Friday, January 22, 2021

What Is It Like Teaching English in Ukraine During COVID19?




Teaching English in Ukraine is an interesting way to make a living. When people think of where they want to teach, many opt for the high paying areas in Asia such as South Korea or China. Others go to the UAE or Saudi Arabia. But fewer consider Ukraine. 

Is It Possible To Get a Teaching Job In Ukraine During COVID19?


In this article, I will give you an idea of what you can expect if you are looking to move to Ukraine. Just like anywhere else, Ukraine has a unique COVID19 situation, with lockdowns and job issues. For those who are looking to apply from abroad, coming to Ukraine is very possible, but there are challenges here, just like anywhere else. I will also show that, for those who do move to Ukraine to teach ESL, you can find work, but your choices will be more limited.

During the COVID19 pandemic, the reality of teaching English abroad has been changed. I recently posted an article about which countries are allowing teachers to enter. If you are looking to teach during COVID19, getting into a new country is going to pose a challenge for you, especially if you are not a native speaker from a handful of countries. Even then, it’s difficult to change where you live. This is all the more true for those who have families.


I came to Ukraine during the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic in March of 2020. I had a teaching job lined up and landed in Kyiv three days before the first lockdown. At that time, all the schools closed down for a period, and then online teaching became the norm as schools set up internet-based programs. 

Why Did I Choose To Teach in Ukraine?

I had taught in Ukraine previously in 2014 and 2015, and I enjoyed living here. The cost of living is low (it was far lower at that time), and the culture is different than anything in the west. At the time, I felt like Ukraine had a slower pace of living than the places in the US that I lived in (Ukraine has become more fast-paced in the last few years). It seemed almost pastoral, but still offered the excitement of something different than I was used to. 

Some things I really like about Ukraine are:
•The cost of living is low. It used to be lower, but it’s still much cheaper than the United States. In Dnipro, where I live, you can find a nice apartment for around $300 to $350 per month.
•The culture is one-of-a-kind.
•The food is amazing. Even if you are a vegetarian, Ukrainian food is absolutely fantastic.
•The people are fun to teach. Students seem happy to be in the classroom and many want to be challenged and learn.
•The places to visit are all amazing. Whether you want to go to the sea, forest, or mountains, Ukraine has it all. There are ancient castles in the Carpathians and beautiful beaches around Berdyansk. Riding the train is interesting, comfortable, fun, and inexpensive. There is nothing like riding a full Marshrutka in the heat of summer, either!
•Proximity to the EU, Russia, and the Middle East. I can fly to Istanbul for less than $100 round trip. Likewise, Romania and Poland are next door. Want to go further into Europe? You can take the train or take an inexpensive flight. Want to go to Egypt? It’s super easy, and it’s the vacation spot of choice for many Ukrainians.

 How Do You Find Work As An English Teacher In Ukraine?


It is not too hard to find teaching work in Ukraine. There are plenty of language schools in the country. There are plenty of private schools in the big cities, such as Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, and Kharkiv. In addition, there are schools in medium-sized cities such as Dnipro (where I work), Zaporizhia, and Vinnytsia. If you are looking at smaller cities, you may have to look harder or consider tutoring online.

Getting a Visa in Ukraine is possible even during the COVID19 pandemic. In fact, it’s not too hard, but you’ll need a sponsor. Some English schools will pay all the fees. I had to pay to go to Istanbul and have it done. It cost me about $300 for the visa itself. While it can be pretty bureaucratic, it’s not too difficult if you have good help and know what to expect.

If you visit Ukraine from certain countries, you will be given a 90-day visa on arrival. You can use this period to look for work. Otherwise, you may be able to find work online. Few schools will pay for a flight for you to get into Ukraine. Many may offer small services such as airport pick up and help getting used to life in Ukraine. Some schools pay for housing. Others leave that up to you.

I have found that the average wage in Ukraine is around $1000 to $1,400. You don’t need a college degree to teach in Ukraine, unlike many other countries.

One struggle during the Pandemic that I have had is getting enough hours in my job. While most schools promise employees a set amount of hours, this is hard to deliver during COVID. The demand is not as high as the supply of schools, and I have found that my classes have been reduced (to about 50%) and fewer students are in my classes than before. Schools may have also cut back on bonus structures. This is the reality of working with an English center in Ukraine.

If you find a job at an international school, this may not be as big of a problem. There are some international schools in cities like Kyiv that are recruiting for teachers. Some schools need English teachers, but state that they are not hiring native speakers at this time. It’s best if you look at the current job offers online before coming, so you know exactly what to expect.

If you are the adventurous type that wants to come to Ukraine and look for work once you arrive, you may have better luck than if you are only applying online. With that said, many of the larger schools state that they are currently not recruiting until demand is higher.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is very possible to come to Ukraine and find work during COVID19. However, it is not without its challenges. As someone who lives here, I would recommend waiting until the situation improves before looking for work. For those who are looking to teach ESL, China, Taiwan, and South Korea are probably the best bets. The middle east is good for those with a teaching credential. Hopefully, in the coming months, the situation will improve in Ukraine and demand will once again exceed supply.

Update: I no longer work in Ukraine, but enjoyed our time there, and will likely return one day. It is definitely an amazing place to live and I do miss it. I recommend supplementing your income with a business of your own. We have our own Etsy store and did really well with it.

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Ultimate Istanbul Turkey Travel Guide

I have been in Istanbul for the last couple of weeks and I decided to sit down and write about my journey so far.  Istanbul is a huge city: One of Europe's largest cities, to be exact.  It is a super-busy place.  Think New York or London busy.  One thing that I love about this city is that it is something like a mix of middle eastern and European cultures.  On one hand you have big squares and European-like architecture, but on the other, there's centuries old markets, mosques, and the call to prayer that sounds off throughout the day from dawn until after sunset (at least in the winter).  It's a beautiful city, with water all around it and many hills.  

Istanbul truly deserves a place on the top of your travel wishlist. It's one of the most visited cities in the world, and it's easy to see why.  It gives you a taste of the Middle East without going to places that some people may consider just too exotic or risky.  In fact, it may create a yearning to visit places like Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Egypt, or Jordan among others.  

In this post, I want to talk a bit about Istanbul and dive deep into what I like about this city and some of the sites that I would recommend for you to visit.  If you have any thoughts or something to add, please leave a comment below.

This article is made up of the following sections:

*What I Like About Istanbul
*Where to Visit When In Istanbul
*Lesser Known Places to See
*Istanbul in the Summer and Winter
*Day Trips from Istanbul
*Where to Stay in Istanbul
*Food and Drink in Istanbul

What I Like About Istanbul

I like Istanbul so much that I have been here twice.  The first time was in the summer of 2015, and I spent two weeks in the city.  I had previously traveled to other large cities such as Cairo, London, Paris, Bangkok, Singapore, and many more, but Istanbul stood out to me--and it was one of my long-time top "bucket list" places to visit.  It was truly unlike any other place I had been to.  It seemed both familiar and exotic.  It reminded me of a lot of some of the other cities I had journeyed to and some that I had previously lived in. 

The markets and mosques reminded me of Cairo (a city I would later move to).  The ferries and waterways reminded me of Seattle (where I lived in college and after the birth of our daughter).  The sheer size and busyness reminded me of New York (where I went to law school).  The mild weather reminded of San Francisco (where I lived during undergrad).  The cobblestone streets reminded me of Europe.  Istikal street reminded me of Paris or London. Istanbul truly felt like an international city.  Once one of the, if not the, greatest city in world, Istanbul has influenced culture all over.  

As a result, there are so many things to see and do here.  Even if you are not walking by a world-famous attraction, there are things to gaze at and take in that will interest and captivate you.  I enjoyed seeing the little fountains of water that exist all over the city.  I was enchanted by the hordes of cats that wandered the streets, and how the locals took it upon themselves to feed and care for them.  Just looking out across the water and at the myriad of buildings across the Bosporous at sunset felt like a dream.  

The people of Istanbul are friendly.  The shopkeepers are not as pushy as in other places I have traveled to.  People smile and have fun.  They are welcoming to visitors.  The sound of the call to prayer at sunset is often beautiful and haunting.  The architecture is rich and ornate.  The tilework on many of the buildings is truly gorgeous.  In fact, almost everywhere you turn, there is some beautiful architectural feature that very few places (such as Morocco) can match.  

The cost of traveling to this city is quite low, and one's money goes far.  It's a place where you can have a lot of fun and not get bored easily.  There are things for the whole family to see and do.  It's a wonderful place to bring a child and to introduce them to a new culture (our daughter loves it here).  There's little wonder as to why Istanbul is one of the world's most visited destinations.

What Should I See When Visiting Istanbul?

Istanbul is loaded with awesome sights that you probably have heard of long before you began researching this city.  Many of these places are quite legendary and are an obvious must-see for anyone who is visiting this famous city.  Some of these sites may even be the reason people opt to travel to Istanbul in the first place.

Hagia Sofia Mosque

The inside of the Hagia Sophia Mosque is breathtaking.

