By Joe Varghese
Much as we had heard of Puerto Rico, not much was known about the island of Culebra. The only thing we knew was that, till the recent past, it was used as a target by the U.S. Navy. For years, we have driven by the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis and the Destroyers and Submarines in Baltimore Harbor. I could imagine the big guns booming and the projectiles flying towards that tiny landmass in the Caribbean. How would it be to stand on the very same beach that had endured the mighty firepower of the Naval fleet for years, we asked ourselves ! The answer was three hours away. It was an early morning flight to Puerto Rico, landing at San Juan International Airport. Puerto Rico is one of the better countries in the region, with financial and political support from Uncle Sam. This is especially true for San Juan, where the infrastructure and lifestyle is almost like that of the US. Getting out of the airport, renting a car, and driving toward Fajardo on the East coast, was a cinch. We waited at a tiny little airport to catch a plane to Culebra. I don’t know if one can call it an airport.
Another way of describing it would be a single building with a huge parking lot, on which teensy-weensy airplanes landed and took off. When the time comes, you walk up to the plane, climb in through the back door (just like you would climb into a car) and dump your bags in the back. The plane can seat about 10 people, including the pilot. Is it too hot in the plane? Just crack open the window a wee bit! On-board refreshments ? Sure I just reach into your backpack and pull out the munchies you had bought at the airport. If you are lucky, you could call shotgun and sit next to the pilot. Culebra was half an hour away, and our eyes were riveted to the window as we passed the beautiful beaches of mainland Puerto Rico, flew over the sea with its little islands and boats, till we saw the mountains of Culebra looming in the distance. It is kinda noisy in the plane, so conversations may be limited. Every once in a while the plane may hit an air-pocket, so you have to be careful with your drink, if any.
The plane has to maneuver between two mountain peaks during its descent, which can make some people nervous. We landed at the airport, pulled our backpacks from the trunk and simply walked up to the terminal, making sure the rotating propellers were a safe distance away. Once there, you have a choice of renting two wheelers or 4-wheel drives. There are also some vans that ply across different parts of the island. We took one of the vans to a local eatery, which was the house of one of the local people. As expected, most dishes consisted of sea-food, the most intriguing of which was conch. We had the local drink: Scotch with coconut milk. The coconut milk has to be fresh or it ferments, thus ruining the taste of the drink. We tried one glass and decided the Medalla, the local beer was better. We camped at Flamenco beach, reputed to be one of the top three beaches in the world. The beach has a very well maintained camp site, which was almost deserted when we went there. It is not uncommon to see wild horses on the island. There is nothing more refreshing than to wake up in the morning to the sound of the ocean, unzip your tent and walk into a breathtakingly beautiful sun rise. We walked on the white sands of the beach, appreciating the green water and eyeing the corals that were within swimming distance. Soon we came across a couple of rusty battle-tanks on the beach. Apparently, these were the targets that were to be destroyed when the Navy conducted its exercises. Certain parts of the island are still cordoned off with fences.
We shared the whole beach with less than 5 other people. A quick breakfast later, we were swimming toward the corals. A few hours later, we were trekking to a beach on the other side of the island. It is like searching for Easter eggs: you walk through the dense vegetation and suddenly there is a beach. You walk some more, and look, one more beautiful beach, this time with corals a few meters away. Every once in a while you will find some other backpacker discovering the island the same way. The Navy has stopped using the island for target practice, and most parts of Culebra, along with its beaches and archipelagos, are protected wild life refuges. The main income source of the island is tourism, mostly domestic. It is very common for mainland Puerto Ricans to jump on a boat and come down to Culebra, enjoy the beach, have a barbeque and simply head on back home. The happening spot of Culebra is the township of Dewey, named after Admiral Dewey of, what else, the US Navy. We went there to have lunch. Dewey is nothing more than a collection of houses with some bars. The docks are a short walking distance away. The place is dead in the afternoons and sees some action at night. We walked around Dewey, talking to some of the local people. A large number of the locals speak English. The population of Culebra is around 1500, and crime is almost unknown. You could leave your bag at any place and simply walk around to enjoy the scenery. On the way back, we waited at the airport for our flight. There was a guy standing next to the ticket counter, cracking jokes and having fun. Turns out, he was our pilot. A Kashmiri gentleman named Babar, who spoke to us in Hindi. What are the chances of meeting a man from the Indian sub-continent on a tiny island of less than 1500 people in the Caribbean? Globalization has truly hit even the remotest part of the world. This trip was a unique experience: the island, its people, its food, and definitely the airplane ride.
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