Why Culebra? We chose this laid-back little island just a hop and a skip from the States partly because it offers some of the world's best beaches (the half-moon sliver of Flamenco Beach shines brightest). We also liked that you don't need a visa to move there since it's a U.S. territory, and a sizable expat community already toasts the sunset together from the island's Dinghy Dock bar. But Culebra still offers its own feisty mix of West Indian and Puerto Rican culture. Add in the island's healthy reefs (a dream for diving), and 10,000-plus-acre wildlife refuge (ripe for exploring), we began to wonder why we didn't live there already.
Life of an Expat "We came to the island on a 40-foot catamaran. It was our moving van," says Mark Hayward, who moved to Culebra in July 2007 with wife, Terrie. Mark and Terrie, ages 40 and 38, had lived on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands for five years. "When we were moving from Tortola, all our friends said, 'You can't leave!'" says Terrie. "But then when we showed them pictures of Culebra, they said, 'Oh, those beaches look just as good as Tortola's, if not better.'"
Terrie and Mark have made island hopping a habit since 1997, when they left the town Braintree in Massachusetts, for the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea. And after helping locals in a remote village to establish a small guesthouse, they worked on American Samoa for several years. "But we definitely wanted to be in the Caribbean, closer to where our families are," says Terrie. So the couple moved to Tortola, where Terrie taught at a Montessori school and Mark worked for the government's GIS program. They thought they would live on Tortola forever until an immigra- tion policy change made it much more difficult to gain citizenship. That's when they looked else- where for an opportunity to realize their long-term dream of owning a guesthouse. And finding the money to get started wasn't easy. "We got so many 'No's," says Terrie. "But we had Plan A through Z. We decided that failure was not an option, that we would make it happen."
In September 2007, Mark and Terrie opened the Palmetto Guesthouse on Culebra. "Setting up a business there seemed easy," says Mark. "And we didn't have to worry about a visa." That's not the only thing that attracted the couple to the island. "We love the crystal clear blue waters and the white sand beaches, the snorkeling, the hiking and the outdoor lifestyle," says Terrie. "And the Culebran people are very friendly and full of life," adds Mark. "It helps that I speak Spanish and Mark is learning," says Terrie. "We feel part of the community." But the couple's greatest satisfac- tion on the island is running their own charming, 5-bedroom guesthouse, which is also their home. "We finally realized a goal that's been in the forefront of our minds for so long," says Terrie. "It's just a beautiful place and we are permanently living here."
To show others that they too can make their dream life come true, Mark writes a blog called the mytropicalescape.com. "Even if you start small," Mark advises, "like taking a fact-finding trip or researching the place you want to go to, that's making progress."
Facts of Life
- Climate: Tropical
- Population of island: 1,868
- Percentage expats: 16 percent
- Population of main town, Dewey: 1,418
- House starting price: mid $100,000s
- Travel from U.S.: Fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico, then take a 30-minute flight to Culebra.
- Closest hospital: community health center on Culebra; large hospitals in San Juan
- Price of a local beer: $2 for a bottle of Medalla
- Languages: Spanish and English
- Ease of immigration: Easy
- Ease of buying a home: Easy
- Website: gotopuertorico.com
- $ Cozy three-bedroom bungalow with glimpses of the Ensenada Honda Bay and a shady front yard that slopes down to the street in the lively Villa Muñeco neighborhood: $160,000.
- $$ Two-bedroom house with breezy decks on three sides and a harbor view; little one-bedroom guest house sits nearby: $399,000.
- $$$ Three separate buildings, each with its own large, private deck and sea views, include a three-bedroom cottage: $1.65 million.