This is perhaps the crown jewel of Istanbul.  Long considered one of the world's great buildings, the Hagia Sophia does not disappoint in the slightest.  It was once a museum.  Now it's a mosque.  Having visited once before it was converted into a mosque, I can say it is quite different now that it's a working place of worship.

Firstly, there's no charge to get in.  It used to cost about 100 Turkish Lira to enter.  Now, it's free.  However, you can only visit during certain times.  When there is prayer, the tourists must leave. Also, you must take off your shoes and women must cover their heads with a scarf.  A headscarf can be purchased at the site, or you can bring your own. There are many beautiful ones to be purchased around the city.  The ones at the mosque are kind of plain, so keep that in mind.

When the Hagia Sophia was a museum, you could climb to the second level and look out towards the Blue Mosque, or look down and gaze at the beautiful architecture from above.  This is no longer the case.  You can't go upstairs anymore.  

There is no doubt that some people will like the Hagia Sophia more as a museum, and others may find it more interesting as a working mosque.  I am glad that I had the chance to visit it in both states.  Culturally, it's perhaps more insightful to see people in there worshipping, instead of an empty building full of people just gawking at the gorgeous architecture.  Yes, it's perhaps one hundred more times more beautiful on the inside than on the outside, and you have to visit it when you are in Istanbul.  Now that it's free to see, there's really no excuse not to go inside.

There's a lot of history to this building.  It was once a Christian church and you can see the frescos inside of Christian-themed historical renditions throughout.  You will want to make sure you visit this site when prayer is not happening, but if you arrive during prayer time, there's a beautiful park just outside where you can wait and enjoy some simit (round bread) or freshly-made corn-on-the-cob.  

Blue Mosque AKA Sultan Ahmet Camii

The blue mosque is one of the most visited mosques in Istanbul

A short walk from the Hagia Sophia is another must-see mosque.  The Sultan Ahmet Camii, or "Blue Mosque" as it's called, is a mosque that's almost as impressive from the outside as the Hagia Sophia.  It's the first mosque that many people visit and provides a great way to experience and learn a bit about Islamic faith.  

The blue mosque is a working mosque, and as such, it's free to visit.  It's a popular place, and should be visited at the same time as the Hagia Sofia, being that they are so close in proximity.  Most people will not spend as long in this mosque due to the area for visitors is much smaller and there's not many places to walk around.  However, the interior is gorgeous as well and it's worth a visit just to see the architectural beauty of this mosque.  

On our second visit, the mosque was being renovated, and we were not able to view the interior as scaffolding blocked the ceiling and most of the outer walls.  

When the mosque closes for prayer, you may be courted by carpet and rug shop owners who want you to visit their shops.  They can be a bit pushy, but if you tell them no a few times, they should leave you alone.  If you are in the market for a Turkish rug, it may be worth a look, but I would imagine the price will be higher than other shops in the city.

On your way out of the Blue Mosque, you can pick up some literature to learn more about Islamic faith.  I was able to score a copy of the Koran here.  They have it in many different languages, as well as other pamphlets that may be of interest to you.  What better way to learn about people than to understand their faith?

Eminonu and Egyptian Spice Bazaar

Outside of the Egyptian Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

This is the heart of the waterfront, where the ferries to other parts of the city come and go, and where you can cross Galata Bridge for a wonderful walk towards Galata tower and Istikal Street.  Here you can indulge in a freshly made fish sandwich, meander through the centuries old Egyptian Spice Bazaar, or relax in a massive square that is loaded with shops and vendors.  

The Egyptian Spice Bazaar is a fantastic place to pass through, but it's not the cheapest place in the city to buy a souvenir or grab some sweet and delicious Turkish delight.  There are far better places to make such purchases, but if you are crunched on time or have a steady flow of cash and don't feel like stretching your legs too much, it's a worthwhile place to pick up some spices and trinkets.  The real estate inside of the market is the most expensive, so be prepared to pay more inside than outside.

While the Spice Bazaar is not nearly as large as the Grand Bazaar, I like it more.  It has more of an exotic feel and may be less intimidating (it's much smaller inside).  Outside are many winding streets full of cheap clothing, electronics, luggage, coffee, and almost anything else you can think of.  Instead of shopping in the spice bazaar, head to this area.  You will see that there are many locals who do their shopping on these streets, and if you want the good deals, you have to follow the local crowd.  If there's no locals shopping or dining somewhere, that's a sign that it's seen as overpriced and that there are better deals to be had elsewhere.  

That's not to say that the Spice Bazaar is not worth visiting.  It's a great place to see and gives you some insight into a very old marketplace.  Coming from the United States, these types of markets don't really exist, and they are a huge part of middle eastern culture.  For that reason alone, you should step in.  Beware that the salespeople will come at you and try to get you to enter their.  They are nothing close to as persistent as the ones in Egypt's Khan el-Khalili bazaar, but a foreigner who has never traveled to the middle east or Asia may be uncomfortable at first.  If so, just try to enjoy it and remember that you have the final say whether or not you make a purchase.  Unless you have only a few hours in the city, there's no need to hurry, as many shops sell the same thing and you can find whatever you are looking for all over the city.

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar is a not-so-distant walk from Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque and is worth a visit, even if you are not much of a shopper.  This is one of the largest markets in the world, and also one of the oldest.  It's a gigantic maze of shops, many of which are high-end jewelry, carpet, and luggage shops.  If you want to purchase a fine souvenir of your journey, this is a good place to get it.

I should mention that I have been to Istanbul twice and have never purchased anything in this bazaar.  Many of the shops are expensive and more high-end, and I have always been on the move in life.  If you want something for your home, however, you may find what you are looking for here.

The Grand Bazaar can be a busy place, although due to its size, I didn't find it as busy as the Spice Bazaar. Its a great place to get lost, explore, or film, and makes for some good entertainment.  

If you want to find some good deals, visit the areas around this bazaar.  If you follow the streets south towards the Spice Bazaar, you will find many less expensive shops.  Likewise, if you explore the streets leading towards the Suleymaniye Mosque, there are many ornate trinkets to be purchased, such as beautiful tea sets and pomegranate containers made of various metals.  The prices on some of these items are surprisingly low.  They make amazing gifts for friends and family back home.

Suleymaniye Mosque

The view from the Suleymaniye Mosque

If you liked the Blue Mosque, you may like the Suleymaniye Mosque even more.  I somehow missed this amazing mosque during my first trip to Istanbul, but on my second trip, I was able to take it in, and I was glad I did!  It's (one of) the huge mosque(s) on the hill overlooking the city.  It's a not-so-far walk from the Grand Bazaar, and if you want to see an amazing view of Galata tower and the part of the city around Taksim, this is the place to do so.  It costs nothing (other than the energy expended to walk there), and is worth the time and effort.  

The mosque itself is stunning inside.  Being that the Blue Mosque was closed for renovations, this was a great alternative.  Some say that this mosque is even grander than the Blue Mosque.  It's also a bit older.  When I visited, there were few others visiting and it had a more quiet and reverent feel to it.  

If you want to visit a more off-the-beaten path neighborhood of Istanbul, continue heading west and you will descend into a valley and into one of the more local neighborhoods of the city.  Here you will find shops selling all kinds of Turkish treats, meat, pide, and more for a fraction of the price that you will find in the center.  Continue going west and you will be in for a treat as you visit parks and neighborhoods that are rarely seen by the vast majority of tourists in Istanbul.

Galata Tower and Istikal Street (Taksim)

Istanbul's iconic Galata tower is a great place to visit, even if you don't go up.  The cost of going up isn't too high, but it's not the only place where you can get a view of the city.  In fact, I also would recommend the grounds of the Suleymaniye Mosque.  However, if you want to see the city from up high, Galata tower is a good place to do it.  

Galata tower is surrounded by many souvenir shops, and surprisingly, they are quite good.  You can pick up some good items for quite cheap here.  There are many types of clothing shops in this area, as well as shops selling phone cases and textiles.  There are even quite a few shops selling musical instruments.  As you head towards Istikal street, the prices of things skyrocket and you may feel like you are in Beverly Hills, Dubai, or Paris as you walk down this trendy street of the elite.  Iconic shops that you will recognize line this street.  You know you are in a tourist zone when Starbucks replaces the Turkish coffee and Salep that is popular in other areas of the city.  

At the end of Istikal street is Taksim Square, a large gathering place where you can catch a funicular to the Dolmabahçe palace and Kadikoy ferry terminal (where you catch the Prince Island ferry and Bosporous cruise).  Istikal street is worth visiting, and there are a few beautiful churches on this street, including the Saint Anthony Cathedral, which is worth a visit for those who like ornate Christian/Catholic Churches.  

Getting to Istikal street is super easy.  You can walk there from Eminonu, crossing the Galata Bridge.  The bridge is loaded with fishermen and it's quite a sight to see.  You can get some great shots of the city from this bridge.  Once you cross to the other side, climb the hill towards Galata tower and you are now in this rather touristy part of the city.

Ferries and Bosphorus cruise

Taking the ferry around Istanbul is fun and incredibly easy.  You can get an Istanbul card at any ferry terminal and put some money on it within seconds.  After getting a card, just scan it at the turnstile and pass through.  

