The Tropics Next Door

Off Belay on Culebra

Flamenco Beach: Culebra's prized possession     Photo: Dan Gair Photography/Index Stock

THE DETAILS:

Flights on Isla Nena Air (877-812-5144) from San Juan cost $70, one-way; hop the ferry for $4. Camping at Flamenco Beach (787-742-0700) costs $20 per night, or stay in a cottage with a kitchen and deck at Tamarindo Estates, right on the Luis Pe-a Marine Reserve, for $170 per night (787-742-3343, www.tamarindoestates.com). For climbing advice, call Aventuras Tierra Adentro in San Juan (787-766-0470, www.aventurastierraadentro.com). For general information, visit www.culebra-island.com.

When I took off for Culebra, a seven-mile-long island outpost east of Puerto Rico with a stash of oceanside face climbing, I had every intention of spending my time on the rocks. I was ready for the feel of sea spray on my back while working 5.10 friction moves. But then I discovered how the sleepy rhythms of an undeveloped island can get in the way of any serious ambition.
Like Vieques, its neighbor to the south, Culebra is part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and has played host to Navy bombing practice, though things have quieted down since the 1970s, when locals protested to stop the ordnance rain. In fact, everything is quiet. There are no sprawling resorts or gaudy casinos, just one town, Dewey, and 1,542 Spanish-speaking islanders. There are opportunities for adventure—sea kayaking, sailing, diving, and of course climbing. You just have to fend off total lethargy to get to them.
Flamenco Beach is Culebra's prize possession, with consistently clear water and a mile of silky white sand. To get there, visitors take a 20-minute flight from San Juan aboard a prop plane, which buzzes over scrubby dry-tropical forest before dropping with a gulp onto the lone landing strip; I walked, sandals flapping, the mile and a half to Flamenco Beach. Weekends can bring ferryloads of Puerto Rican families, but even then there's little competition for sandy real estate. Find yourself a vacant acre, plop down under a palm . . . and erase those Jersey Shore memories of folks stacked around you like frankfurters on a Weber.
Restless beachgoers strap on masks to eyeball hogfish and schools of tang just offshore, or they boogie-board the shoulder-high breakers at the beach's south end. A mile-long dirt path leads to neighboring Carlos Rosario beach, which borders the Luis Pe-a Marine Reserve—part of the island's 1,568 acres of wildlife refuges—where snorkelers snoop the seagrass beds for conchs. In the deeper waters of the reserve, near Cayo Yerba, divers swim with stingrays among huge boulders festooned with yellow cup corals.

I eyed the trail to my intended destination, the Punta Molinas climbing area, an hour and a half of ridge hiking from the beach parking lot. The volcanic crag, riveted with bolts covered in sea salt, is a humble 30 feet or so high, but the routes are 5.9 to 5.10—and the views of the Caribbean while dangling from a flake are expansive. Most times you share them with no one. But the afternoon slipped by, so I pitched my tent at Flamenco's campground—surf 20 feet away—and watched a spearfisherman amble along with a dive bag full of red snappers, conchs, and lobsters, all of it hunted in a single lagoon.
By the next day, I'd let island time have its way with me and simply abandoned my notions of climbing. Too much work. I prowled around Dewey, stopping in a restaurant, El Caobo, where the cook pulled me into the kitchen to taste her guisada (chopped pork stew), handing me a spoonful with a smile. I ate a helping with fried snapper. Instead of being pumped out, knuckles bleeding, I sat there with a full belly and a sweating glass of Coca-Cola, slightly sunburned and utterly content.

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