Culebra (do not take the ferry)

July 25-28, 2013

I’d heard Culebra described as one of the “Spanish virgin islands”.  A tiny dry island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico with beautiful beaches and lots of snorkeling… what better time to go than a four-day holiday weekend in July, and with the summer students?

The first step was to get to Culebra.  With an established ferry service, this oughtn’t be rocket surgery.  The weekend we chose was a big four-day holiday, right before the start of school in August.  The lines would be long, but we’d get there early and the students would wait in line to help us get tickets.  Along with a research astronomer, a postdoc, and a visiting grad student, I spent the night at a hostel in Fajardo by the ferry terminal, making fish tacos on the roof and sipping three-star Ron de Barrilito while watching the sun set.  Not a bad way to spend my birthday.

My alarm went off at 2:30 am the next morning.  I rolled out of the comfortable hostel bed, showered, hustled the other astronomers out of their bunks, and proceeded toward the ferry terminal.  Between us we were lugging a cooler of snacks and drinks, as well as a backpack and another bag apiece.  We found the summer students who had been waiting since about midnight in the terminal.

Around 4 am the first ferry, a cargo one, left.  The students hadn’t been able to get tickets for it.  We waited until 8:50 in a series of ever-worsening lines to board the 9:30 ferry, which left 40 minutes late.  I’ll let the sardonic and very British Rhys underscore the levels of agony the line entailed.  He made his own post on the topic of getting to Culebra.

The ferry mistake (I wouldn’t deign to call it an option) involves waiting in line for around 8 hours, starting from 2am. This means actually getting to the island (the ferry takes 1.5 hours) takes longer than a transatlantic trip. The first half of this gruelling task consists of waiting in line to buy the tickets. The line is very long and is entirely outside, and of course there’s nothing open at 2am (there aren’t even vending machines). Theoretically, you may be able to get on a 4am ferry this way. But would you want to ? When you get there you’ll be exhausted and nothing will be open, so don’t do that.

If you have a large group, don’t think you can get away with having one person take one for the team and wait in line all night. That’s not how it doesn’t work. How it doesn’t work is that everyone in your group has to wait, otherwise you might not all get on (I’m saying “doesn’t work” because this is not a system, this is not even organised chaos, this is just chaos).

The second half of the experience happens when you’ve bought the tickets. This part is inside, technically. The building is well-ventilated, but open to the air and so doesn’t have air conditioning. There are vending machines and a small shop that opens at some ungodly hour, but there aren’t anywhere near enough seats. For reasons best known to themselves, the staff insist on grouping everyone in tight, claustrophobic lines about 3 hours before the ferry is due to depart. This does absolutely nothing except annoy people.

In short, getting the ferry to Culebra is not so much a public service as a cruel psychological experiment studying the combined effects of massive sleep deprivation and overcrowding.

At least the terminal had a nice view in the suffocating humidity.

The agonizing wait of six hours ended.  We got on the ferry, occupied the back row of seats, and liberally applied sunblock.  Everyone has pet peeves; one of mine is applying sunblock to a humidity-drenched face after a night of not sleeping.  Very specific.

Poor Roberto had gotten a second-degree sunburn earlier in the summer and was thus being quite liberal with sunblock application.  Michelle was skeptical.  Or exhausted.

Goodbye, Fajardo!  The 9:30 ferry with all of us onboard chugged out of the Fajardo harbor at 8:50 am.

The astronomers started perking up.  Having killer shades helped.

If we needed to maroon anyone, it would be on this island.

We arrived at Culebra and after some difficulty communicating with our host, finally made it to our housing.  The students’ place wasn’t ready, so eight or nine of them showered at our place.  I fell into the bed and slept with the air conditioner running while everyone went to the beach.  Dinner was burgers at a local spot; I found a seaweed salad.

The next day I decided we would do something aside from bake on a beach.  I rallied the astronomers and found them food.  Good first move; people are indecisive and grumpy if they haven’t eaten.  We rented two kayaks and set out into what would be a circumnavigation of the main bit of Culebra from Playa Tamarindo to the airport.  The coral arms and fans and fish were stunning in shallow water, something out of a nature documentary.  We didn’t see any sea turtles, but we swam a lot and generally had a lovely time messing about in boats.  We tied off a moored sailboat and snorkeled over to a stand of rocks covered in coral fans and sea urchins.

