEQUES DAY 2
We were anxious to get out and explore the beautiful beaches on day two but we had read that La Dulce Esperanza had a not to be missed breakfast sandwich. Since we also read that it wasn’t always open, we decided we should check each morning until it was. Lucky for us it was open on our first try! Tom grabbed a ham, egg and cheese served panini style on their fresh baked bread. I had the scrambled eggs with toast and a coffee which, for how unassuming the bakery is, was surprisingly good. Both meals were delicious, but I have to say that if I were a fan of cheese I would have opted for the breakfast sandwich as well. Doesn't it look good?
One thing I did absolutely love about Vieques (and Puerto Rico in general) is that more often than not the bread was baked fresh locally and tasted really amazing.
PLAYUELA (AKA PLAYA GARCÍA)
Since it was our first full day on the island, we were feeling well rested and decided to head to Playuela for a beach day. It is about a 10-15 minute walk from the parking area down a rocky path next to a swamp, which on the way in we thought wasn’t nearly as bad as we had originally imagined. The walk out was a different story – bring the bug spray! Mosquitoes were swarming.
The walk absolutely pays off as it opens to one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Crystal clear blue waters, soft white sand and palm trees stretched along the shore. There was only one other family there when we arrived at noon that had wisely set up camp in the shade of a palm tree. We decided we should do the same so we headed down the beach to the next shady palm we could find.
Since we had eaten a late breakfast, we packed some of the fresh mangoes that Joe had brought over and some pita chips that we picked up at the convenience store next to La Dulce Esperanza so we could stay on the beach as long as possible without getting too hungry. The beaches in Vieques are beautiful, but they have little if not no amenities so you have to bring everything you need with you.
We stayed on the beach until close to 5pm and during that time only 3 or 4 more couples or small groups had come and gone making it a very peaceful day.
Deciding we should try some local cuisine for dinner, we headed down to the Malecón to check out Bili for some authentic Caribbean and Puerto Rican food as recommended to us by Joe. Fortunately and unfortunately there was a festival with a live band and dancing happening in the street in front of Bili so the restaurant was packed. Not wanting to wait 45 minutes for a table, we decided to wander down the street and try Duffy’s instead, making a reservation at Bili for the following night.
Duffy’s has a menu similar to Bananas but with fewer options though they do have a large craft beer selection. Tom picked out a peach ale for me (don’t remember the brand) and an Abita Amber for himself. I decided to try the spiny lobster as I had it in Jamaica a few years back and loved it. Sadly, that was a mistake. It was way overcooked making it rubbery and difficult to chew. Tom had a cubano sandwich (sans pickles) which he enjoyed but honestly, this was one of our least favorite meals during our stay in Puerto Rico.
The festival had died down by the time we finished our meal and it seemed most people were turning in for the night so we decided to head back to Pura Vida and enjoy some episodes of Parks and Rec before getting some sleep.
VIEQUES DAY 3
We had BIG plans for our third day on the island! We definitely wanted to explore more beaches, but we also wanted to head into Isabel Segunda for lunch before rooftop cocktails at El Blok hotel and the bioluminescent bay with Taino Aqua. There were thunderstorms in the forecast for the following day, so we wanted to cram in as much as possible.
LA CHIVA (AKA BLUE BEACH)
La Chiva is the biggest beach in the Wildlife Refuge with 10+ turnoff points for parking. I had read in a random review that Lot 10 was a good place to park, so we headed there and it did not disappoint! We arrived around 10:30am and were only the second car parked there, but as we drove by some of the others we saw they were empty.
People don’t really head to the beach until after noon on Vieques we learned which made it easy for us to set up camp in the shade of a palm tree again. Most days Tom stayed in the shade reading Game of Thrones while I did anything from reading the terrible book I brought with me to walking along the beach, people watching or taking paparazzi photos of Tom.
The beach started to get crowded around 12:30 pm and we had to share our spot with a few other travelers seeking shade who luckily enough didn’t bring any giant speakers with them (locals on the island tend to bring large speakers to play music really loud while they’re at the beach which isn’t exactly my idea of a relaxing beach day in paradise). That said, we left to head into Isabel Segunda for lunch and some provisions.
Isabel Segunda is the larger of the two towns on the island with a few more restaurants, a bank, post office, grocery store and the ferry terminal. Joe had let us know that there wasn’t much going on there at night so we decided to at least grab lunch and see what it was all about.
