Close your eyes (or keep one eye slightly opened so you can actually read on) and visualize this…
Bright blue skies. Coconut-filled palm trees. Pristine white sand beaches. Jade and blue ocean so clear that you can see your feet at the bottom. Lush, green mountains. Beautiful orchids so colorful that they put ROYGBV to shame…
Open your eyes…you’ve just been temporarily transported to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico…La Isla Del Encanto…the Island of Enchantment.
Waterfall in tropical rainforest
Puerto Rico is in an interesting, semi-confusing stage. For those of you who don’t know, Puerto Rico is indeed part of the great USA. However, it is not a state. It is a commonwealth. As defined by Webster’s Dictionary, a commonwealth is “a political unit having local autonomy but voluntarily united with the United States.” With that said, the island displays a very intriguing juxtaposition of new, old, modern and rustic. As you drive, you see a giant Mall on the side of the road (one that can easily rival if not surpass the malls we know here in the contiguous US) and when you look across the street, you see a cluster of rickety seaside shacks selling traditional Puerto Rican dishes. But the latter is disappearing, so it seems. As the days go by, more and more of the old and rustic is disappearing and the new and modern is taking over. No doubt, Puerto Rico will be a force to reckon within the tourism industry (more-so than it is now)…for better or for worse. What’s the cost? What’s at stake? Tradition? Natural beauty? Old world charm? Who knows…but that’s a discussion for another day. Onward…
El Morro (Original Spanish Fort)
Okay, enough philosophical, technical mumbo jumbo. The point of this post is to give you all a little look into this island and a recap of my recent vacation there. We packed ALOT into seven days and put over 750 miles on our poor little Ford Focus rental car. That thing was huffing and puffing and weezing when we returned it. From here on, I’m going to give you a daily recap of what we did along with some cool photos. Buckle your imaginary seatbelts now!
We took a 6:00am flight out of JFK International Airport (Yes, 6…am) which meant we had to be out of the house at 2:30am (Yes, 2:30…am). We got into Luis Munoz Marin Aiport in San Juan at just about noontime. We got our bags, got our rental car, headed to the hotel, threw down our bags and went out on our first excursion which was the jaw-dropping El Conquistador Resort Hotel in Fajardo, PR.
View from the plane window
Hilltop view of El Conquistador Resort
The resort has a casino and a bunch of areas where outsiders can visit. So we roamed around, took in the sights, hit the casino for a bit and absorbed the balmy, island breeze. A nice warm-up for the week ahead.
One of the best smelling flowers
After this little venture, it was safe to say that we were all exhausted so we got some dinner and headed back to the hotel for some pool/jacuzzi action. Then…bedtime.
On this day, we visited a National U.S. Rainforest by the name of El Yunque (pronounced ‘el-joon-kay’). It wasn’t my first time visiting there but every time feels like the first. The landscapes are absolutely breathtaking (at points while climbing 1,000 feet on foot, I mean breathtaking quite literally). The trees and foliage are pristine and untouched. The waters are so clean and refreshing and DRINKABLE, which was a true God-send after the excursions we went on.
While hiking throughout this forest (or anywhere on the island for that matter), one can’t miss the iconic, clearly audible sound of the Puerto Rican Coqui frog (pronounced ‘ko-kee’). This frog makes the absolute cutest noise that can possibly come out of an animal. The Puerto Rican natives, along with tourists, love and adore this native tree frog, so much so that local gift shops sell tons of items emblazoned with images of the Puerto Rican Coqui. Even more awesome than that, these shops also sell CD’s where tracks are composed of the Coqui’s famous chirp! That’s it!
Puerto Rican Orchids
Palmas Resort. One of the finest resorts, if not the finest, resort in Puerto Rico. Not much needs to be said to justify the beauty of this place. Hopefully my outstanding :wink wink: photographs will speak to that.
So, after surveying my photos, I realized that I didn’t seem to have any other photos from this resort. Whoops…sorry.
Day 4 was a history lesson brought to life. We visited the historic Spanish Forts of El Morro and San Cristobal. When you step inside these man-made (which is an amazing thought in itself) forts, you can’t help but feel as though you’re stepping back into the days of the Spanish-American War. There is a certain ‘energy’ here that you can feel as you walk through the maze of halls and barracks and the thought that real men lived, worked, fought, and died here makes for a powerful experience. This is a ‘must see’ on a Puerto Rico vacation.
To top it off, these forts are part of the very famous Old San Juan which is exactly what it sounds like…a very old part of town that is steeped in history, architectural beauty, and Puerto Rican culture. As you walk through the tight streets of Old San Juan, you can’t help but feel truely connected to the Puerto Rican culture, its people, its food and its music. Visiting this old part of town provides a true, authentic cultural experience and will create memories that will last forever.
OSJ as seen from El Morro
Historic 'Inglesia' or 'church'
By far, this is my favorite part of every trip we take to Puerto Rico.
Vieques. One of the most secluded, pristine, untampered islands you may every step foot on (if you get your butt up and go!). This island is the type of place you read about in Travel + Leisure Magazine. Picture-perfect, postcard-worthy landscapes…the bluest, greenest water that you can’t help but just stare at it in awe…the whitest, purest, softest sand that your feet may ever touch. Pure beauty…period.
One of Vieques' secluded, local beaches
My girlfriend and I joked (in reference to the photo above) that this is where the clever, witty Corona commercials are filmed. For all we knew, they might be.
