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It sounds crazy to leave one island for another, but that’s exactly what I did. There are two small islands off the east coast of Puerto Rico, each with major claims to fame:
Vieques, the largest island other than Puerto Rico itself, is home to the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world.
Another great side trip, Culebra consistently wins prizes for having one of the world’s 10 best beaches.
I couldn’t decide whether to spend my time in Culebra or Vieques so I did the only rational thing and visited both.
Why Visit Either, Anyway?
In my opinion, the beaches around San Juan–or even in Luquillo–aren’t great. They win points for being convenient (and for year-round tropical weather), but they don’t have the soft white sand and warm turquoise water that I dream about. You have to head to either Vieques or Culebra for that.
Both islands also offer a laidback vibe in the best of ways. There’s none of the crazy traffic you’ll find around San Juan, no crowds, and plenty of peace and quiet. Our goal on this trip was to “get away” from real life which meant I wanted to subtract stress. These destinations fit the bill.
Neither Vieques nor Culebra is jam-packed with attractions, but if you want sunshine, beaches, and an easy-going trip, either one will work for you.
Short on time? Watch the video below instead of reading the article.
I almost didn’t go to Culebra, assuming that Vieques offered everything I was looking for, but I let their marketing get to my head. If you read online forums, you’ll find a huge group of loyalists saying it’s the greatest vacation on earth. There’s one story after another of someone who visited for a day trip, came back for two weeks the next year, and bought a vacation home the year after that.
I had to see it myself. FOMO, you know?
The Famous Culebra Beach: Playa Flamenco
The reason most travelers visit Culebra is for Flamenco Beach, consistently voted one of the world’s best.
I mean, just look at it.
That clear water? Not photo-shopped. Even on a weekend, the crowds were light and there was no trash and no vendors coming by every three minutes to sell you a necklace you don’t want.
Walking the beach is like floating over powdered sugar. The sand dusts between your toes, never sticking to your skin, while softly massaging your soles.
Is it the greatest beach in the world? No, probably not. I liked a few in Barbados better, but then again I prefer a few amenities for my beach day such as a lounge chair and umbrella. At Flamenco Beach, you’ll need to bring your own chair (a cooler of cold drinks and snacks wouldn’t hurt either). Regardless, it’s a world class beach!
Pack for the Beach
Find out why I take baby powder to the beach, plus more must-have beach items (link opens in a new window).
The island’s best snorkeling is on Playa Tamarindo: a hop, skip, and jump away from Flamenco.
Like many snorkeling spots, the beach here isn’t the best for lounging: the sand is coarse and there are rocks in the water…precisely what makes sealife more prominent.
But assuming you’re here for the underwater exploration and not a lazy day on the beach, you’ll be treated to tremendous visibility.
Playa Carlos Rosario
From Flamenco Beach, there’s a trail in the back of the parking lot that takes you on a 30-minute walk to Carlos Rosario. The snorkeling there is also supposed to be great, but I ran out of time to squeeze this in. If you have time, add it to your exploration plans as well.
How to Get to Culebra
There are three ways to get to Culebra: by ferry, small plane, or tour.
The ferry is the cheapest option at $2.50 each way but it was too time consuming for a day trip.
There were several reasons I chose not to take the ferry to Culebra:
1) It’s Time Consuming
You’ll need to drive an hour (or more, with traffic) from San Juan to Ceiba where you’ll then catch a 45-minute boat ride. Thankfully, you can now book tickets in advance which will save you time instead of standing in line.
2) It’s a limited schedule.
Assuming you want the fast catamaran, the schedules aren’t ideal for a day trip to Culebra. As of January 2022, the first ferry of the day leaves the mainland at 3pm (way too late).
Technically the cargo ferry does sell foot passenger tickets, but those times aren’t great either: a 7am departure from Ceiba means a very early start from San Juan and the 11:30am departure only gives you a half day on the island.
3) It’s prone to delays.
Seems like everyone I spoke to had a story of themselves or someone they knew who had significant delays — or were even stranded because it stopped running unexpectedly.
