We were told if at all we see only one thing in Puerto Rico, it should be the island of Culebra. But of course, we took the challenge to the next level by aiming for the uninhabited island off the coast of Culebra known as Culebrita. I mean, it’s not often that you get to enjoy a beautiful beach all to yourself on a deserted island.
So, why was it a challenge? Let me break it down for you. Puerto Rico’s ferries run 3 or 4 times a day, from Fajardo on the main island, for about $2 a person. At this extremely affordable cost come myriad, hair-pulling hurdles. Tickets are usually not sold in advance online (but can be purchased for the following day or two once you are there). You will need to show up to purchase a ticket at least two hours before your scheduled departure; preference is given first and foremost to locals and if at all you manage to cross all these hurdles, you still have to hope the ferry isn’t delayed for hours or worse, cancelled. Most rental companies will not let you take your car on the ferry so don’t show up with that expectation either.
We showed up at Fajardo on the first day of our Puerto Rico stay to a long line of frustrated tourists and locals. By 8 am, the 9 am Culebra ferry was declared full. Our only planned portion of the trip was that we had to be on the island of Vieques the following day for the famous Bioluminescent Bay tour. You would think there would be a ferry from Vieques to Culebra but the government stopped those back in 2009 much to our chagrin. So, that still left the issue of Culebra hanging. In talking to a few tour operators (all sold out of course) and a few taxi drivers, we discovered the option of flying out of Ceiba airport, a 20 minutes drive from the ferry terminal. Of course, once we got there the companies that ran the local airplanes to the islands were all sold out for the next day. None of them flew from Vieques to Culebra either.
That’s when we chanced upon Taxi Aereo. Being a family run private charter plane, we had the flexibility of not only choosing a convenient time to fly to Culebra but could also quite fittingly do so from Vieques. We (well, I did atleast) grudgingly agreed to pay $180 for the two of us to fly (the plane seats 3 so if you meet that number, it only comes to $60 per person).
On successfully getting to Culebra from Vieques in our little sea plane, we
had a chance to chat it up with our pilot, Omar Sharif (seriously). As a trained pilot, he was very close to leaving Puerto Rico behind for Florida to
pursue a more lucrative career. But, he happened to notice that many travelers had trouble getting to the islands what with the fickle ferries and the inflexible flights. Much like Richard Branson’s infamous beginnings for Virgin Airlines, he walked up to a few tourists and asked if they needed a private charter to get to Culebra. Not hard to guess how the tourists responded. Not only did they fly to Culebra with him, they even asked him to stick around for the day so they can get a ride back. Omar was convinced that he was filling an important need. What ensued was one man’s struggle to get a counter at Ceiba airport despite stiff resistance from competing commercial charters and bureaucratic red tape. The commercial airlines were of course threatened by him and did all they could to keep him out. But after a long battle with the government, Omar emerged victorious. Now, along with his charming daughter who patiently helped us plan our flight to Culebra, Taxi Aereo is going places.
We met several more enterprising people in Puerto Rico. There was Ms. Hilda Brown of Vieques—owner of a cute guest house called Casa Ms. Brown—who, after retiring from her job as an elementary school teacher built the property from her savings. Our absolute favorite though was Luis from VIP custom charter. This man should be giving a TED talk on customer service. He was one of many water taxis we called for our Culebra-Culebrita trip but he was the only one who promptly texted us back with his details. We were on our guard because here was a man who was prepared to arrange a taxi to get us around Culebra, stand in line to get us a ferry ticket back to Fajardo, and arrange our transportation from Fajardo back to San Juan. We placed our trust the right guy because Luis delivered on all of those promises. And to think we found him by chance.
Puerto Rico, although a U.S territory, is very different from the United States in so many ways. Spanish is the predominant language; driving on their roads requires a certain disregard for rules. But the entrepreneurial American spirit is alive and well.