Before my arrival in Vieques, I did some research to look up all the “touristy” things I could do while living on the island for five months. Coming into the Weddings in Vieques internship experience with four back-to-back weddings right away didn’t leave me much time to take in the Viequenses culture, or go on any tourist expeditions in the first few weeks. However, when we did get a break, the first thing my fellow intern Kayla and I did was take a tour of the sugar cane ruins on Vieques Island.
It was a fabulous opportunity to learn more about the history of the island, and appreciate some of the often-overlooked aspects of Vieques. The rich history of the island intrigues us, and The Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust (VCHT) generously treated us to the Playa Grande Tour. It helps us be able to better explain the island to all the wedding guest tourists we talk to every weekend.
In 1936, the Playa Grande site was 15,943 acres of land. Learning this before the tour and combining it with the narrow-gauge train tracks we’ve seen all over the island, Kayla and I figured we were being sent on a several-mile adventure hike by our boss, which we weren’t all that thrilled about. Once we arrived at VCHT, we found ourselves surrounded by tourists and locals of all ages… and not dressed to run a marathon like I was. We were pleasantly surprised with the ease and accessibility of the tour. You should wear sneakers because the hike is through the woods, and there are drop offs and minimal climbing involved.
Tony, who invited us on the tour he leads and joked to us that he prefers to go by his self- proclaimed Puerto Rican street name “Estufa Caliente,” led the tour through the Playa Grande ruins. Boy, Tony sure knows his stuff! He has mapped out the right spots and paths to lead you down the entire way.
He led us to many different structural ruins and explained the history behind them.
Never having seen anything like it before, I channeled my inner tourist, and ended up with more than 100 pictures by the time the tour was finished. I’ve included some of my photos in this blog for your viewing pleasure, but you really do have to go on the tour to get the full experience.
Here are four interesting facts we felt helped us understand how important the sugar cane industry was to Vieques, Puerto Rico, and how and why that has changed:
- Thousands of workers came to Vieques from the 1830’s to 1930’s to work in the thriving sugar industry.
- Before the sugar industry boom, wheat, corn and coffee were the principle crop of Vieques Island. The boom of the sugar industry allowed them to produce 10,000 tons annually of processed sugar!
- In the late 1920’s and 1930’s, the sugar economy collapsed, as did the plantations. Sugar could be purchased cheaper elsewhere because the U.S. Agricultural policies changed and the sugar subsidy was eliminated. This is when the Vieques sugar plantations went bankrupt. When the US Navy took over 72 percent of Vieques territory in the 1940’s to create a munitions storage base and a live-fire range, the last of the sugar mills were forced to close, including Playa Grande.
- Eventually, Playa Grande was disassembled and moved to the state of Florida (not the neighborhood by the same name on Vieques). It kept the same name when it was moved.
I HIGHLY recommend the Playa Grande Tour hosted by the VCHT for Vieques locals and tourists alike! The island’s sugar cane history and remaining sites are often overlooked by beach-seeking visitors, but they’re definitely worth exploring and spending an hour or two to learn about – especially if you live here and haven’t seen it, or are visiting for the first time and want to learn more about the island. Tour Guide Tony flawlessly executed a tour for a large group of 35 and we all had a great time so keep it in mind as an activity you can do with a large group of friends.
Tours are usually scheduled for specific Thursdays (there’s one tomorrow!) but you can always call VCHT at 787-741-8850 for information and to sign up! And for more info about Vieques Island, check out www.Vieques.com.
Devon Gorson, Intern at Weddings in Vieques
(all photos in this blog taken by Devon on the tour)