I chose to fly to Culebra. You can drive to Ceiba, just like you would for the ferry, and catch a 10-minute flight for $100 or less round-trip. You can also fly out of Isla Grande airport in San Juan, which is a 20-minute flight but no driving time. That makes it the fastest option, but also the most expensive, at about $180 round-trip.
Whether you take the ferry or a flight, once you get to the island, you’ll need to rent a car/golf cart (pricey), call for a taxi (yes, you have to call; you won’t magically find one), or walk. It’s a 40-minute walk from the airport to Flamenco Beach, making it borderline doable.
In retrospect, I should’ve joined an organized tour — there are several that take you out on comfortable catamarans from the mainland to Culebra. They make a snorkeling stop to see the turtles and give you a few hours on Flamenco Beach and throw in lunch plus all the rum punch you can drink.
The group tours aren’t cheap, but either is flying. The tour below is the one I had my eye on… if you have a rental car, you can drive yourself to the pier in Fajardo to catch the boat or you can add on round-trip transportation from San Juan for $26.
For me, Culebra is too small and too quiet to spend the night, but a day tour is just right.
Five times larger than Culebra, Vieques has two towns (Isabel Segunda and Esperanza), 40 beautiful beaches, and plenty of unspoiled terrain. Wild horses wander the coast — and the streets for that matter — and return visitors come back year after year for it’s unmatched ability to promote relaxation.
Without a doubt, the biggest draw to visiting Vieques is the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay. Kayak tours leave after dark, paddling under a starry sky into Mosquito Bay where billions of dinoflagellates glow in the protected waters.
Having been to two other biobays in the past, I can assure you: there is no comparison. Not only is Vieques the brightest, but the glass-like water means you can see schools of fish, maybe even stingrays, clear as day as they dart through the glowing waters.
Every minute you’re in your kayak is an opportunity to see something magical.
Read More About the Vieques Biobay and evening tours to this spectacular experience.
The island boasts 40 beaches, pristine and undeveloped. Like Culebra, there’s a significant lack of river run-off which keeps the water unusually clear. Many of the bays are protected with perfectly calm waters; others have more wave action for boogie boarding and other pursuits.
We had limited time, but of the three Vieques beaches we visited, my favorite was Sun Bay, just outside of Esperanza. The side closest to town has some coarse sand and seaweed, but if you walk to the far end, it was just as nice as Culebra’s famous beach.
We floated without a care in the world; there’s something about Vieques that makes you want to close your eyes and relax rather than swimming up a storm.
Also on Sun Bay were a few tidepools, if your timing is right.
Vieques After Hurricane Maria
Vieques got hit hard by Hurricane Maria and is still in the process of reconstruction — but lucky for me, that made it even more of an undiscovered paradise. It used to be a popular side trip for Puerto Rican vacation-goers; now, with the W resort and other hotels closed, there’s nothing crowded about it.
Vieques is ready for you, but not if you require perfection. Power outages aren’t unheard of (and indeed the town lost power for ~40 minutes one morning during my stay) and you can expect to cool down from cross-breezes instead of air-conditioning. I found the restaurants more basic than inspiring, but you’ll find craft beer and live music so it’s still a win.
There’s enough to do on Vieques that you could spend several days: horseback riding, snorkeling, fishing charters, watersports, even a small fort. We chose to spend extra time in San Juan instead, but it’s definitely cheaper and more easy-going on Vieques if that’s your thing.
For a single night, you can easily visit Vieques without a car rental. Base yourself in Esperanza so you can walk to the meeting point of the biobay tour, restaurants, and spend time at Sun Bay independently. A taxi from Isabel Segunda (where both the ferry and airport are) will cost you $15 each way and MUST be arranged in advance. Cars won’t be waiting for you!
For longer visits, I’d recommend getting a rental car so that you can visit both towns, see the beaches in the natural reserve (Playa La Chiva and Playa Caracas in particular), and explore more in-depth.
We stayed at Casa de Tortuga: with a pool, air-conditioning, and mini-fridge, it’s the third nicest place in Esperanza. Malecon House and El Blok are nicer, but double the cost.
