Photos by Onne van der Wal
Ravaged by time, weather and neglect, Culebrita Lighthouse stands sentry over the Virgin Passage between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The unmanned solar-powered beacon casts its light from 305 feet above the sea atop the highest of three volcanic hills on Isla Culebrita, the easternmost of the Puerto Rican islands.
From the crumbling stone-and-brick lighthouse, an observer takes in the panoramic view of two bays and their white-sand beaches below, the U.S. Virgin Islands 12 miles to the east, the island of Culebra a half-mile to the west, and Puerto Rico's main island 12 miles beyond that. Uninhabited and accessible by boat only, mile-long Culebrita ("little snake" in Spanish) receives visitors at two anchorages from which they can explore the island and snorkel on the reefs, languish in tidal pools, stroll its white-sand beaches or hike to the light. It is one of 23 islands and cays in the Culebra Archipelago and part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge - habitat for 13 species of migratory seabirds and endangered green, leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles, which nest there.
The Spanish crown built the lighthouse - one of the Caribbean's oldest - from 1882 to 1886. The structure consists of a graystone cylindrical tower flanked by two keepers' quarters and the oil and storeroom, which are gray stone trimmed with red brick. The Coast Guard automated the light in 1964, but the structure has been deeded to the town of Culebra, which can't afford to maintain it.
Hurricanes Hugo, Marilyn and Georges have taken their toll on the lighthouse. Its spiral stairway is in danger of collapsing, the roof is falling in, its dome has blown off and the light room windows are broken out. "Lighthouse Digest" has put the light on its Doomsday List of beacons threatened with extinction, yet Isla Culebrita and its 125-year-old lighthouse remain a prime destination for adventurous cruisers.
This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.