Thursday, December 19, 2013

Vieques by Jeep

We would have missed a huge opportunity had we not left the W Retreat & Spa property during our stay. The island of Vieques is such a stunningly beautiful place in its raw, natural state.

We weren't sure which day we wanted to rent a car, so we didn't make any reservations in advance. That was a mistake, because when we went to the on-site Island Car Rental outpost after breakfast on Sunday morning, they were all sold out for the day.

The unmotivated agent took down my number and said he would call me if one opened up. I soon learned that this "give me your number and I'll call you" was a common trick in the Puerto Rican service industry to manage annoying customers, because this happened several times on our trip and no one would ever call us back. But in this instance, it was OK because Sunday ended up being on and off rainy all day.

The next morning, my father thought he'd try his luck again. This time, an older manager was also helping out the first agent. They went back and forth in Spanish and finally told me they were calling the Avis down the road to see if they had any availability.

Of course, my father being a frequent flyer/loyalty program nerd (he's an Avis Preferred member), he had already checked Avis' website the night before, which said they were also sold out for the day. But for some reason, Ricky at Avis said they had jeeps available.

For just $77 for 24 hours, we'd be on our way. In fact, Ricky would come pick us up at the W Lobby and drive us to the Avis. Perfecto!

Since the quality of the roads were known to be horrible (and the fact that we'd be offroading), we fell for the rental agency push to get damage liability insurance. For $22.95, we were fully covered and could return the vehicle with any amount of damage. You would think that this kind of practice would mean we received a car in horrible condition, but in fact, our jeep was brand new. It only had 4,000 miles on it.

So we road out, armed with a cheap map and my own car seat from home, and set off West on Rt 200 towards the old abandoned military bunkers.
As you can see, there aren't many roads in Vieques. That being said, these aren't the highways you may be accustomed to living in the mainland United States. These are more akin to country roads that aren't always labeled. Yes, they're paved, but they're not very well maintained, which is why most of the tourist rental cars are 4x4 Jeeps.

Our first stop was the Giant Ceiba Tree. Luckily for me, when we arrived, there was a bunch of wild horses grazing around the tree. I never realized how much I loved horses til I came to Vieques.

We could have driven out on the long Mosquito Pier to get another perspective, but we opted to continue driving along Rt 200. Since the maps weren't drawn to scale, we did our best to estimate when the turns were coming. As I mentioned earlier, the roads are really not clearly labeled, so it became hard to differentiate between a road and someone's driveway and just a clearing. But eventually we found our way into the "jungle."


As you can see, the "road" is barely wide enough for one car to get through. In fact, through much of the jungle adventure, the vegetation was excessively more than this photo suggests, but my father was so focused on driving (and my mother was so focused on panicking), that we didn't have a chance to take any pictures. To give you an idea though, imagine you were driving your car straight into a huge bush with the branches and leaves striking the exterior of the car like a drive through car wash. Then add in the fact that you cannot see more than 5 feet of road in front of you with no confidence that there wouldn't be another car going the other way. The map (as you can guess) was completely useless, but we had faith that eventually, the vegetation would clear. And it did.

After this taste of wild Vieques (and flashbacks of episodes of LOST), we made our way back to civilization and drove to Esperanza. After passing several lovely residential mansions as well as abandoned shanties, we finally made it to the busy seaside street with a new promenade alongside beach town restaurants and hostels.


Our next stop was the fabled Blue Beach (La Chiva as the locals refer to it). To access this raw beach, you need to drive into the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Natural Refuge which is open to the public. In case you're not sure which road to take, you will see the infamous Sol Food truck right by the entrance.

After a long drive on a paved road, you will reach the point where the road turns into gravel. Still drive-able by regular cars, you will soon encounter the potholes that will make you thankful your father rented a 4WD vehicle.


Eventually, you will see side "roads" branching off the main road. Taking one will lead you down towards the beach. You may also see some warning signs that you should pay particular attention to. Decades ago, Vieques Island was used as a U.S. military bombing target. Apparently, if you see something that might be a live munition, it could very well be. That being said, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't allow tourists here if it were a likely to stumble across one.



But this beach was actually not Blue Beach. From the sand, you could see down the shoreline towards a more stunning serene beachfront. To reach La Chiva, you needed to go back and continue along the main road. You kept driving along until you passed a bridge (full of potholes) and saw a large sign. Then you had reached La Chiva.

Blue Beach is actually accessed by a series of different entrances (as seen here). For convenience, they're labeled #1-15. We kept driving past each one checking to see if there were already cars parked inside. Unfortunately for us, each entrance had 1 rental jeep already there. 

But by #15, we just parked alongside and walked towards the clearing. As you can see, even though all the parking spots had people there, the beach was still clear of tourists. You could easily imagine yourself stranded on an uninhabited island with nothing but the gentle waves in your ears and mosquitoes on your legs. Oh yeah, bring bug spray!

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