Once you are on the ferries, enjoy the view of the city as you pass ships and take in the iconic sites.  Eminonu and Kadikoy are two of the most popular ferry terminals, and you can catch a Bosphorus cruise from these areas.  If you are going to the Prince Islands, these are the two terminals where you can catch a ferry there as well.  It's super cheap to go to the prince islands and many different ferries go there.  The Bosphorus cruise is also inexpensive, and you should buy your ticket at the ticket counter and not from someone selling cruises.  If you are spending 15 euro or more you are paying too much.  If you paid 25 euro, congratulations, you were ripped off.  

Museums



Istanbul is loaded with some of the greatest museums that I have visited.  The archeology museums near Topkepi palace is a real gem.  There are three buildings loaded with period pieces ranging from Sumer and Babylon to Greek and Roman times.  One highlight is the walls of Babylon.  If you like ancient history, this is one of the best museums I have seen on the subject.

Istanbul is also home to many art museums as well as more living museums such as Topkapi and Dolmabahçe palaces.  The Topkapi harem is worth the extra cost, and is one of the most beautiful places I have been.  Dolmabahçe Palace is spectacular, with the throne room being one of the most gorgeous rooms I have ever set foot in.  It's a massive room with the largest chandelier I have ever seen.  Sadly, you can't take any pictures inside of the Dolmabahçe palace, which for me was a real bummer.  Some people snuck pictures, but I don't recommend it.  There are guards everywhere, and as a guest, I find it to be in bad taste.  Even without being able to take pictures, the Dolmabahçe was worth the visit.  You can take pictures of the outside, and there's enough there to keep photographers busy.

Unlike Dolmabahçe Palace, you can take pictures at Topkapi, including the harem.  It's definitely worth a visit, especially given that it's right in the center and is full of history and epic views of the rest of the city. If you are undecided on the harem (as it costs extra), check out my video below

Lesser Known Areas - Istanbul Off the Beaten Path


Istanbul is more than just its top tourist attractions.  There's a lot to see here that is a bit off the beaten path.  If you want to see the real Istanbul, you are going to have to venture a bit out of the tourist area.  To be honest, this is super easy here, and no matter where you go in this huge city, you won't feel like a fish out of water.  In fact, it's a lot of fun to see some of the lesser visited parts of the city because you get a feel for more of the culture and local's way of life.  That's one of my favorite parts about traveling.

Most people stay near Sultanahmet during their time in Istanbul.  That's understandable.  Sultanahmet is the heart of the city, full of the big tourist attractions that were mentioned above.  But, I would totally recommend you venture a bit out.  

One thing that I love about the lesser-visited parts of this city is that you will notice a huge price reduction on food and other items when you leave the center.  For example, when in the center of the city, I visited an ATM that had a $20 fee for currency conversion.  I declined.  I went to the same ATM outside of the center and the fee was not there!  The same food in restaurants is almost half the price, but tastes just as good.  The same can be said about take-away.  

In the neighborhoods around the city, you can buy the same spices and teas that exist in the spice bazaar, but at a huge reduction.  This is where the locals do their shopping, and the quality is top notch.  Maybe you have wondered why there are no locals shopping in the spice bazaar?  Why would they, if they can get the same things for a lot, lot cheaper?

The rule is, the further you go away from the big mosques, the cheaper it gets.  The only place I noticed a lot of locals doing shopping was north of the spice bazaar, in the streets where clothing was sold.  I highly recommend doing some shopping in this part of the city, as there are some seriously good deals to be had and a wide variety of beautiful products to be found.

Some of the off the beaten path areas can be reached by ferry.  I recommend the neighborhood to the west of Istikal street.  To reach this area, head east from Taksim square and go down the hill into the valley.  Below you will see small markets, many shops with lower prices than anything on Istikal, lot's of inexpensive take-away restaurants and some lovely parks.  

Another lovely area to visit is to the west of Eminonu.  From the spice bazaar, follow the main road west until you reach Ataturk Bulvari.  On the west side of this large street, you will see a large hill with many houses and mosques.  I recommend visiting the area around the Fatih Mosque.  It's a huge and beautiful mosque with a massive courtyard full of families and children playing.  Nearby is a beautiful shopping area full of shops and few tourists.

Nearby is Cukur Boston Parki, which is next to the Yavuz Sultan Selim Camii (mosque).  This park is a great place for families.  There are picnic tables, playgrounds, and many treelined walkways.  Kids especially love this park and it's a great place to spend a while and enjoy some take-away food.  The neighborhood is a great place to explore, with many winding streets rising and falling over various hills.  It's a wonderful place to walk and feels completely safe.  

Uskudar is another must-see area of Istanbul for those who want to see the Asian side of the city.  Uskudar is a lovely ferry ride from Eminonu and is full of restaurants, shops, and cafes.  Head to Maiden's Tower and enjoy Turkish coffee or tea with a view of the city, sea and Maiden's Tower itself.  Uskudar is a busy neighborhood, and is a great place to stay if you are looking for somewhere inexpensive.  On our first trip to Istanbul this is where we stayed, and we always enjoyed taking the ferry into the city.  Especially during the sunset when Istanbul is lit ablaze in a brilliant red color.

Istanbul in Summer / Winter

Men fishing along the Galata Bridge in Winter, with the Suleymaniye Mosque in the background

Istanbul during the summer is a completely different experience than during the winter.  I have visited this city during August (the high season), and December and January (during COVID, which was a much different experience).  The city is generally packed during New Years, but this year it was quite empty (with a weekend lockdown that made the city feel like a ghost-town).  During August, the city is truly alive and fantastic.  To me, it was a magical time to come.  The city is full of life.  Green gardens, hot weather, packed streets and waterways.  The Prince Islands make it even more enticing during the summer months -- but are totally worth visiting in the Winter (see below).  In fact, I would argue that the Prince Islands may be even better in Winter than they are during the busy Summer months.

The winters are mild enough to feel like Spring in many other places.  Coming from Ukraine, the weather was fantastic to us (16 Celsius versus freezing in our current home).  For others, this may be too cold.  In the summer, the heat is intense at times and you will sweat.  

If you like the city at its fullest, with the greatest variety of things to see and do, summer is your best bet.  If you like it quiet and a more local experience, then the cooler and less-visited winter months may be better for you.  

Day Trips

The ferry to the Princes' Islands

Büyükada, the largest of the Princes' Islands

There are two good day trips that I took while in Istanbul.  One is to the city of Şile, which is located on the Asian side on the Black Sea.  The other is the Princes' Islands, which are an hour and a half from Istanbul via ferry from Eminonu or Kadikoy.  Both are great places to go and I recommend them both.  

I visited Şile in the Summer, when you can swim and enjoy the beautiful Black Sea.  It's easy to rent a few lounge chairs and enjoy the cool and shallow water at the main beach in town.  Up on the hill are many restaurants and cafes selling traditional foods.  It's easy to catch a bus to and from Istanbul from this city.

The Princes' Islands are a group of four larger islands in the Sea of Marmara.  The most famous island, Büyükada or "Big Island" (due to being the largest), is the last stop.  The other islands are also worth a visit, but if you want the most amenities, this is the island to visit.  The second most popular is Heybeliada, which is one stop before Büyükada.  

On Büyükada, you can rent a bike or walk around a picturesque town, which is full of white mansions that overlook the sea and Asian side in the distance.  From here you see just how huge Istanbul really is.  Walk out of town to the forest on the hill and enjoy a picnic lunch in nature with a beautiful view.  The sunset spot is a great place go to and feel that you are in a whole different world.  

I visited Büyükada in both summer and winter, and both times were fabulous times to visit.  I had read that Büyükada and the Princes' Islands were not worth visiting in the winter, but this was completely wrong.  In January, the Island was full of tourists, with most shops open, bicycles for rent, and thinner crowds of people.  Restaurants were still open and there were plenty of ferries going back and forth to the city.  The weather was clear and sunny, and hiking into the forest hills surrounding the town was a real treat.  We had a picnic up on the hill and enjoyed the ambience of what felt like late Springtime in most other parts of the world.  On the way back to town, we enjoyed ice cream while waiting for the ferry to Eminonu.  

Just like the rest of Istanbul, there are many cats here, and watching them play is a lot of fun (unless you are not a cat person).  For some reason, the cats on this island seemed quite feisty and should be approached with caution, as they can scratch or bite if provoked or taken by surprise.  Some cats do not like to be messed with.  Others love the attention.  

Where to Stay in Istanbul


Even if you are on a budget, I recommend staying close to Eminönü if possible.  However, I do not really recommend staying too close to the central area by the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia.  Why, you ask?  While this is a great part of the city to visit, it's quite a bit more expensive to get food.  I stayed east of the Egyptian Spice Bazaar at a hotel called Herton Hotel, and for about 10 Euros a night I had a buffet breakfast, private bathroom, balcony, and was in an area full of cheap food and a decent sized grocery store.  There were also many fruit and vegetable vendors close by.  It was a super easy walk to the Suleymaniye Mosque, Egyptian Spice Bazaar, Grand Bazaar, and even Topkapi/Blue Mosque/Hagia Sophia.  We also walked to Istikal street quite often, and the location was super close to the metro line and ferries.  

