The Forgotten Caribbean: Visiting Culebra

Culebra is the smaller of the two populated islands off of the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, and it is a world of its own. The island itself is low-lying, meaning that much of its surface is relatively dry when compared to the tropical paradise that is the Island of Enchantment, and even compared to the forests of its partner, Vieques. Even so, Culebra is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, if not the world, and it has a tragic history that needs to be remembered. But is visiting Culebra worth it? Of course. It’s the perfect place for a weekend getaway or as part of an add-on to a trip to Puerto Rico.

COLONIAL HISTORY

Despite it small size, Culebra has a history that’s almost a perfect snap shot of all the complexity and struggles faced by the people of the Caribbean. Archeologists have found evidence of both Taino and Arawak peoples living on the island before the arrival of Europeans. By the 18th century, the native Caribbean people had either died in wars with invading Europeans, via slavery, or they had mixed with the new people moving into the Caribbean. Shortly after, Culebra had become a shelter for pirates.

visiting culebra

Coolest postal office ever with Caribbean flare (c) ABR 2018

The Spanish crown put a stop to this, due to the island’s proximity to its Caribbean jewel, and as of 1880 colonization efforts began on the island. In fact, there is still an old graveyard that has survived into modern times from those early days of European colonization (something you should totally include in your Culebra itinerary). Within a short period of time, the single village of Culebra had grown to five villages and the people that made the island home had a thriving agricultural society.

RECENT HISTORY

In 1901, the US military established a base on Culebra, and this had long-term negative impacts on the island’s people. The base’s construction forced the resettlement of many people and closed parts of the island of to its residents.

Local people protested this treatment and this eventually led to the US military leaving the island in 1975. However, there is still evidence of this period in the island’s history left scattered across the land, and which you will see when visiting Culebra. From rusting tanks on the beach to unexploded ordinance hidden in the sand and elsewhere, the memory of what the US did to Culebra will not disappear anytime soon.

visiting Culebra

Tank left on Flamenco Beach (c) ABR 2018

In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean with intense force; it decimated Puerto Rico and Culebra with it. Many people with family ties to the island have been forced to leave due to the damage from the hurricane, or from lack of jobs. At the same time, wealthy people from the US and Puerto Rico’s main island have started buying up land on Culebra, with plans to turn this small Caribbean world into their own luxury tourism experience, against the will of the local people.

Bringing community-based tourism in Culebra now might just help local people take back their control of their home and provide jobs for residents as well. So, your Culebra itinerary could actually make a bit of a difference if you do it right.

GETTING THERE

There are two main ways to get to Culebra, and both of them have some complications.

There is a ferry that runs from Fajardo to Culebra multiple times a day, and it is very affordable. However, during busy times of the year the ferry can fill up, with preference being given to residents, and the schedule is not always kept to the standards the Americans or Western Europeans are used to. So, this can be a frustrating experience, although I had no issues with it at all when I went. I would suggest getting to the ferry terminal early in order to insure that you can get tickets and bring a book along in case you need some extra entertainment for scheduling hiccups.

visiting culebra

Getting off of the ferry onto Culebra (c) ABR 2018

Several small airlines can also facilitate visiting Culebra. They fly from San Juan or Ceiba Airport. In April 2017, we found these companies very hard to contact and were unable to buy tickets for a flight. However, many travelers have had better luck with this mode of transport than the ferries in the past. We did fly Vieques Air Link to Vieques successfully, however, and they do fly to Culebra as well.

WHERE TO STAY

Not a giant hotel.

Ok seriously though. There are some big players that are interested in Culebra and local people are struggling to maintain control of their home. If you stay in one of the small, locally owned hotels in the main village, you can make a difference. Give your money to the local community and get a taste of day-to-day life in your Culebra itinerary.

WHAT TO DO

Flamenco Beach is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, and even if you end up disagreeing, it is certainly one of the most unique beaches in the region. Visit to enjoy the beautiful water and coast, and see the reclaimed tanks left behind on the beach.

visiting culebra

Flamenco Beach (c) ABR 2018

Playa Tamarindo is another beautiful beach, which is known to be a nesting beach for turtles. Due to this, if you visit, please be careful and keep your distance from any turtles or nests that you might notice.

