While helping Mr E Man book the final leg of our upcoming vacation yesterday, I realised that it’s been almost a whole year since we went to Puerto Rico and I still haven’t blogged about it. BAD blogger!
We flew to San Juan via Toronto, just a couple of days before the airport closed for Hurricane Sandy. We weren’t at all sure that our connecting flight would be going ahead, as our flight path would skirt the eastern-most edge of the hurricane’s predicted path, but we took off on time and were told by the pilot that we were in for a smooth ride.
This was a lie.
We bounced our way south for the final hour and a half, and could see the huge masses of cloud off to our right. But, after a very steep descent right over the old city and a bit of a hard landing, we were on the ground, sleep deprived after our red-eye flight but otherwise fine.
We spent the first two nights in San Juan, at a hotel called El Convento which, as the name suggests, used to be a convent. It’s a gorgeous building right in the centre of the old town, with old hardwood fittings and an inner courtyard – and all the Sandy-related cancellations meant that we got a free upgrade to a suite!
The old part of the city is very compact, very charming, and feels very safe (there’s one part the guidebook warned us away from, which a bartender we talked to thought was hilarious – he took a photo of the warning text and put it on Facebook. However, he then came back to our table (with some free beers) to say that he got several comments in the first few minutes telling him that yes, it is indeed very dangerous for tourists to go to that part of town). We walked all over – we explored both of the old forts (ducking into the sentry post towers to avoid some brief, but very fierce, tropical showers), and experienced both the worst (everything battered and fried) and the best (ceviche and other seafood) of the local cuisine.
(One of the definite benefits of Puerto Rico over Cuba is that all the food and drinking water are regulated to US federal standards, so you can eat anything that looks good without worrying about it. In contrast, I spent a few days in Cuba feeling pretty rough, probably from ice cubes made of unpurified water).
After our second night, we picked up our rental car from the airport and headed west, to Rincon. (The roads are well maintained all over the island, but the drivers are a bit… adventurous). Our accommodation in this surf town was the Tres Sirenas guesthouse, right on the beach, where we quickly made friends (and had a few drinks with) the owners and some of the other guests. The water was too rough for swimming during our first couple of days there, but we enjoyed the delicious pool-side breakfasts, the sunsets, the nearby beachside bar, and driving through the hills then trekking through the jungle to a nearby waterfall running over a rock face that looked like a giant head.
After watching some of the local kids jump off the rock, Mr E Man decided to follow them up the rocks at the side, then stood on the tiny, sloping, slippery ledge with water rushing over his feet before launching himself off into space.
I stayed at the bottom so I could take a photo. You’re welcome.
We left the pool when we started to hear thunder, and ran back up the hill through the jungle in the pelting rain, reaching the car just before the lightning started. We actually earned our beer that day!
On our final full day in Rincon, we were finally able to swim in the ocean. It was pretty rough surf still, but lots of fun, and I only face-planted in the sand once.
Back into the car again, and on to the Villa Sevilla guesthouse, in the foothills of El Yunque rain forest. This was our longest drive of the trip, especially as we took a detour to follow a Twitter friend’s suggestion to visit Caba Rojo, on the very southwestern tip of the island. It was just as gorgeous as promised – I just wish we’d been able to spend longer there, because the beach looked absolutely amazing!
Luckily, after surviving a near-zero visibility downpour in the mountains and then the outskirts of San Juan during rush hour, Villa Sevilla turned out to be stunning. The owners took us on a tour of the garden and invited us to help ourselves to the passion fruit, Jamaican cherries (which taste like candy floss / cotton candy), and the best avocados I’ve ever eaten.
On our first morning there, we followed the owners’ directions to a swimming hole in the nearby river, where we swam, hung out, and enjoyed the view of the hills. A couple of hours later, it was time to drive back to San Juan to pick up my sister, who was flying in from London to join us for the second week of our trip. We had to drive past the airport to get to the terminal entrance, and were speeding down the road right next to the runway just as the BA jet we could see coming towards us touched down next to us – pretty cool, especially when we confirmed that it was indeed the plane my sister was on!
