Island Hopping in Puerto Rico – Visiting Vieques and Culebra

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Ariel view of the Culebra Island, Puerto Rico.
Culebra island. Photo credit: Discover Puerto Rico

The writer was hosted.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico, mostly in the well-developed San Juan area, with its high-rise hotels and packs of tourists and cruisers. This time, I decided to explore a different, less populated area. In fact, it’s where many Puerto Ricans go for vacation for the best beaches.

The Puerto Rican islands of both Vieques and Culebra may lack the bells and whistles of many tourist destinations; there are no chain hotels or fast-food restaurants. Instead, there is something much better: laid-back vibes, wild nature and beautiful, unspoiled beaches, perfect for surfing, scuba diving and sunbathing.

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How to Get to Vieques and Culebra

Getting to the islands is part of the adventure. You can either fly on small planes from the San Juan Airport (SJU) or from the smaller Ceiba Airport (NRR) in the east. If you have more time, you can also take ferries to both islands from Fajardo.

To get to the island of Vieques — which is six miles off the coast — we headed to Ceiba. The flight was a quick seven minutes in the air. I was a little afraid to fly on an 8-seater, but it was so smooth and quick. It was definitely less scary than most amusement park rides. We had barely taken off over the turquoise sea, when we were ready to land.

Once there, you can rent a car or golf cart or book a day trip with one of many companies. There are also taxis readily available.

Read More: Places Americans can visit without a passport

SheBuysTravel Tip: Puerto Rico is actually an archipelago, which is a group of islands. Many of them are uninhabited, like Isla Culebrita, whose stunning beaches are only accessible by water taxi or local tour company. Plus, there are hundreds of cays and islets. Vieques and Culebra are the most well-known accessible small islands off the Eastern coast of mainland Puerto Rico and sometimes called the Spanish Virgin Islands.

The horses of Vieques Puerto Rico.
The horses of Vieques. Photo credit: Bethany Kandel

What to Do in Vieques

The first thing you notice when driving around Vieques are the horses. Everywhere. We learned that although they seem wild, there are about 1,500 of them, all owned by residents, but set free to roam. Many are of a breed called Paso Fino, a light-bodied equine originally from Spain, known for its quick-stepping gait.

Sign up with a local company to go horseback riding on the beach.

We did a beach-hopping tour with Angie from Vieques Island Tours. She’ll meet you at the ferry or airport in her van and provide a customized tour of the island. She’ll take you to several beaches — including the black sand beach — provide a gourmet snack and fill you in on the history of the island. She also knows all the secluded spots; perfect if you want a little privacy. Her one request: please don’t post on social media where they are located!

We also stopped at Mosquito Pier, a great snorkel spot. On a clear day, you can see the islands of Puerto Rico, Culebra, Saint John, St. Thomas and St. Croix from there.

We were treated to a tour of Crab Island Rum Distillery, the only distillery on the island. You can come for a flight of their four varieties of local rum, have lunch, and chat with owner Ivan Torres, who opened the business in 2019 in an old pump park once used by the Vieques Navy.

The Crab Island Rum Distillery at the Culebra and Vieques Puerto Rico.
Crab Island Rum Distillery. Photo credit: Bethany Kandel

Where to Stay on Vieques

There are no big hotel chains here (since the W closed after Hurricane Maria) but you’ll find a host of vacation rentals, small inns and guesthouses in towns like Esperanza. We stayed in the very unique, eco-chic Hix Island House, a zen-like haven that’s made up of open-air spacious lofts set in concrete bunker-like structures. Many have panoramic views of the island and all have outdoor showers.

It’s kind of like glamping in a tropical jungle to the sounds of bird, cricket and coqui frog sounds. The beds come with mosquito netting to protect you from any bugs since you are virtually sleeping outdoors with only natural breezes and a ceiling fan to cool you.

This isn’t the hotel for you if air conditioning is a must.

n indoor/outdoor living at Hix Island House in Culebra and Vieques Puerto Rico.
Indoor/outdoor living at Hix Island House. Photo credit: Bethany Kandel

Where We Ate in Vieques

Breakfast was a treat at Rising Roost on Calle Muñoz Rivera. You’ll often find long lines for their avocado toast, breakfast tacos, acai bowls with local honey and cortadito coffee. Try the tamarind or passionfruit juice and don’t blink twice when a rooster ambles by.

We had lunch at Rincon del Sabor, a casual roadside kiosk with outdoor seating. Try the chicken chicharrones, skirt steak, tostones, plantains and fresh lemonade. We even grabbed a few delicious mangos that fell from a nearby tree. The island is full of fresh fruit.

On the main square, you’ll find El Plaza, a popular bar/restaurant housed in an historic brick building that was once a pharmacy and a post office. It serves lots of local fish, Puerto Rican cuisine including mofongo and ceviche and many vegetarian/vegan options. Don’t miss the West Side Cheese Balls appetizer. They serve lots of craft cocktails, including those featuring Crab Island rum.

The El Plaza restaurant in Vieques Puerto Rico.
El Plaza restaurant in Vieques. Photo credit: Bethany Kandel

Next Stop: Culebra

Sadly, we didn’t have much time on the island of Culebra. Since there’s no ferry from Vieques to Culebra, we had to fly back to the mainland to get there. Instead of an hour-long ferry ride or another flight, we opted for a day trip to the famous, horseshoe-shaped Playa Flamenco, consistently ranked among the world’s most beautiful beaches.

