Sailing in Puerto Rico: Spanish Virgin Islands Cruising Guide
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 at the top of 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!
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 notorious target practice 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
Bareboat Charter Provisioning
Additional Cruising Guide Resources
When to go Sailing in Puerto Rico
Northerly Ground Swells
Spanish Virgin Islands Sailing Itinerary
SVI Logistics and Planning
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. However, there is only one yacht charter operator in Puerto Rico at Puerto del Rey.
Puerto del Rey is located in Fajardo, the boating hub on the Puerto Rican east 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.
Having charted in the Spanish Virgin Islands from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, I would actually recommend the later. The charter fleet is much deeper in the USVI and it is easy to clear in using the CBP ROAM app. I did this on my recent November USVI and SVI trip.
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.
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.
If chartering from the USVIs, provisioning services and grocery stores are plentiful.
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.
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. If you are chartering from the USVIs, you may be required to provide your own. It might be cheaper to print these out, which are freely available online.
NOAA 25650 – Virgin Passage and Sonda de Vieques, Scale 1:100,000 (Passage planning from western St Thomas to Culebra, Vieques and eastern Puerto Rico)
NOAA 25653 – Isla de Culebra and Approaches, Scale 1:20,000 (Large scale coverage of Culebra)
NOAA 25664 – Pasaje de Vieques and Radas Roosevelt, Scale 1:25,000 (Large scale coverage of western Vieques). No large-scale NOAA chart is available for all of Vieques
When to go Sailing in Puerto Rico
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.
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 yacht charter itinerary assumes 7 days on the water beginning in Puerto del Rey. I take you clockwise beginning with Culebra and then continuing on south to Vieques.
Why does this plan work?
The prevailing trade winds in the Spanish Virgin Islands are typically from the east. A current also runs from the east.
Sailing clockwise will afford you some protection from the lee of Culebra as you head east. Once you get down to Vieques, in normal conditions you'll be sailing west, downwind under more comfortable conditions.
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: Begin your trip on the west coast of Culebra
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!
Get that sailing playlist jamming and head east towards Culebra - it is probably easiest to motor under the prevailing conditions: dead into the wind. Get those fishing lines in the water - there is not a moment to lose!
I love the Carlos Rosario mooring field - I've stayed multiple times. Take a dip and enjoy some of the best snorkeling of the trip at Carlos Rosarion. It can be accessed right from your mooring.
Relax, pour yourself a sundowner, and enjoy the sunset show off to the west.
Day 3: Hike to World Famous Playa Flamenco
We are staying put today, unless you'd prefer to explore Cayo Luis Pena. We'd suggest, however, going ashore for a 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.
Another option is to actually anchor in settled conditions at Playa Flamenco. We did this on our recent November trip when we were sheltering from strong southerly winds. 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.
You can also consider switching mooring balls to Punta Tamarindo, just around the point to the south.
Day 4: Picture perfect Culebrita
The islands of Culebra have a distinctly different feel than Vieques. Rather than one large island, there are many hidden gems to explore. Another must see place is Culebrita and Playa Tortuga (Turtle Beach).
Make your way lazily around the northern shore of Culebra past Cayo Norte to Culebrita.
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 you are aware of any northerly ground swell forecast as this anchorage is exposed. If it is day stop only conditions, try the Bahia de Almodovar (Les Pelas) anchorage for your overnight.
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. 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.
Relax and watch for turtles as you lime away the afternoon.
Day 5: Sail south to Vieques
Get an early start for a longer day on the water as you make the passage from Culebra to Vieques. 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. If conditions warrant, head farther south to the drop.
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.
Before you leave Culebra, you can also consider a provisioning stop in Dewey before you depart.
The protected bay in Culebra is also known as Ensenada Honda (which means deep cove). Colmado Milka is well stocked with food, liquor and ice. Anchor close to the Cayo Pirata in about 15 feet. Take your dingy under the Lifting Bridge where there are several other spots to tie off to. If you prefer to stick around Culebra for another day, Ensenada Dakity is a lovely mooring field with great protection tucked in behind the reef at the channel entrance. You'll enjoy minimal roll and a nice breeze over the reef. The sunrises here are spectacular.
Not to be confused with the Culebra Ensenada Honda, check out Ensenada Honda, the Vieques version, for your first overnight on this island.
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 6: Isla Chiva lunch stop and the Bioluminescence of Mosquito Bay
Get underway and head west around the coast of Vieques. Make for a lunch 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.
After lunch, sail to 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 7: Magical Green Beach
On the west coast of Vieques, Green Beach awaits.
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 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 8: Final night at Isla Palominos, or return to the marina
Last day on the water!
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.
Isla Palominos is a great last night anchorage. It's close enough to motor back the next morning before you debark and head home.
It's 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 the next morning.
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