If you have more money to spend, and are not on a budget of any kind, the best place is probably in Sultanahmet, as being in the center is nice, and the best hammams, spas, and restaurants are in this area.  It also depends on how long you will be in the city.  The first time I went to Istanbul, we stayed in Uskudar at an AirBnb, which was a fun and interesting area to be in.  We spent two weeks in Istanbul during this visit and that length of time allowed us to see almost everything.  If you have less time, definitely opt for the central part of the city.

Taksim is a good place to stay as well, but I wouldn't advise it unless you do a lot of high end shopping.  There are many good restaurants off of Istikal that are not too expensive, but the real feel of Istanbul is not so much along Istikal, but more near Eminönü and Sultanahmet.  

Food and Drinks



Turkey has many different foods and drinks.  As a vegetarian, I have not had Doner kebabs or some of the other meat products, but can tell by the lines in front of the places that serve these dishes that they are extremely popular with both locals and visitors.  

Simit is the most popular snack in Istanbul.  It's like a large sesame seed covered bagel.  It's crunchy on the outside, but chewy.  You can buy these plain, or with cheese or chocolate (Nutella) in the middle.  They are very inexpensive.  

Pide is like a long oval pizza.  Some of it is not so different than Georgian Adjarian Khatchapuri.  This makes sense, since Turkey and the Adjaria region of Georgia share a border.  There are many types of Pide, some with cheese, egg, meat, or a combination of all.  There are different types of filled breads that are also sold alongside pide.  The fillings may include potatoes, feta type cheese, or meat.  

Fasulye (a white bean stew) and soup (chorba) are also good choices for vegetarians that are easily available.  Alongside pide, one will often find a cheese and pasta type dish that is rich and filling.  It's quite an oily dish, and I would not recommend eating it too often.  Also, you can find sandwiches all over the city, often filled with cheese, tomatoes, and other products.  Some places will make a sandwich for you loaded with olives, cheeses, tomatoes, and greens.  These are inexpensive and make for a good picnic snack.

Stuffed baked potatoes loaded with vegetables are another excellent choice that can be found all over the city.  These usually cost a couple of euros/dollars and are super satisfying. 

There are restaurants all over the city.  Some are inexpensive, but nothing beats the price of getting take-away food.  If you are on a tight budget or trying to save some money while exploring long-term, I recommend going the take-away route.  This is what many locals do, and outside of the center you can get take-away food for super cheap.

While you can find some falafel places in Istanbul (particularly around Galata Tower), falafel is not really popular (but has been getting more popular since my first visit).  I recommend searching falafel on maps.me if you are looking for it.  

One of my favorite more healthy options is Çiğ Köfte.  According to Discover Vegan, Çiğ Köfte sold on the street are vegetarian by law.  This dish is made from "fine bulgur (wheat), tomato paste, spicy pepper paste, fresh herbs and other spices."  It's served as a salad with lettuce, tomatoes and cilantro, or as a wrap.  These stands can be found all over the city.  This dish is also sold as an appetizer in some restaurants.  Generally, you may be given some free of charge when you eat out.  

As far as drinks, Turkish coffee is a must try for anyone who likes coffee.  It's perhaps the richest and strongest coffee there is.  Tea is also popular in Turkey.  Salep is a milky drink with cinnamon on top that reminds me a bit of Egg Nog.  It's said to be available only during the winter months.  Ayran is a cold yogurt drink that is very popular amongst the locals.  It's a refreshing drink in the summer.  You will also see many juice stands throughout the city.  You can get a small cup of pomegranate, orange, and other seasonal fruit juices around the city.  In the neighborhoods you may find a cup for 3 Turkish Lira.  In the tourist spots, the price goes up to around 10 Lira.

To be quite honest, I have found that Istanbul does not have quite the variety of choices of international food as many other large cities of its size.  That doesn't mean that such options don't exist, but they are harder to come by and they will cost more (as expected).  

Generally, when traveling, I like to get an AirBnb apartment and cook my own food, as it's quite a bit cheaper than eating out.  However, I think that unless you are staying in Istanbul for more than a week or two, and are feeding more than a couple of people, then eating take-away is probably your best bet.  Granted, it's not the healthiest option, so you may want to take that into consideration. 


Sunday, January 3, 2021

Where to Camp on Culebra, Puerto Rico Part II



This is the second part of our camping guide to Culebra Island.

Camping at Flamenco Beach on Culebra Island in Puerto Rico is an excellent choice for a person or family that is on a budget, seeking something different than merely staying in a hotel, or who wants to experience living in a somewhat primitive and very natural environment for a while.  Many visitors opt to camp in Culebra to get off the beaten path or to experience spending time on an island where accommodations are often otherwise expensive.  Many are brought to Flamenco beach's campground due to the beauty of the natural environment and the allure of spending a few nights on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  No matter what your reasons are for considering camping at Flamenco beach, you are bound to experience a memorable trip that you will cherish for a very long time.

Many people who camp at Flamenco beach find it hard to leave.  Many individuals dream of returning again, even though 'roughing it' has its challenges.  However, with all the amenities that are available at one's disposal, camping at Flamenco is not as much roughing it as it is a pleasure. 

Imagine, camping a few meters from the ocean, falling asleep and waking to the sounds of the surf hitting the shore.  In the morning, being surrounded by deer making their way through camp, or by the tropical breezes that blow in between the palm trees that line the coastline.  Imagine crossing the island via foot to the lesser visited beaches of Carlos Rosario or Playa Tamarindo.  Taking a plunge into the nearby reef to see some of the tropical fish and return in time to hunt for coconuts.  Afterwards, you can make your way into Dewey for dinner, or enjoy an evening meal by candlelight right on the beach.  Infinite opportunities await you.

The purpose of this site is to explain to you exactly how to navigate the island of Culebra and get the most out of your camping experience on Flamenco Beach.  Many travelers want to maximize their time on the island, while minimizing the costs involved.  This website will show you how to get to and around the island, purchase food and supplies, and once there not miss a thing.  Many people find that they missed something, or missed out on camping entirely because they did not know how to go about doing it.  Getting to Culebra and Flamenco beach from San Juan, even without a rental car, is easy and should not have to cost a lot.

Culebra has changed over time but still holds its unique charm.  When you arrive you will find a laid back group of people who love their island home.  You will quickly understand why.  Life is a lot slower here, but that does not mean it is not exciting.  On the contrary, there is magic to be found all over the island.  From its amazing beaches to its hillside vistas.  Even under the sea the world comes to life.  This is how it is on the island of Culebra.  We hope that you enjoy it and get as much out of it as you possibly can.  

Culebra is a popular weekend tourist destination for many, including mainland Puerto Ricans, Americans as well as residents of Vieques. Because of the "arid" nature of Culebra there is no run-off from rivers or streams. This results in very clear waters around the beautiful archipelago.

Culebra has many beautiful beaches including the famous Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco). Flamenco can be reached by shuttle buses from the ferry dock. Playa Flamenco extends for a mile with white coral sand which is framed beautifully by the arid tree-covered hills. Playa Flamenco is also protected by the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources as a Marine Wildlife Reserve.

The area that is west of Flamenco Beach as well as the adjacent Flamenco Point were used for joint-United States Navy/Marine Corps military exercises until 1975. Many military relics, which include a couple of tanks, still remain. Culebra and Vieques offered the U.S. military an experience of great value to the battles in the Pacific as a feasible training area for the Fleet Marine Force in amphibious exercises for beach landings and naval gunfire support testing. Culebra and Vieques were the two components of the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Range Inner Range. In recent years, only the shortened term "Inner Range" was used.

Some of the other beaches in the area are only accessible by private car or boats. Of the smaller islands, only Culebrita and Luis Peña permit visitors and can be accessible via water taxis from Culebra. Hiking as well as nature photography are encouraged on these small islands. However, activities which would disturb the nature reserves on these islands are prohibited. These include camping, littering and use of motor vehicles. Camping, however, is allowed on Playa Flamenco throughout the year. Culebra is also a popular destination for scuba divers because of the many reefs throughout the archipelago and the crystal clear waters.

WHERE TO RENT CAMPING SUPPLIES ON CULEBRA, PUERTO RICO?

Many people would rather rent a tent while camping on Flamenco beach than bringing one with them.  This is understandable, as campers who are just spending a few days on the island may not want to carry a bunch of heavy gear with them.  If you are only spending a few nights on the island and have other plans while visiting Puerto Rico, you may want to consider renting a tent or buying a cheap hammock.

One place to rent a tent is at Tent City.  It is located at one of the kiosks right on Flamenco Beach.  Tent City rents tents as well as other camping gear.  Examples include mattresses, propane stoves and flashlights.  Tent City also sells hammocks, both premade and some that they make on site.  The most recent rates for a tent rental from Tent City is $20 a night, although this rate is subject to change.  Tent City also charges a deposit (around $50) for a tent.

