THE BEST MONTH OF MY LIFE / workaway at the Lazy Hostel in Vieques
While I have been lucky enough to travel to many parts of the world and go on countless incredible adventures, I always find my mind drifting back to Vieques...
I think I could write a book about my time in Vieques and I have so many great stories and crazy experiences but I decided to sum it all up into 4 posts. This one here which will have the bulk of my experience, a photo diary, my guide to the best beaches, and my return for spring break.
When I think of my time in Vieques, I can't help but smile. I am a generally happy person but in Vieques- secluded beaches, endless adventures, swimming, snorkeling, dancing, great drinks, and even better company- I was SO SO happy. I'm not a huge selfie person but this is probably one of my favorite photos from my time there.
I remember so clearly taking this photo. It was a typical evening and we were all at Lazy Jacks, the attached restaurant and bar to the hostel, having dinner and drinks, just hanging out like usual. I slipped away from everyone and went across the street down to the beach to watch the sunset and do some thinking. I remember all I could think was how genuinely happy I was and how everything in my life just seemed so right. I took this photo on snapchat to send to some of my friends from home. It was one of the first days when I had really gotten some color from being in the sun and the sunset was reflecting on to the water which was then reflecting on to my face.
Here's a photo of the sunset that I took at the same time from my iPhone camera with no edits.
Where were you? Vieques?
My friends at home have a running joke where they just call Vieques "mystery island". I had never heard of it myself until my sister went there for her honeymoon. That's where I got my first interest and when I saw an awesome listing on WorkAway for a hostel there, along with pretty cheap flights from New York, I had to go.
Vieques is a small island that is part of Puerto Rico, and sits in between mainland Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. It's 21 miles long and 4 miles wide, and until 2003, was largely occupied by the U.S. Navy as a testing ground for bombs. A large portion of the island is still blocked off from the public and you can explore old abandoned military bunkers.
Vieques is known for its many beautiful secluded beaches, wild horses that roam the island, and the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. Because the island was only open to mainstream tourism in 2003, it is still relatively undeveloped. It is very normal to go to a beach and be the only person or group there. As far as the horses, I'm not sure why they are there but they are everywhere and they roam freely. It's likely that you will be stopped by a group of them blocking a road, eating the garbage outside of your house, or have one come right up to you on the beach.
So... what was I doing for 5 weeks on a small island in the Caribbean?
Besides the swimming, exploring, snorkeling, dancing, drinking, laughing.... I was working at The Lazy Hostel through Work Away! Yeah, that's right. I was living an absolute dream in a tropical paradise for FREE!! If you want to know more about WorkAway or how to do it, check out my guide here.
We worked 28 hours a week, three 8-hour shifts and one 3-hour shift in exchange for housing and unlimited food at the attached restaurant (it technically wasn't unlimited but I don't even remember what the limit was and no one ever went over it, the food was repetitive after awhile but we were fed well).
We all lived in a volunteer house just a few blocks away from the hostel and a short walk to the beach. We called the house the "crack house", not because anyone was doing crack but because, as you can imagine, it was not at it's prime (to say the least). It didn't bother me at all, it was just a place to sleep and I actually came to grow quite fond of the crack house. It was nothing that I hadn't seen at a frat house before. The house had a very strange setup where there was a main hallway with several rooms with bunkbeds, but there were no doors. There were doorways but we were essentially all just living in one big living space. I liked it though and I think it made us all closer and more social. There was also a small front porch that we spent many nights on and I hold a lot of great memories there. Unfortunately, I never took a photo of the famous crack house but you can see a glimpse of the inside in my youtube video here.
We only worked 3 and a half days a week and even on days that you worked there was still plenty of time for fun. And I actually didn't mind the work at all because all of us got along so well and made it fun. You had either a morning (8am-4pm) or night shift (4pm-12pm). In the morning, you were with several other volunteers and started the day by opening the bar, cleaning the bathrooms, and setting up breakfast. It wasn't exactly glamorous, but with everyone's help, we would always get it done pretty quickly. The rest of the day involved making beds, cleaning dorm rooms, answering questions at the front desk, checking people in, and doing small tasks around the property.
The night shift was a lot more low key and usually only one person would be on at a time. The night shift could feel very long and boring since you were alone without as much activity, but the main tasks were doing laundry, checking people in, and closing down at night. I definitely preferred the day shift, but Ashley, the manager, would try to place people based on preferences because there were some people who preferred night.
One of the best things about the hostel is Ashley! She's the manager and she's amazing! Ashley runs the hostel and volunteer program so well, and if you read the reviews on WorkAway almost every person attributes Ashley for their great experience.
What did we do when we weren't working?
Ahhhh, I was never in search of something to do in my free time because there was always something to do! Whether a group of people were going to the beach, on a hike, renting mopeds, going to explore the bunkers, snorkeling, hammocking, having dinner at a local's house, making a bonfire, or even just hanging at the bar- your options were endless!
Of course, on a beautiful Carribbean island with dozens of secluded beaches, my top tip has to be to grab your hammock, a book, and some friends and head to the beach. Here is my guide to the best beaches in Vieques.
Some of my other tips include...
Rent a moped!
While a lot of things are within walking distance, I think that the island is best seen by moped or motorcycle. My favorite days definitely included when we rented mopeds or riding around on the back of my friend's motorcycle.
