The military bunkers in Vieques are relatively unknown attractions on this island just east of Puerto Rico. While most people come to Vieques soak up the sun on one of the many beaches in Vieques and to see wild horses wandering freely on the island, it was a very different place in the decades leading up to the late 90s and early 2000s.
Back then, Vieques was basically a U.S. military training area and bombing range. During World War II, the United States military needed a base in the Caribbean and they chose Vieques. After purchasing about two-thirds of the land on the island, the residents had to live in the center part and the military occupied the rest.
The Navy took up residence in the West…
And the Marines in the east.
Military withdrawal from Vieques
In 1999, a civilian employee of the military died in Vieques after the military dropped ordnance near his work post. The blast injured four others. The result of this was a series of protests around the island demanding a complete withdrawal of the U.S. military from Vieques.
President Clinton told islanders that all operations in Vieques would cease by 2003. At first, there was to be a referendum on the fate of the bases on the island. But in 2001, President George W. Bush made the decision final. All operations on Vieques would cease in May of 2003.
That wasn’t enough for the people of Vieques, who continued protesting. These protests attracted attention from all around the world. People began to camp out in the bombing ranges (places that even now are too dangerous for walking through).
Eventually, the military announced the scheduled end to all operations and the bombing practice runs finally stopped.
The upside, of course, was the end of using this beautiful island as a bombing range. I can only imagine how that must have affected the people who lived here at the time. The downside was the loss of about $250-$300 million a year to the Puerto Rican economy, something they still feel to this day, though many obviously think it’s been worth it.
Suggested itinerary: Ready to go? Here’s a unique and fun way to to spend three days in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Related post: Check out our list of answers to common questions about Vieques. They may be helpful as you plan your trip!
Today, the Vieques land formerly used as a bombing range now belongs to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the eastern portion of the island is now the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. Areas in the west are also part of the NWR.
Vieques is also a superfund site. That means the government allocates money specifically towards the cleanup of the island. After decades of waste dumping, there’s a lot of pollution here and estimates of the cleanup costs run around $200 million – the most expensive cleanup operation in the history of the U.S. military.
In addition, there is a danger of unexploded ordinance all over the island. You’ll see signs everywhere warning you not to venture off of the main roads and trails.
You’ll even see them at beaches warning people not to dig anywhere. There are public beaches throughout the red zone on this map, for example.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of work to do here.
Suggested reading: How to get from San Juan to the Vieques ferry without spending a small fortune (like most people end up doing).
“Roads” to the Vieques bunkers
There are a lot of so-called roads that lead to the Vieques military bunkers on the western side of the island. I’ve read in places that all you need to do is drive past Mosquito Pier and turn left into any road and you’ll eventually get to a bunker.
So that’s exactly what we did. We turned left – a lot. And we didn’t see any – at least none that we could get to driving a golf cart. To call some of these things “roads” is being very generous. If you have a 4WD vehicle or a scooter, you might get farther than we did. But these trails definitely weren’t made for golf carts and probably not even UTVs.
They are muddy, full of potholes and deep tire ruts, no pavement, and lots of opportunities to get stuck. Trust me. In addition to that, we kind of felt that driving through these areas was tearing up the landscape a bit, especially since it wasn’t exactly sunny when we were there.
We did find one road that took us exactly where we wanted to go. It was even paved part of the way and took us directly to the military bunkers in Vieques that we wanted to see.
Related post: You have several transportation options in Vieques. So, what kind of vehicle should you rent there?
Easy directions to the bunkers
We’re going to show you how to get to the military bunkers in Vieques that are the easiest to find. Whether you’re driving a golf cart, a UTV, a car, or a Jeep, you’ll be able to get to these ones.
To get there, drive west on Route 200 (PR-994) for about 20-25 minutes until you come to an intersection. On the right, you’ll see a fenced-in building with several solar panels surrounding it. On your left is a road that’s conveniently called “Bunkers Road” – though there was no sign indicating the name when we were there.
Turn left here.
Continue driving along the paved road for about half a kilometer and you’ll eventually reach your first of the old bunkers across the field on the right. If you wish to park your vehicle and explore a little bit, you can either pull over and park right there and walk, or you can continue driving until you see a path that takes you across the field.
Generally, the Vieques military bunkers in this area fall along one very large loop. So you can see as many or as few as you like. We drove just a few kilometers along the road and saw what we wanted to see. But you can really spend some time here if you want.
A note about the roads: There are a few detours in and around the old military bunkers in Vieques. It’s no problem to do them. Just keep in mind that they are narrow and overgrown. There’s a good chance you’ll scratch your vehicle – or at least smudge them from branches rubbing along them. If you’re in an open vehicle like a golf cart or scooter, plenty of these branches contain thorns. Just be aware!
