At the beginning of June this year, on a whim, I bought a ticket to Puerto Rico to travel there the following week by myself. I had never been to PR before but knew many people who either had or at one point, lived there then moved to NY. When I was in PR, I even met Puerto Ricans who had lived in New York City previously and moved to Puerto Rico after being fed up with east coast winters. I don’t blame them.
My visit was not even a year after Hurricane Maria happened in September-October, 2017. I had read that PR was revitalizing and that they needed tourism to pick back up to help spur the economy. It was the reason I chose to go to there. PR is very easy for a U.S. citizen to visit because it is a U.S. territory, so passports are not needed and currency exchange isn’t required. I was able to use my U.S. dollars and overall, I felt safe there. When I travel alone, I often meet very interesting and kind people. It was no exception in PR. However, most travelers I met were from the U.S. That is not always common.
I arrived for my one week backpacking trip, first to Old San Juan where I learned about the history of Puerto Rico. It’s amazing how much I learn about world and U.S. history when I travel, versus what I learned in school (or what U.S. schools refused to teach). The Taino were the indigenous people of the Caribbean including Puerto Rico. But the Spanish came in the 1500s and colonized, PR for four centuries. Following the American-Spanish War, the US acquired Puerto Rico in 1898 and made Puerto Rico a U.S. territory. Since then, it has been debated whether Puerto Rico should remain a Commonwealth of the U.S. or become an independent country.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th century cathedral was where I learned most of the history. From there, I also walked to Castillo San Cristóbal since my ticket for del Morro also allowed me entry here. Castillo San Cristóbal was built by Spain to protect against land based attacks on the city of San Juan. Old San Juan is not large, so I probably walked most of that area in a day. Walking around Old San Juan, I met very friendly locals who were kind enough to give me recommendations on where to go and eat. I was also caught in the occasional tropical rain spurts. This was also where I ate my first mofongo. It was the one thing all of my friends told me to eat before I left for PR. Mofongo is the quintessential Puerto Rican dish made of deep-fried green plantains mashed together with other ingredients such as pork or seafood. I had it several times during the week. It was delish but quite a lot for me to finish. My favorite were the sweet plantains!
I had grown tired of the touristy-ness Old San Juan and rented a car after spending only a night in the city. I figured that I would see the rest of San Juan when I came back from my excursion. I drove to Luquillo upon a recommendation from a local. Luquillo is a small, quiet surf town in eastern Puerto Rico. I took major roads instead of highways on my 3 hour drive out to avoid tolls but I noticed traffic lights were mostly down - one of the visible aftermath effects of Hurricane Maria. I was shocked. Even months after the hurricane, traffic lights on major roads were not yet fixed and there were tons of commuters on the road.
Luquillo had more of a local vibe that I was looking for. Beaches, unfortunately, were more polluted than the big ones in San Juan. There are local restaurants and bars in the area where you find out of towners. They all seemed like they had been to Luquillo before, as if it were their best kept secret. My favorite thing about Luquillo was Kioskos de Luquillo. It is a long stretch of about 60 hole in the wall food vendors serving up authentic dishes and more. It’s a great place to eat a full meal or to grab snack or even a drink. It’s also very affordable. I only had lunch there during the day but it turns into a nightlife scene after dinner hours. You do need a car to access the area, which has a parking lot.
After Luqillo, I took the ferry out to Culebra to camp out at Flamenco Beach, a white sand beach on a small, beautiful island off of mainland Puerto Rico. Now, getting to Culebra (or Vieques which is also nearby) is not that easy to get to. You can either fly there from San Juan for about $100 USD round trip but I wanted to experience the drive and other towns on the way to the islands, so I went the ferry route. The problem with the ferry is that tickets can sell out and you can’t buy tickets online. You can buy tickets in person for the day after or you can do what I did and get to the Fajardo Ferry Terminal at 6am to wait in line with other locals so you are sure to get a ticket. Tickets are $2 each way and there is a paid parking lot where you can leave your vehicle. I think it was $5 per day. The ride is around 1 hour each way and when you arrive to Culebra, there are tons of taxi cab drivers vying for your business. Flamenco beach is not within walking distance - you must be driven there. You can even rent a golf cart to drive yourself out there, which I’ve seen tourists do. I did what most people did, ride with Públicos. They have one route on the island: from the ferry terminal to Playa Flamenco for $3 USD per person. As long as there's room, passengers can flag them down anywhere along the route. The fare remains the same, regardless where you get on.
