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Sailing in Puerto Rico: Spanish Virgin Islands Cruising Guide

Sunset at Green Beach Vieques

The Spanish Virgin Islands may be my new favorite caribbean bareboat charter destination. Solitude, beautiful beaches, and excellent fishing are just some of the highlights that rank highly on my list of must haves for a boat trip. Many people describe the SVIs as what the British Virgin Islands were 20+ years ago: raw, quiet, undiscovered – I was too young back then, but I’ll take their word for it!

Not too long ago, we visited Puerto Rico for this trip after a last-minute destination change due to Hurricane Eta in 2020 (we had been planning a Key West sailing charter). While it was stressful making the change within 72 hours of throwing off the dock lines, I am so thankful we decided not to cancel our trip altogether. This destination far exceeded my expectations.

Located just to the west of the USVI and BVI, the islands of Vieques, Culebra, and Culebrita dominate the Spanish Virgin Islands cruising grounds. You’ll find all sorts of habitats including mangroves, rocky coastlines, vibrant coral, and gorgeous caribbean sandy beaches.

Top highlights include hiking to the lighthouse on Culebrita, catching lots of fish, visiting the famous tanks on stunning Flamenco Beach (or Playa Flamenco) at Culebra, and witnessing the bioluminescence at Mosquito Bay.

There are several wildlife refuges which help protect and make the Spanish Virgin Islands such a special place. This includes the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge which used to be controlled by the U.S. Navy until 2003.  You can still find several anchorages marked as off-limits to anchoring due to potential unexploded ordnance.

Don’t expect beach bars at every anchorage. This is a place to get away from it all and soak in the natural surroundings. I’m really looking forward to sharing our experience with you and hope this cruising guide inspires you to visit this overlooked and beautiful cruising ground. Here is what I’ll cover:

SVI Logistics and Planning

Source: Puerto del Rey

Travel from the U.S. is easy with several direct flights to Puerto Rico from the mainland, and there is no passport requirement for U.S. passport holders. Sail Caribe operates out of Puerto del Rey –  the largest marina in the Caribbean.

Puerto del Rey is located in Fajardo, the boating hub on the Puerto Rican west coast. As you would expect, it has plenty of amenities which includes a small store for forgotten provisioning items. They also have golf carts that meet you upon arrival to take you and your gear down to your yacht.

You may also enter the SVI cruising grounds from the USVI, but make sure you are aware of the latest clearance requirements when entering and exiting. I talk more about how you can do this in my St. Croix and Culebra sailing itinerary.

Bareboat Charter Provisioning

Unloading at Puerto del Rey
Unloading upon arrival to Puerto del Rey

One thing that I love about this destination is that there is a Costco located in San Juan. We arranged with our charter company in advance for our driver to make this stop on our way to Marina del Rey.

This means cheaper prices and much more variety than what is typically available on a provisioning list. It is absolutely not as convenient (we arrived to the base after dark), but I think the payoff is worthwhile.  Worth noting that the Costco also carried beer, wine, and liquor.

OK, enough about Costco. Your charter will be able to provide you with a provisioning service so that you make your selections in advance and upon arrival, your groceries are already onboard. You may also have your driver stop at a grocery store along the way (such as Ralphs).

Additional Cruising Guide Resources

Given that the Spanish Virgin Islands are less visited than their sister islands to the east, there are not as many cruising guides available.  Stephen Pavlidis’ book Cruising Guide to Puerto Rico is your best bet. Be aware that the last revision was done in 2015, so some information could be out of date. It is still an excellent resource.

Cruising Guide to Puerto Rico (Amazon)

Stephen Pavlidis' guide has some great, detailed information on what to do and where to go. The last update was from 2015, so some information could be outdated, especially navigation info.

I also like to use the Navionics Boating App for planning. You can research routes, anchorages, and fishing spots. The ActiveCaptain Community feature is also very helpful to learn from other sailors experiences.

Here’s the link to the chart that was aboard our catamaran, although I don’t think it’s necessary to purchase ahead of time. There should also be a new edition of this coming out in 2022.

NV Atlas 11.1 Chart (Amazon)

Current edition of the SVI navigational chart that we found on our sailing yacht during our last trip.

When to go Sailing in Puerto Rico

An occasional squall is common, but they often don't last long

My favorite time of year to visit the Virgin Islands is April-May. The trades blow consistently out of the east at 10-20 knots. The weather is more settled and since this is considered the shoulder season, prices are cheaper.