Tent City can be reached at 787-226-0232.  Their hours are often quite sporadic and are generally closed in the evenings.  It is best to get to Flamenco Beach in the morning.  If this is not possible, have a back up plan if you want to rent a tent.  One thing that many people like to do is take a hammock with them and spend the first night in a hammock.  The weather is pleasant enough year round to do this.  Make sure to bring a small fold up tarp with you if you sleep outside, as it often does rain in this area of the world, and the rain really does pour.

Staying in a hammock is a very enjoyable experience and allows you to look up at the stars and wake up to the jungle and beach surroundings.  There are enough trees that are close together to easily find a place to hang a hammock.  

IS IT SAFE TO CAMP IN PUERTO RICO?

One question that comes up regarding camping on both Vieques and Culebra is safety.  There are many people who camp on Isla Culebra and Vieques every year, and very few people have any problems.  In fact, the camp facilities on both islands are well watched over, both with offices and staff that ensure the safety of their guests.  

On Flamenco beach, the camp area is secure, with a guard area just beyond the entrance gate.  Employees of the camp area often walk through the pathways, making sure that the camp area is clean and safe for all their guests.

On Vieques, groundspeople and guards watch the camp area constantly.  There is an overnight guard that patrols the area outside of the camp during the night.  During the day the camp area is busy with both day and overnight guests.  Equipment is often left out while people go to one of the nearby towns, on a tour, or swim at one of Vieque's beautiful beaches.  

While one can never guarantee that nothing will go wrong, the truth is, camping on either Vieques or Culebra is an excellent choice.  Both campgrounds are family friendly.  They are well watched over and are, overall, very safe.  Enjoy your stay!

BUDGETING FOR YOUR TRIP TO PUERTO RICO

 
A typical campsite set up at Flamenco Beach.

Many people enjoy camping on Culebra because it is, overall, an inexpensive way to visit the Caribbean.  However, one must keep in mind that staying at the Flamenco Beach Campground can add up, especially if one does most of their eating at the local kiosks or travels into town regularly via taxis.  Therefore, it is important that the visitor, especially the long-term camper, has a budget. 

I have come in contact with my people who have been at Flamenco Beach camping for a month or more.  Some individuals have no plans on leaving.  Others have been island hopping from the Virgin Islands or the Domincan Republic, and are staying a while on Culebra for a change of pace.  In order to do this, you should have a rough idea of what things will cost you while on the island.

Keep in mind that the prices often change.  Camping is inexpensive and was $20 last time I visited.  A good hammock should cost no more than $20.  You can buy a cheap one at a few of the stands on the island.



Food prices vary on the island.  I have posted a few menus to give you an idea of what to expect.  However, if you are staying on the island for a long time, you will want to stock up on groceries and produce.  It is possible to walk into town instead of taking a taxi.  If you do this, you may want to walk into town early in the morning before it becomes hot.  You can then take a taxi back for $3 if you purchase a lot of things. 

Items at the grocery store are not too expensive.  They are a little higher than the mainland due to the cost of shipping goods over, but are still comparable to princes in many areas of the continental United States.  

Of course one must keep in mind the cost of getting from San Jose to Fajardo (and eventually back), which can vary greatly depending on how you go about doing it.  If you are taking a taxi, it will probably be around $60 for a taxi.  If you are staying at a hostel or hotel in San Juan before heading out to Culebra, consider asking around.  Many people often find traveling companions to share a van with.  Sometimes the charge for a ten person van is around $120, but if you can arrange enough people you may end up paying around $15-20 a person.  If you are taking a publico, prices will vary depending on how full the publicos are.  It is possible to get to Fajardo from San Juan for $5-10, even though some drivers will try to charge you as much as $15 a person.

A few examples of menus from around town have been posted below.  

Dewey Puerto Rico Isla Culebra Travel Guide



When you arrive to Culebra, either by ferry or by plane, Dewey is the Island's main port of entry.  The small town will be the first place you see and it will be where you will most likely get most of your provisions while on Culebra.  With this in mind, it is good for the camper or visitor to Culebra to get to know the town right away. 

Dewey is a very small and easily walkable town that has a good variety of shops and restaurants for the traveler.  There are a couple of bakeries, a few grocery stores, and a host of other stores around the island.  A full service bank makes getting cash easy.  The bank is located near the ferry terminal on the main street, Pedro Marquez.  Nearby are two pizza restaurants (William's Pizza and Heather's Pizza), bakery, and a few restaurants.  There is also a gift shop nearby if you are looking for souvenirs. 

If you are camping and have time, it may be a good idea to stop by one of the grocery stores in town before paying $3 to make your way to the campground at Flamenco beach.  Publicos are very easy to catch at the ferry terminal and you will not miss out on transportation if you do not get on one right away. 

Near the ferry terminal is the Information Center that is maintained by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.  There is also a U.S. post office just north on the opposite side of Pedro Marquez street. 

Pedro Marquez Street, Dewey, Puerto Rico.





















The small fruit and vegetable stand across from the post office is a good place to get some fruit.  The variety changes almost daily, so be sure to check back often.  Quality is different depending on the day and season of the produce that is being sold.  With that being said, there is a good variety of items at the produce stand, a variety that the grocery stores of the island do not come close to meeting.   If you are a vegetarian or vegan or just trying to eat healthy while on the island, you will want to stop at the produce stand and pick up some fruits and vegetables for your camping trip.

The town of Dewey is pretty quiet overall, but more-so on the weekends, especially Sunday and on holidays.  Many grocery stores and other stores are not open on Sundays and many do not open in the morning hours.  Keep that in mind if you are paying for a publico to take you into the town.

There are a couple of small "park" areas in Dewey.  One is located on Ensenada Honda, which is the body of water to the north of town.  The other is located near the south part, by the ferry terminal.  These park areas are small, with a couple of picnic tables, but are both a nice place to relax if you are in town for a while.

The small town of Dewey, Puerto Rico.




























If you want to rent a Jeep or another vehicle on Dewey, head towards the airport to Carlos Jeep Rental.  A vehicle is not necessary to enjoy the island, but it makes getting around a lot easier.  With that being said, many people do not rent a vehicle while on the island and still enjoy seeing the sites that are easily accessible by foot or by publico.  Many of the area beaches can be reached by publico for a small fee ($2-$3 from the ferry terminal or other points in town).  

A good way to familiarize yourself with the town is to just explore the area.  The town is perfectly safe any time of day.  It is much more laid back than many other areas that you may have visited so far on your trip.  With that in mind, it is not a very large town, but you will find that rarely is everything in town open, so you may find that there are some surprises in store each time you visit. 
There are a variety of places to get groceries and necessities in Culebra and it is good to know of the various places if you are going to be camping on the island or otherwise staying for an extended period of time.  Many of the grocery stores have cheaper items than the food kiosks on Flamenco Beach.  There are three main grocery stores on the island that are similar in size.  Also, it is worth noting that grocery stores accept ATM/credit cards for purchases over $10.  

Grocery Stores on Isla Culebra

Although the hours are listed one some of the grocery stores, keep in mind that many are closed or open less frequently on Sundays and are generally closed on holidays.  It is wise to not spend money on a publico or make the trek into town on days that stores may be closed if you are going to just do your shopping.  If you are camping on Culebra, keep this in mind and be prepared with enough food to get you through the weekend or plan on visiting the kiosks, which are generally open (although sporadically) on Sundays and holidays.

Supermercado Costa del Sol
Monday - Saturday: 7 am to 9 pm
Sunday: 7 am - 12 pm (noon)













The grocery store, or Supermercado, that is near the airport is the closest to the beach, and is an easy walk from the camping area.  It takes roughly half an hour to walk to the store, and it is recommended that if one is making their way to this store on foot, morning is the best time to walk due to lack of shade in some areas and a long hill that rises before reaching the airport. 

This store is well stocked with various grocery items, drinks, and some meats.  However, there is little fresh fruit and vegetables at this store. 

Superette Mayra
Monday - Saturday 8:30 am to 1:30 pm, closed 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm, open again 3:30 pm to 6:30 pm.

This store is somewhat larger than the Supermercado close to the airport, and has more variety.  It is located in town at the corner of Escudero Street and Pedro Marquez Street (both of the "main streets" in town.  You will notice that there is a hill with a red and white bridge that rises towards the top. 

Like the supermercado, there is little in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables, but plenty of frozen foods, canned goods, and drinks.  There is a section for sundries such as toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, sunscreen, and the like.

One can purchase fuel for camp stoves or a small disposable camp stove here that is made out of aluminum with charcoal inside for about $6.  If you want to cook something at the beach, campground, this may be good to purchase.

Colmado Milka

If you continue along Escudero Street, past the bridge, and turn left at the fire station on the other side, you will see Colmado Milka.  This grocery store looks rather small on the outside, but inside it is well stocked with a good variety of items.  If you can not find what you are looking for at the other main grocery stores on the island, it is worth checking this one out.

Items such as soy/almond milk, a variety of drinks, canned goods, cereals, meats, some vegetables and fruits, and frozen foods can be purchased here.  