The Vieques military bunkers
One of the coolest things to come of the U.S. military involvement on the island is that they left behind a bunch of old bunkers – an entire complex that’s fairly easy for tourists to go and see. These bunkers, once a storage facility for bombs and other military equipment, are now either empty or full of things like recycling and other storage
Para la Naturaleza
As you’re driving into the area of the Vieques military bunkers, you’ll no doubt see signs along the road and on the bunkers themselves from an organization called Para La Naturaleza – a division of the Puerto Rico Land Trust.
Para la Naturaleza (PLN) is a non-profit organization that “protects lands of high ecological value and encourages people to take responsibility for all the natural resources while pushing forward public policy for their protection.” PLN is in charge of repurposing part of the Western Vieques Conservation Area, which includes 26 of the 77 concrete bunkers in the area.University of Oregon – Department of Architecture (pdf)
What do they use the bunkers for today?
Up until several years ago, most of the military bunkers in Vieques were empty or full of trash and discarded electronics. No one was doing anything with them. Tourists who wanted to see them could drive along and go in and out of the bunkers as they pleased.
This is no longer the case with many of them. These days, many of these bunkers serve as storage for Para la Naturaleza. PLN keeps most of the military bunkers in Vieques locked nowadays.
We did, however, find one bunker that was open. That is, we think someone forgot to put the padlock back on. Inside, all we found was a massive amount of recycling.
Take a look:
And that’s what you will see inside the bunkers if you find one that’s open. What’s really impressive is what’s outside. While there is some pretty lame graffiti on the outside of the bunkers in Vieques, on others, artists have created nice designs.
I’m no art critic, but I liked them! This one was one of my favorites. I have no idea about the meaning behind it.
There were also a few doors that had old photos affixed to them, like this one. My assumption is that these photos represented life on Vieques a long time ago – probably before the military took over most of the island.
How to get inside the bunkers in Vieques
This is where you have to be a little lucky. Unless you can find a bunker that is already open, you only have two options. First, you could break in. And obviously, you won’t do that because you came to Vieques to enjoy its beauty – not to be destructive.
Your second option is to do what we did – ask!
While driving around the complex, we met several people doing ground maintenance, mowing the lawns, and other general improvements. As we passed by them, Halef just came out and asked how we go inside.
One of the workers, a young man who appeared to be on a break, was only too happy to take us to one of the bunkers and show us the inside. He hitched a ride on the back of our golf cart and away we went. When he let us inside, it didn’t look any different than the one we were already in, except that this one was completely empty.
And that made it a completely different experience. This is what it looked like:
Notice on the right side they’ve set up what looks like a volleyball or badminton net. I guess even Para la Naturaleza employees enjoy taking a break occasionally.
Just talking inside this bunker was a little difficult because it was massive and all concrete. The sound reverberations were incredible. You’ve never heard echoes until you’ve been inside a huge, empty, military bunker!
One of the other things that really struck us when we visited the old military bunkers in Vieques was how completely silent it can get here. Except when we ran into a few workers, all we could hear in the area was the rustle of the breeze in the trees and a few birds who’d taken up residence. Nothing more.
It made us feel like we were in the middle of nowhere, which we kind of were.
Horses at the bunkers
As you’re driving around Vieques, you’ll notice that there are a lot of horses – I mean a lot. They are everywhere and you need to be careful driving, especially at night. It’s no different here. As you’re driving around the bunker complex at Vieques, you’re going to see plenty of horses grazing in the fields.
You might even see a few stray dogs in the area.
The horses seem to be quite friendly here. I’m not sure about the dogs. They were quite wary of us and had expressions that said, “don’t bother me and I won’t bother you.”
Add the bunkers to your Vieques itinerary
We think including these bunkers in your Vieques itinerary would make for a perfect day. One excellent way to do that is to combine the bunkers with one of your beach days.
One of the best beaches in Vieques (in our opinion) is on the far western side of the island. It’s called Punta Arenas Beach. We suggest that you visit the bunkers in the morning, which are on the way there. Then, spend a few hours at the beach.
The military is a major part of Vieques history that’s really hard to ignore when you’re on the island. There are signs everywhere warning you about the dangers of going off the beaten path because of unexploded ordnance. The bunkers at Vieques played a super-significant role in that history.
Now that they’ve been repurposed as part of the nature conservancy efforts on Vieques, they will for many more years to come.
The impact of six decades of bombardment affects residents of Vieques to this day. If you’d like to read more, here are a few links that I think you’ll find interesting.
- Puerto Rico’s Invisible Health Crisis
- A Brief History of Vieques
- The U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico
- Breaking the Grip of Militarism – the Story of Vieques
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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert. Michael has traveled to over 50 countries learning how to experience more for less as he travels.