After living on the pancake island of Grand Cayman for the past 15 months, I am starving for mountainous sceneries, elevation sensation and ocean curls. And might as well take the advantage of my current living location to explore the surroundings. On the menu this month: island hop the Caribbean!
Puerto Rico is a beautiful tropical island of the Caribbean located between the Dominican Republic, the US Virgin Islands and BVI. It is a destination for outdoor enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies. Perfect for me! I plan on driving around the island, from East to West coast and energize my body while hiking waterfalls, surfing the waves, walking around the old town and dancing to reggaetons.
Arrival (San Juan)
We land in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. Amber and I have booked our first nights accommodation at El Canario Boutique Hotel. We unpack a few clothes, freshen up then stroll down the streets of our new neighbourhood. Our first impressions are promising: clean streets, authentic eateries, nice boutiques, plus we blend in.
We pass a corner where stands an open air local pub. We stop for a beer. We get approached by two gentlemen, late 20’s and discuss floating topics like profession, homelands, passions and interests. One is a professional athlete, surfer to be precise, and the other works in the industrial sector, electronics to be exact. One beer turns into a few until we decide to head back to our temporary home and catch up on some sleep. We say goodnight to our new Spanglish friends and go back to our hostel.
We wake up to a beautiful morning in Puerto Rico. Amber and I, both living in Cayman Islands where shopping is a true nightmare, are very excited about hitting Plaza Las Americas today, Puerto Rico’s largest indoor mall. While getting information about the transit system from the lady at the desk, we meet 2 fellow male guests visiting from the States, also looking for a shopping adventure. They are bright and showy with a humor to die for! We decide to tag along with these bubbly pals and share a cab to the mall.
It’s big, it’s huge, it’s fantastic! (…I’m talking about the mall here).
We meet up again with our new friends for the cab back home. Arriving at the hostel, we line up our purchases on the beds and parade to each other. Might as well celebrate with a few cocktails! We cheers to our new friendship and for the good times to come!
Old San Juan
We spend the day wandering the cobble stoned streets of the old town. With colourful 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings, historic Old San Juan is a pleasure for both eyes and camera lenses. We dispose of our map and get lost in the old streets following smells, people and attractive sites.
The food here is absolutely amazing! It is a unique blend of Spanish, African, Taíno, and American influences. Combining tasty indigenous seasonings, ingredients, cultures and recipes. My favourite: the mofongo. Known as the signature dish of the country with African origins, the mofongo is a delicious mix of fried and mashed yuca filled with your choice of meat, seafood or veggies. With 24-hour restaurants offering authentic food and beverage service, no wonder why I gained 10 pounds!
Skip the tourist trap and hit the local clubs. It is the best way to understand and get introduced to people’s lifestyles. Located just a few steps from our hostel is The Small Bar where many locals hang out to the late hours of the nights (or early hours of the morning). The tiny trailer shaped bar which hosts regulars nightly offers a large variety of beers and liquor and succulent, although extremely expensive, Blue Long Island Ice Teas (you really only need a few of these generously sized deliciousness).
Because we brought our friends to our favorite place, it was up to them to bring us to theirs. After a cab ride through the darkest street of the town, we get dropped off in front of this:
Nonetheless to say where we are going.
Impressions: interesting, different, perhaps ”checked” and let’s-not-do-this-too-often (and thank me for not posting any further pictures).
We bar hop a few gay clubs and finally end up the night back at the Small Bar. Actually no. We end up the night at the local eatery by our hostel for another mofongo and a Pina Colada. Yum!
El Yunque Rainforest
The next day we decide to rent a car and drive to El Yunque Rainforest with our new friends (note: if you plan in advance a trip to the island, book a car in advance as it is a true mission to get a last-minute deal, especially with a hard hangover).
The rainforest is beautiful. The group is content with cruising aboard the car explaining that forests and their creatures are not so much their cup of tea. We accept to abort the hike and stick together. We journey through lush forest, tree orchids, giant ferns and wild flowers.We pass breathtaking waterfalls and admire the views of the northern coast. The air is clean, the smell is fresh, the scenery is splendid. The oxygen slowly cures my morning after.
Puerto Rico was populated for centuries by aboriginals, until it was found and claimed in 1493 by the Spanish Crown. After the Spanish-American war, the island was conveyed to the US after 4oo years of colonial rule that nearly exterminated the indigenous population. With the introduction of African slavery and the large number of European immigrants, Puerto Rico has a blend of ethnic groups, which offers a very diversified population.