The Sail Getaways all-day excursion took us for a beach and snorkel trip to Culebra. We stopped for a snorkeling expedition near Playa Carlos Rosario, a quieter option than some of the more popular beaches.

The reef goes almost all around the horseshoe cove, with lots of varieties of fish and fauna. If you’re lucky you may spot some live coral and a turtle or two.

Then we headed to the pristine white-sand Flamenco Beach, for a couple of hours of fun. I shell-hunted, sunbathed and dunked in the calm, crystal clear, warm waters of the Caribbean.

Aboard the boat, we had a delicious deli lunch accompanied by an open bar with lots of rum drinks and pina coladas. Sun was shining, tunes were blasting and we all sang along. It was the perfect day trip.

The tank on Flamenco Beach, Culebra Puerto Rico.
The tank on Flamenco Beach, Culebra. Photo credit: Discover Puerto Rico

Culebra’s Iconic Attraction

I took a walk down the beach to see Flamenco’s most iconic attraction – an abandoned tank that looks out of place in paradise. It is left over from when the US Navy used the area for target practice. Now rusty and covered in graffiti, it’s become a popular spot for selfies.

There are some facilities and food stalls on a little boardwalk near the beach and you may find locals selling drinks or trinkets.

If You Stay on Culebra

If you stay on the island, spend some time at the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, a habitat for endangered sea turtles and the largest seabird nesting grounds in the Caribbean. It’s a great place for hiking, birdwatching and secluded beaches.

Check out some of the surfing beaches and Playa Tamarindo beach with its rocky shore for picture-perfect scenery and magical sunsets. You’ll also find great snorkeling on Melones Beach, known for its calm and clear water.

Kayak on the beached of Culebra and Vieques Puerto Rico.
Bio Bay magic. Photo credit: Discover Puerto Rico

The Must-Do: Experience a Bio Bay in Puerto Rico

Witnessing a bioluminescent bay is one of the must-do experiences when visiting Puerto Rico. There are five worldwide, with three located in Puerto Rico.

Vieques is home to Mosquito Bay, the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world, but unfortunately, that location is closed on a full moon — plus the day before and the day after. So we went on an equally great guided nighttime tour with Kayaking Puerto Rico to Laguna Grande, the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo.

You kayak under the stars for about two miles through a mangrove-covered canal. When you finally arrive in the giant open bay, stir the water and the water will light up. This natural phenomenon is a result of the high concentration of microscopic plankton that glow in the dark and are visible when you move your hands or oars around in the water. It’s a magical experience. Thank you, Mother Nature.

Because the moon was bright, we sheltered ourselves under a tarp, making the plankton even brighter. Splash some on your legs and you are covered in sparkles, like in a live Disney movie.

Dine and rest at the El Conquistador Resort in Culebra and Vieques Puerto Rico
El Conquistador Resort. Photo credit: Bethany Kandel

Where We Stayed and Ate in Fajardo

Before and after heading to the islands, we stayed in the town of Fajardo on mainland Puerto Rico. The luxurious El Conquistador Resort has everything you could want in paradise:

  • an 18-hole golf course
  • 17 restaurants, bars and coffee shops
  • a spa
  • water park
  • private beach
  • marina

It even has two glass funiculars to ride from the cliffside hotel down to the water. The 511 rooms (growing to 750 in 2026) all have amazing ocean views of the aquamarine sea below.

The Flamenco Beach, Culebra and Vieques Puerto Rico.
Flamenco Beach, Culebra. Photo credit: Bethany Kandel

Things to Do at El Conquistador Resort

Take a free boat ride to the hotel’s private Palomino Island for a day on the pristine white sand beaches. They provide the lounge chairs and umbrellas, and food and frozen drinks are available for purchase. If you want privacy, rent a cabana. You can also rent jet skis, paddle boards and kayaks.

Kids will love the hotel’s giant Coqui Water Park, with three slides, an infinity pool and a lazy river (that adults, like me, can enjoy as well).

We had a delicious Italian dinner at the hotel’s Bono restaurant and then grabbed a refreshing passionfruit paleta ice pop at the onsite ice cream parlor.

Another night we enjoyed dinner at the nearby La Estacion. Former New Yorkers, Kevin Roth and Idalia Garcia opened the Fajardo open-air restaurant in a former gas station after years of visiting the area.

Their unique Nuyorican BBQ merges traditional American BBQ technique with a palate of Caribbean flavors and spices. The melt-in-your mouth brisket was the best I ever had. And the atmosphere was pure Puerto Rican jungle. (Don’t skip the incredible caramelized bread pudding for dessert.)

Bethany Kandel is a New York City-based journalist and author. In addition to, she has written for hundreds of national and local publications and websites including The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, and New York Family. She loves to travel and find the offbeat in her own city and around the country and world. She is also the author of the parenting resource book, The Expert Parent (Pocket Books) and the educational children’s book, Trevor’s Story: Growing Up Biracial (Lerner Publications). She is the founder of the website,
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