Culebra Produce Stand

If you are looking for fresh fruits and vegetables, this is the place to go.  The produce market is located around the corner from the ferry terminal on Pedro Marquez Street.  The selection varies, but items include bananas, apples, pears, rambutan fruit, kiwi, various types of nuts, corn on the cob, potatoes, and more (depending on the season).   There is also a freezer section which carries fruit smoothie drinks and soy milk. 

Other Places for Groceries

There are some other mini marts located on the island.  Dakati Gas Station and Mini Mart is located further on the same road as Colmado Milka.  There is also a gas station near the ferry terminal which sells a few things.  If you are looking for bread, most stores carry at least some type of bread, but the bakeries are recommended for fresh loafs.  Two that come to mind are Panaderia Tropical Bakery, which is located across from the ferry terminal as well as Pan Deli, which is near Superette Mayra. 

See our Culebra Puerto Rico Guide for More Information on Camping on Isla Culebra!

Where Can I Camp in Culebra, Puerto Rico? Full Flamenco Campground Guide.

A few years ago I had the joy of visiting Culebra, Puerto Rico.  Culebra is an island to the east of the main Island of Puerto Rico.  It's a beautiful island where you can walk from one side to the other, explore hidden beaches, and snorkel in crisp, clear waters.  In short, it's a piece of paradise that is worth exploring.

One thing that made Culebra a remarkable place to visit for us was that we could camp there.  We lugged all our camping stuff from New York City and flew to San Juan for a week of camping during the harsh and cold Northwest winter.  Going to Puerto Rico and Culebra was a treat.  It was an experience that I will always remember.  I wrote this post to shed some light on camping on the island of Culebra.

I will also share some information about camping on Vieques, which we also enjoyed.  Vieques is another island.  It is larger than Culebra and is located south of Culebra. 

Flamenco Beach campground is the most popular camping area in Puerto Rico, and with good reason.  Hundreds of spots for tents exist next to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  Coconut palms line the campground and beach area, offering shade and a barrier from the wind to those who are visiting Flamenco Beach. 

Flamenco Beach campsite offers an excellent change in pace for a traveler to Puerto Rico.  Even if you do not consider yourself to be much of a camper, there is something for everyone here.  So why  not slow down and unwind for a while at Flamenco Beach?  You will be glad you did.

Nearby kiosks rent out camping gear and sell food and every supply one may need for a successful and comfortable camping experience.  Mother nature's beauty is on full display.  There are plenty of things to do at the beach, whether it is relaxing under a palm tree, swimming, or snorkeling at nearby Carlos Rosario Beach.  If you are interested in photography, there are few places as stunning as Flamenco Beach and the surrounding area.  If you want to lay in a hammock and read a book, there are places to purchase a hammock right on the beach (or purchase your own good inexpensive hammock before visiting the island).

Taxi service will take you to and from the island via the ferry terminal, so renting a car is not necessary.   Bike rentals are available through a variety of shops located on the island.  Renting a bike while on Culebra is highly recommended.  Some bike rental outfitters also offer snorkeling equipment and tours. 



For more information on camping in Culebra, contact the Flamenco Campground Office below:

Flamenco Campground Office:
(787) 742-0700

Daily rate to pitch a tent: $20
Maximum occupants per tent: 6 people
Check in time: from 8:00 am
Check out time: before 4:00 pm



If you are camping on Flamenco, you may have heard of a couple of nearby beaches where many visitors go to snorkel or get away from some of the crowds on Flamenco beach.  One of these beaches is called Carlos Rosario beach, and it is a great place to spend a day if you looking for a calmer place or if you want to experience some of the best snorkeling on the island.

The gate leading to Carlos Rosario and Tamarindo Beaches.
Carlos Rosario beach can be reached via a trail that begins at the corner far corner of the parking lot, opposite of the area where taxis pick up and drop people off.  The trail starts at a fence that is chained yet open enough for a person to easily slip through.  As the camping administrator says, pay no attention to the "warning" sign that is on the gate.  It is perfectly safe to take the trail through the forest to the beaches that lie beyond the hill.

Once you slip through the fence you will notice that the trail continues on, gradually rising in elevation.  There is a small hill that you will climb.  At the top you will be presented with an amazing view of the Atlantic ocean as well as some islands and rock outcroppings in the distance.  Once you have made it here, the rest of the journey is downhill.

The pathway to Carlos Rosario and Playa Tamarindo, Culebra.

At the bottom you are presented with two options.  The first is Playa Tamarindo.  This beach is smaller than Carlos Rosario and is a nice place to relax.  Although there are no nude beaches on Culebra, sometimes people use the private beach area that is beyond the rocks at the end of Playa Tamarindo as a nude beach area.  If you continue past the rocks you will find another private beach area that is rarely visited.  

Carlos Rosario on Isla Culebra offers amazing snorkeling.
If you continue along the main path ignoring Playa Tamarindo, you will reach the end of the trail at Carlos Rosario Beach.  This is one of the best places to snorkel on the island.  You can rent snorkeling equipment for $10 a day from some of the taxis.  Tent City also rents out snorkel equipment at the campsite.  Ask for prices. 

Playa Tamarindo can get quite busy as boat tours oftentimes take people to this beach.  The best snorkeling is found at the left side of the beach, near the beginning of the trail.  Be careful to not touch or step on the reef and do not touch any of the fish.  Stone Fish and Cone Shells can be deadly.  Also be on the lookout for Sea Urchins, which can turn a pleasant day at the beach into a painful experience.

Carlos Rosario Beach, Culebra, Puerto Rico.

There are no facilities at either of these beaches.  They are, however, a great place to bring a small picnic lunch or to watch the sunset.  There are few places better to watch the sun set than on Carlos Rosario Beach.

Enjoy this short video of Carlos Rosario Beach:


The ferry terminal in Fajardo, Puerto Rico.

HOW TO GET TO CULEBRA VIA FERRY FROM FAJARDO

Sometimes getting to Culebra from Fajardo via ferry can be somewhat of a challenge.  This is because of the popularity of the island, especially during weekends and summer.   If you have been to the ferry terminal in Fajardo you have noticed that there are two lines.  One line is for tickets to Vieques and another line is for Culebra.  The line for Vieques is generally a lot shorter than the line to Culebra.  In fact, it is possible that there will be nobody in the Vieques line while the Culebra line has close to a hundred people waiting for tickets.  That being said, Culebra ferries are often overbooked early in the morning.

The 9:00 AM ferry to Culebra is the most popular ferry.  This is because many people are going to Culebra for the day.  They want to spend as much time on the island as possible.  With that being said, there are people that will arrive before dawn and wait in line.  If you are arriving at around 7:00 or 8:00 on a weekend day, you may not get a ticket for the early ferry and have to wait in line for the next ferry, which is at 1:00 PM. 

A view of Culebra from the ferry.
One tip is to buy your tickets a day or two in advance.  If you are going to both Vieques and Culebra, consider going to Vieques first, or if you have rented a car, make a stop over in Fajardo a day or two before going to the island.  You could do this when you are going to El Yunque National Forest for example.  If you are camping, consider going to the ferry terminal to get tickets and spending a night at Seven Seas Campground.  You can hire a publico or taxi from the ferry terminal to take you to Seven Seas for the night.

You can reserve your ticket to Culebra at a reservations trailer that is located near the regular ticket booth.  If you need help finding it, just ask one of the local workers.  A reservation can easily be purchased so you will not have to worry about the hassle of waiting in line on the day you want to leave.  Many people are often told that they will have to wait until 1:00 PM as early as 8:00 AM.  Sitting in line for five hours is not much fun, especially if your time is limited.

Once you have tickets, getting on the ferry and taking it to Culebra is a snap.  You will cross the street and wait in line for the ferry itself.  The ferry is known as "Big Cat Express" and has three levels.  The first level is indoor only, the second is partial indoor and partial outdoor.  The third level is for standing only.  The view of the islands as you make your way to Culebra is breathtaking. 

Without any adverse conditions, the ferry should take almost an hour to dock at the island once it pulls off from Fajardo.  Sometimes the sea is rough and sitting up higher is recommended if you have trouble with becoming nauseous or getting sea sick.  There is no eating on the ferry and the guards will make sure you don't try to slip a cracker, so be warned. 

There is plenty of food at the ferry terminal for when you are waiting for the ferry.  There is a small restaurant a block away if you are waiting for a while, or you can take advantage of William's Pizza, which is located in the ferry terminal.  Generally there are vendors outside selling more local items, such as breads and sometimes ice cream and water.  In the mornings a doughnut man will sell donuts from his truck. 


Camping at Flamenco Beach Campground in Culebra, Puerto Rico


Above is a map for the campground at Flamenco Beach on Culebra.  The campground is comprised of different areas or zones.  These are A (pink), B (blue), C (yellow), D (orange) and E (green).  Zone E is the largest and furthest zone from the kiosks and main beach area.  Zone is also considered the "quiet zone" of Flamenco beach and is a popular area for those who have been camping on Flamenco for a very long time.