Puerto Ricans are a generous kind. They will go above and beyond to spice up your experiences and mesmerize your stay. This is what I love the most about travelling: the people (well the food is up there too). Okay, okay ”don’t talk to strangers”, I get it. But this is not America (although PR is an unincorporated territory of the States). For me travelling is interacting with the people and being submerged in their culture. I like to reach out for inspiration and learn from different values. Of course you have to be vigilant, but sometimes you have to follow your instincts and take risks and chances. Call me naive or innocent, but I still have some faith in humanity.
Our local friends offer us a ride to other side of the island. We say farewells to our new lifelong friends from the States and hit the road towards the West Coast.
Wow, what a road trip! The road to Rincon from San Juan is an approximate 3 hour drive. We sing reggaeton songs from Don Omar out loud, windows down, passing farms, little towns and open air stores. Our friends inform us about few aspects of their enchanted island, talking about politics and their open and dependent economy. Overall, they seem pretty content citizens. We communicate in English, a language that they learned in school and practice at home. Like most of their neighbours, they come from educated families and are now young entrepreneurs.
Rio Camuy Caves
Although informative and entertaining, the ride is long and a stop is well needed. Our hosts propose to stop in Arecibo and explore the Rio Camuy caves.
A miniature train drops us at the entrance of a large network of natural limestone caves and underground waterways that have been carved out by the Camuy River, the 3rd largest underground river in the world. We wander around this spectacular piece of art from nature, exploring caves and sinkholes. The whole Camuy cave system is believed to hold over 1,000 caves. However, only a fraction of it has been mapped and only a small section is open to public.
We arrive to our destination. We have a room booked at Casa Verde. Cozy, a few steps away from the beach, with a tiny bar and a refreshing pool. Those vacations me like! We say goodbyes to our generous friends who hit the road again.
Rincon is Puerto Rico’s surf town located on the West coast of the island. It is an ocean paradise where the sun sets over the horizon and the palm trees sing through the wind. Catch a surf lesson in the morning, hang out by the pool in the afternoon and listen to reggae at night sipping on an authentic Pina Colada (official beverage or PR), watching an electric sunset painting the sky of its warmest details.
Oriented towards tourism, Rincon is also known as one of the best surf spots across the globe which attracts a lot of people from around the world. If you want to surf, chose your season wisely. Unfortunately for us, August isn’t the best time to show our skills on a board. Unpredictable waves and unstable pattern keep us on the beach instead. But the scenery is pretty and laying around on vacation is always a rewarding treat.
Once again, the generosity of the people absolutely amaze me! The bartender of our hostel takes us under his wings and show us around his town, bringing us to local hang outs and introduce us to the local and expat crowd. We spend our short time in Rincon socializing with beach bums and inspiring life connoisseurs and then realize our time is out and we need to go catch our flight back in San Juan. Also realizing that it is pretty primordial to rent a car in Puerto Rico and that there is no public transportation available back to the East Coast, our new friend offers us a ride from his father, a long-term Puerto Rican resident from the States.
The ride back was interesting. Learning about this man’s journey from working a professional 9 to 5 job in the States to migrating to the land of enchantment and being a happy beach bum. ”I surf everyday. I don’t need that much. And I am happy. That’s all that matters”. We stop at a waterfall to freshen up. The 60-something-year-old man tells us he hasn’t been there in 20 years and he appreciates our presence so he can revisit the places of his younger years. While we explore the underwater caves and just fool around, we see him climb up the waterfall… a good 50 feet! Oh boy! With a few local families around asking us if grandpa knows what he’s doing, all we can do is hope for the best. With one hand on my camera and the other one on my eyes, fingers spread, I look at grandpa going for the big jump… Thank goodness, he is safe and alive! Ouff!
It is time to leave the ground of the island of magical landscapes. I haven’t rented a car, nor hiked a waterfall, nor surf the waves, but I have walked the old town and definitely shook my booty at the sounds of reggeatons. I also leave with amazing memories and new friendships. The highlight of the trip? The people. Their warmth, generosity and openness made our stay lively, vibrant and unique. Oh and the mofongos too 😉
Now, it is time to embark in our small plane, direction St-Thomas where we will be visiting our friend from Grand Cayman.
Puerto Rico, I was enchanted to meet you.