Puerto Rico is the smallest island nation of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean. What most people don’t know about Puerto Rico is that the commonwealth is actually an archipelago that includes a few smaller islands that are a part of the Lesser Antilles as well, two of which are inhabited. Mainland Puerto Rico is already fairly small, covering only 3,363 square miles, the two inhabited islands, Culebra and Vieques, are only 51 and 27 square miles, respectively.
Passport and Visa
Puerto Rico’s national identity is a little murky, but legally, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States of America, which means the passport and visa requirements for entering Puerto Rico are the same as entering the mainland United States. This means that US citizens won’t need a passport to enter at all. Everyone else can simply follow the visa requirements for entering the United States.
Getting to Vieques and Culebra for Puerto Rico Island Hopping
To travel to either Vieques or Culebra, you’ll first need to get to the town of Fajardo, Puerto Rico. Fajardo is a small beach town about 37 miles (60 kilometers) outside of San Juan where most people begin their Puerto Rico trip. There are three main airports in Puerto Rico: San Juan, Ponce, and Aguadilla. While there are some options for traveling from any of the airports to Fajardo, renting a car and driving is the simplest and quickest choice.
It is technically possible to use public transportation to get from any of the airport cities to Fajardo but it’s not recommended as Puerto Rico’s public transportation leaves a lot to be desired. The process of getting from San Juan (the nearest airport city) to Fajardo would involve taking a city bus from San Juan to Rio Piedras, where you would switch to a Public Bus (guagua pública) to Fajardo. The entire process could take up to 4-6 hours. The same trip, if you drive yourself, shouldn’t take more than an hour even in heavy traffic and about 45 minutes under normal driving conditions.
Renting a Car and Driving in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico has plenty of recognizable car rental companies available, such as Enterprise, Hertz, Axis, National, etc. You can easily reserve a car ahead of time to be picked up at any of the airports. Whatever company you choose, make sure you pay for excellent insurance coverage or make sure that your credit card company will provide coverage for damages. Puerto Rico driving laws are very similar to those of the United States but the drivers are noticeably more aggressive and less inclined to follow the rules of the road. It’s not to say that a car accident is imminent but the chances of your car getting some nicks and scratches by no fault of your own are fairly high. Don’t spoil your vacation by getting hit with a huge car rental damages bill at the end of your trip; make sure you have good insurance coverage!
Important Notes about Driving in Puerto Rico:
- Many of the lampposts along the highways don’t work, so driving at night can literally leave you in the dark. Drive carefully!
- After midnight, red lights are treated as stop signs. This can be jarring for a lot of visitors and potentially dangerous if you aren’t aware of this law. After midnight, until around sunrise, drivers are only expected to stop, pause to look for oncoming traffic, and continue at red lights.
- Many municipalities require police cars to keep their lights on (without the siren) while driving, so if you see flashing lights, don’t panic, you aren’t being pulled over unless you hear the sirens.
- Traffic in Puerto Rico can be intense and severely slow you down, so always check Google Maps before you head out to make sure you give yourself plenty of time to arrive at your destination.
Puerto Rico Island Hopping: Ferry versus Plane
Once you get to Fajardo, you’ll have two options for traveling to Vieques or Culebra. The cheapest and most common mode of transportation is by ferry. Both ferries leave from the Fajardo Ferry Terminal. There are overnight parking lots at the ferry terminal, so you can pay to leave your car there during your trip to one of the smaller islands.
The ferries have a set schedule, but they only accept advanced reservations for the cargo boats, not for passengers. The bad news is you’ll have to look up the schedule, show up early on the day you want to travel, and wait in line. The good news is that the ferries are incredibly cheap. As of 2017, round trips were around $5 per passenger. The ferry to Culebra takes about an hour and a half. Vieques is a little closer, so the trip is 45 minutes to an hour. Both rides can be choppy, so if you get seasick, make sure to take some anti-seasickness medication before you board.
If ferryboats are not your thing, or if you are short on time, you can also get to both islands by plane for Puerto Rico island hopping. Several private companies such as Air Flamenco, Vieques Air Link, and Taxi Aereo offer short flights which last about 10-15 minutes each way. The small planes leave from the José Aponte de la Torre airport, located on a former Naval Base in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, which is only a few minutes past Fajardo. The cost of flights varies, but the prices usually hover around $45-$65 each way.
Staying in Culebra and Vieques
The small islands are close enough to allow for a day trip from Fajardo, but if you truly want to explore the area, it’s best to plan for a few days. Both islands offer a range of accommodation options. The most budget-friendly option is to pay a daily rate to camp on the beach. The camping grounds on both islands offer barebones facilities such as bathrooms and barbecues. For budget travelers who don’t have access to camping equipment, hostels, guesthouses, and small inns are the next best option.
Many of the hostels and guesthouses on Culebra and Vieques islands don’t have websites so it can be difficult to make reservations. If you like to be spontaneous, you can walk around the port when you arrive to see which guesthouses and hostels have rooms available. Another option is to book your first night at a hotel and then switch to something simpler once you’ve had a chance to look around the area. Hotels in the $75-$150 per night range can be found on most hotel booking sites. Vieques is also known for having hotels and resorts on the fancier (and pricier) side, as it is a popular destination for vacations and destination weddings.
Too many visitors spend their entire Puerto Rico trip on the mainland and miss out on the incredible beauty of the two smaller inhabited islands. When planning a trip to Puerto Rico, make sure you carve out some time to see Culebra and Vieques as well!
About Our Guest Blogger
Rease Kirchner is a Spanish-speaking, ice cream loving, long-but-funny story telling freelancer who left her workaholic life behind in 2010 when she quit her job and moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina on a whim. She began sharing her often hilarious and sometimes inspiring adventures on her adequately named travel blog, Indecisive Traveler. After spending 2 years based in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, she moved back to the United States. She travels to whatever city she can decide on, whenever she can, while freelancing in whatever work makes her happy.