We stopped briefly at the ferry dock, where we ran into Patrick’s neighbors in his apartment complex.  This also happened to be happy hour, but Rhys lacked both shoes and shirt, so we brought him a Cuba Libre to his kayak.  This, however, being Culebra, he probably would have still gotten service.

Kayaking through the Culebra canal, I found a rope swing and swung/fell into the channel.  Getting back in the boat was an adventure, but we made it through and found ourselves at a dock with a partially sinking kayak.  A previous repair job had sprung a leak, so we were sitting dangerously low in the water.  We hauled the kayaks out under the incredulous eye of the dock owner and spent the next 10 minutes draining out the water.  As Rhys put it,

We parked (?) the kayaks in front of Culebra’s ecological school and drained the remaining water. Having no phones, minimal clothing and no real amount of currency, we were pretty ill-equipped to deal with any incoming apocalypses, unless they involved kayaking around a small lake and a spot of snorkeling. We got very confused looks from a lot of passers-by driving golf carts, which was curiously satisfying. It’s pretty difficult to out-weird a Puerto Rican driver, but on this occasion we succeeded : “Washing your horse in the middle of the street ? Fine, don’t mind me, I’m just parking my kayak.”

We had a lovely dinner at a restaurant that believed in vegetables, right on the edge of the canal.

The next morning I hauled myself out of bed at 5 am and hitchhiked to the famous Playa Flamenco.

This being the last long weekend before school started, numerous Puerto Ricans had the same idea regarding going to Culebra.  Hundreds were camped out on the beach and by the beach.

I continued down the beach and watched the sun rise.

The US Navy once used Culebra as a bombing range.  What remains are a couple of rusting tanks and an area full of live ordnance.  Don’t go walking in the hills.

Back in the town, I walked past the ecological school where we’d drained out the kayaks.

Having learned from our mistakes in arriving in Culebra, we opted to fly out.  We waited for perhaps an hour at the airport, charged our phones, and got a ride on an unscheduled flight on Cessna.  All the scheduled flights were full, but with the demand over the weekend, Flamenco Air was flying planes as often as they could.

Allison and Rhys, ecstatic to not be waiting for the ferry.

Our kayak route!  We started in the left side of the island, went clockwise along the coast, through the passage surrounded by houses to the right, and wound up over near the flat grey area in the center.

Fifteen minutes later we were winging over Fajardo.

A stand of wind turbines greeted us.

Landing at the airport in Ceiba was anticlimactic, and again, I’ll defer to Rhys:

Back on the mainland, a large friendly dog came and supposedly checked our luggage. I’m not at all convinced of the effectiveness of this procedure, as the mental processes of this particular dog probably went something like this :

“I’m at an airport ! Best thing ever !”
“Hey, look, people ! Best thing ever !”
“Wow, an aeroplane ! Best thing ever !”
“Yay, a shoe ! Best thing ever !”

We waited for a taxi, got back to our car, and headed west for Arecibo.  No more ferry rides to Culebra, please.

2 thoughts on “Culebra (do not take the ferry)

  1. I’ll be traveling to Culebra in February and I really enjoyed your blog entry. Beautiful pictures and great advice! I will definitely be avoiding the ferry at all cost!

  2. Found your blog while checking out some asteroid related info (yes, the story at Arstechnica) and, although this blog entry is already a few years old, had to read this story as someone born and raised in PR who ironically has never been to Culebra… a small note… although it might be described as such, Culebra is not a Spanish Virgin Island. It’s part of PR just like Vieques. Hence, it’s all US! There is also Isla de Mona, which is south-west from PR (Island), but there was an issue about it with the Dominican Republic and I’m not sure it’s status anymore. That one is about the size of Culebra. And as shown on your photos, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of tiny and not so tiny isles. Keep up you your great NEO work!

    Cheers,
    Alex

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