Getting to know Puerto Rico – A Little Off the Beaten Track

As I’ve mentioned before, the shame of most Americans’ vacations to foreign places is that they do not typically immerse themselves within the culture of the place that they are visiting. And as a result, their view of a new place is often limited to the sanitized, sometimes-Americanized, tourist culture that is presented to them. Sometimes, however, this isn’t their fault – there are many countries where it is not necessarily safe to wander off the beaten track, despite the fact that there are superbly interesting cultures to explore (Mexico City and Jamaica immediately come to my mind as great, relatively close American tourist destinations which often present safety issues if you decide to venture too far off on your own). Puerto Rico, however, doesn’t fall into this category and, while it is technically not a foreign land, it’s unique culture and close proximity to the mainland makes it a prime destination for an extended weekend that is far beyond the typical weekend jet-sets to Florida that many northeastern folk often indulge in. I had the opportunity to explore the northern part of this great island at the end of May – a perfect month that combines low-season prices with high-season warmth, far beyond what we can get in New Jersey at that time of the year.

The challenge for me has always been finding a tropical place that can keep me entertained for more than three days, as the beach gets very boring for me very quickly. I’ve come to discover that Puerto Rico can provide a unique mix: “foreign” culture, beautiful beaches, tremendous opportunities for outdoor activities and the cosmopolitan city culture of San Juan.

If you choose to leave the city, however, there are many great things that await you. It amazes me how many tourists stick to their hotels in Condado and Isla Verde without venturing anywhere else on the island. The “unfortunate” lack of island-wide, reliable public transportation in Puerto Rico is a blessing in disguise – it forces you to get a car and navigate the island on your own and presents you with some tremendous opportunities for exploration.

Perhaps one of more accessible places to start is the El Yunque Caribbean National Rainforest, a short hop outside of San Juan, which provides an interesting glimpse into more typical Puerto Rican surroundings on your drive outside of the cities. El Yunque follows the formula that’s common for any park run by the US Forest Service: there’s plenty of tourist-friendly accessibility, mixed with just enough features to satisfy the more adventurous outdoors-man. And there certainly is no lack of beautiful scenery:


Many people who hike the El Yunque trails wish to see the La Mina falls:


There are a few ways to get to the falls, but my recommended approach is La Mina Trail #12, which is a downhill spiral through numerous trees, boulders, rivers and small waterfalls. The downhill hike is considered moderately difficult, but there is no loop-back to your starting point, which means you’ll have to reverse your path back uphill, giving the return trek a difficult rating. At the bottom of the trail, you encounter the falls and its rock-lined, crystal-clear lagoon that you can swim in:

 

There are two locally-owned food huts on the road that runs throughout the rainforest, and our lunch at the southernmost establishment was excellent. I spoke briefly with the owner, who shared his concern about the government’s plans to ban all private vehicles from entering the rainforest and forcing visitors to pay a hefty sum to ride a government-run trolley that would control where and when they could get off and explore. This would obviously hurt his business and, in my opinion, greatly take away from the overall experience. I hope the government doesn’t go down this path.

About twenty-five minutes from the core of the rainforest is the town of Luquillo, home to Luquillo beaches. Luqillo is an interesting town – colorful, nearly empty during the day and tourist-free with a beautiful beach all to yourself (assuming it’s not a weekend):

It is also home to a very long stretch of food “kiosks” on the side of the highway, which serve as a lunchtime stop for beach-goers on the weekend, and a beer-guzzling hangout for locals in the evening. If you stop here at night, you may feel out of place, but it’s worth the trip – if nothing more than to just browse.

I don’t think many people can argue that Puerto Rico has some fabulous beaches. However, some of the most spectacular beaches that you will find in Puerto Rico – and in the world – aren’t actually on the main island at all. The small island of Culebra, just off the east coast of the main island, is a true tropical getaway and its Flamenco Beach lives up to its reputation as being one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world. The sand is the among the finest white powder than I’ve ever seen and the bright blue waters are somewhat protected, making them especially gentle and warm. You feel like you’re in paradise…because you are. If you visit on a weekday, chances are that you’ll have the run of the place pretty much to yourself. And while this is still considered to be the most “touristy” beach on Culebra, the lack of amenities and crowds redefine what “touristy” actually means.