We stumbled upon Buen Provecho, a cute little health food grocer and coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch. Tom had the cubano special (are you starting to see a pattern?) and I opted for the “make your own sandwich” choosing tuna salad on marble rye with cucumber, tomatoes, lettuce and Dijon. Oh, and an amazing cold brew with milk.
Back in Esperanza, we decided to head over to El Blok for a drink at their rooftop bar. The menu consisted primarily of cocktails and wine so Tom ordered a specialty cocktail with whiskey and mint and I had a Sauvignon Blanc. A bit more pricey than most of the other bars on the island (though I confess we never made it over to the W), but definitely worth it for a drink or two.The views were breathtaking!
Personally, I was really excited to eat at Bili. We hadn’t really gone to any truly Puerto Rican restaurants for dinner so this would be our first go at it. Tom ordered the paella puertoriqueño which had a mixture of different meats and spices and it. was. AMAZING!
I went with the seafood paella that came with half of a spiny lobster. You’d think I’d have learned, wouldn’t you? The lobster was just as tough and chewy as the first one (if not more), which I was starting to think might be the way they prefer it on Vieques but it still wasn’t for me. The rest of the dish was pretty tasty, but I definitely preferred the spice combination on Tom’s over mine.
The bioluminescent bay, or Mosquito Bay, was the one thing recommended to us most while we were planning our trip and we’re really glad we went! There are microorganisms in the water (dinoflagellates to be exact) that glow up to 100x their size when they feel threatened so with every row of the paddle or swish of your hand through the water, a magnificent bluish white glow appeared. Tom said he felt like a wizard! I, of course, went with the more ghoulish thought of a poltergeist.
There are quite a few different vendors through which you can book a tour but we went with Taino Aqua for ours and we’d definitely recommend them to others. Their customer service was great when we moved our tour a day earlier and the guides were very informative and personable. Plus, glass bottom kayaks so you can see the sparkles and glow beneath you!
One thing I will say is that if you can go either on a cloudy night or closer to a new moon, do it then. You’d be surprised how much light pollution the moon gives off out on the bay, making the glow a bit less bright.
Standard cell phones and cameras can’t capture the glow and while my Canon probably could have handled it, I didn’t want to spend my time fussing with camera settings which is why there are no photos of the bay. I decided to just capture it in my memory!
We turned in after the tour to some Parks & Rec and sleep.
FINAL DAY ON VIEQUES
PLAYA PRIETA (AKA SECRET BEACH)
The thunderstorms held off so for our final beach day we decided on Playa Prieta or Secret Beach also in the Wildlife Refuge. We had heard the beach was a bit smaller than the others but excellent for snorkeling. Given Tom’s sunburn, we opted against the snorkeling but headed to Playa Prieta anyways.
Despite its name, this was the most crowded beach we encountered during our stay with several people already there when we arrived just before noon. With some patience, we found an awesome spot under a palm tree when some early morning snorkelers left. Sadly, not long after a family plopped down next to us hanging garbage bags on the palm tree and blasting music. I scoped out another semi-shaded spot after another couple left and made Tom move a second time to get away from the music. But our shade dwindled, more partiers arrived and the breeze died down leaving us hot and uncomfortable so we headed out from the beach a little earlier than expected.
For our last night we decided that we’d head over to Café del Mar. Anytime I’m away on vacation and not eating the foods I normally do, my stomach eventually starts to feel less than great so I decided to stick with something a little more “suave” (I picked up using this word in Spain and it comes to mind faster than “bland” when I talk about stuff like this because I don’t actually mean bland per se, just something easy on the stomach). My meal was anything but bland too, it was absolutely delicious. One of my favorite meals from the whole week! I opted for the chicken breast sauteed in a white wine garlic sauce with mashed root vegetables and a side salad which came with their own fresh baked bread. Tom had the chicken alfredo which he enjoyed as well.
We wanted to head to the sunset bar at El Blok for drinks after to see if we could see the 4th of July fireworks that we heard the W might set off, but unfortunately it truly is a sunset bar and closes at 8pm! Instead, we grabbed a pint of Haagen Dazs Cookies ‘n Cream and headed to Pura Vida for one last night of Parks & Rec in bed before heading to El Yunque via ferry in the morning.
Check out Part 2 featuring El Yunque and San Juan!