Puerto Rico’s tiny island-municipality of Culebra (pop. 2,000) has been in the news lately: It is one of the TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Top 10 Beach & Sun Destinations in the World and is also one of its Top 10 Romance Destinations in the Caribbean & Mexico. Travel & Leisure magazine just listed it among the world’s 30-most spectacular undiscovered islands.
For years, travel media have raved about Culebra’s Flamenco Beach and the island’s quaint guesthouses, small hotels, and its tranquil laid-back style, but few have ventured beyond the pristine shores of the main island to explore the offshore cays of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge.
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt established the Culebra reserve in 1909—making it one of the first of its kind under U.S. jurisdiction. Since 1983, about one-quarter of Culebra’s land mass has been directly under the care of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Its mission is to protect and manage seabird colonies, endangered marine turtles and native tropical vegetation.
There are plenty of bird colonies to protect. Some 50,000 seabirds visit Culebra’s Flamenco Peninsula each summer to nest—mostly sooty terns and other migratory species. Summer visitors to Flamenco Beach are familiar with them as they often feed in the area in large (and loud) numbers. By September, the birds have gathered up their broods and flown out to sea only to return home the following summer. Offshore cays host at least 13 other species of seabirds.
The beaches of the Culebra archipelago are also a major breeding ground for leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles and the adjacent sea grass beds provide shelter and food for green sea turtles. Refuge staff and volunteers mark off the nests whenever possible, but the beaches belong to the turtles, so human visitors are urged not to disturb them, accidentally harming them with beach umbrella poles or allowing their dogs to dig up their nests. Serious nature lovers can contact the refuge office to be taken for night visits to sites through an arrangement with members of the World Chelonian Trust, an organization that promotes the conservation of tortoises and turtles.
In addition to birds and turtles, the reserve is also an unspoiled haven for people who like to hike, swim, snorkel, bird-watch or photograph nature at its tropical best. A trip to Culebrita (literally “little Culebra”) or Cayo Luis Peña (named after a former owner) can provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Out of the 22 uninhabited cays in the refuge, these are the only two that are open to the public, and even they can only be visited from dawn to dusk.
Getting there is half the fun: Culebrita is a good mile offshore, so you need to hire a boat to get there; fit visitors can rent kayaks and paddle the much shorter trip to Cayo Luis Peña. (It is a sea crossing, however, and you should make sure the weather report is good; you don’t want strong breezes blowing you off course.)
An easy alternative in both cases is to hire a water taxi or charter a boat. Available operators change frequently, but you can find up-to-date lists at the airport, the bakery in town (PanDeli, 787-742-0296) or in many of the local businesses. Water taxi rates recently were about $45 per person.
There are no facilities of any kind on either Culebrita or Luis Peña so take plenty of water, food, and sunscreen and, since these are semi-arid tropical landscapes and there is little shade, take a wide-brimmed hat. You should leave nothing on the cays and take nothing back that belongs on them, not even a seashell.
What you get in return is a day on an isolated island surrounded by tiny beaches that have fine white sand and clear, blue water with almost unlimited visibility—in other words, your own private paradise. Culebrita has a lighthouse that was built in 1886 and decommissioned in 1975, but hurricanes and vandals have ravaged it since then. The lighthouse is picturesque and the views from the hilltop can be spectacular, but the hike up the hill isn’t easy to navigate and the lighthouse is in ruins. It is dangerous—and unlawful—to enter it. In 1981, the lighthouse was registered in the U.S. National Register of Historical Monuments but no efforts have succeeded in restoring it.
Culebrita has six beaches you can hike to along the shores. Most of them are spotless but one on the windward side is often cluttered with “interesting” flotsam and jetsam. Large tidal pools on the east side are fun to float in.
Like Culebrita, Cayo Luis Peña has rugged terrain in the center with nice coves and many sandy beaches along its perimeter. The island is said to offer some “challenging hiking opportunities” but most visitors are drawn by the great snorkeling spots especially along the coral reef on the southwest side.
For more information about the refuge, contact the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, Road 250, km. 4.2 Lower Camp, Box 190, Culebra PR 00775, call 787-742 0115 or email email@example.com. The office is open weekdays 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and most holidays.
Culebra is about 17 miles east of Puerto Rico and about 12 miles west of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. It is accessible by public ferry from Fajardo, by air from San Juan and Fajardo, and by boat. For operators and schedules, see the listings in this issue.