|A view along the malecón boardwalk in "downtown" Esperanza, Vieques.|
We found Vieques to be a peculiar sort of paradise. For decades, the US military used the island for target practice, and its eastern half still remains off-limits thanks to the presence of unexploded ordnance. The nine thousand residents mostly live in two main coastal towns, Isabel Segunda and Esperanza, with a scattering of homes and guesthouses located in the interior. The locals are predictably laid back; many own horses, but simply let them roam the island's forests freely, and round them up when they want to take a ride. (The wandering horses—and Vieques' extremely narrow roads—make for nerve-wracking driving.)
Vieques is also known as a place where people don't ask too many questions. The owner of the guesthouse where we stayed—himself by all appearances an upstanding citizen—told us he was channel surfing past America's Most Wanted one night when he recognized a familiar face. "I was like, 'I know that guy,'" he said. "'He owns the home and garden center in town!'" Sitting at the bar at Al's Mar Azul, you can definitely imagine that the colorful faces all around have some stories to tell—and some others they'd probably rather not.
White sand beaches and clear waters ring the entire island, and coral reefs rest just off shore. A highlight of visiting Vieques is spending an evening at Mosquito Bay, where perfect geographic conditions align to make an ideal habitat for bioluminescent micro-organisms. (A very readable explanation of the science is available here.) In a kayak, you can paddle across the bay and watch as glowing streaks extend behind your every stroke. Scoop up a handful of the water and the creatures flash brilliant sparks across your hand. Fish even light up as they cruise below the surface.
The lady friend and I generally spent each day exploring the island's different beaches, snorkeling and snacking and drinking. I lugged a travel fishing kit down from DC with me, but didn't have any luck in the few hours of fishing I managed before my gear was stolen. We had been warned about the thieves on horseback who lurk in the bushes, preying on unsuspecting beachgoers, but hoped that locking the doors and moving a few yards away to the water's edge would be safe. Alas, some local good-for-nothing managed to get in and make off with a bag of fishing tackle and our camera.
He didn't find my phone, sunglasses, or wallet, so life goes on. I just hope the little fucker and his friends are hauling in a lot of fish down there, and taking some great pictures of them too.