Vieques is just one of many outer-lying islands that belong to Puerto Rico. Vieques is the largest one (if you consider 20 mi x 4 mi large anyway) and the other major outer island is Culebra which is only a few miles square. To get to these islands, you need to take a government-run ferry which takes about 90 minutes to Vieques and 2 hours to Culebra. But believe me, the trip is absolutely worth it. And for only $4 round trip, you can’t find a better bargain while on vacation.
Driving along one of the main roads in Vieques
Local man playing a game of Dominos
Yes..people ride horses on the streets
The most beautiful beach I think I'd ever been on
If you decide to take a trip to Puerto Rico some day, trust me and set aside just one day (2-3 days would be even better) to take the ferry out there and experience one of Puerto Rico’s hidden gems. Locals are many. Tourists are few. But beauty is everlasting and there for your viewing pleasure. Go get it.
Day 6 was absolutely full of driving. We decided that we wanted to take a driving tour of the island and try to make it to other side which normally takes about 3 to 4 hours. We didn’t accomplish that, but we still drove a ton and saw two tons. Basically we were staying in the northeast part of the island and we began by driving down to the southeast region of the island, then straight west and then back to the hotel. In total we were in the car for about 9 hours, but it was worth it. When you look up ‘scenic route’ in the dictionary, this is what you would see.
View from the side of a road that literally 'hugs' the mountain
The main thing on the itinerary was to visit Ponce, which is very similar to Old San Juan. It’s a very historic town with Spanish roots and influences. Again, gorgeous streets, Spanish-influenced ‘Squares’, locals out and about, and…Piragua Men!!! These men are iconic and can be found pushing their piragua carts through the streets peddling Piraguas for about $1.25. For those who don’t know, Piraguas are basically slushies. They have blocks of ice in their carts which they shave into the shape of a cone, put the ice into a cup, and then they doust the ice with yummy, tropical syrups that come in all sorts of flavors including lemon-lime, pina colada, and guava. On a hot day, Piraguas hit the spot (see photo below for said Piragua man).
Piragua guy!! One of the highlights of going to PR
Un Inglesia Catholica en Ponce
One of the many bustling streets in Ponce
Let me tell you, Puerto Ricans love to party! As we walked through the streets of Ponce, locals were out in numbers, businesses played Salsa music from their storefronts, people sat outside eating at local restaurants, and there was just a genuine energy in the air. And, to top it off, it was a weekday afternoon! Imagine the weekends…
Don Quijote is an iconic figure throughout the island
We finished off our visit to Ponce by visiting this really neat, authentic, hidden restaurant/art gallery to grab some lunch. This was right up my alley. I love food. I love art galleries. And this place meshed the two so beautifully…I absolutely loved this restaurant and could eat in it every day if possible. See below.
Awesome soup, lightly-fried plantains, and green iced-tea
Last stop on our scenic drive was a town by the name of Guanica. Despite most people’s notions of what Puerto Rico is like, many have no clue that the whole southwestern portion of the island is a DESERT! It was unbelievable to me because I had never been there, but there really are cacti everywhere and desert shrubs, wild lizards and iguanas and all kinds of other ‘desert stuff.’
The drive home was long and tiring. But we saw and absorbed alot of beautiful sights. Can’t complain about that.
Day 7 was a last ditch effort to do everything that we wanted to do, that we didn’t get to do, before we left the next morning. In short, we ventured through El Yunque again on a 45 minute hike to La Mina Falls which is one of the forests’ famed waterfalls. It’s hard work to get there but the payoff is phenomenal. See below.
Rapids leading up to La Mina Falls
La Mina Waterfall in all of it's glory
After we left the forest, we headed out for one last thing on our itinerary. And that was to visit a very unique nature preserve in Fajardo, Puerto Rico that goes by the name of Las Cabezas de San Juan. This preserve is unique due to the fact that it contains seven unique ecosystems which is normally unheard of for one park. We got a guided driving/walking tour that was so informative and thought-provoking and truely provides for a greater appreciation of nature and it’s inhabitants.
Lighthouse at Las Cabezas
In regards to the photo above, I needed to make a special side note about it because this plant is so darn amazing. It’s called ‘Morivivir’ which means ‘Die and Live’ literally in English. What’s so fascinating about this tiny plant (they do get quite large in the tropical forests) is that when you touch them, they physically close up, almost like a venus fly trap except that it responds to the human touch. In about five minutes or so, it opens back up hence the name ‘Morivivir.’ Definitely something you don’t see everyday…
Rocky Shore; one of the seven ecosystems in the park
Mangrove swamp (one of the seven ecosystems)
Dozens of Millipedes hang onto the Mangrove trees
Sad day indeed. Time to go back home. We all had a fantastic time indulging in all of Puerto Rico’s offerings. The island and its people provide great food, awesome hip-moving music, gorgeous beaches, lush mountains, amazing local people, and an overall fun-loving, relaxed lifestyle. Puerto Rico does have its problems just like any other place on the globe but it’s working hard to fix these problems and provide an even more awe-inspiring island-experience for tourists, and an even better quality of life for its people.
Before you die (I hate saying that), you must make a trip out to Puerto Rico. You don’t need a passport and airfare is pretty affordable most times of the year. So just go. Do it. You’ll love it. I promise.
Signing out. Peace.