Once you get to Playa Flamenco, you see many kiosks where you can buy food, drinks, rent camping or swimming gear, etc. These kiosks all close at 3pm and you’re on your own from there until they open back up the next morning. I tracked down the camp rental place and got my tent just in time along with food to eat. I am the worst at pitching tents. I’ve done it in Africa with a friend and in Peru, my tour guides took care of it. In Puerto Rico, I couldn’t manage and nearby locals could see that my struggle was real. A young man and another older man came to my rescue and helped me pitch my tent on the campgrounds. Thank goodness they were there, otherwise, I may have been sleeping in the wilderness out in the open with the mosquitos and all. I think spending an entire day at this beautiful beach gave me a pretty sunkissed tan for the rest of the summer. I read, dipped in the turquoise water, napped, read some more, and went back in the water, walked along the beach and repeated all of this all day. Playa Flamenco is one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever been to in the world. The sand is so white and the color of the water is so vivid. Here were also remnants of the hurricane where palm trees here and there were torn out of the ground and fallen over, partially buried in the sand.
Culebra was also once used as a missile sight by the U.S. when it first gained control. However, it has since been returned to the people of Culebra rightfully so.
I wanted to get the first ferry out and back to Puerto Rico because if you know me, I can only take so much beach time. Even after returning to New York in the dead of summer after this trip, I barely made it out to the beach for the rest of the summer. But there were no taxis or Públicos operating that early at dawn. So I used my trustee smartphone to look up some phone numbers and one by one I called publicos or taxis (I honestly wasn’t sure which) but a driver agreed to come get me but charged me $20 USD for the inconvenience. I also had the problem of my tent, which the man who rented to me told me I could drop off at his home. It’s a small island and everyone knows each other. I gave my driver the name of the rental guy and he knew exactly who he was and where he lived. After the driver took me to drop off my rental, he drove me straight to the ferry terminal and I headed back to Fajardo. I drove back to San Juan from there and this time stayed in Condado, a much livelier part of San Juan.
Back in Condado, I took day trips with tour groups to hike at El Yunque National Forest and to see the bioluminescent bay in La Parguera, a coastal town in southwestern PR. El Yunque is either touristy or a place where locals come to drink and hang out. If you rented a car, you can actually drive there on your own but because of the hurricane, certain entrances are closed off. I decided it to make it easy on myself and join a tour. If you want to get in the water, there are plenty of natural water slides, ropes, and cliffs to jump from into the water. On a hot day, spending the day at El Yunque playing in the water is fun and cooling. For me, since I don’t swim, I was disappointed we didn’t do more hiking. But I was happy that I at least got to learn about the forests’ history and see it for myself.
La Parguera was one probably my favorite day of the week. While the drive was long (about 5 hours…), I really wanted to see the bioluminescent bay stick a toe in it. The famous bioluminescent bay in Vieques was mostly destroyed from Hurricane Maria, so I didn’t want to risk my chances in going there. I was informed that there was another large bay on the west coast whose bioluminescent species had been untouched by the hurricane. When we arrived to town, we found that it was a small, lively coastal town. We stopped in the city square for a bite to eat and fun Zumba-like class was happening outdoors for the public. It looked like a lot of fun! And then we goat on our speedboat into the very warm and very shallow water (my feet could reach the ground!) to watch the sunset with a bunch of other locals (youths) who all brought out their boats as well with Spanish hip hop music blasting. It was actually very relaxing and beautiful. Once the sun went down, we jetted off to where the bioluminescent species inhabited and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. It looked like magic! We all jumped in the water and basically, whenever your body moves in the water, the water glows. When you dip your arm into the water and pull your arm back up, it looks like you’ve dipped in sparkles that glow in the dark. The glow is light emitted by a bioluminescent organism, which is produced by energy released from chemical reactions occurring inside (or ejected by) the organism. I never knew such a cool thing existed. It was so hard to get a good photo or video of it, so I don’t have anything captured except for in my memories.
Back in San Juan in Condado, I often got food from La Placita. It is the hub of San Juan's nightlife scene. The historic market plaza and its surrounding streets host what becomes a street party: people meeting up, drinking, eating and, as soon as the salsa band warms up, dancing until the wee hours. I did not party, I just ate. But I really enjoyed was Calle Loiza. This area was what I would called the hipster part of San Juan. Tons of cool and modern looking bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. I went to Pinky’s for brunch one day, which was quite tasty. I found a tiny coffee shop that I loved called Cafe con Ce and made a couple of new American friends there. San Juan is also known for it’s wonderful street art and Calle Loiza is home to much of the art, including the famous one where the Puerto Rican flag is painted on an old building and kids are painted jumping rope on top of it. I honestly wished I had more time to explore the city’s street art.