If you are a hiker, visiting Culebra is right up your alley, because there are several trails that you can explore, and most take you to a beautiful beach. Puerto Rico Day Trips has a detailed post about your options.

visiting culebra

Driving around on Culebra (c) ABR 2018

Culebra is the perfect place to go for a bike ride. It’s not a huge island, so you can see just about everything from the back of your bicycle. If this isn’t an option for you, not to worry. You can rent a jeep in town and take a lovely drive across the island.

Visit the Museum of Culebra and learn more about the history of this little island. The museum is sure to lend some more nuance to what you’ve already learned. The museum hours are a little bit limited, so you might want to call ahead before visiting. (787.617.8517)

visiting culebra

Colorful buildings in Culebra (c) ABR 2018

TIPS FOR THE ISLAND

(1) Do not pick up or handle anything unidentified on the beach or elsewhere.  Culebra was once used for military exercises and unexploded ordinances are still found around the island to this day. Sometimes, people get hurt by what they find. If you find anything questionable, please stay away and report it to authorities so that they can assess the situation.

(2) Many people take a ferry to Culebra for the day and bring all of their own food. Sadly, this means that the only money they spend in the community is on the ferry. You can do a lot of good for the people of Culebra by eating out while visiting the island. There is some really good food here, and the prices are reasonable. If you are a budget traveler, consider going grocery shopping once you are on the island.

visiting culebra

Some very tasty food on Culebra (c) ABR 2018

If you are looking for more to do in Puerto Rico be sure to take a look at our guide.

visiting culebra

visiting culebra

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20 Comments

  1. Bea

    So much painful history on such a small island! I like your article because you present ways how to help the local population, which is something we like to do when traveling with our family. We try to stay away from big hotels and instead rent directly from the locals if that is possible. We love hiking and trying local foods. Culebra would be our kind of place to visit.

    • waitingforrain28

      It does sound like Culebra, and probably Puerto Rico in general, would be a great place for you guys. I loved it there!

  2. I have never heard of Culebra prior to reading this post. Your pictures and descriptions are showing its beauty and express how connected the people are with its culture. I love that – would love to visit!

    • waitingforrain28

      I’m glad I could get the word out on this lovely little island. It deserves the kind of attention that will help counter the effort to steal it from the locals.

  3. Wow this really is a forgotten Caribbean island! I’ve never heard of Culebra before. Thanks for the fun read!

  4. I’ve never heard of this place and it sounds like a great place to visit. It has character and it looks so charming. I’ll definitely remember to stay in the local establishments.

    • waitingforrain28

      Seems like alot of people had no idea that Culebra existed! I am happy I could help spread the word.

  5. Wow who would have thought that there’s so much too this remote little unheard of island. Looks so beautiful and I would love to visit someday

  6. I had never even heard of Culebra before! I loved learning about the history, although its upsetting to hear about the damage and negative effects other countries have had on this beautiful island. How crazy that you can still find unexploded ordinances here?! I also appreciate that you provide tips to help the locals.

    • waitingforrain28

      I’m really happy I could help spread the word about Culebra. It is really on the edge right now and local people need some support to keep it from turning into a soul-less mass tourism location.

  7. I love finding out about lesser visited islands. This looks like a perfect weekend getaway. I also appreciate the tip about shopping on the island. Tourist income can be so needed by island communities so best to shop there when visiting.

    • waitingforrain28

      Exactly! Any money spent at local businesses can go a long way in small communities, especially small islands.

  8. Such an interesting history. I’ve never been to the region but I assume it’s difficult to get a beach to yourself—let alone a quiet island like this. Great find 🙂

    • waitingforrain28

      Honestly, it depends on where you go! There are lots of beaches where few people go in the Caribbean. You just need to explore a bit more. :3

  9. Ashley

    Thanks for the detailed review of the island! I love to read about the history along with the current travel guides. I’ve seen pictures of Flamenco Beach but had no idea that it was so close – it doesn’t look like your typical Caribbean beach!

    • waitingforrain28

      Culebra has the best of the Caribbean while being a world of its own. It’s amazing!

  10. I’m sad to say that I’ve never heard of Culebra until now, it looks so unspoiled and Flamenco beach especially looks like exactly the type of beach I’d love to spend a day relaxing on.

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