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Trip 34 -- Vieques Walk

Day 4: Esperanza to Isabel II via the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge (west side)
Sunday, November 20, 2022

Yesterday: 50321 steps/38.07 km/23.66 mi/7h 26m
Total: 111778 steps/87.24 km/54.21 mi/16h 38m

Yesterday's walk contained a few unknowns. In a perfect world, there would have been a trail clockwise along the coast from Esperanza in the south to Vieques's capital of Isabel Segunda in the north. There was a road as far as Punta Vaca, and an old map posted at Duffy's had shown a trail up around Monte Pirata (Pirate Mountain, the island's highest peak at 960 feet) to get me to Punta Boca Quebrada (Broken Mouth Point) in the west. From there I could walk the road up to the northwesternmost point at Punta Arenas before veering east toward Isabel II.

This western section of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge was the part still marked as off-limits on the 14-year-old official map (published in 2008, only five years into the Navy's 19-year-and-counting cleanup effort). Kimberly from the park office had assured me that I was free to wander and could do so safely as long as I stayed on the roads and trails.

She and I had discussed a notice on the park's Facebook page, the only source of current information, that said the road to Playa Grande and Punta Vaca was closed for maintenance works after Hurricane Fiona. It was closed to cars, she had said, but I could still walk this section as long as I didn't get in the way. Missing Punta Vaca I could deal with, but if Playa Grande was inaccessible I'd have to take the road north almost all the way to Isabel II and then go west -- another day of long backtracking.

I was happy to find the gate to Playa Grande open, and I proceeded without incident along the narrow strip of land that separates Playa Grande from its lagoon. It was a lonely stretch; only one car passed me near the beach's western end, the last two people I would see for several hours.

Just before I turned onto the dirt road toward Punta Vaca, the car came back toward me. "Just thought you should know," the driver said, "we were trying to get to Punta Vaca, but the road is blocked by a big..." He wasn't sure what word to use.

"Vehicle?" I offered. Maybe it was working on the road construction.

"No, a big rock," his passenger said. "But you can probably get around it."

"Thanks for telling me."

I soon saw what they meant, and why he wasn't sure what to call this barricade. It was a large mound of gravel, almost my height, no doubt to be used for the road itself and in the meantime to stop drivers from proceeding toward the impassable stretch ahead.

The mound almost reached the sides of the road, but I could barely get around it on the right. Then I saw there was another mound, which I skirted on the left, treading carefully on a patch of mud.

Then there were more mounds -- seven in all. The last few were easy to pass on the side, but the one in the middle was tightly hemmed in and I walked up and across it.

Beyond here, the road itself wasn't bad for walking, though a car couldn't have made it. It even turned to gravel for a stretch, and then back to dirt before it dropped me at Punta Vaca. I looked for a trail and didn't see one. I continued along the coast for a few minutes, climbing over a small rocky section. To descend would have landed me a couple inches into water, and then there was another, taller, rock cluster ahead. Maybe during low tide I could continue around, but I didn't know when that was, and I didn't know whether the coast was passable at all. I turned back, circumvented the gravel mounds again, and headed north.

This road had some mud puddles itself. At one point I took a stick to measure the water's depth -- not terrible, but I was going to have to get my right foot wet -- and then leaned on the stick for balance. All the other muddy sections I could traverse with careful footsteps, sometimes hanging onto plants on the side.

I started seeing large bunkers built into the roadsides. The large, gray buildings were used for ammunition storage by the Navy and have since taken on other purposes. Number 403 is a recycling center, colorfully advertised through the efforts of the outreach group Acorns to Action from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Number 309b has become a wasteland of discarded tires and electronics. Number 412 sports two photographs from 1941, taken in black and white and showing the Navy's forced eviction of Viequenses from their homes. Others are unused but sport detailed painting, one with a flustered-looking Pac-Man and another with a four-eyed woman and a rooster, both by the local artist Gil Rivera.

This stretch of road had been easy gravel, with views west to Monte Pirata. The vegetation created a canopy just above my head, and the road was narrow; it may have been too narrow for cars, but it was delightful for walking.

The turn-off toward Punta Boca Quebrada was a thickly overgrown trail, so I continued to the main road before turning left past the solar-power station and then following the wide path. Here I finally found one of the yellow conic markers denoting a safe area. The gate was closed to vehicles, but it was easy to continue on foot.

