A small paradise lies 17 miles east of Puerto Rico and 12 miles west of St. Thomas – Culebra island. Culebra (which means Snake Island in Spanish). This gem of an island – seven by four miles – boasts one of the oldest wildlife refuges in the United States. Culebra, like Vieques Island, was used by the U.S.Navy for military exercises, until 1976. Since then, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has performed restoration activities in Culebra under the Formerly Utilized Defense Sites Program. Today, it’s a rural retreat and nature preserve — part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge– one of the oldest under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (c. 1909).
Accessible only through ferry boat from Fajardo or small plane from San Juan and Ceiba, Culebra is a local vacation spot for many Puerto Ricans and international tourists as well. About 1,800 people live in this municipality of turquoise beaches and white sand. The municipality boasts the only ecological public school in Puerto Rico. The building that houses the school takes advantage of the sun and the wind for energy.
The principal harbor, Ensenada Honda, is considered to be one of the most secure hurricane harbors in the Caribbean. In Culebra you can snorkel, dive and swim in miles of unspoiled beaches which are also a critical habitat to green turtles in their nesting season. Sandy shores, wetlands and mangrove forests are home to pelicans and seagulls among other species that I have spotted in my visits to the island.
Culebra is an arid island with no rivers or streams, all of which creates an unique ecosystem. Cactus grow among tropical trees and palms. Most beaches are a short distance from its main town, Dewey. In Culebra there are no luxury hotels, no casinos, no traffic, and no loud noises (except for the occasional small plane). The island gets its water from the “Big Island” (Puerto Rico) via Vieques. Because of the lack of run-off from streams and rivers, Culebra boasts crystal clear waters with sixty feet of visibility on a bad day! Also, the island hosts one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Playa Flamenco, which is part of the Blue Flag program. However if you are looking for a secluded spot, Playa Zoni, which sits at the bottom of a tall cliff might be your best option. A pristine and tranquil beach, Zoni is also a turtle nesting area as it happens to be my favorite beach in this paradise island.
About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.
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