How to Get to Vieques
Your options for getting to Vieques are similar to those for Culebra: ferry or short flight. Day trips here don’t make sense, since the biggest draw is the bioluminescent kayak tour (which requires spending the night).
Since you’re spending the night and precise scheduling is less important, the ferry is a more viable option for Vieques. The trip from Ceiba takes about 30 minutes. Buy your ticket online in advance if your schedule isn’t flexible.
You can also fly from Isla Grande or Ceiba…and even directly from San Juan International Airport, though those tickets are quite a bit more expensive.
So, Which is it? Culebra or Vieques?
There really isn’t a stand-out winner for the Vieques vs Culebra battle. Both of these smaller islands are perfect for a beach day and unwinding.
In general, Culebra makes a better day trip: it’s size (and optional group tours) make it easier to experience in a short amount of time.
Vieques requires an overnight in order to experience the bioluminescent bay; if you can’t spend the night, it might be better to save it for a time when you can. Its larger size and extra activities make it a better fit for someone who loves sightDOING, although if you want a super active trip, Puerto Rico itself is the best bet of all.
35 thoughts on “Vieques vs Culebra: Differences Between Puerto Rico’s Islands”
Ohhh you had to fly here because of time constrictions for a half day review of an island you clearly don’t know anything about. Also those big day ferries drop anchors on coral reefs killing the snorkeling wildlife you mentioned. However, they also bring tons of douche bags over soooo yeah seems like more of your thing. Awesome research and writing for a half day trippers assessment. You should just let people like you not to come back. WE aren’t interested!!! Thanks
@Hillary, Thanks for sharing a different perspective and hope you enjoy your return visits to Culebra.
Hilary Perkins – I really hope you fill whatever void you have in your life. You are one angry person. That was such a misdirected comment. I loved your review Becky. I am in Culebra right now! We went to Flamenco beach today. The beach was so beautiful. We are trying to make our way to Vieques in the next few days. My wife really wants to experience the bioluminescent bay and see the horses. Thanks for your review.
@J Mizz, Enjoy your time in Puerto Rico!
My thoughts too..after reading this!! A cruise ship might be the best option for becky and no its not strange to leave one island for another..
@Dugan, Thanks for sharing your opinion. All travelers have difference interests and priorities and it seems ours are not lined up. Hope you enjoy your next trip!
Not sure where you ate on Vieques but there are restaurants with amazing food and proprietors that work extremely hard to provide wonderful meals to their guests. I would hope you will consider going back and spending more time there to see for yourself.
@Tina, I’d certainly consider it — all things are definitely possible.
Are there any ferrys between Vieque & Culebra? I’d like to visit both.
@Pamela, There are no ferries but flying between the islands is easy if you’re willing to cover the cost.
I’m not sure where the venom directed at you by the first commenter is coming from, but you’re welcome to return to Vieques any time you like! There’s much more to discover on the island than one overnight stay allows. Thank you for highlighting Vieques and Culebra and some of the differences between the two islands
@AA, Thanks for the warm return invitation.
This is the most accurate & balanced review of Vieques & Culebra I’ve ever read.
One minor edit: the airport is not in Isabel II.
It is in the north side of the island.
Another option is to stay on Vieques and take a day trip to Culebra. With a little research into sharing the cost of a charter flight, you can have the best of both. Please come back soon! Vieques is “Ready When You Are”.
@Julie, Ironically you can fly on a scheduled flight (no chartering!) for a day trip from Culebra to Vieques, but not the other way around. I found the cost of chartering was cost prohibitive for a couple.
Could you give me more info about the flight from Culebra to Vieques? Is there a specific airline that flies that route? I’m not having much luck finding a flight that direction that isn’t chartered.
@Michon, I think Vieques Air Link is the only airline that does it.
Culebra -> Vieques at 8:15am
Vieques -> Culebra at 4:00pm
Visit caye caulker Belize The ferry runs dependably, lobster is inexpensive, ppl r friendly n it has pretty little hotels n car free streets . Beach n water not as nice as Yucatan but its safe
@Diana, It’s on my wishlist.