Late November is also a great option, but the days are shorter and you run more of a risk of tropical mischief.

While the USVI and BVI can get very busy during peak season (Dec-Mar), I would not expect the SVIs to become quite as crowded. It sill flies under the radar as a destination and the bareboat fleet that serves the cruising grounds is much smaller.

For a more comprehensive overview of weather conditions, check out The Cruising Guide to the Virgin Islands. SVI is not covered, but the weather and cruising conditions information is applicable.

Cruising Guide to the Virgin Islands (Amazon)

This guide DOES NOT cover the Spanish Virgin Islands, but it has some info on weather and cruising conditions that would apply.

Northerly Ground Swells

Ground swells are common between November and April. Make sure you check the forecast since it could have an impact on your itinerary. Any anchorage exposed to the north, such as Playa Tortuga at Culebrita, will be untenable if a ground swell is running.

The NWS Marine Forecast will include information about ground swells. They are very well forecasted.

Spanish Virgin Islands Sailing Itinerary

Our suggested bareboat charter itinerary assumes 7 days on the water beginning in Puerto del Rey. We take you counterclockwise beginning south around Vieques Island and then north up to Culebra and Culebrita.

The prevailing trade winds in the Spanish Virgin Islands are typically from the east to northeast. Sailing counterclockwise will afford you some protection and more comfortable sailing conditions from the wind driven swell. Vieques and the other islands to the north will offer you some shielding as you sail east. When you make your turn back west, the swell will be at your back.

SVI sailing itinerary map
Map of our sailing SVI sailing route | Source: Navionics

Day 1: Overnight in Marina

We recommend coordinating with your charter company for an airport transfer from the airport to Puerto del Rey. They will be able to help schedule the pickup and make sure the vehicle is large enough for your crew and gear (and potentially provisioning items if you decide to stop on the way).

Get settled into your yacht, stow away your provisions, and familiarize yourself with the boat’s systems if you’d like. Crack a beer – you’ve arrived in paradise.

First night is spent overnight in the marina.

Day 2: Enjoy the Magic and Solitude of Green Beach

Green beach in Vieques
Enjoying the solitude at Green Beach Vieques

Distance on the water: 18 nautical miles

Time on the water: 3 hours

Try and set your yacht up to be first in line for the boat briefing and walk through. You don’t want to waste valuable cruising time in the marina! Ask for assistance with the lines. You may also ask the charter company to help with piloting the boat out of the slip.

Get that sailing playlist jamming and head southeast towards Isla Pineros – you may want to wait until you make the turn south before raising the sails depending on the wind direction. Get those fishing lines in the water – there is not a moment to lose!

If you have extra time you could head towards Cayo Santiago further down the coast of Puerto Rico. It’s known as monkey island. You can’t go ashore, but there is an anchorage on the west side. Drop the hook and dingy in closer to get a view of the monkeys which have been free roaming since 1938. There are approximately 1,000 rhesus macaques monkeys that call the island home.

Aside from the solitude, you come to Green Beach for the sunsets – they are epic with the main island of Puerto Rico and the El Yunque rain forest in the backdrop. Arrive early enough to also jump in the water for some snorkeling. You can expect to swim with sea turtles, rays, and lots of colorful fish. There are no amenities ashore, so plan to cook your first meal aboard.

Anchorage Details: the Green Beach anchorage is large and you’ll notice several markers on the chart. The water is usually crystal clear so pick a spot in 10-15 feet of water with a white sandy bottom. There will be areas of sea grass and coral/rock you should avoid. You are likely to have the place to yourself, but if you are there over the weekend, expect a few local boats that will join you.

Day 3: Explore the town of Esperanza and the Bioluminescence of Mosquito Bay

Mahi hook up in the Virgin Islands
Mahi hook up off the drop south of Vieques

Distance on the water: 8 nautical miles

Time on the water: 1.5 hours

Get underway and head southeast around the coast of Vieques. If you are into fishing from your sailboat, go far enough south to the drop – where the water depth changes from 100 feet to thousands. Troll back and forth across this area to target the pelagic species: mahi-mahi (dolphin fish), tuna, and wahoo.  This may be a bumpy ride given the strength of the tradewinds.

If you want to step up your fishing game, check out our sailboat fishing guide.

Tack your way towards Sun Bay Vieques. This a postcard worthy crescent moon shaped bay with a sandy beach and lined with coconut palms. It is just to the east of the town of Esperanza and within walking distance.

