My foot presses the pedal all the way down to the floorboard; my fingers grip the steering wheel; and the engine grunts with effort as we climb the narrow mountain road. We can’t see around the curve ahead, so we’re not prepared when another car comes whipping by. My husband tenses up beside me as I inch out of the way so we don’t collide, without driving off the asphalt into the trees. The rental car is cheap and not equipped for the slightly treacherous path we’ve decided to follow through the northern side of the island, and we were not mentally prepared for such a white-knuckle drive. But two hours after leaving San Juan, we make it down and out of the mountain roads to the sea-level town of Mayaguez where I hastily park on a street downtown and ask, “Where’s a bar?” I needed a drink.
We went to San Juan, Puerto Rico for a week in February of 2016 to get away from the cold, grey Nashville winter. We chose to visit Puerto Rico because Southwest added it as a destination and we needed an inexpensive, warm, convenient vacation destination. Using miles to get there and staying in an AirBNB made it very affordable, but everything on the island was well-priced and often cheap compared to home.
We had no idea what to expect, but everything about the island surprised and enchanted us. It is not like Hawaii, with perfect white beaches; the waters on the north side are rough, the wind is aggressive, and the beaches covered in seaweed. It is a poor place, suffering an economic crisis, neglected by the US and ignored by Americans: schools closing due to lack of funds; buildings abandoned because no one can afford to live in them; roads with potholes the city can’t fix. It is very American in some ways, with Walgreens and McDonald’s and signs in English, and so very foreign in others. We loved Puerto Rico, from the delicious pulpo and cheap drinks to the friendly people and gorgeous terrain.
Where to stay: If you want a luxury hotel experience, I can’t give you any advice, but if you want something a little more casual, a little more local and within a five-minute walk from the beach, I highly recommend staying in the Ocean Park area. We rented an AirBNB from Jose, who rents out a bunch of apartments that are located in a great little neighborhood. Ocean Park looks less inviting than it is but don’t let the cracked sidewalks and rundown buildings scare you off. That is just how much of San Juan, and the whole island, appears. We walked around at night all the time and never once felt threatened or unsafe.
If you want to get out of San Juan for a few days, check out Fajardo. We drove through this town a couple times and plan to stay here on our next trip to the island. Much more laid back and less touristy than San Juan, the area around Fajardo seemed like a really chill, friendly place.
What to eat & drink: Pulpo. You think you won’t like octopus but that’s only because you’ve never had it and, if you have, you haven’t had it fresh. Eat it at least once. You will not regret it.
Ceviche. All the fresh fish. All of it.
Tacos. Puerto Rico has an interesting and delicious mix of Latin American and Spanish influences when it comes to food, so the tacos are not your standard Mexican-American fare.
Sangria. You’ve never had sangria like this. All different varieties of flavors, with inventive combinations. My favorite had crushed almonds and nutmegs sprinkled on top.
Pina coladas, on ice. I can never drink a frozen pina colada again. Puerto Rico spoiled me with their freshly made pina coladas served over ice.
Where to eat and drink: Bagua: One of the places we loved, and ate at three times, has closed L Too bad because their pulpo and pina coladas were amazing.
Hike el Junque forest. I am not a nature-loving person. I don’t camp, spiders scare the living daylights out of me, and hiking is not normally part of my repertoire. But I am so glad that I stepped out of my comfort zone and experienced el Junque forest. Beautiful, a little scary for an arachnophobe like me, and full of photo ops, the forest provides an official path that definitely makes thing easier… until you have to start climbing stairs. It’s not easy per se but it’s not like hiking an unexplored mountain. We saw lots of families struggling through, at least to the waterfall (which is worth the hike), with kids, strollers, and grandparents in tow. They were still coming up when we headed back down. Take water with you, wear comfortable shoes, shorts or wicking gym clothes, and get yourself to that waterfall (just don’t fall in like I almost did). Also, be sure to follow the parking rules when you get there so you don’t get a parking ticket like we did. 🙂
Visit the bioluminescent bay. We did NOT get to do this and it is my one regret. We did not plan far enough in advance and couldn’t book a tour while we were there. Book it weeks in advance if you do want to see this. It’s numero uno on my list for our next visit.
Typical ‘neighborhoods’ driving through the hills
A typical house seen along the hills on the northern part of the island
Typical view from the northern part of the island
Get out of San Juan. Driving around the island, while unexpectedly treacherous at times, was my absolute favorite activity. It got us out of the city, away from the tourists, and showed us the real Puerto Rico. It is a poor island, but it’s beautiful and friendly and culturally rich. I wish we’d had the car for longer so we could have taken more time to explore, but the route we followed still let us see a lot and meet many people who told us their stories and those of their towns:
Visit the Aricebo observatory. This is the one thing my dad hounded us to do, and the original reason we decided to drive through the mountains. Of course, we got up to the observatory and it was closed for renovation but we couldn’t let that ruin the day. Instead of driving back down the way we had come up the mountain and taking the long way back to the highway, we decided it would be “easier” to “cut down” the mountain roads…yeah. The roads were narrow, without any guardrails, and the other drivers drove twice as fast as us. I white-knuckled the whole time, but we got to see an entire community we would not have seen otherwise. I think it’s important to look beyond the beach resorts and umbrella drinks and try to understand how the locals live, and driving through these roads let us see a small part of that.
See the oldest church in Puerto Rico.
On your way to the south side of the island, is a small town called San German On your way there, you may pass teenagers riding their horses while texting their friends. At the top of a small hill, overlooking the farms, sits the oldest church in PR, Iglesia Porta Coeli. The town square, cobbled out of stone, is quaint and feels trapped in time, if it weren’t for the cars parked along the road. Check out Lola Restaurant for appetizers and award-winning sangria.
Tour the Bacardi factory. We’re not big on doing organized tours but if we’re going to do one, it’s one that ends with a rum tasting. This was one of the most interesting and informative brewery/vineyard/distillery tours I’ve been on. I’m not even a big rum drinker but the rum tasting at the end taught me a lot and gave me a better appreciation for the spirit. Also, the views of the surrounding area from the balconcies of the factory are so awesome. Highly recommendPR.
Don’t plan it all. Give yourself time for spontaneity and discovery. We didn’t plan to do one single thing and enjoyed every minute on the island. We strolled the streets of Ocean Park and old San Juan, stopping in shops and cafés that struck our fancy. We enjoyed some beach time (though beware: the beaches on the north side of the island are very windy!!), let ourselves linger when we met interesting locals, and took our time to explore our neighborhood. There’s a lot of history to learn, food to eat, sangria to drink and people to meet, so don’t overschedule yourself.