When Elliot and I began planning our winter getaway to Puerto Rico, we were pretty intentional with our itinerary. We wanted to have a relaxing trip that didn't involve too many hotel switches, but we also wanted to make sure our tourism dollars were being put to good use.
We decided to split our time in Puerto Rico between the city and the beach; we spent 5 days in San Juan, and 3 days on the island of Vieques.
Vieques is a small island 8 miles off the east coast of the main island of Puerto Rico. Most well-known for being home to the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world, Vieques is also a popular weekend getaway spot for both locals and tourists alike.
A little Vieques history
It would be easy to simply say that Vieques is a laid-back, beachy paradise, but I think it's important to know about the island's history before visiting, too.
Vieques was first inhabited by indigenous people that came from Caribbean regions like Cuba and Hispanola. They became known as the Taíno people, and were the first people Christopher Columbus would have come into contact with when he “discovered” the New World.
The Spanish claimed Vieques along with Puerto Rico in the 1490s. The smaller island eventually became a center for Taíno rebellion against the Spanish, leading to the Spaniards killing, imprisoning, or enslaving most of the native population of the island.
After the Spanish rolled in, Vieques experienced a few hundred years of lawlessness, becoming a hotspot for pirates and smuggling. Then came the sugarcane plantations in the mid-1800s. In 1898, after Spain lost the Spanish-American War, Vieques (along with the rest of Puerto Rico) changed hands and became a US territory.
In 1941, the US military seized most of Vieques to be used as an outpost for its Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the Puerto Rican mainland. After WWII ended, the US Navy continued using Vieques for munitions testing and didn't leave Vieques until 2003, after a few long years of local protests.
After the military left, much of Vieques was designated a National Wildlife Refuge. But there are still scars left behind; some visible (like the signs around the island warning you to watch out for unexploded bombs), and some more sinister (like the mysteriously high rates of cancer and other serious illnesses among residents).
On top of all this, Vieques was hit hard by Hurricane Maria in 2017; not only were buildings flooded and destroyed, but the world-famous bioluminescent bay went dark for a while, as the tiny organisms that produce the bay's glow all died.
But Vieques has rebounded. There are few physical signs of hurricane damage any longer, and the bio bay is now brighter than it ever was before. And since the island doesn't get the cruise ship tourists that the main island of Puerto Rico sees each year, we knew our tourism dollars could do some good on Vieques.
When to visit Vieques
NOTE: During the COVID-19 pandemic, Puerto Rico hasn't technically closed its borders, but the island is not currently promoting tourism (and it's my understanding that visitors may not currently be welcome on Vieques). Please don't plan a trip until it's safe to do so!
The weather in Puerto Rico is generally pretty warm and tropical year-road, but there are definitely some months that are better for a visit than others.
Puerto Rico basically has two tourism “seasons.” Peak season is from December to May, and off-peak season runs from June through November. June-November is also hurricane season in the Caribbean, and can be slightly wetter (and obviously also sometimes full of hurricanes).
Another thing to consider when visiting Vieques is the moon cycle. If kayaking in Mosquito Bay (the famous bioluminescent bay) is on your to-do list, you'll want to schedule it for as close to the new moon as possible, since darker skies make for a brighter bay.
Elliot and I visited Vieques at the new moon in late February, and it ended up being pretty perfect. It was hot enough to swim (and the water here is always warm enough for swimming), and the bio bay was super bright!
How to get to Vieques island
There are two different ways to get to Vieques: you can take the ferry, or you can fly.
The ferry leaves from Ceiba, which is a little over an hour from San Juan by road. The ferry is cheap (only $2 per person) and only takes about half an hour. But the ferry can get crowded (especially on holiday weekends), and locals are always given preference over tourists. And since you can't buy tickets in advance, there is sometimes a risk of not making it onto your desired boat.
The other way to get to Vieques is by flying. There are flights from 3 different airports to Vieques; you can fly from San Juan International Airport (SJU), Isla Grande Airport (SIG), or Ceiba Airport (RVR). Several small airlines fly these routes a couple times per day, including Vieques Air Link and Cape Air.
The flights are short (30 minutes from SJU, 20 minutes from SIG, and 10 minutes from RVR), and prices can vary. The most expensive route is from SJU, and the cheapest from RVR.
Elliot and I flew on Vieques Air Link from Isla Grande (SIG), which is not far from SJU. It's a small regional airport, and we paid $170 round trip each. You fly in tiny planes (ours had seating for 10), and don't be surprised when you AND your luggage have to step on a scale before boarding.
In the end, we were glad we flew. It was quicker, didn't involve paying for a taxi to/from Ceiba, and the views were pretty phenomenal!