Anchorage Details: The best place to anchor is tucked up in the northeast corner to avoid as much swell as possible that wraps around into the bay. Holding is good in 10-20 feet with a grassy bottom. Make sure you get that anchor set. If the wind is really blowing, Puerto Ferro farther down the coast offers complete protection from all directions.

If you want to go ashore, you can beach your dingy on either side of the the swim buoys. Look out for the wild horses that may come up to say hi at the beach. Esperanza has a few options for dining and shopping. Use the cell phone service to check hours of operation since they may differ from what you’d expect.

Sun Bay can also be used as a base to tour Mosquito Bay, which has the claim to the brightest bioluminescence bay in the world. You’ll need to arrange a kayak tour as dinghies are not allowed. There are plenty of tour operators that can be found online and they will pick you up right at the Sun Bay Beach.

Day 4: Isla Chiva Lunch Stop and Beautiful Ensenada Honda

Anchoring at Isla Chiva in Vieques
Getting ready to dive on the anchor at Isla Chiva

Distance on the water: 10 nautical miles

Time on the water: 1 hour, 45 mins

This is another great day to check if the fish are biting as you continue your way east along the southern coast of Vieques. Before pulling into your anchorage at Ensenada Honda, make a lunch pit stop at Isla Chiva.

There are two anchorages, one on either side of the island. We recommend anchoring on the west side of Isla Chiva in 10-15 ft with a grassy bottom. There are a few patches of sand you can aim for when you drop the hook.

The beaches here are beautiful and you can often see the wild horses that come down to the shores edge. Dingy ashore for a picnic or enjoy the view from your catamaran (monohull is OK too!). 

Make sure you save some time for a snorkel over to Isla Chiva located at the dive spot marked on the charts. The last time we were here there were some large abandoned fish traps that were interesting to explore. If a SE swell is running or the trades are really blowing, snorkeling in this spot is not recommended.

Anchorage Details: Entering the Ensenada Honda anchorage can be tricky, but the charts are well marked – stick to the course shown on the charts. The water is not crystal clear so you’ll need to rely on your instruments and use extra caution. Depths range from 10-30 feet. We recommend tucking yourself farther in to the east side of the bay where it is shallower.

Ensenada Honda is extremely well protected. You will likely be the only boat here. Come here for the peace and quiet. There is no beach access given the mangroves that line the bay. For something different, launch the dingy and explore the mangrove river located in the far eastern edge. Expect to see some rays and a nurse shark or two if you are lucky.

Day 5: Head North to Culebra

Fishing route in Vieques
Great day fishing rounding the south coast of Vieques | Source: Navionics

Distance on the water: 20 nautical miles

Time on the water: 3-4 hours

Get an early start for a longer day on the water as you make the passage from Vieques to Culebra. Again, get those fishing lines in the water. We did really well hooking up in 50-100 feet of water (see pins in the picture above). Mahi and mackerel were the catches of the day.

As you round the SE coast of Vieques, you’ll see Culebra to the north, and if visibility is good, St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands to the NW. 

The protected bay in Culebra is also known as Ensenada Honda (which means deep cove). This is your best opportunity to pull in for a provisioning stop in the town of Dewey and enjoy perhaps a beer or two at one of the local establishments ashore. Colmado Milka is well stocked with food, liquor and ice. Anchor close to the main town’s dinghy dock. Take your dingy there or motor under the Lifting Bridge where there are several other spots to tie off to.

Town of Dewey at Culebra
Dewey, the main town of Culebra

You can spend the night nearby, which could be a good option if you’d like to eat dinner ashore. Otherwise, make your way back towards the entrance to the bay and veer to starboard into the Ensenada Dakity anchorage. Taking a dingy ride from Ensenada Dakity to the Town Dock is another option if the weather is settled.

Ensenada Dakity is a lovely mooring field with great protection tucked in behind the reef. You’ll enjoy minimal roll and a nice breeze over the reef. The sunrises here are spectacular.

Anchorage Details: Grab one of the many (free) mooring balls that are available. You can also anchor in about 15 feet behind the mooring field. Be careful of your yacht’s draft – the mooring balls closest to the reef can be in <5 feet of water.

Day 6: Culebrita Day Trip and Carlos Rosarion Beach

View of Culebrita, one of the Culebra anchorages
Beautiful view of Playa Tortuga and the lighthouse at Culebrita

Distance on the water: 16 nautical miles

Time on the water: 2 hours, 45 mins

The islands of Culebra have a distinctly different feel than Vieques. Rather than one large island, there are many hidden gems to explore. The first must see place is Culebrita.

