Most inquisitive Caribbean travelers have heard of Vieques and Culebra Islands, remote destinations located just a few miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. Both Puerto Rican islands pop up on "best of" lists on a regular basis, and the bioluminescent bay in Vieques, widely considered to be the brightest in the world, is a huge attraction for eco-travelers.
So if Vieques and Culebra, known as the "jewels of the Spanish Virgin Islands”, are so fabulous, why aren't they considered regular tourist stops for every visit to Puerto Rico? Probably because getting to them easily (and on a budget) can seem a little bit tricky when you're planning your vacation. There's a wealth of inaccurate information available online about both planes and ferries to the little islands. It's enough to put off anybody who doesn’t speak Spanish. And that's a shame, because it's really not that difficult.
There are four different ways to get from the big island to Vieques or Culebra. Three involve small, puddle-jumper airplanes. The fourth involves a school bus-like, no-frills ferry. Pick your poison.
Option 1: You can step off your flight into San Juan's international airport (SJU) and step onto a flight to Vieques. The flight takes about 25 minutes, and it doesn't get much easier than that. But that's also the most expensive way to get from Point A to Point B (whether your point B is Vieques or Culebra makes no difference – the cost of the flights is about the same), somewhere in the neighborhood of $150-$200 each way.
Option 2: You can step off your flight into SJU, get your bags, and jump in a taxi for a 20-minute, $15 taxi ride to Isla Grande, the little airport located next to the port in Old San Juan. Flights from Island Grande to Vieques or Culebra take 30 minutes and cost about half as much as flights out of the big airport, approximately $75. Plus you don't have to go through TSA security again at the little airport.
Option 3: You can step off your flight into SJU, get your bags and hop into a taxi to the Ceiba airport. It's almost an hour away, and the taxi van will cost you about $100 one-way. But the flight from Ceiba to Vieques or Culebra costs in the $30-$40 range, a significant savings if there are several of you traveling. This isn't less expensive than flying out of Isla Grande for two passengers, but if there's a group of you, flying out of Ceiba will save you a lot. There's also no TSA checkpoint to navigate in Ceiba.
Tip: If you're flying out of Isla Grande or Ceiba, be sure to stop and get drinks or snacks en route to the airport if you're going to be desperate before your next flight. The snack bars in those airports are no longer open, and frequently, the soda machines don't work.
Who flies where?
Cape Air and Vieques Airlink service both Vieques and Culebra from SJU.
Vieques Airlink and Air Flamenco service both Vieques and Culebra from both Isla Grande and Ceiba airports.
There are passenger and cargo ferries that run between Fajardo and Vieques, and Fajardo and Culebra. It's important to note that THERE ARE NO FERRIES BETWEEN VIEQUES AND CULEBRA. If you want to visit both little sister islands in one trip, you'll need to fly between them (usually about $50 with Air Flamenco or Vieques Airlink). Or you can spend an entire day taking the ferry back to Fajardo and boarding a boat for the other island.
Tourists shouldn't even try to book passage with a vehicle on a cargo ferry. First, it's illegal to take a rental car onto the ferry. Second, cargo ferry tickets are hard to get, and going standby is dangerous when you have to return the car to a rental agency on another island. And they won't respond to your calls for a flat tire on Vieques or Culebra.
The passenger ferry is only $2 per person each way, and takes about an hour, but you definitely get what you pay for in this case. The ferries are outdated and much like riding on a school bus. It gets you there, but the ride can be rough. If it's windy and the sea is whipped up, it's not uncommon to see lots of passengers taking advantage of the free barf bags. You cannot buy ferry tickets online in advance, so you have to get to the terminal at least an hour ahead of departure time. I don't advise attempting to take the ferry on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday if you are vacationing on a tight schedule, as it's often delayed due to any number of things (weather, discontented ferry employees, mechanical problems, etc.). But if you're not in a hurry, you cannot beat the $2 price! And on weekdays, we've found that it's not hard to get tickets and it's fairly reliable.
Truth – I've planned hundreds of weddings on those two little islands and we've never lost a wedding guest who got stuck in Fajardo. We've had some late arrivals, but no absences.
The taxi ride from SJU to the Fajardo ferry terminal takes 45 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic and time of day, and costs $80-$100. There are tourism taxis lined up outside the baggage claim at SJU, but you also have the option of using one of the other very professional taxi and shuttle services to get from one place to the other. We've found the Luquillo Taxi is a fantastic resource – you schedule it in advance and text when you land. Don't forget that Puerto Rico has Uber now, too.
Should you plan to take the ferry, but find out there's a problem upon arrival (unlikely, but I want you to be prepared for anything), it's only a 10-minute ride over to the Ceiba airport from the ferry dock in Fajardo. Call to book your flight to Vieques or Culebra from the ferry or the taxi on the way.
Tip: Be careful packing if you're planning to island hop during your Puerto Rico vacation. The little airlines charge high fees if you're carrying more than 25 pounds (see the details for each airline on their websites). And after the allotted bag weight, the overage is charged to you by the pound, literally.
Have you visited Vieques or Culebra? Share your travel experiences with us in the comments below!