Now, when my sister and I were growing up, West Side Story was one of the first videos we ever owned, and we watched it over and over again. So when we first started planning our trip over Skype and Mr E Man first suggested Puerto Rico as our destination, my sister and I immediately launched into a spirited rendition of America (which begins with the words from this post’s title). So, after greeting my sister, picking up her luggage, and piling into the car, we had the song cued up and ready to go on the stereo – and blasted it at full volume as we headed back to the chalet.
Much rum was drunk that night.
Over the coming days we explored the local beaches, and went on a couple of very hot and sweaty hikes in El Yunque rainforest national park.
Luckily, the views over the jungle and beyond to the coast were stunning (although the various swimming pools were very crowded), and there was a German beerhaus at the foot of the hill for reasons no-one could satisfactorily explain, complete with bratwurst, oom-pa-pa music, and Puerto Rican waitresses dressed in dirndls.
We also ate lots more delicious pork and seafood, and I coined what is probably my best-ever pun: while trying conch ceviche, Mr E Man asked if I was enjoying it, and I said “not really. I don’t like the texture. I guess I’m a conch-ientious objector”.
After a few days, we moved on to our final destination, Vieques – a small island off the east coast of the main island. (The ferry took about an hour and a half, and cost $2 each. You can’t even get a terrible cup of tea for that price on BC Ferries). This was, hands-down, everyone’s favourite part of the trip. Vieques used to be used as target practice by the US Navy, so it’s only very recently started to be developed (and you do NOT stray off the path – the navy are still clearing up after themselves).
We stayed at Casa La Lanchita, near the ferry terminal on the north side of the island, and rented one of their beaten-up old jeeps – a must, as the roads out to the beaches aren’t paved and are pretty rough in places. The beaches are some of the best I’ve ever seen – clean white sand, clear blue water, and hardly any people. We swam, snorkeled, and generally relaxed. We even went to the beach in the rain (Mr E Man thought the sight of my sister and me spending 10 minutes covering ourselves in factor 30 before snorkelling in the rain was hilarious, for some reason), which was actually very cool indeed.
Vieques inspired my second-best pun of the trip: “I got 99 problems, but a beach ain’t one”.
In the evenings, there was yet more delicious food, and some more spectacular sunsets. We spent one evening watching the results of the US election coming in, which was quite exciting, especially because Puerto Ricans were also voting on the future of their relationship with the US (they voted to apply for statehood).
Our final night was the true highlight of the trip. There are some mangrove-fringed bays on the south coast of Vieques that have some of the highest concentrations of bioluminescent organisms in the world, and we experienced them on a moonlit kayak tour. (You used to be able to swim there, but a) sun screen and bug spray kill the organisms, and b) someone got bitten by a shark last year).
It. was. STUNNING.
Every paddle stroke became a fireworks display. You could scoop up some water, hold it in your hands, and actually see the individual points of light swimming around. You could see fish and manta rays moving under the surface. My only complaint was that the tour was only about an hour long – I could have stayed all night.
It was only with great regret that we packed up the next morning and headed back to the ferry terminal. As our ferry approached, I managed to lighten the mood by turning to my sister and singing “I think I go back to San Juan”; I was so proud when she immediately sang back “I know a boat you can get on”.
We dropped my sister off at the airport for her evening flight, then spent our last night in Puerto Rico in a generic business hotel near the airport. As we flew home the next morning, I couldn’t help but compare our trip to our 2009 vacation in Cuba. As I said, it was great to be able to eat and drink anything without worrying about food poisoning, and it was certainly much, much easier to get around than it was in Cuba; the food was also (in general) much better. The accommodation and the beaches were definitely much better in PR, but on the latter point at least I don’t think we saw the best of what Cuba has to offer. However, Puerto Rico did feel less exotic, less culturally different than Cuba (we did some of our food shopping for Villa Sevilla at the local Wallmart), and I missed the ubiquitous music that characterised our time in Cuba. I would definitely go back to both places, but for different types of vacation – Cuba for a more difficult but more culturally rewarding trip, and Puerto Rico for relaxation, food, and if travelling with anyone with kids.
We’re working on making the latter happen… stay tuned! EMERGENCY EDIT – I meant that we are working on persuading some friends of ours who have kids to go back to Puerto Rico with us, NOT that we are working on having kids of our own to take with us to PR, or anywhere else. Thank you though to the reader who messaged me privately with a very nice message of congratulations!