Pro tip: If you're planning to fly back home directly after your time on Vieques, I highly recommend allowing a few hours in between your flights. Flights to/from Vieques can sometimes experience flight delays due to weather. (Our flight back, for example, was delayed 2.5 hours because of a stubborn storm hanging out above San Juan.)
Things to do on Vieques
Once you finally GET to the little island of Vieques, you'll be happy to know that there are plenty of things to do if, like me, you aren't really the “lay-on-a-beach-for-days” type of traveler.
Vieques is home to less than 10,000 people, and only has two “cities:” Isabel II in the north, and Esperanza in the south. The latter is the touristy town where you'll find most of the island's guesthouses and restaurants.
Here are some of the top things to do on Vieques:
1. Go beach hopping
I kept joking while we were on Vieques that the island (which only covers about 50 square miles) is pretty much just one big beach.
There are many, many choices when it comes to swimming and sun bathing. All the beaches on the island are public, and most were somewhere between really quiet and completely empty when we visited.
Most of the best beaches on Vieques are long the island's southern coast, with some local favorites being located within the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. (Note, though, that the far eastern part of the island is not open to the public!)
Some beaches worth visiting include:
- Media Luna – A horseshoe-shaped beach with calm, clear waters. This was our favorite beach on Vieques!
- Playa La Chiva – A wide beach in the wildlife refuge that has some good snorkeling spots.
- Playa Caracas – Another beach in the wildlife refuge with good snorkeling.
- Sun Bay Beach – A wide beach with palm trees; you can often find horses roaming here (they're not wild, just free-range).
- Playa Negra (Black Sand Beach) – Getting to this beach requires a short hike through the forest, but the soft black sand at the end is worth it.
- Coconut Beach – This beach was right across the street from our guesthouse, and it was quiet and perfect for watching sunsets.
- Punta Arenas – Located at the northeast tip of the island, this beach requires a drive on a very rough road. It's a good spot to snorkel with sea turtles.
- El Gallito (Gringo Beach) – A nice, calm beach on the northern side of the island.
Note that the roads leading to some of these beaches are unpaved and rutted; they can get really muddy and dangerous after heavy rain, so be careful!
2. Kayak at Mosquito Bay at night
Puerto Rico is home to three of the brightest bioluminescent bays in the world, with the brightest being Mosquito Bay on Vieques.
A bioluminescent bay is a bay that's filled with lots of tiny organisms called dinoflagellates. These microscopic creatures are a type of plankton, and omit light when the water around them is disturbed; you can kind of think of them as the fireflies of the sea.
Mosquito Bay has one of the highest concentrations of these light-emitting dinoflagellates in the world, and you can see them in action by kayaking around the bay at night.
It's nearly impossible to capture this experience with a GoPro, smartphone, or regular camera – you'd need some serious professional gear in order to really do it justice. But suffice it to say that this is one of the COOLEST things I've ever done. (You can see a video here.)
As you paddle in the dark, the water around your paddles and the bottom of the boat sparkles with silver-blue pinpricks of light. If you dip your hand into the water, you can see tiny trickles of light drip down your arm. Splash around, and it gets even brighter.
But don't worry: scientists say none of this harms the dinoflagellates in the water.
You'll need to book a guided tour in order to do this, and there are many companies that offer nighttime kayaking tours on Vieques. We went with Bieque Eco Trips, and had a really good guide who explained the phenomenon well, did some star gazing with us, and allowed us plenty of time to paddle around while singing Star Wars music. (We were in clear-bottomed kayaks, so every time we moved fast, it felt like we were entering into hyperdrive.)
Pro tip: Advanced bookings for these tours is absolutely essential, especially around the new moon (the darker it is, the brighter the bay will appear). Not every company on Vieques offers online booking, so you may actually have to pick up the phone in order to reserve a spot. I highly recommend going with a company that offers clear-bottomed kayaks.
3. Go snorkeling
It's not exactly the Great Barrier Reef, but there are still some really cool snorkeling opportunities around Vieques – including the chance to snorkel with sea turtles and rays.
You can go snorkeling on your own at several beaches (Punta Arenas, Blue Beach, and Playa Pata Prieta are all decent for snorkeling), or you can book a guided trip that will take you to other spots, including the Mosquito Pier.
The Mosquito Pier is a long fishing pier that turtles often like to hang around. We saw three while just walking along the end of the pier.
If you're interested in a guided snorkeling tour on Vieques, try Jak Water Sports, Abe’s Snorkeling & Bio Bay Tours, or Vieques Paddleboarding.
4. Take a horseback riding tour
You'll see horses roaming free all over Vieques. These horses aren't wild, but may seem like it when you see them strolling along the beach or chilling on the side of the road.
Horseback riding is a great way to see Vieques from a slightly different vantage point. I wasn't able to do this on our trip because of weather issues, but it's something I would definitely recommend! The Esperanza Riding Company and Colon Horseback Riding are both good options on the island.
