Over the past 10 days, the TriMadness clan took a trip to the tropics for a little rest & relaxation. Our destination? Puerto Rico.
Not sure that most folks think of Puerto Rico as Grade A, # 1 prime, tropical vacation paradise. I certainly didn’t before we went. In fact, I was frankly a little – shall we say – nervous before we headed down south. I’d heard that there was lots of crime in Puerto Rico. Actually, that was all that I’d heard about Puerto Rico. I never heard anyone say that the beaches were nice, the resorts were good, the food tasty. None of that.
So knowing that backdrop, we packed up a bunch of luggage, boarded a JetBlue flight, and headed off to the land of Bacardi.
My first impression upon stepping out of the airport in San Juan? Exactly as advertised. Big city. Lots of trash – everywhere. Congestion. Idiot drivers. A place where English is not the norm (actually, that wasn’t too bad). I held my tongue and steered our rental car towards the east – and our resort: The Wyndham Rio del Mar in Rio Grande.
As we approached the resort, things started looking better. More “resort-y”. We checked in the hotel and sought some recommendations for close places to eat. The bellhop was a straight shooter and told us where he thought we should go and places we should avoid (the dreaded “tourist traps”).
We took his advice and headed towards the town of Loquillo – about 5 minutes down the road. There we found about 60 kioskos – or kiosks – that offered a veritable cornucopia of food items. Authentic Puerto Rican cuisine to good ‘ole burgers. Anything you could want. At reasonable prices, too. We liked the kioskos so much that we ate there three nights during our stay.
During the week, we certainly did some touristy things. We spent a day in Old San Juan – which has its origins back to 1508. Old San Juan is pretty quaint, with lots of shops (both of the t-shirt variety and the Coach variety), a bunch of restaurants (including one where the Pina Colada was invented in 1954 as well as a Ben & Jerry’s). There are two very cool Spanish-era forts in the city, el Morro and San Cristobal. We enjoyed Mofongo – an authentic Puerto Rican dish made of plantains and seemingly tons of garlic and butter.
We also spent a day in the only tropical rain forest that is an US National Forest – the El Yunque forest (pronounced El June-kay). This rain forest is perhaps one of the most biodiverse ecosystems you’ll have the opportunity to encounter. There are more than 240 tree species growing there; 150 types of ferns. While there are no large animals (and thankfully no poisonous snakes), El Yunque is the home to the Iguaca (Puerto Rican Parrot), a critically endangered green parrot.
Perhaps the two biggest highlights of the vacation were our trip to the bioluminescent bay near Fajardo and our trip to the small island of Culebra.
The bioluminescent bay is actually a saltwater bay called Laguna Grande, and is one of several areas in the Caribbean where you can experience bioluminescent creatures. Laguna Grande has the reputation of being the best of all the venues in the tropics, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The bioluminescence is created by teeny-tiny microscopic creatures called dinoflagellates; a microscopic plankton capable of producing light. Our tour (through a company called Kayaking Puerto Rico) was really top shelf. We kayaked through a mangrove swamp to get to the actual bay – all at night without lights! I cannot even begin to describe how utterly cool the bioluminescent experience was. The water literally lit up when you ran your hand, your paddle, your foot – anything – through it. The coloring resembled the indiglo lighting from some Timex Ironman watches…sort of greenish/blueish.
On our last day, we took a 90 minute ferry ride from Fajardo to the island of Culebra – a small spit of land about 17 miles east of Puerto Rico and about 12 miles west of St Thomas. Culebra is home to some of the best snorkeling and SCUBA around – and also has the #2 ranked “most exotic beach in the world”, Playa Flamenco. To say that this beach is beautiful is an understatement. I’d call it breathtaking. The water was swimming pool clear, with 50-60 feet of visibility. You can literally swim right up to coral reefs, and the sand is as sugar white as you can get. Certainly an amazing beach.
So…all in all…did we enjoy Puerto Rico? Yes! Absolutely! Our week on the island FAR surpassed my expectations. My wife and kids had a blast. We ate great food. The people were genuinely friendly. We felt safe (99% of the time). Some of the scenery was beautiful.
And yet…Puerto Rico is dirty. There’s litter everywhere. Livestock roams freely. As do horses. And dogs. The driving conditions are sub-par. The roads are awful. Some of the prices are stratospheric. There is crime (in fact almost 100% of the houses had iron bars covering the windows), but I suspect if you’re careful and stick to the tourist areas, you’d be fine.
Overall – Puerto Rico was a great vacation. I think we’d go back. We’d certainly go back to Culebra.