Culebra Island Culebra Island

One of the reasons why Culebra is relatively deserted is because it’s not particularly easy to get to. Your main modes of transportation to the island are via plane from the San Juan airports (about $70 each way), via high speed two-hour ferry from San Juan that runs only during the high season (about $60 each way), via plane from Fajardo (about $30 each way) or via an 80-minute public ferry from Fajardo ($2.50 each way). The Fajardo ferry, of course, is the default choice for budget travelers, but the trip down the highway from San Juan can be especially long (up to 90 minutes) since the Puerto Ricans don’t really believe in any type of sophisticated traffic engineering (be prepared to stop – often). That, coupled with the lead time required to get your ferry tickets, plus the actual journey at sea, could make the door-to-beach time from San Juan 3-4 hours long. The other thing to keep in mind is that your last chance to leave the island on most days is about 5:30pm, whether it be via plane or ferry. If you miss your exit from the island in the evening, you are stuck until the next morning. (I should note however, that there are far wose places on this planet to be “stuck” on for a day 🙂 )

Our itinerary, however, wouldn’t let us bypass this beautiful island and we set out early from San Juan to make the early ferry in Fajardo. After waiting in line unsuccessfully for ferry tickets for an hour, we learned a few hard lessons about traveling within Puerto Rico:

1. You must be patient.
2. Don’t expect any sort of over-communication – or communication at all. We waiting with about 300 people in line before the ferry left, only to discover that it was sold out for the day.3. Always have an alternate plan if you can’t get to where you need to go.

After speaking with some locals, we were still determined to make it to Culebra that day. At this point, our only option was to make the quick 12-minute flight from Fajardo if we were to get any significant time on the island. We promptly hired a van to take us to Fajardo Airport for $10, where we haggled to get on the next available flight to Culebra. Total cost: $27 one-way. And for $27, well, you get what you pay for:

Culebra Island Culebra Island

While the plane was not exactly the most modern of equipment, the short flight was enjoyable, even though the scary – but typical – landing onto the island’s only landing strip caused many people in the plane to scream. Here’s a video of the takeoff:

(yes, it sounds like a big lawnmower)

We arrived on the island and waited for a Publico to whisk us to Flamenco Beach for two dollars. Upon arriving, it was clear that all the effort to make it there was well worth it. The sun, sand and water were just spectacular. The scenery is awesome and, despite two abandoned tanks from the US Navy’s former occupation of the island, the beach is relatively untouched:

Culebra Island

At 4:30, we headed back to the main town of Dewey, where the ferry was two hours late, but got us back to Fajardo safely. I was sunburned and tired, but very happy that we made the trip.

While Culebra was fantastic and definitely a bit off the beaten track, I still wasn’t content with sitting on the beaches of Condado all day long and decided to make the drive out to Pinones, just east of San Juan, but someplace that feels like it’s a world to itself. A beautiful beach town with lots of great ocean-side bars and restaurants (the rough, salt water-beaten local kind), it is also home to the Paseo Pinones, a bike train built by the Puerto Rican government. The Paseo mostly hugs the beautiful coastline, but also wanders into a large mangrove forest, which provides much-needed shade from the hot sun near the coast. If you choose to rent a bike (ours was $5, rusty and unconfortable – but got the job done), you have some work cut out to get to the end of the trail, particularly on a hot day. The journey on bike, however, is well worth it because some spectacular beaches await you at the trails end.

Along the Paseo Pinones, you’ll see a number of interesting things. Beautiful, empty coastline is a given, but you will also see a number of bathing beaches where flocks of Puerto Ricans bring their families to every weekend. The tide here can be very strong, but there are a number of reef-protected bathing areas where families gather, leaving the unprotected areas to the more adventurous, as well as the surfers. In addition, there are a number of food kiosks which serve authentic Puerto Rican food. Once again, we found ourselves the only folks openly speaking English at our kiosk of choice, which was filled with out 40 hungry Puerto Rican natives. A local taxi driver, who was visiting with his wife, daughter and granddaughter befriended us in line and invited us to have lunch with them. The menu for the day: Rice with Crab and Pigs’ Feet and Coco Frio (fresh green coconuts which are put in a freezer, chopped open when you order them and drank with a straw). We had an enjoyable lunch with our new friends and moved on to the end of the trail, where we discovered yet another spectacular Puerto Rican beach:

Empty Beach near Pinones, Puerto Rico (3) Pinones, Puerto Rico First footsteps in the sand, near Pinones, Puerto Rico

While the beaches in Culebra may have been scarce of people, these beaches were absolutely abandoned. Look left and see no one. Look right and see no one. We were alone, and enjoying every minute that the scenery had to offer us. You can get a taste of it here:

We savored the time we had on the beach and got back on our bikes to head back to town:

Pinones, Puerto Rico

Another trip out of the city that was well worth it…

I must admit, however, that a trip to San Juan would not be a trip to San Juan without doing something on the typical tourist agenda. For us, this was spending the day in Old San Juan and, yes, the Bacardi Rum factory. Old San Juan is charming and El Morro, the walled fort that once protected the city, is an interesting place to spend some time.

San Juan, Puerto Rico San Juan, Puerto Rico San Juan, Puerto Rico San Juan, Puerto Rico

And, of course, Bacardi:

San Juan, Puerto Rico

It is touristy. It’s commercial. The drinks are weak (and they only give you two of them). The bottles of rum are just as expensive at the factory as they are at home. ….but it was a good to be in some air conditioning for a whole hour straight 😉

All in all, I found Puerto Rico to be a great place. It is a beautiful island and the people are very friendly and engaging. I certainly encourage everyone to make the short hop down to San Juan and explore from there. It’s definitely worth it.