Culebra, the tiny island off the east coast of mainland Puerto Rico, is one of the island’s most treasured destinations, but it’s also a place that needs some context. You can easily fall in love with Culebra (and most people do), but you can also just as easily hate it; it all depends on your expectations. Because Culebra is how the Caribbean used to be, and those who love it fervently hope it remains that way.
If you come here expecting an international five-star resort on the beach, you won’t find it. If you’re looking forward to visiting the island’s casinos and nightclubs, you’ll want to be on the next ferry or flight back to the mainland. And if you hope to see more of the beautiful museums and charming colonial architecture of Old San Juan or Ponce, you won’t be impressed. Culebra is the Caribbean stripped of its finery; it’s the Caribbean of decades past, a sleepy fishing town that welcomes a niche of tourists who seek the ultimate escape from the modern world.
For these travelers, Culebra is a haven. It’s only town, Dewey, offers a simple collection of squat, rustic hotels and restaurants. Here you’ll find the ferry dock and the island’s only post office, bank, fire station and gas station, which looks like it was imported from the 1950s. A patrol of públicos, or vans that serve as public transportation, stand ready to shuttle you to various parts of the island. And most of the commercial enterprises on the island (stores, dive shops, bars and the like) are located here. A relatively new drawbridge connects the two halves of the town, which you can easily cover on foot.
Of course, tourists don’t visit Culebra to hang out in Dewey. They come to take advantage of the island’s incredible natural resources. And headlining that list is Flamenco Beach, considered by many to be among the most beautiful beaches in the world.
A magnificent deep horseshoe of powder-soft sand ringed by low, verdant hills and the dazzling blue waters of the Caribbean, Flamenco is unquestionably one of Puerto Rico’s most beautiful destinations. It’s large enough to accommodate the thousands of visitors who head straight for its shores, and even offers the best camping facilities in all of Puerto Rico.
Flamenco Beach is the only beach in Culebra with full amenities, including lifeguards, changing rooms and a collection of kiosks selling food, drinks and beach supplies. It also boasts two significant monuments: two brightly colored, rusted tanks (one partially submerged in the water, the other set on a rise in the campgrounds) that serve as a silent reminder of the Naval occupation of the island until the 1970s.
For all of Flamenco’s beauty, I highly recommend taking the time to explore the rest of the island. Culebra has many beaches, and while none equal Flamenco in grandeur, they also tend to draw smaller crowds. In particular, I’d suggest a trip to Carlos Rosario Beach, accessible from the parking lot of Flamenco Beach. A short hike along a nature trail brings you to this pristine spot, which is also one of Culebra’s best snorkeling spots.
Speaking of snorkeling, Culebra is renowned for its marine life. Several species of turtles visit its beaches during nesting season, and snorkelers and divers will enjoy discovering the thriving ecosystem beneath its waves. Naturally, boating and fishing are popular pastimes here, as are water taxis to the tiny islet of Culebrita, one of three cays that lie off Culebra’s shores.
Culebrita is a pristine jewel in the sea. Its lone manmade structure is a small, now-defunct lighthouse, and its beaches (Tortuga Beach in particular) will easily justify a day trip from Culebra.
While hotels tend to be modest and budget-friendly in Culebra, you can also enjoy a more upscale stay at its few boutique properties, or go all-out and rent a luxury home. Many owners are happy to rent their expansive and well-appointed summer homes on a weekly basis to families or groups, often at very affordable rates.
No matter where you stay, you’ll feel the quiet pace, relaxed vibe, and tropical calm of Culebra Island as soon as you get here. And hopefully, you’ll love it just as much as I do.