When our kids learned that we would be going to Vieques for our vacation week, and staying in a little cottage with only two beds, there was a bit of fussing. The older son, in particular, was like, “But we’re around each other ALL THE TIME. I want to get away! Being stuck with you guys for a week won’t be a vacation!”

Buck up, Buttercup, we said.

On my last post, Karren commented, “Your family sure does know how to have fun, no matter where you are!” which made me chuckle. Yes, we do have fun … but only sometimes. What you don’t see in the photos is the grumpy, stressed husband (and the wife giving him long, drawn-out lectures), the sulky child who is on a weird beach strike (and the mother giving her long, drawn-out lectures), the sibling bickering (and the mother and father giving long, ANGRY, drawn-out lectures), the boredom, etc. It takes an awful lot of energy to motivate six people to have fun together for days on end. In other words, vacation is work, and it wasn’t all roses. Maybe not even mostly roses.

HOWEVER, I’m pleased to announce that we did make a pretty valient stab at the whole vacationing thing, all things considered. We rested and explored, played and slept. The time away, in a different space, while in many ways draining (as always, we were all happy to be back home afterward), was also energizing. We did something different, and that right there is worth a hip-hip and hooray.

The trip to Vieques was fairly hellish.

Easy-peasy plan: drive to Fajardo and then ferry the van across to Vieques.
Problem: you can’t make reservations ahead of time (unless you’re there in person).

This meant that we had to get there early to put our name on the standby list and then wait for hours in the car, anxiously gnawing on our fingernails all the while. If we didn’t make it on the one o’clock ferry, then we’d hopefully make it on the 4 pm ferry, but there was no guarantee of that. Our other option was to ditch the van (and the food I’d prepared, sob) in Fajardo and just travel across with our backpacks. But that meant we’d have to spend a lot more money (car rental, eating out). Plus, since we were on standby, we’d have to wait to the very last minute to learn we didn’t make it and then park the car in an official lot, do the bag shuffle, buy tickets, and hot-foot it to the ferry.

It was a toss-up. The not knowing was beyond stressful. My well-laid plans once again up in the air, the disappointment of our last attempted vacation came rushing back. I felt almost sick to my stomach.

Before they told my husband that photos were not allowed, he snapped this.

And then, at the very last minute, the ferry already packed with dozens of people and a tractor trailer and several delivery trucks and a whole line of cars, the supervisor called our name. There was a mad dash to buy tickets, to get the loading guy to radio the police woman to let our van in the entry gate, and then, when she didn’t (grr), a race to the gate to hand-deliver the tickets. My husband backed the van onto the ferry, and the kids and I walked aboard as the final whistle blew.

We stayed in Casa Esperanza, a little cottage set back from the road and surrounded by lush gardens.

 painted coconuts!

There was an outdoor pavilion where I spent hours drinking coffee and reading. I plowed through this book in just two days, and I finished off this one, both a solid five stars.

We watched movies every evening, and, since there was air conditioning in the bedrooms, got to sleep under actual blankets.

We ate countless bowls of cereal and grilled burgers and roasted broccoli and made giant salads and fixed icy pina coladas. 

the clean-out-the-fridge breakfast

Having our own van gave us so much freedom. We tooled around the curvy narrow roads, slowing for the horses, stopping to photograph whatever caught our eye, and hopping out whenever we spied a beach to explore.

For Playa Negra, we hiked fifteen minutes down a narrow jungly path, most of the time which was a sandy-bottomed, freshwater creek. The waves were a little intimidating (I’m always worried about riptides), but as we got more comfortable, we got braver, and, in the end, had a nice swim. The black sand made for some good body paint.

Playa Caracas (red beach) was one of the most idyllic, with calm water on one half and pleasant waves on the other.

The kids kept trying to find coral, but even though locals told us where to go, they didn’t have much luck. Finally, when asked directly, a woman at one of the little shops told us that Maria wiped out all of the coral. The base was still there, she said, but all the pretty stuff on top, and lots of the fish, were gone.