Get an early start and work your way north towards Cayo Norte. Giving the reef/rocks to starboard plenty of room, round the corner and pick up a mooring ball or anchor at Playa Tortuga (Turtle Beach). This was our favorite beach in all of the Spanish Virgin Islands. Crescent moon shaped, white sand, coconut palm lined, and few other visitors – what else could you ask for?

Make sure that there is no northerly ground swell forecast as this anchorage is exposed to the north. Your charter company is likely to require this as a day stop only for this reason.

Culebrita is a small, uninhabited cay with an abandoned lighthouse at its highest point. The only residents are wild goats that you will be sure to bump into. Grab a pair of hiking shoes you don’t mind getting dirty (mud, puddles, and goat droppings are expected), plenty of water, and head ashore.

Culebrita Hiking Map
Culebrita hiking map | Source: Google Earth

The hike to the lighthouse is about 3/4 of a mile and should take you about 20-30 minutes. You’ll be rewarded with a beautiful 360 degree panorama of the surrounding islands – the best view from any hike I’ve taken in the caribbean.

The old Spanish lighthouse dates back to 1886 and is interesting to explore. It is falling apart after battling it out with several hurricanes and it is not being maintained – use caution. You are not supposed to venture inside.

The north shore of Culebra may be off limits depending on your charter company, so retrace your steps and round the west coast of Culebra from the south. Grab one of several free mooring balls available at Carlos Rosarion. If swell is wrapping around from the north, try Tamarindo to the south which may offer better protection.

Relax, grab a sundowner, and enjoy the spectacular sunsets over the uninhabited cayos to the west.

Day 7: Hike to World Famous Playa Flamenco

Carlos Rosario sunset in Culebra
Great sunset over the uninhabited Cayos to the west of Carlos Rosarion

Distance on the water: n.a.

Time on the water: n.a.

Take a morning dip and enjoy some of the best snorkeling of the trip at Carlos Rosarion. It can be accessed right from your mooring and you may even see a scuba diving boat show up. There are several scuba operators out of Culebra that you can arrange a guided dive if you are interested.

We are staying put today, unless you’d prefer to explore Cayo Luis Pena. We’d suggest, however, going ashore for another hike to the world famous Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco). The trail is easily visible on satellite. Again, bring some shoes you don’t mind getting dirty. The hike is just under a mile and should take you about 30 minutes. The trail dead ends into the back beach parking lot.

Tank at Flamenco Beach
One of the tanks previously used as target practice at Playa Flamenco

While I haven’t been to the South Pacific, Flamenco Beach feels distinctly like a beach that could be located in Tahiti or the other Channel Islands. It also holds the title of one of the top 10 beaches in the world. Aside from the beautiful setting, the main attraction is the abandoned tanks scattered across the beach that the US Navy used for target practice up until the 1970s. 

Make a day of it and relax. Food, restrooms, and beach chair rentals are available.

Once back on your yacht, enjoy another great sunset. If the weather is settled and you aren’t worried about losing your mooring ball to another boat, I highly recommend an evening cruise. Make a loop around the Cayos to the west and enjoy the rugged natural beauty of the area.

Hiking back from Flamenco Beach
Hiking back from a visit to Flamenco Beach

Day 8: Return to the Marina or Overnight at Isla Palominos

Approaching Isla Palominos to anchor
On approach to pickup a mooring ball at Isla Palominos

Distance on the water: 20 nautical miles

Time on the water: 3-4 hours

Last day on the water! If you are fishing, head around on the north side of the Cayos de la Cordillera. This is another opportunity where the water gets deeper and you can catch some big fish. We hooked several mahi in this area the last time we visited. Let’s just say the mahi tacos for lunch were amazing.

Isla Palominos is a great last night anchorage. It’s close enough to motor home the next morning before you debark and head home. Or, you can put back into the Puerto del Rey marina if your crew would prefer showers and some shore power.

Isla Palominos is a very popular local destination, so don’t expect any peace and quiet! You have been warned.

Upon returning to the marina, your charter company may request that you first stop at the fuel dock – leave yourself plenty of time to checkout and return to the airport.

I hope you enjoyed my post about the Spanish Virgin Islands and sailing in Puerto Rico. If you are new to sailing trips and enjoyed this post, subscribe to my newsletter check out our beginner’s guide here.

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