Again and again, the island of Culebra kept coming up in conversation. But, after each rave review of the beaches came the warning of how it’s almost impossible to get to. Great, I thought, we’re up for the challenge!
To get to Culebra there’s a few options. From most expensive to cheapest: fly ($80 return), private charter boat or tour ($75) or the local ferry ($4.50 return). Needless to say, the cheapest route is also the most difficult. Culebra is only 23 miles from the mainland, but we had a journey and a half to get there.
The first ferry to Culebra leaves from the town of Fajardo on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico at 9:00am, but we were warned to get there hours ahead of time. We rolled in at 7:30am, thinking that would leave us with a generous amount of time to get tickets, enjoy some molido coffee and hop on the ferry.
We get in line and just as we’re about to buy our tickets a scratchy intercom announces the ferry is sold out. So close! The couple behind us engage in animated Spanish with the woman selling tickets and we find out there’s still hope. The ferry reserves a certain amount of tickets for locals who work on Culebra and commute daily; if those tickets don’t sell, they’re ours for the taking.
We wait in line for the next hour and a half, sweating in the humidity and swatting away flies before we get the thumbs-up to go to the counter. I ask the woman for return tickets and she says, “No, no, the ferry is leaving. Buy them on the other side.” I ask if she’s sure we’ll be able to get tickets and she assures me quickly that we will. We hurry over to the ferry, which is really a small cargo ship with a tiny outdoor deck and an overly air conditioned interior for passengers. It turns out that the real ferry is having engine issues that week. Our choices are sweating or shivering for two hours. We opt for shivering. The ferry rocks and rolls over the waves until eventually we see the promised land. It’s been a long day already and it’s only 11:00am, but we have hope that Flamenco, one of the top rated beaches in the world won’t disappoint.
As soon as we exit the ferry we run over to the counter to get tickets for the 5:00pm ferry. Sold out! But there’s still space on the 7:00pm ferry they tell us. Tickets start selling one hour before departure.
A mere $3 will buy you a ride to Flamenco. There’s no shortage of tour guides and taxi drivers fighting for your business outside the ferry. If you want to explore on your own, Jeep rentals and golf cart rentals seemed to be popular choices.
We arrive at Flamenco and understand immediately that our journey was completely worth it. The beach is perhaps as close to perfect as you could hope for; a long stretch of powdery white, highlighted by a calm cove in hues of emerald and turquoise. Palm trees and thick green vegetation leave lots of room for shade and privacy. It also appears that the difficulty of getting to Flamenco finally worked in our favour; there are very few people on the beach, leaving us with a sense of being in a quiet and protected paradise.
The history of the island combined with its status as a protected wildlife refuge has kept away the resorts and tourists traps from moving in. There are chair and umbrella rentals and not too far off the beach you’ll find an area with 10 or so bars selling food, cerveza and pina coladas.
The beach is quite long, so take a walk and explore. When facing the water, if you go to the left there’s a camping area if you’d like to stay overnight. I can’t imagine a more amazing place to sleep if you’re up for the adventure. It costs $30 a night to camp and you need to get a permit in advance, so plan ahead.
Keep walking and you’ll eventually come across the rusting carcases of old war tanks. In 1901 the US military set-up training grounds on Culebra to hold marine exercises. They finally left in 1975, but the tanks still remain, bearing witness to the history of the island. To go back even further in time, the protected cove of Flamenco Beach was often used as a safe haven for pirates and according to local legend there’s still buried treasure waiting to be uncovered.
After our wonderful day at Flamenco we make our way back to the ferry with the hopes of getting on the 5:00pm boat. The boat comes and we wait, and wait, and wait some more. At 6:00pm it departs without us and we’re told that the 7:00pm ferry is now a 9:00pm ferry. Good thing it’s still steaming hot out, we have nothing to change into from our wet beach clothes. I asked Hernandez, the gatekeeper to the ferry where we can get some delicious Puerto Rican food. He directed us to Dinghy Dock, a small restaurant and bar on the water that is exactly as described: a dock you can pull-up to in your dinghy. Dinner was a bit pricey, but delicious and a great place to waste a few hours enjoying the ocean breeze and watching the huge tarpon swim around the boats.
Back to the ferry…hopefully for the last time. 9:30pm our boat finally leaves and by midnight we’re passed out in our condo in Luquillo. A long day, but a great one.