My friend Richard Joseph recently spent some time in Puerto Rico and has graciously shared the diary of his travels with us… read on to find out more about why this country should be on your vacation to-do list.
What serves as the anxious start (or tearful finale) for some of the finest Caribbean cruises is, in itself, a destination worthy of an entire vacation. For us it exceeded our expectations by so much we returned the following year.
Day One- Arrival
First lesson, this may be a Spanish speaking island, but it’s hard to even practice the language when most everyone speaks English. With my pale complexion, ball cap, and tennis shoes, it was hard to pass as a local.
If arriving from the U.S. of A. no need for a passport. A driver’s license is good enough, being in a territory is more like going to the next state than the next country.
If this was a dream I didn’t want to wake up. With my wife and kids we walked along the white sands of Coco beach which blend seamlessly into the crystal clear waters at our hotel. We were based about 45 minutes east of San Juan. A car was a must and since we had one we set off to discover a deserted beach.
A guidebook pointed us in the right direction. Just to the northwest of Loiza is a road that meanders along the coast towards the San Juan airport. All along the way you can pull off and park right along a series of pristine beach.
Not that we were bored with the sand already, but it was time for something different, quite different. In a matter of 10 minutes from our hotel we were entering El Yunque. It’s the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Park system. As that might imply, a raincoat, umbrella and swimsuit are advisable. Ok, maybe some insect repellant would be a good idea too depending on time of year.
The narrow winding drive through the rain forest brings you higher and higher into a cloud forest. Along the way there are trails of various lengths and difficulties. The most popular hike takes you to the base of a waterfall which is where the swimsuit comes in handy for a dip in a pond .
Have you ever heard of a bioluminescent bay? Puerto Rico has three. We went to the one near Fajardo. It’s a good idea to reserve in advance because these kayak trips are popular. As night fell we paddled deep into a mangrove forest. It was pitch black except for the glow sticks on the front and rear of each kayak. After about 15 minutes we emerged into what they call the “bio bay”. Filled with hundreds of thousands of microorganisms, when agitated with your paddle they glow in the dark. For those with no strength or desire to paddle there is an electric boat tour as well.
There are tiny uninhabited islands (cays) minutes away from mainland Puerto Rico just begging for visitors. They are in a chain called the Cordillera, the problem became how to get there. There are sailing trips, even mini boats that you can drive yourself with a group, but all were full when we attempted to make a reservation. I found a phone number on the internet of a guy with a boat in Las Croabas who takes tourists across, but he was booked too. Fortunately he had a cousin who also had a boat. His name was Domingo and I don’t mind at all giving him some business (787-299-2830).
For 12 minutes our motorboat skipped across the channel between Fajardo and Cayo Icacos (our little unspoiled islet). It was as perfect as we had hoped. For $100 my family of four was deposited on the island, asked when we wanted to be picked up and collected at the proper time. Domingo even threw in snorkeling gear. I am one who gets bored easily, but just being on this perfect beach with perfect water with perfect-looking islands in the distance was perfectly fine for an afternoon.
They call them “The Spanish Virgin Islands”. Just a short ferry ride away are Vieques and Cuelbra. If mainland Puerto Rico has nice beaches, the ones on these islands are rated even higher. We boarded the ferry at Fajardo for the ride to Vieques. This is an inhabited island, though a sleepy one. Upon arrival taxi vans were waiting to take us to the beach of our choice. We chose one where wild horses are known to graze nearby. The Spanish explorers first brought the horses to the islands back in the 1400s.
If you can stay for the night the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay is supposed to be even better than the ones on the mainland. There are plenty of small inns and a luxury hotel on Vieques. We chose to catch a ferry back at the end of the day which turned out to be great entertainment in itself. Packed with Puerto Ricans the people began singing and banging in rhythm using their coolers as drums. I should mention there is also a ferry to the island of Cuelebra. Its Flamenco beach is often called the second best in the Caribbean (it depends who is doing the rating to say which is first). For the price of a few dollars these islands make for day trips well worth the trouble.
Now keep in mind all that I’ve written about here was just along Puerto Rico’s northeast coast..extending only about an hour from San Juan (where you might want to take in Old San Juan). The island is far bigger than that. We never made it to other places on our list such as the caves of Rio Camuy and Sunday lunch in Guavate, the roast pig capital of Puerto Rico. No need to worry though, we’ll be back.