We’ve done Caye Caulker, we had alotta seaweed on the side we were staying at, so ended up walking to the other side of the island. We stayed at a little B&B called Yocamatsu, it was really a delight! Close to several good restaurants and stores.
Becky really enjoyed your review on the islands. I thought you thoughtful in your comments and presently living on the island. Please do come back again. Blessings
@P. Willie, I hope to return since it’s a beautiful and friendly part of the world.
Wow sorry for those of folks that miss out on seeing Puerto Rico .
San Juan is the last place to ever stay if you want to enjoy peaceful amazing white sand and clear blue ocean .There is so much to offer in Puerto Rico .
@Edna, I agree that there is so much to see and enjoy in Puerto Rico. It’s a shame many people only ever see San Juan.
I just returned from a week at the Casa Grande Mountain Retreat in Utuado. A sweet, yoga retreat center. Gorgeous mountains – lush – just a beautiful part of the island. Beaches are not all Puerto Rico has to offer. Utuado is in the central interior of the island.
@Dory, I’ve been to Utuado and agree it’s lovely there.
Well, I like the beaches of San Juan, and I’m from Vieques and been to many little Caribbean islands. Sure, Vieques is better, but San Juan beaches are decently nice. As a Matter of fact, I like a few of the beaches in Aguadilla over Culebra. There are even better beaches on the west side than San Juan. Pena Blanca is my favorite and doesn’t have to be white sand to be nice.
@D man, Thank you for sharing some alternatives!
If you want to experience Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra, you should stay at “Kasa Playera” (Google it) on Ceiba, it is near the greatest Marina in the Caribbean, the Ferry and the airport. Also you can visit El Yunque and enjoy island hopping through the Fajardo Keys. Just check their reviews!
Important to mention that you can also get ferry tickets in advance on the Puerto Rican ferry website.
@Tia, Thanks – that wasn’t an option when I traveled but I’ve updated the post to share that new feature.
If flying in to San Juan SJU and wanting to explore Puerto Rico with at least one overnight to Vieques, should we rent a car at the airport and try to ferry with it over to Vieques? Have heard reviews both ways…
@Joy, I haven’t done it, but it’s my understanding that Puerto Rican residents have priority for the cargo ferry and tourist rental cars are last in line. I would only chance it if you expect to be on an off-peak ferry schedule, otherwise I’d get a separate rental car on Vieques and/or rely on bikes/taxis.
When I went to Vieques and Culebra in 2019 none of the rental car companies would allow you to take the rentals on the ferries. Has this changed? That would be great if it has as there are not a whole lot of options for car or golf cart options on the smaller islands. Your best bet (at least on Vieques) is to find a local and rent their “island car”. 😉
I enjoyed t your article. As someone who has enjoyed both islands, you capture the spirit of the islands and their primary differences. I also like the way you embrace the beauty and magic of travel.
I read the comments above, including the unnecessary rude one. There is a common theme that I don’t find you embracing, which is as follows. Your descriptions of your personal experiences are the best part and concert your sense of discovery. You then over extrapolate after doing a little more research. Yes, there is very good dining in Esperanza even for a foodie like me. No the airport is not in Isabel. Most of the year, the flights out of Islas Grande are a fraction of the cost of flying out of SJU to either island. Yes, the catamaran trips are probably the best option for a Cuelebra day trip, but the best vendors are out of Farjardo. And the ride review has a point. Those catamarans are anchoring in the reefs in a way that is happening the coral. Yes, the beaches in San Juan are nice but nothing like the beaches in the smaller islands. The review that the beaches in the northwest are gorgeous and the tires have a relaxed feel.
So, I hope you keep doing what you’re doing. Your very good at it. Slow your till a little bit on the breath of your conclusions. Namaste.
We plan on visiting San Juan and Vieques in April 2023, we’ll be staying 4 nights at the San Juan Water Beach Club and 4 nights at an AirBnB on Seaglass beach in Vieques.