Culebra Island: The Hidden Gem of Puerto Rico with Something for Everyone

There’s something for everyone at Snake Island. (Sarah Landis)

Culebra, a.k.a., Snake Island, is still a sleepy little speck, just a hop from the mainland of Puerto Rico, where fine white sand beaches, coral reefs and friendly smiles abound. Go for the snorkeling, for the diving, or even just the sunbathing and people watching on Flamenco Beach, but don’t go looking for luxury in the form of high-end resorts or fine dining – it’s not there yet.

And that’s the allure of Culebra: it’s an escape, not only from cold climates, but from the fast pace of life, the onslaught of media and marketing — Internet is slow and intermittent — and also from our consumer-based society (no ones trying to hawk anything anywhere on the island). Without ever leaving the U.S., you will be transported to another world, and a simpler time.

My family spent a week searching for the best beaches, swimming, snorkeling and diving. We’re a hard bunch to please: I have two newly minted divers in my family, my son, 13, and daughter, 12, and their instructor, my dad, plus my diving husband. They were looking for easy dives to build the kids’ confidence with their gear, while I was looking for some good shore snorkeling and sandy beaches for my Kindergartener and my mom. We found all that in Culebra, plus stellar views at night from our perch above the main town of Dewey.

There are no real must-see attractions, no museums demanding attention or hot spots begging to be sampled, and so we simply relaxed, dipped our bodies in the warm briny sea, and played in the sand. Somewhere along the way our collective “reset” button was pushed.

And don’t worry about the name: We only saw one snake (curled in our pool cover) and no venomous snakes inhabit Culebra. Whew! Chickens and roosters are a different story.

How to get there

Traveling to Culebra recently got easier, with Cape Air offering four flights a day directly from San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport for $200-$350 round trip. The 30-minute flight on the 10-seat (including the pilot) puddle jumpers is more exciting than a ride at Six Flags. If you’re lucky, you might even get to ride shotgun next to your pilot.

Alternatively, a ferry connects Fajardo on the east coast of the main island to Culebra for only $2.50 each way. That route entails taking a taxi (about $80) from San Juan, or renting a car one-way ($26-$70) and driving 90 minutes or more over congested roads.

Where to stay

(Photo: Clube Seabourne/Facebook)

Many of the small hotels found on Culebra are tired and 3-star at best. Club Seabourne, with its bay views and loaner bikes and kayaks, offers villas starting at $250/night and appears fresh and clean.

Perhaps the most attractive lodging option is a house rental. We called Ravens Nest ($4,850/week) home for the week and enjoyed spectacular sunsets from the porch, with breathtaking views of Vieques, St. Thomas, and the big island of Puerto Rico. A local yoga teacher holds class at the library in town, but the views and breeze on our shady porch were so compelling I did my practice on my own right there.

If you want to make your dollar stretch and have an adventurous spirit, you can camp at world-famous Flamenco Beach for only $20 per night. Between jobs? Head over to Snake Island for a month or two!

Related: No Passport Needed: The Perfect 7-Day Trip to Puerto Rico

Where to eat

A meal at Dinghy Dock (Facebook)

Restaurants on Culebra struggle with the fluctuations of seasonal and holiday travel so plan to eat early or to spend up to 90 minutes sampling mojitos at the bar while you wait. Just relax, you’re on island time! Don’t miss Dinghy Dock, a colorful hub lively with water taxis and dinghies transporting patrons from sailboats moored in the bay. The big attraction here, in addition to a solid menu of seafood classics and barbecue, is the tarpon. If you have anything left on your plate, just scrape it over the side of the dock and the giant fish make an appearance. What a fabulous way to teach the kids to clear their plates! Main courses $12-$30.

Zaco’s Tacos offers casual Mexican fare, with a long wooden-plank swing to amuse the kids while you wait. My waiter here assured me it would be alright to have another margarita, though I was driving. “You can drink and drive here. It’s o.k., really, everyone does it. Really.” Um, no thanks. Good thing the speed limit reaches a max of 35 mph.