Zone E is often the busiest of the zones, due to its picturesque area right along the ocean.  Zones A through D are located more inland.  Be prepared to spend a little while finding the perfect spot if you are coming on a busy day.  Generally weekends and times around holidays are the busiest times on the island.  During the winter, midweek is a great time to find a spot for camping.

When approaching Flamenco beach from the main town of Dewey, you will pass through a gate with a large parking area beyond it.  The parking area is where one catches taxis that lead back to the ferry terminal or to other ferries around the island.  The registration area is near the gate.  This is where you pay to camp on Flamenco beach.  A reservation is not necessary to camp on Flamenco beach.  The cost to camp is $20 per night.  You can pay for up to seven days at a time.  You will be given wristbands and a receipt to hang from your tent once you register. 

Near the parking area are the food kiosks.  These are generally open during daylight hours only and when the beach area is at its busiest.  Some kiosks are only open during the mornings (especially during winter) and others are open only in the evening.  While camping you will start to get a feel for the hours of the kiosks after a while.  If you want to get back to Dewey, you can wait by the parking area for a taxi.  The current fare is $3 into town one way.  Some taxi drivers will offer you a reduced fare for round trip if you use their services to get back to Flamenco.  This depends on the time of the year and how busy they are.


There are various shower areas and restrooms on the island.  The restroom near the beach by the food kiosks has a sink with potable water.  The shower water is also potable, however the water in the various large water storage containers around the camping area is not recommended for drinking.  Many people use the water here to clean clothing, wash dishes, etc. 


There is also a path that leads to both Carlos Rosario beach and Playa Tamarindo.  These beaches are far less busy than Flamenco beach and offer much better snorkeling.  Carlos Rosario is quite good for snorkeling, and if you did not bring gear, you can rent it at the food kiosks that are near the gate.  While Flamenco beach gets praise for being one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, both Carlos Rosario and Tamarindo are gorgeous beaches.  The sunset from Playa Tamarindo is especially nice to witness.

The gate leading to Carlos Rosario and Tamarindo Beaches.







While on Flamenco beach, be sure to visit the two decaying tanks which are located on each side of zone E.  One tank is being reclaimed by the ocean.  This tank is covered in rust and it is interesting to see during high tide as the waves overtake it.   

Acquiring Camping Gear

If you did not bring something, chances are you can easily acquire it.  Tents, air mattresses, and other camping equipment is for rent at Tent City in the kiosk area.  There are hammocks one can purchase as well.  If you are visiting for the day, there are plenty of picnic tables around.  Compared to the costs of lodging in other parts of Culebra, renting a tent and paying the $20 a day fee may still be far cheaper than finding a room in town or on other parts of the island.  Waking with the sound of the ocean waves and the sun rising is an experience that should not be missed. 

If you want to spend a longer amount of time on Flamenco but don't have gear, you can purchase gear at Wal-Mart and other stores around Puerto Rico.  A tent can be purchased for around $30 and a hammock for even less.  Air mattresses can be found at a variety of stores in San Juan and around the main island for a small price.  Publicos at the ferry terminal in Fajardo will take you to Wal-Mart if you want to purchase gear instead of renting it.   If you are spending more than a couple nights on Flamenco beach or want to also go camping at Sun Bay in Vieques (which also does not require a reservation), buying a tent is a good idea. 

Safety
The camping area is quite safe.  There are many guards and workers around that keep an eye on things.  With that in mind, it is still very important to keep an eye on any valuables.  Take anything valuable with you when you leave your site.  When swimming, keep an eye on your possessions.  Theft is uncommon, but does occur from time to time.

You can call the Flamenco Campground Office at 787-742-0700, or you can write to them at

Autoridad de Conservación y Desarrollo de Culebra
Attn: Playa Flamenco
Apartado 217
Culebra, PR 00775

THE BEST GUIDEBOOKS FOR TRAVELING TO PUERTO RICO.

-Lonely Planet Guide Books

This is probably the #1 book that people purchase when going to Puerto Rico.  Not only does this book contain a great deal of information on Culebra, but it also covers the island of Puerto Rico itself in great detail.  There are plenty of maps and information to make a trip to Puerto Rico a successful one.

I recommend having a guide book when visiting Puerto Rico (or anyplace you may visit) for a variety of reasons.  First, a guidebook will lessen the hassle out of traveling.  Knowing what to expect will save you money.  A good guide will give you an idea how to get from place to place, what to expect to pay at various places, and various ways to get from place to place.

The Lonely Planet Puerto Rico guide is filled to the brim with information that will help you get the most out of your trip.  No matter how you are traveling -- whether it be alone on a camping adventure, or with a family looking for adventure -- this book has something for you.  With the Lonely Planet Puerto Rico guide, you will be able to maximize the time you spend on the island.

With this book, you can decide:
  • Which part of Puerto Rico do you want to visit?  
  • What areas of Puerto Rico are good for children?
  • Do you want to bike ride or hike while on the island?  This guide will show you where the best spots are.
  • Do you enjoy an alternative lifestyle?  This book will show you the hot spots and the up and coming places to visit while in Puerto Rico.
  • How to live like the locals.  Where do the local Puerto Ricans enjoy visiting and what do they recommend when visiting their island?
  • What restaurants are truly unique?  Where to find the best Puerto Rican food?
  • What is Puerto Rican street food like?  What should you expect to pay?
  • Are there any dangerous areas in Puerto Rico or any other nuisances you should be aware of?
  • What is local Puerto Rican food like?  
If you have never been to Puerto Rico before or even if you have been to the island a few times, this is perhaps the best book you can find on Puerto Rico.

The Rough Guide to Puerto Rico

If you are on a budget and going to Puerto Rico, this guide may be better for you than the Lonely Planet guide that is reviewed above.  The rough guide is written more towards the backpacker and budget traveler and contains much of the same information that the Lonely Planet guide contains.

Where this book shines is how it points you towards the cheaper restaurants.  If you are traveling without wanting to spend a lot on food, many of the more expensive restaurants in the Lonely Planet guide may be irrelevant to you.  The Rough guide also holds a great deal of information on the island of Culebra as well as Vieques (and other smaller islands around Puerto Rico).

The Rough Guide to Puerto Rico also gives a great deal of cultural information on the island, which makes it a great way to learn something about the people of this great island before you visit.


Explorer's Guide San Juan, Vieques & Culebra: A Great Destination (Second Edition) (Explorer's Great Destinations)

If you are going to Puerto Rico only to visit Culebra or Vieques, this is a great book.  The book also has information on San Juan (as most people visiting the outlying islands will be passing through San Juan, and the city is highly worth exploring).  This book has a wealth of information available for a person who wants to know just about everything about Culebra and Vieques.

PLACES TO CAMP IN THE CARIBBEAN 

If you are combining your trip to Puerto Rico with some of the other islands and countries in the Caribbean region, be sure to check out some of the following campgrounds and lodges that have camping.  Rates are subject to changes and links to the campsites have been provided.  If you have a campsite that you would like featured on this site, please post a comment below and it will be added.

Ivan's Campground
- White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands
http://www.ivanscampground.com/

Prices:

Equipped Campsites - $45.00 summer rate $35.00
Bare Campsites - $25.00 summer rate $20.00
Cabins - $65.00 to $75.00 summer rate $55.00 to $65.00

Here you can set up camp next to the beach or spend a bit more cash for a rustic cabin.  Ivan’s Campground features live music at night, a “stress-free” bar and there are many nature walks. Amenities include a fully-functioning kitchen available for guest-use.  This is a great spot for those on a budget!

3 Rivers Eco Lodge and Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge - Dominica
http://www.3riversdominica.com/index.php

Prices:

$15 per night
$90 per week

3 Rivers Eco Lodge is set in 10 acres of land with camping and rustic accommodations for those who are looking for a budget getaway and time spent in nature.  While there is no beach, this eco lodge is located in the rainforest in Dominica.  There is a communal kitchen here and all pots and pans are provided for guest use. 

El Cabo de La Vela - Columbia
http://apalanchiis.com/corporativo/1403/hotel

If you are looking for something off the beaten path, check out El Cabo de La Vela.  At this spectacular location the desert meets the sea in this fishing village which is only accessible via a two-hour journey on a dirt road.  Here you can either rent a hammock or pitch a tent.  You can also rent a cabin if you would like.  This no frills hotel caters to backpackers and budget travelers.

Travel In' Guesthouse - Mahahual, Costa Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
http://www.travel-in.com.mx/guest_house.html

This guesthouse in Mexico features a cabana, rooms, and camping right on the beach.  This is a great way to spend some time in the Yucatan peninsula's incredible natural environment sleeping under the stars for a low price.  If you are camping, be sure to pack in your own tent.

Cinnamon Bay - St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
http://www.cinnamonbay.com/home.html

This campground, which is located on the north side, is minutes from Cinnamon Beach.  It offers bare sites, but equipped cabins are available for a higher price. Be sure to book early as this eco-friendly site is in high-demand, which is partly due to its location at the top of St. John’s National Park.  This gorgeous park encompasses around 60% of the island. Bring your own tent if you are planning on camping.
Some of the campgrounds are a bit remote and require ferry rides or trips down dirt roads, so be sure to  allow some time for the journey.  This is a great place enjoy the slow pace of island life.