With expectations adjusted, we went back to Mosquito Pier (the best spot, everyone said), and the kids swam out under the pier (so freaky!).

ears plugged and singing “Life is a highway” over and over, trying to quell his terror: 
driving out to the pier on the long, skinny road, water on both sides

Once they knew what, where, and how to look, they began to find things: an octopus, lobsters, starfish, black spikey things, red coral, lots of little fish, and a number of big ones, too.

We visited countless other beaches, a lighthouse, and drove through miles of national forest.

Awestruck, we circled the giant Ceiba tree.

twelve-year-old boy versus 375-year-old Ceiba: no contest

But one of our favorite adventures of the whole trip was the morning we set out to find Green Beach. It still hadn’t reopened, so we took off on a small side road where we discovered loads of abandoned bunkers.

Some were completely overgrown with vines, some eerily packed with gaudy party remains, the doors gaping, and others with mountains of old TVs, and still others completely vacant save for empty wooden boxes. The acoustics were great, the ambiance sinister and creepy.

And then, finally, we found what we were really looking for: the sugar mill ruins!

It didn’t look like much, but I hoped that the trail would lead us to one of the beaches we were hoping to find. The kids quickly disappeared into the woods and soon started shouting at us to come see.

The ruins were there all right (no beach, though)!

The more we explored, the more we found: narrow stairs, boilers, monster screws, troughs, towering walls, tunnels and arches.

The kids even found holes that led back to other cavities — they would’ve gone underground exploring if my husband and I hadn’t ordered them to get back up here right this minute. (Back in Ponce, I did research on the mill and found this fascinating video tour.)

Vieques is a fascinating, quirky, and beautiful little island…

… but I was taken aback by how much it seemed like a ghost town.

Abandoned houses were everywhere.
Shops were shuttered.
Beaches closed.

It was hard to know if this was due to the hurricane, to the economic recession, or to the fact that the US used its beaches for bombing practice for 60 years. The US Navy left at the start of this century, forced out at long last by advocates. Now, the islanders have astronomically high rates of poverty and cancer (we saw sick people both coming and going on the ferry, on their way to the mainland, presumably for treatments). In certain parts of the island, signs were posted every few yards reminding visitors not to stray from the path and to keep on the lookout for unexploded ordinances.

(A few weeks ago I met a gentleman, a political activist, who was one of the handful of protestors who camped out in an abandoned army tank on Vieques to prevent the bombings, for a full year (in 2000, I think). The area was highly radioactive. Nineteen of the other protestors have since died; he’s had cancer three times.) 

Whether or not (and when) we’d get a ride back to the mainland was once again a toss up, but we were much less stressed now that our few precious days of vacation weren’t hanging in the balance. And despite being number seven on the standby list, and the very last car to board — they had to shift our row back so we could fit — we made it on!

So in the end, everything went according to plan, whaddayaknow.

For a change of pace, we took the coastal roads back to Ponce (with a driver shake-up, to boot), and arrived home refreshed and tired, ready to plunge back into our work.

Two months down, two months to go!

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (7.3.17), the summer’s first trip, creamy cauliflower sauce, our 48-hour date, berry almond baked oatmeal.


  • Lana

    Vacation of a lifetime! Isn't it odd how later you don's really remember the family squabbles? I think it is the same for every family. Our spoiled five never could appreciate that we owned a house on a lake that we went to all year long. We almost sold it and I am glad we did not because they appreciate bring their kids there now that they are grown and these two empty nesters love, love, love going there alone!

  • Karren

    What a trip! You are an amazing family and I'm so very glad you virtually took us along on your vacation. That way we were spared the tension and got to share in the fun stuff! Lucky us! Hope this time back home is easier for the refreshing time off. Thanks for letting us ride along on your vacation. That is a truely awesome tree.

  • Suburban Correspondent

    What an amazing tree! And what a great vacation – a lot of effort, but worth it for the change of scene, I'd think.

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