Vibra Verde is a welcome breakfast and lunch spot, with healthier fare, such as sandwiches on whole grain bread and fruit smoothies, a bit of home in the land of rice and beans.

Culebra staple Mamacita’s sits over the water by the bridge. The menu, written on a board, changes nightly. Expect to find fish, mofongo (a Puerto Rican specialty made from mashed plantains and garlic, often stuffed with fish), burgers, sandwiches plus live music on the weekends. Mains $16-$28.

Susie’s, the one “nicer” restaurant on Culebra with linen on the table, closed just after our stay to reopen as a tapas and sushi restaurant.

What to do

When ferrying in to the island, make the schlep worth the effort and seize the opportunity to kayak through the world-famous Bioluminescent Bay. Just be sure to book that popular excursion well in advance as tour companies book up quickly.

Consider renting a Jeep or golf cart to explore the many beaches and snorkeling and diving sites, since that’s why you go to Culebra in the first place. Publico vans connect the ferry dock in the main town of Dewey to the world famous Flamenco Beach ($3 per person). Roads are rutted and parking in town is tight.

The beaches on Culebra are surprisingly varied and the absence of rivers makes for good visibility underwater, though we grappled with turbidity following heavy rains. By all accounts, this was rotten luck and not the norm. Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles nest on several beaches April to June, and they populate the waters year round.

Flamenco Beach (Angel Xavier Viera-Vargas/Flickr)

Flamenco Beach is a gorgeous white sand crescent with a long shallow water entry and gentle surf. Food stalls and public toilets (BYOTP) and showers are convenient. We spied people from all over the world here, along with their selfie sticks, but also a lot of daytrippers from the big island. It seems even Puerto Ricans need to take a vacation, and this is where they go.

Melones Beach, though much smaller and covered in rocks and coral, offers good snorkeling with an abundance of sea fans plus reef fish. My babe enjoyed exploring some tide pools and shell hunting while I took cover under a tree. Mind the spiny sea urchins. Signs warned us not to dig in the sand, lest we disturb an as-yet unearthed vestige of U.S. military operations on the island. Land mines? Bombs? We didn’t want to find out.

Playa Tamarindo was a crowd pleaser for my multigenerational family. Our kindergartener loved playing in the sand, while the rest of us snorkeled among sea turtles, stingrays and the coral reef. We were happy to see the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources is growing staghorn coral on several structures placed near the reef. You can rent a kayak and go on a kayak/snorkeling tour right there on Playa Tamarindo if you want a guided experience.

Diving in Culebra (Sarah Landis)

The four divers in our group rented SCUBA tanks from El Nuevo Mini Mas, next to the gas station just over the bridge, and headed back to Tamarindo. (A bargain at $9/tank, $5 refills, $5/weight belt) But once they completed the long swim out to the dive site, strong currents prevented them from lengthy exploration. Skip this dive and stick with the snorkeling, unless conditions are optimal.

Captain Walter, a friendly Swiss ex-pat who owns Culebra Divers with his wife, Monica, took our group on a pair of dives with 2 tanks for $125 per person plus tax and tip. After anchoring at Punta del Soldado, he helped each diver into his tanks and down the boat’s ladder, then got in himself and led an underwater tour, also playing photographer to the group. While we are pretty self-sufficient, Capt. Walter helped us search out the best dives to be had on that day.

Related: Cheat Sheet: San Juan, Puerto Rico

By the end of the trip, my two oldest kids were more comfortable with their equipment and confident in their abilities. My daughter beamed as she told me she made it all the way down to her 60-foot depth limit, a 20-foot bump she earned by turning 12 just days before. Mission accomplished!

We left with smiles on our faces and plenty of photos of turtles, stingrays, and sea fans, plus the quintessential shots of palm trees and gorgeous beaches.

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