The Spirit of an Island: Vieques
Written by: Liz Winston
The world watches as the locals in Vieques struggle to survive a standoff with the United States Navy.
Located just a short ferry ride from the main island of Puerto Rico and also accessible by plane, Vieques is a small island in the Caribbean that has become a fierce symbol for Puerto Rican independence. The controversy generated by the U.S. Naval base there has sparked a dialogue of international proportions.
But talk to the gay men and lesbians who make their homes on Vieques, and youíll come to see the island as they do: a place where you can still stumble on remote, beautiful spots. Ironically, this place offers the lesbian traveler her own version of Caribbean adventure ó Ginger-and-Marianne-style. And, despite the military presence, it is also a place where women can feel perfectly safe walking hand in hand through the streets of its small towns.
Like any relatively undeveloped tourist island, Viequesí charm lies in its beautiful beaches, great snorkeling, and quiet spots ó and not in its wild nightlife.
Vieques boasts a good selection of small hotels and plenty of charming rental apartments and houses all over. Gay-friendly lodging is not hard to find, even at the hotels, where front-desk clerks scarcely bat an eye at same-sex couples checking in.
If you want the privacy of a rental house, former Northampton, Mass., resident Lin Wetherby, owner of Rainbow Realty, is the one to call. Wetherby has a huge gay clientele and rents a wide variety of properties all over the island. She can also set you up with a car rental ó and youíll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to some of the best beaches.
If you prefer a hotel, youíve got a few options, depending on your price range. Some travelers like to be right in the middle of everything. If youíre one, and you donít mind some noise at night, youíll want to find a place in the center of Esperanza, a charming town on Viequesí south shore, where many of its better bars and beaches can be found. Bananas is the old standby, with inexpensive rooms and an open-air bar across the street from the water. If you crave a more secluded spot with a pool, head just outside town to the Hacienda Tamarindo.
If youíre happy to lounge lazily under palm trees and swim in calm, clear waters, head to Sun Bay, the crescent-shaped public beach just east of Esperanza. On the weekends, you can grab lunch at one of the food stands that set up camp just outside the gate. Try the chicken or pork pinchos ó barbecued meat served shish kebab-style on a stick. The pastellios, pockets of fried dough filled with spiced meat or seafood, are also very good, and are usually served with a big helping of traditional rice and beans. (Vegetarians beware: Puerto Rican rice and beans often contain pork.)
Youíll need to ask a local for directions, but the two smaller beaches that lie just beyond Sun Bay are well worth the trouble, even if they require a bumpy ride over dirt roads. The water at Media Luna is calm and the sand is white. Or go just a little farther and youíll see the more dramatic Navio, with its crashing surf and jagged cliffs on either side.
In years past, civilians were allowed access to the half-dozen beautiful beaches that are part of the U.S. Naval base. But, of course, the current political climate has changed all that. If you head to the other side of the island, though, you can still can gain access to Green Beach on the NAF base. (Be prepared to show your driverís license.) Itís a bit of a drive, but well worth it ó Green Beach boasts secluded alcoves with picnic areas, beautiful views and great snorkeling.
On a weekday, you might have any of these beaches to yourself, but weekends are a bit busier. Itís a good argument for scheduling a visit to Vieques in the spring or fall, when there are fewer tourists. Besides, thatís when the colorful Flamboyan trees are in bloom and the mangoes begin to ripen.
Donít miss a nighttime trip to the bioluminescent bay, filled with a particular type of microorganism that actually glows. A nighttime swim is a magical experience ó the water lights up with an eerie greenish cast, the stars spectacularly shine far away from the city lights, and the scent of night-blooming jasmine wafts through the air. Itís a romantic spot, indeed. Especially when you take the trip by kayak.
Once youíve worked up an appetite, dry off and have a late dinner at La Campesina or Tradewinds, right on the water in Esperanza. Or, if you find yourself on the north shore, try Cafť Media Luna in the town of Isabel Seguna. For fabulous local food, go to Posada Vistamar in Esperanza and try the lobster or fish asopao (thick soup with rice).
Let the evening linger on with a walk through Esperanza and stop to try the local beer, Medalla, at any of the waterfront bars. Or, if youíre in Isabel, shoot a game of pool at the ever-lively Alís Mar Azul.
IF YOU GO:
Thereís been a lot of talk lately about the tiny Caribbean island of Vieques, both in the news and in the gay community. The presence of a U.S. Naval base, and the disruption caused by the Navyís embarrassing insistence on conducting bombing practice and other war games despite local protests, have certainly put Vieques on the map.
The tension was only heightened when, in April 1999, a civilian security guard was killed in a bombing accident. Though some locals say the controversy is highly overblown, others remain committed to the rallies and vigils ó and the question of whether the U.S. military will remain in Vieques hasnít yet been resolved.
As the most recent spate of protests seems to die down, life is slowly returning to normal for the 9,400 residents of this 33,000-acre island off the southeastern tip of Puerto Rico. Itís certainly easy to understand why those who make their living from the fledgling tourist industry there hope for a quick resolution. The U.S. Navy controls two-thirds of the beaches there. And the combined presence of the U.S. military and protesters from the main island of Puerto Rico and abroad have hurt their local economy.
Still, a traveler to Vieques will encounter remnants of the conflict. As you drive by Camp Garcia on the eastern end of Vieques, for example, youíll see armed guards as well as a small protest camp.
Once you get a glimpse of the military situation in Vieques, call your local representatives and tell them what you think ó the islandís political situation needs all the help it can get, politically and economically.