At Punta Boca Quebrada I stopped to watch the great blue herons swirl overhead and waved at one low-flying plane. The water was perfectly clear and I could see the mainland in the distance, about ten miles away. When I continued north, there were the same kinds of secluded beach spots as by Playa La Chiva in the refuge's eastern side. If you want a patch of sand and water to yourself for an afternoon anywhere in the world, it would be hard to find a more reliable place than Vieques.

I passed by the gate on the other side and saw people for the first time in about three hours. I reached Punta Arenas -- there was a yacht seemingly throwing a party just offshore -- and headed east, past mangroves, past the solar station again, and eventually I came to the Crab Island Rum Distillery.

There was a live band, complete with a singer and a marimba. I had a couple of empanadas from the associated food truck and a rum mule from the distillery. This was the place's first day open in three months, following the slow hurricane season. I could easily have had a few more drinks, but I still had two more hours of walking to do, and I wanted to do so with a clear head, especially as the sunset was in an hour and it would be completely dark in about 90 minutes.

I had to take a quick detour to Mosquito Pier, however. This seawall, which extends about a mile north, was the beginning of an attempt by the Navy to build a protective wall all the way to the main island. One can walk or drive the full length; I went just far enough to experience the dual effects of the water: On the right, waves crash against the wall; on the left, the water is calm.

Just ahead was an enormous ceiba, a noble tree with large thorns and a thick network of roots, almost like those of a banyan. The road turned sharply inland and then back to the east, skirting around Vieques's tiny airport. A few golf carts zoomed by, bearing a boisterous group from the distillery. A beer can flew out from one of them.

I was entering an affluent area. Expansive, hilly lawns sprawled downward from large houses with sea views. The W hotel, closed since Hurricane Maria, was around here, and there had been plans to build Mosquito Village near the eponymous pier. This purpose-built community would have provided housing for retirees and facilities for tourists, including a "commercial village" and a pier for cruise ships.

As with another proposed development in the south, a main issue with the Mosquito Village project was the lack of water. Vieques imports all its drinking water from the main island, and supplying it to several hundred homes would have been problematic. There had also been a suggestion to move the ferry landing here, several miles from Isabel II. Thank goodness it doesn't seem to be happening.

It was almost totally dark, and several people offered me rides. One driver had seen me and turned around to see whether I was all right. On no other island have people seen me walking and been so concerned for my safety.

By the time it was completely dark, I was in the outskirts of Isabel II and in an area with a sidewalk and streetlamps. I paused to check the distance -- 2.9 kilometers remaining -- and that's when the rain started: first gentle, then hard, and soon driving. I took shelter under a tree next to a house into which a woman had just brought her dog. That was reassuring, I thought. At least if it was raining, the dogs wouldn't be out. As often happens with a downpour in Puerto Rico (unless it's a hurricane), the rain stopped in a few minutes and I continued to Isabel II.

Evidently named in a bout of irony, the Vieques Good Vibe Guest House (or Vieques Good Vibe Green House, as it's signed) was among my sketchiest check-in experiences. It didn't help that it was next to a vacant lot on one side and a partially completed (or partially dismantled) building on the other. No one seemed to be inside; the whole building was dark.

I called and texted the two phone numbers provided and waited. There was a bar down the street, and after ten minutes or so I started heading over there to sit and look up alternate lodging. As I started walking, someone came toward me. I thought asking whether he was associated with the guesthouse would have made me a target ("Why, yes! Follow me down this dark street!"), so I kept going past him.

But I looked behind, and he opened the gate. I approached and asked whether he was with the house. He asked my name; I would have preferred that he told me my name, but when I said "Seth" and he responded with something approximating "Weinstein" I decided I could trust him.

We walked through the gate and to the outdoor stairway in the back, which looked in the dark like an open scaffold. He brought me up to the lounge on the balcony and switched on the lights. He made a phone call, which took much longer than it should have; apparently there was some confusion whether I was to be one person or two. Eventually he retrieved the key to room 7 and showed me around. There was one other guest, in the room next to mine.

Up the street was an Italian restaurant with nods to the local cuisine, so of course I had to try the pizza with ground beef, bacon, and sweet plantain. I'm one of those people who don't understand pineapple on pizza, but the cooked plantain added just the right hint of sweetness to the saltiness of everything else. I even wished the chunks had been bigger.

I was tempted to check out the bar down the block, but the day's walk had worn me out. Besides, I'd have all of today to explore Isabel II before coming home tomorrow.

Go on to day 5