WHICH IS BETTER, CULEBRA OR VIEQUES?

Sun Bay, Vieques, Puerto Rico.

Which to visit: Culebra or Vieques?  This was the question looming on my mind as I was preparing a recent eleven day visit to Puerto Rico.  I was traveling on somewhat of a budget, on winter break from law school, and wanted to relax and enjoy some camping with my wife away from the cold weather of New York.  So what would it be? I asked myself.  I had spent days reading as much information as I could about both islands and wanted to make sure that we would get the most of out of our vacation. 

Looking at various websites and travel guides, it was very hard to make the decision.  After having spent a month meandering our way through Central America and two months exploring Thailand, an eleven day trip seemed somewhat brief.  However, since I would be camping, or "roughing it" as some call it, I figured that eleven days may be enough before I find myself missing the futon in my shoe box sized Manhattan apartment. 

It then hit me, why not do both?  It would be cheaper than renting a car on the main island of Puerto Rico or a lot less of a hassle than dealing with getting around by publico to various campsites.  I also realized that it would probably be a lot cheaper in the end.  I have since learned that when budget traveling, a good way to save money includes not moving from place to place as much.  Therefore, planning to spend most of our Puerto Rico vacation on the islands of Vieques and Culebra seemed like a great idea.  Furthermore, since both of the campgrounds, Sun Bay on Vieques and Flamenco on Culebra, did not require advance reservations, it seemed like a great idea for a trip.

Vieques


Sun Bay Sunset on Vieques.

The next question was "which island to visit first?"  This question was immediately answered upon reaching the ferry terminal in Fajardo.  The line snaked down the block and around the corner for the ferry to Culebra.  Yet, there was a small line of only a few people for the Vieques ferry.  Vieques it would be.  We were told we could reserve a ticket for Culebra and we gladly did.  This was rather easy, but I could not help but feel bad for those who would be spending most of the day waiting for a ferry to Culebra.  As we left the ticket booth we noticed that the ferry to Culebra would be full and everyone would have to wait for a 1:00 ticket.  A wait of almost 5 hours! 

Arriving at Vieques was exciting.  The ferry pulled up to the ferry terminal after a long voyage on rough seas.  People spilled off the ferry into the town of Isabel II, making their way to publicos and taxis that were headed to various spots around the island.  At first it was chaos.  We stood, waiting with our gear, until a publico for Sun Bay arrived.  A few minutes later we were taken across the green and hilly interior of the island and over a crest where we could see the Caribbean before us.  What an awesome view!  We were let off at Sun Bay and began to look for the campground.

Sun Bay was different than expected.  Maybe it was the fact that I had been stuck with the cold weather of the north for a while now, but I was greatly impressed with the beach.  Palm trees were scattered everywhere, sand went on as the beach curved in the distance.  Toward the horizon was an island with shallow water that one could wade across to get to.  But that would have to wait.  It was time to find the campground. 

The first thing I noticed upon reaching the camp site was that there were hardly anyone present.  In fact, even the registration office was closed.  Luckily, we met a couple of men who were camping for a month and they told us that the office was generally closed later in the day, but we could pay the $10 a night fee in the morning.  That seemed to be the norm there, after talking to others that were arriving or who had been at the campsite.  We were even told that one person lived at the campsite and worked at a restaurant in the nearby town.  After seeing the beach and comparing the slow laid back lifestyle of Vieques with the more hectic lifestyle that I was used to, I can see why a person would be drawn to live like that for at least a while. 

After setting up camp, we made our way to the town of Esperanza.  Most of the town flanks the coast, with small restaurants and tour companies for the bio bay commanding the best real estate (and views).  There was a couple small grocery stores in town to purchase needed provisions.  The walk along the beach into town is picturesque.  In fact, I noticed a few campers opted out of staying in the campground, instead setting up elaborate camps near the shore and on the peninsula close to town.  One such set up reminded me of something one may see on an African safari, with a military style green tent that could fit perhaps a dozen men and a couple of jeeps parked near by.  I was immediately jealous.

My four day, three night stay on Vieques allowed me to visit the bio bay, explore Isabel II and Esperanza, and take in some of the sites of the interior of the island.  There is much to see on Vieques, and frankly, four days is not enough.  With that said, I enjoyed the island greatly and would love to one day return.  It is a quiet island full of surprises.  Snorkeling near Sun Bay was excellent, and there are chances to see Barracuda, Eagle Rays and even some Nurse Sharks (sadly I did not see the latter two). 

Culebra

It was now time to change islands.  Although I was leaving Vieques, I was thrilled to be getting to see Culebra.  Even though Culebra is less populated than Vieques, it seems to be the popular choice for a visit.  At first, I wondered what could be so different about these two islands?  I soon would find out.

Even though I purchased tickets in advance for the ferry to Culebra, I wondered if I would actually get a seat.  I spent most of the time on the ferry back from Vieques wondering, but upon arriving at the ferry terminal in Fajardo, I found that the ferry would not even be filling up.  There were maybe thirty or forty people on board when the ferry finally pulled out, and many of these people were locals who lived on Culebra. 

The journey to Culebra was far more interesting than that to Vieques.  I was able to sit up top outside and take in the view of many small islands and the seemingly unending Atlantic on the horizon.  An hour later the ferry arrived in Dewey, the main town of Culebra, and I was starting to really get excited. 

Carlos Rosario Beach on Culebra.




Dewey is a picturesque little town that fills up the area between the ocean and Ensenada Honda, the inlet where many boats drop anchor.  Publicos, like on Vieques, are plentiful and getting a ride to Flamenco Beach was a breeze.  Unlike Sun Bay, Flamenco Beach Campground was packed.  This would change as I spent the next week or so on the island.  Unlike Sun Bay, where the campsites are open to the ocean, the Flamenco campsites are mostly blocked by palm trees and thick bushes.  That means that unless you are one of the lucky few in area E, your tent won't face the ocean.  That wasn't a big deal to me, however, as the beach was a few steps away from where I finally set up camp.

Unlike Sun Bay, Flamenco Beach has a few kiosks where one can easily eat.  However, Sun Bay was much closer to a town with cheap groceries.  On Culebra, if you do not want to pay the higher prices for food at the kiosks, you have to either walk to town (30 minutes one way) or pay $3 one way for a publico.  This wasn't a huge deal to me, but it may be for someone who is staying long term or who is budgeting. 

Both Flamenco Beach and Sun Bay are close to other beaches that one can walk to.  Carlos Rosario and Playa Tamirindo are very close to Flamenco Beach and are relatively unvisited compared to Flamenco Beach.  Hiking to these beaches was a pleasure and I really enjoyed the time that I was able to spend snorkeling here.

Another thing I loved about Culebra was the ability to hunt for fresh coconut.  Finding and drinking from a young coconut on Culebra was a pleasure that I had not experienced before.  Many people were hunting for coconuts and sometimes it was a challenge to find one. 

I must say, when I finally did leave Culebra I was sad to go.  I really enjoyed my time on Culebra, and would have loved to stay longer.  I can see why some people spend months on the island. 

Conclusion


I am very glad I went to both islands.  It is hard for me to pick a favorite.  I think that most people probably choose Culebra to visit.  Flamenco Beach is a wonderful campsite and, tucked in between the hills and the sea, it's truly a slice of Paradise.  With that said, I had a great time at Sun Bay and would definitely go back.  Sun Bay is truly an underrated beach.  If I had to choose one and had never beach camped before, I may go with Flamenco Beach on Culebra.  This would be true, especially if I did not rent a car.  Hiking to the nearby beaches of Carlos Rosario and Playa Tamarindo was a pleasure, and an amazing place to watch the sunset.  Both Culebra and Vieques, however, are quite different and are both worth a visit if you have the time.    Vieques has a lot to see that I was unable to see, and I wish I would have been able to take the time and visit some of the other beaches as well as the mile long pier that is said to offer amazing snorkeling.  I am sure that one day I will return and be able to do that.

Further Points

  • Both beaches have nearby snorkeling.  I liked the snorkeling a little more at Carlos Rosario on Culebra.
  • Sun Bay on Vieques has less people than Flamenco Beach on Culebra.  It is also $10 per night to camp on Sun Bay instead of $20 a night for Flamenco Beach.  With that said both beaches are gorgeous.
  • Sun Bay is closer to a town, but does not have kiosks on site.  Vieques also has the best Bio Bay in the world according to most sources.
  • Vieques is a larger island with more to explore, but having a vehicle on Vieques is a good idea if you really want to see everything.  I found that not having a vehicle is fine on Culebra, but would want to rent one if I went back to Vieques.
  • Getting to Vieques is a lot easier than getting to Culebra during the weekend and busy times.
  • Both beaches get quiet at night, but Sun Bay is truly silent once the sun goes down.  However, if you are interested in getting out at night, Esperanza is close by. 

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