Bring or buy a hammock!
This is a general life tip and surprisingly I didn't own a hammock before coming to Vieques. I bought one within a week of being on the island and got SO much use out of it. We actually made it into a bit of a game to see the most ridiculous places that we could put our hammocks. Some stand out memories are sleeping on the beach on New Year's day and waking up to horses running by and when a bunch of us slept in the tree behind the hostel!
Get la nasty at La Nasa!
Kind of a gross nickname that we had for La Nasa, a dance club/bar but really just a platform on the beach with some speakers, but also fitting. La Nasa isn't a flashy place, but locals and tourists alike gather every Friday through Sunday to dance the night away with classic Latin music and $1 shots. And don't worry, you don't need to know how to salsa or meringue because if you look lost enough on the dance floor, a local will swoop you up in no time and teach you. Although, have enough $1 shots and anyone can be the star of the dance floor...
A lot of my favorite memories are from late nights at La Nasa and I really grew my love for Latin music here. It's a great way to meet the locals and just a generally really fun time!
Jump off the big pier!
In view from the Malecon, the main strip where all of the hotels, restaurants, and bars are, is the big pier. It's an old pier that isn't used anymore and falling apart a bit but a quintessential spot in Vieques. The first time I walked on it, I was so scared and slow but after a couple of weeks I could run to the end! I think there were probably less than 5 days of my whole time in Vieques when I didn't go to the pier, if even that. Go during the day as a perfect spot to tan, or jump off and swim. I loved to jump off and then just float in the area in front of it - it was so peaceful!
There's also some great snorkeling below the pier with beautiful bright fish and marine life. You can also take a short swim out to the Cayo de Afuera where there's even more great snorkel spots!
Hike the Cayo!
For one of the best views, take a short hike, really a 15 minute walk, to the top of the Cayo de Tiera. Such a serene area at the top with a beautiful view of Sun Bay beach. I did this with my friends over spring break and it was one of their favorite things we did the whole time there! I especially recommend going during sunset :) There's also a great place for a bonfire up there!
Pretend you're a guest at an expensive resort!
Blue Horizon and the W Hotel to be exact are beautiful resorts, that with the right attitude, you can easily sneak in to. Take advantage of their beautiful grounds and spend the day soaking up the sun by their pools! (another general life tip :) )
Cool off with a limber!
What is a limber? you may be wondering... Limbers are a Puerto Rican treat, similar to italian ice but with a tropical twist. Ask any locals or people who live in Vieques where to get a limber (which is at a random woman's house and she keeps them in her freezer) and they will guide you there. My favorite was the coco, or coconut, from which from what I could tell was basically just frozen coconut milk with cinnamon, sugar, and other spices. Don't underestimate these simple treats though, because on a hot day, they will save your life. And only 50 cents!
Make friends in the hostel common room!
If you're staying at Lazy Hostel, there are always people in the common room open to meeting someone new or expanding their group. This applies to all hostels and it's one of the best ways to make new friends! We had a board where people would post what they're doing for the day so others could join or make a group. We also spent plenty of nights just hanging out or playing drinking games. Overall, a great place to go if you're looking for something to do!
Go kayaking in the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world!
People come from all over the world just to experience Vieques' bio bay and I can say, it did not disappoint! As volunteers, we got free bio bay tours which was so awesome and I did it twice. If you don't know what a bioluminescent bay is, it's basically a body of water where there are a certain type of plankton that light up when they move. So, if you go at night, when the moon is small, the water glows when you touch it! Definitely a must see if you're in Vieques!
I told you the possibilities really are endless!
And those are just some of my favorite things to do! There was truly never a shortage of adventures and good times and I feel like I was there a really good amount of time where I got to experience almost everything. I just have a few more things to say. My biggest tip is...
Befriend the locals!
One of the things that I love about Vieques, that makes it so unique, is how integrated the locals are with the tourists. Especially if you go to the right places, like Lazy Jacks, you are bound to make friends. Some of my closest friends were Viequenses people and they truly know the best spots on the island. There are some places and experiences, I know I would have never had without my local friends. So important to do wherever you go! Hidden beaches, views of the island, cliff jumping, or even sharing their homes, are all treasured experiences I have thanks to my Viequenses friends. Here are some cool rocks that had an awesome view of the island that one of my friends showed me and some other volunteers.
***As a disclaimer, of course not every moment was perfect and I certainly had days where I felt lonely or down but 99.9% of my time was spent happy and having so much fun.
The best people ❤️
Lastly, I'd just like to say that while Vieques is a beautiful place with so many reasons to love it, by far the thing that made my time so rewarding was the people. The other volunteers, the locals, hostel guests- everyone who I met was so welcoming and offered me something whether it was a drink, company, a story...
We (the volunteers) acted as a family and I'm lucky enough to say that I call a lot of those people some of my best friends to this day. They are the main reason why I went back just a couple months later for my spring break. A lot of people continued traveling together after Vieques and I plan on traveling with many of my Vieques friends in the future.
I know that I will return to Vieques at some point in my life and will continue to cross paths with all of the friends that I made there.
If you're looking for a cheap, easy, and fun vacation from the U.S. or for a workaway experience, I couldn't recommend this place more highly!
so much love for you vieques ❤️