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Times Union

Port Of Camp

By MATT PACENZA Staff Writer

6 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

On my perfect day of vacation, I body-surf in a warm ocean, read a book, play volleyball on the beach, eat fish, drink something fruity and boozy, and fall asleep to the roar of the waves.

My wife, Julie, and I were lucky to have many such days while working in Central America on and off over the past 10 years.

But those were simpler times. We now find ourselves with one income and a bouncing 8-month-old boy, Marcus. We didn't even talk about warm oceans when discussing vacation possibilities.

But then last fall, good friends from Berkshire County, Liz and Al, asked us to join them and their own infant son, Colin, on a January trip to Culebra, a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico. We would pitch tents in an oceanside campground to make the trip affordable.

I was tantalized but terrified. I obsessed over visions of baby boys wailing inconsolably all night after stuffing their mouths and eyes with sand.

I put aside my fears. We packed our tent, sleeping mats, camp stove, diapers, baby food and much more and headed off in early January.

Before we left Albany, we told Marcus all about his adventurous journey. We would drive to Brooklyn, spend the night with my sister, and then take a taxi to an airplane to another airplane to a taxi to a boat to a taxi. In response, he lunged at the cat.

A rough start

The trip was tiring but uneventful until we boarded a $2.25 ferry in Fajardo, a small port city on the east coast of Puerto Rico. Liz and Al, who arrived a few days earlier, had warned us the hourlong trip would be rough due to unusually high seas.

Ah, yeah. As the boat rose with each 8- to 10-foot wave before hurtling downward to smack the sea, I passed the time looking for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as my wife vomited into a plastic grocery bag. Marcus smiled throughout the cruise, as if it was a giant version of the exercise ball we bounce him to sleep on most nights.

Somehow we survived, took a van across the island to our campground, set up our tent and passed out.

Walking out to the beach the next morning, I was startled: Playa Flamenco recently named one of the world's most beautiful beaches by the Travel Channel is a two-mile horseshoe of white sand ringing a clear blue sea. Immediately behind it is a long, shaded campground with picnic tables, fire pits, communal drinking water, showers and toilets.

Up to 200 tents can pitch there, according to the city authorities who run the place, but no more than 40 were there during our eight days. (Our invaluable "Lonely Planet" guidebook says that it's packed on summer weekends.) The cost was $20 per night per tent.

The campground is safe and clean. Early one morning, I even stumbled upon a man raking the beach, meticulously picking up twigs and thorns to keep the sand clear.

Tropical routine

We soon settled into a blissful routine. When Marcus woke up about at dawn, I took him down to the beach to play in the sand. A few hours later, with the babies down for a morning nap, the adults read or went swimming.

Every other day or so, we shopped in Dewey, the main village on Culebra, easily accessible from the beach via a $2 van.

Also called "El Pueblo," Dewey is home to more than a thousand Puerto Ricans, plus several hundred gringos smarter than me who have figured out a way to live there.

We found plenty of food, although at first there were no fresh fruits or vegetables. One day, however, our small grocery suddenly blossomed with avocado, banana, pineapple, papaya and more the results of a weekly produce delivery, we found out later. There are also food stands at Flamenco that offer fried chicken, rice and beans, plantains and cold drinks.

And there was always plenty of dark rum, pineapple juice and crema de coco. Pina colada hour, at first at dinnertime, started a little earlier each day. (By my calculations, if we stayed a month we'd be mixing them at breakfast.)

Afternoons, we did our main exploring. Most days, we hiked for 20 minutes over a steep hill to a beach renowned for snorkeling, Playa Carlos Rosario.

These presented my first chance to snorkel. I was skeptical at first. I'm not a great swimmer and the most fun I've had on the ocean tends to come from playing in the surf.

But from the very first time I donned the mouthpiece and ventured in the still water along a coral reef, I was hooked. It was spooky, but exhilarating to drop into a silent but vibrant world, teeming with lush plants and fish: little, big, white, blue, striped and transparent.

My favorites were the ones I dubbed "sentry" fish: large and translucent with narrow yellow stripes, they accompanied us closely as we checked out their habitat. I half-expected one of them to whip out a billy club and if I got too near their leader.


One day we hired a taxi to take us to Playa Zoni, an impossibly long and deserted beach on the northeastern side of the island that has perfect waves for body surfing. There were many other beaches and small nearby islands that we could explore, accessible by car or water taxi.

My fears about our baby boys had come to nothing: Marcus and Colin both loved camping. They ate and slept well, and the warm climate dislodged their winter colds and allowed them to hang out in a few or no clothes. They ate a bit of sand, with no apparent ill effects.

In fact, our eight days in Culebra went eerily well. After our first shopping trip, we realized we still needed a cooler, more ice and some charcoal to cook chicken. Within hours, departing guests left a cooler filled with ice at our campsite, and one of the camp's guards brought by some charcoal.

Regulars later told us we'd been blessed with perfect weather: While mosquitoes and no-see-ums often make Culebra difficult to tolerate particularly at dawn and dusk the same winds that rocked the ferry kept bugs at bay.

The only drawbacks other than the occasional drenching storm were loud neighbors, groups of Puerto Rican teenagers who come to the beach to drink, sing and scream into the early morning.

One night I made a plea to one group to keep their voices down, with mixed success. By the next afternoon, with new groups about to arrive, I had a plan: I would stand with Colin and Marcus near our camping area and pinch them so they would screech, thereby driving away potential neighbors. This turned out to not be necessary.

Other options

Culebra has plenty of lodging options outside of camping, from guest houses to upscale hotels. To catch an early ferry back to Fajardo, we spent our last night at Mamacitas, a small hotel where we had an adorable $100 room and a mediocre dinner. (It turns out that blackened fish, to this chef, doesn't mean covered with pepper and lightly seared, but badly burnt.)

We couldn't bear to leave the island when our time wound down. We're so confident we'll return that we made a list of what we'll bring next year. The price turns out to be right, too: The trip cost less than $1,600 for the three of us, including plane tickets, for an eight-day Caribbean vacation.

And that included the pina coladas.

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