Puerto Rico

Up until this point, my blog has always been about my long-term trips (2010-2011 RTW and 2014 South America) but I plan on writing about places that I visited the last few years and really enjoyed but never got a chance to highlight. Forgive me as I write from memory.

Flashback to January 2013. I attended a meeting in Tampa and thought to myself that it would be nice to take a holiday somewhere in Florida. Browsing Googlemaps, I saw that the Caribbean was nearby, so I figured I’d check out a country there. I remember that most flights to the Bahamas was expensive and that I was surprised to find a $160 round trip (from Tampa) ticket to Puerto Rico. I figured it was because they are a territory of the USA and plenty of flights went to and from there.

When I finally arrived in the capital,San Juan, and got out of the airplane, I was hit instantly with its humidity. I had a rental car to pick up the next day but on the day I arrived, I had to find my way to Old San Juan where my hostel was. I had done a little research on buses that would take me close so I hopped onto a local one which I thought was correct. I was armed with rusty Spanish but I had taken some time to memorize key phrases (“Can you tell me when we arrive at …”). Luckily for me, some people in Puerto Rico speak English, especially the younger generation, so I wouldn’t be completely stuck assuming I got lost.

Long story short, I got off at the wrong stop, got lost, and a young English-speaking girl helped get me on the right bus and also told me when to get off.

In Old San Juan bus station, I still had to figure out where the hostel was. After some time staring at my Lonely Planet guide map and asking several taxi drivers chit-chatting, I find my hostel. It was a charming place called “Posada San Francisco”. After setting my bags down in the somewhat muggy 5-bed dorm room, I headed out to find dinner. I had a list of things I wanted to eat in Puerto Rico and top of the list was PORK. Puerto Rico is well-known for their lechoneras, which serve lechon, or roast suckling pig with delicious cracklin’ skin. The best lechoneras are to be found in Guavate, a 2 hour drive south of San Juan. I had planned on driving there in a few days.

I found a charming little restaurant that had a bar. Pina colada was supposedly invented in Puerto Rico and Bacardi rum is their biggest liquor export.

I ordered chuleta kan kan (fried pork chop) and a strawberry pina colada. The pork chop had too much fat on the sides but the mofongo (plantain mash) was fantastic. Although it was delicious, I couldn’t finish the pina colada.

“Chuleta kan kan”

On my second day, I spent my morning exploring Old San Juan and its coast. A statue of a dancing San Juan was the highlight. The famous old fortress or La Fortaleza was closed that morning but I wasn’t really into fortress-exploring mood. I had bigger fish to fry that morning. I checked out of my hostel, found the bus that would take me to the airport, and picked up my rental car. Renting a car is cheap in Puerto Rico and the preferred way to get around the country as everything is driving distance. I paid $20/day for a small compact Toyota Yaris.

Dancing San Juan

I headed east toward Vieques where the legendary Bio-luminescent Bay, or Bio-Bay, is located. It took me about 1.5 hours to drive to the Fajardo ferry docks where I would park my car for $5 and keep it there for a night. Be wary; The ferry has strict departure times so you might want to check it out here and plan on arriving 30-45 mins early.

Vieques is a small island about 1.5 hours from Fajardo. Upon getting off, I found communal vans (publico) which takes people into the town. It’s a much cheaper option than taking a taxi solo because the fare is split between 10 people. Expect to pay $5 pp. There are several trucks running around the island that can take you anywhere. Expect to pay $10 for a trip anywhere.

After checking into my charming “hostel”, which really was a European guy’s home where he rented rooms out, I took a trip to the beach. The beaches are much smaller and relatively empty. Several tour companies take you on horse rides along the coast but for a hefty price, about $80 per person. A really cool thing about Vieques is that horses can be seen roaming freely everywhere. It’s quite a sight.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the highlight of my Puerto Rico trip, Bio-Bay. It was a night-time group expedition to the lake and I didn’t want to risk bringing a camera onto the canoes. The night was filled with mosquitoes (no surprise, as Bio-Bay is actually named Mosquito Bay). We walked in the mud as we dragged our canoes into the water. Then we paddled to the middle of Bio-Bay where a small boat was parked there, perhaps for the purpose of allowing people to climb it and jump into the lake.

Here’s a picture I borrowed of Bio-Bay:

Photo courtesy of private-tours-israel.com

What makes Bio-Bay special is that the water is filled with dinoflagelattes, micro-organisms which cause the water to glow eerily luminescent when there is movement in the water. The water was warm, the waters glowing, and the moon was out. I’ve never swam in the middle of a lake at night so it was exciting.

The next day, I boarded the ferry back to Fajardo. My schedule for the day was to drive to El Yunque National Forest and hike the trail to the waterfalls. I got to the falls, tried to swim in it but it had rained the day before so the current was extremely strong and I didn’t want to risk being washed downstream filled with massive rocks. Taking a selfie there was almost impossible due to water droplets clouding the front of my camera lens.

Next up, the other highlight of my trip; The drive to Guavate, home of many popular lechoneras. I first learned about these places from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I decided to hit up one of the more famous ones, El Rancho Original (the other being Los Pinos). It was tricky to get there because the winding roads go through a forest and the roadsides are filled with many competing lechoneras. But you knew when  you got to the main street. It was jam-packed with people. As lechoneras only open on the weekends, everyone comes at the same time to feast and party. I stood in line while I admired the beautiful roast pig sitting on the front display for everyone to see, as the employees carve juicy chunks off it. Don’t forget the sides, which there are plenty to choose from. As a bonus, there was a party going on next door and there was a live band playing and people of all ages were dancing their afternoons away.

 

Delicious plate of lechon with some morcilla (blood sausage)

Overall, Puerto Rico was a great place to stop for a few days. There were other cities to visit but I felt I hit the highlights that I really cared for (Bio-Bay and lechoneras) so I was more than happy to leave after that.

For more images of Puerto Rico, click here.

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