There is something about Latin pride, the urge for the fiesta in the heat, and inviting family life when traveling down to Puerto Rico. Many of my American friends don’t even realize that Vieques in the Caribbean is US commonwealth amuses me; Anyone can travel there simply with a driver’s license. The traditional food – I’ll elaborate later – is straight-out medicinal cookbooks!

When arriving in Miami, we got stranded on the tar-mat for over an hour: the plane on the gate before us had luggage aboard of a passenger that had not checked in for the flight. As bothered as I am about the inconvenience of security check done by mostly unfriendly people in ATS uniforms… when the captain announced we would have to wait for the crew to remove the luggage before the other plane could safely take off – I pondered; why the luggage is so dangerous after all the security screenings they put us through? Seemingly the Airline security can’t be trusted; they loaded the cargo with “dangerous” luggage… The money spent on screening and airline delays every day is wasted money – the lacking funds not available to train school kids properly or to serve any food on planes anymore.

We slept in the Casino Hotel at the airport in Puerto Rico; there was no connection flight until the next morning. Orbitz had sold me on a one-night stay, Continental breakfast included. The breakfast was a shameful attempt to cover this false promise. The room was dusty, the sheets not clean; We would have been better off sleeping on a hard bench in the airport.

The flight over to the Island of Nena; Vieques, in a two-motor Cessna, is a Disney adventure. I love the steep scary landing down to the little airport. My friend Ulfi, the co-pilot, and I managed to rent a car with the help of Eddi and Theresa, who run the airport Café. The car was better than most, usually renting a car on Vieques means getting a beaten down wagon that somewhat has survived the tortures streets and off-road driving. Our car was missing interior parts, and with only two gas stations on the entire island, you risk standing in line for hours, especially with an empty tank when renting…

Black Beard Divers, a newly established PADI dive center in town, is expanding with a second location in Esperanza, next to Duffy’s. They rent bicycles as well) I recommend you try the burger at Belly Buttons; bring Deborah my greetings; she has to learn to scuba dive! Because of the economy and possibly because it is only the start of tourist season, the choices for good restaurants are minimal. The few supermarkets are sparsely stocked with healthy choices, a rather odd realization for an Island that should have a booming agricultural business.

The ferry did not work that day; All of San Juan celebrated Columbus day… Well, I wonder if he “discovered” Puerto Rico on his way out of America or on his miss-navigated way around the other side of the world… Either way, the Commonwealth of PR is now celebrating two Columbus days…

Black Beard divers finally got a boat but were still not ready for charter. I love their team, friendly Diane, and sparkling Jamal, who escaped confined water sessions because he is chasing after a modeling career on the main island… I wish they all would be respond better to timely e-mails and telephone requests about any dive schedule. Diane recognized I had sent a few e-mails and even left voice messages, but they were too busy to call back…?? Maybe because of the delayed service, I got a break in my rental equipment. Thank you.
Black Beard’s product and gear are up to par and in excellent condition. I have to ignore they cater to harpooning enthusiasts; in the face of a few rare large Groupers, Barracudas, and even turtles I saw, I’d like to think it is unwise to support the uneducated hunting of anything that swims around the island… I’ve witnessed the collecting of starfish and large shells; the only predator to COD fish; a problem on the rise in the Caribbean. Someone should at least post a sign of protected species, please!

Not much diving is mapped on this island yet, and for any adventurous diver fascinated about discovering new territory, this is underwater heaven. One of Black Beard’s Instructors, Arnaud, helped Ulfi and our Open Water student Angelo get geared up. We headed out to the Mosquito peer on the Caribbean side of the island. The Sea in November can be choppy on the Atlantic side of this little island. Security by the peer is actually instructed to watch out for divers. However, the nearest Decompression Chamber is over by St. Thomas or the main Hospital in Puerto Rico. Entrance and exit are not difficult. The peer is about 10-16 meters deep. 100 meters before the Mosquito Pier is an ideal shallow water entrance for student divers.

The many public beaches attract mostly local people. Some of the multiple black sand beaches in the reservation area are accessible for tourists. However, some are still closed: The Navy who left Vieques in 2003, has used some Eastern parts for bombing exercises and possibly un-detonated munitions, making swimming or scuba diving dangerous. It is all well marked, and signs of restrictions are posted. Don’t drive faster than 20 miles in the protected area and wear your seatbelt: The police are certainly on the watch out there.

Sun Bay is great, along with a shallow water beachfront that invites swimming along the coast at sunset. The wild horses naturally on this island roam around freely. Some look branded; some are shoed. It’s not recommended to get too close to the mother horse. She might charge; in fact, some local kids amuse themselves by feeding the horses Papaya to confuse ‘em (I don’t know why either) and then rope them up as photo trophies… Hey, I’m just repeating stories… But the horses are skittish. The local tradition of sitting in the shallow beach water while drinking beer from cans they discharge carelessly is an ugly pollutant and could be corrected simply with education. Watch out at night. Some consider driving under the influence a “normal” Vieques traffic regulation.

And here, to the Yucca Root-inspired dinners, Mofongo made of Plantains, chicken Tripleta, the spicy salsas, and delicious veggie Tostones – I ate every day! From a TCM perspective, Puerto Rica’s street food is healthy, rich, and filling. Sure, you’re in the Caribbean and by the salty sea; hence, consistently hungry and everything tastes so much better washed down with a Pina Colada… and finally a creamy coconut pudding called Tembleque!

After a strenuous three-day dive course, Angelo is one last exam away from becoming the youngest scuba diver on this island. The night before last, we found ourselves in the Bioluminescent bay, swimming in underwear like a glow fish amongst a group of Jehovah’s witnesses. Really odd combination. Although it is one of the only available tours to this world’s unique spectacle, I cannot recommend the Abe Captain boat Adventure. Anyone would be better off finding a local friend to escort them out to the bay and save the $30 we spend on a rather poorly guided experience, no prior preparation info, and a scary ride in a funky bus that really was not road safe… Renting a Canoe for two is cheap. The road back to the bay could be an amazing adventure, but not in a bus full of religious people. Make sure you bring two marking lights to find back ashore in the jungle of red mangrove… Besides, it is a shark nesting ground… but it adds to the fun – smiles.

Thanks to Hal, Doneley, the Hix’s, and the Hutchington’s assistant and hospitality, my short travel back to Vieques turned out to be incredible and surely humbling. I even had a private moment of self-realization. Angel’s parents, Eddie and Theresa, kept both of us fed and hydrated, and their Bistro business by the airport deserves everyone’s support. If you need your lunch package prepared before you fly across the US in one of the “foodless” carriers, make sure you call Café Isla de Nena and have chef Eddie personalize your order. He also prepares perfect dive lunch-boxes for a very reasonable prize…(they are on the street out to Mosquito Pier, a fun dive spot).

I’m now flirting with the idea of drafting and proposing a Culinary-Dive School – A youth program that would support the environment of this beautiful Island and possibly is the missing link for the new W Hotel project. The seed is planted in my head – I never know anymore what life is holding next for me… This one baby needs a few generous helping hands to come alive… I can dream, can I?

TCMchef Raphael

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