5. Eat at a food truck
Food trucks are quite popular on Vieques! There's a food truck park at the north end of the island called Vieques Food Park, and trucks also gather each day in the parking lot at Esperanza Beach.
Elliot and I may or may not have eaten twice at Dexter's Backyard BBQ since the truck was at Esperanza Beach twice during our stay. The brisket is unreal, the cobbler is some of the best I've tried, and they also had a watermelon lemonade that I couldn't get enough of.
6. Enjoy sunset drinks
The “main road” in Esperanza is basically just a strip of different restaurants and bars, most with patios that offer views of the ocean.
Take a walk along the Malecon (a paved boardwalk overlooking the ocean) and take your pick from a handful of bars and restauratns. Grab a seat, order a drink, and enjoy a beach sunset at least once.
7. Go on a jungle hike
Lastly, if you want to get more active on Vieques, there technically ARE some hikes you could try. Personally, hiking in hot and humid weather is literally one of the last things I like doing when I travel, so Elliot and I didn't bother bringing any hiking shoes.
The most popular hike is one around the Playa Grande Sugar Mill Ruins in the southwest part of the island, though I've read that the trails aren't always well-marked, and there's no cell reception – so proceed at your own risk!
You can also hike to Cayo de Tierra, an almost-island attached by a sand bar to Vieques in between Esperanza Beach and Sun Beach.
Where to stay on Vieques
You won't find any huge beach resorts or hotels on Vieques; this is a small island that still feels like a small island. Most of the accommodation options here are small guesthouses.
Elliot and I stayed at the Vieques Guesthouse, which is within walking distance to all the restaurants in Esperanza, as well as Coconut Beach. We LOVED this guesthouse. Our room was spacious, the price was reasonable (just over $100 per night), and the owners were so incredibly friendly and full of great island recommendations.
Best of all, we were kitted out with all sorts of beach gear to use for free during our stay, including snorkeling gear, beach chairs, a small cooler, towels, and even a shade umbrella.
Other good options on Vieques include:
- Malecon House – The top-rated hotel on the island on TripAdvisor.
- Hacienda Tamarindo – A more secluded, luxury getaway.
- El Blok Hotel – A unique, urban-inspired adults-only hotel.
- Casa de Amistad – The top-rated B&B on the island.
- Bravo Beach Hotel – An option in Isabel II instead of Esperanza.
Where to eat on Vieques
There aren't a *ton* of places to choose from, but some of our favorites during our stay included:
- Rising Roost for coffee and breakfast
- Trade Winds Restaurant for Sunday brunch
- Dexter's Backyard BBQ (food truck) for lunch
- Coquí Fire Café (near the ferry terminal) for lunch
- Tin Box (in the center of the island)
- El Guayacán for dinner
- Bananas for drinks with a view
Can you visit Vieques on a day trip?
Technically, yes, you can visit Vieques on a day trip from the main island of Puerto Rico. There are day-long snorkeling and sailing trips you can book, or you could conceivably fly/take the ferry to Vieques in the morning and leave in the evening.
I would not recommend this, though; you really need more than just part of a day on Vieques! AND, if you want to take a tour of the bio bay, this is something that has to be done at night, meaning you really do need to stay over.
How long to spend on Vieques
So if a day trip isn't long enough, how long SHOULD you stay on Vieques?
Personally, I think you need at least 3 days to explore all of Vieques. A longer trip of 5-7 days would be great, too, especially if you like to take things a bit slower, but 2-3 nights is perfect as an add-on to a longer trip in Puerto Rico.
Elliot and I stayed 2 nights on Vieques, and it honestly wasn't long enough! We got to see/do most of the things we wanted to, but we definitely would have loved to have another night or two.
How to get around on Vieques
Renting a car or Jeep is the best way to get around on Vieques, even though rentals can be quite pricey (anywhere from $60-$90 per day is standard). But having the freedom to explore all corners of the island makes it worth it in my opinion.
Jeeps are the most popular rental vehicles on the island, and are sometimes a good idea to tackle the bumpy roads to some of the island's best beaches. But Jeeps are the vehicles that will book up first. If you can't rent a Jeep (or just don't want to), you absolutely can still get around Vieques in a regular car, too.
We rented a Kia Soul from Maritza's Car Rental, and it was just fine! (And I'd highly recommend renting from them.)
So there you have it: more than you probably ever thought you needed to know about planning a trip to Vieques.
We loved our trip to this little slice of paradise, and definitely recommend it for anyone looking for a tropical getaway. Right now especially, your tourism dollars can really help the local economy on Vieques.
Have you ever been to Vieques? If not, do you want to plan a trip there now?
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