We booked our flights to San Juan on a whim a few months ago after finding dirt cheap airfare, knowing basically nothing about the place. Warm weather, beaches, and a trial run w/ hostel stays all sounded like a great plan. A few anecdotes and takeaways to frame our initial foray into this whole travel/ hostel thing:
Language Barriers – Aside from our personal conversations, I don’t think we heard a lick of English from the time we boarded our flight in Fort Lauderdale until arriving at our hostel in San Juan (exception of some broken English from our cab driver). We were shocked at how little English is spoken (or known/ understood in general by locals) in Puerto Rico. Dusting off the high school Spanish notes didn’t help much – emphatically pointing and smiling to communicate is something we’ll have to get used to on the road.
Alison is winning the hostel experience – It’s 11pm last Monday night when we arrive in San Juan and make it to the hostel (my first night ever in a hostel). The host shows us to the room, which is a bunk room w/ 10 people (very common in hostels). Instinctively I walk in and immediately turn on the lights, waking up 2 or 3 people in the process. Alison laughs (snorts) loudly, bringing the count of pissed off people from our arrival to a half dozen. We found another hostel to stay in after Vieques where we were thankfully quarantined in our own bunk/ closet room away from the slumbering masses. Interesting note: of the ~40,000 hostels in the world, only 100 or so are the US (at least four of which are in Puerto Rico that Alison and I know of).
Awesome, interesting people – Puerto Rico did not disappoint on this front. We met a guy, Javier, who worked in the kitchen of the famed Nobu restaurant in Manhattan for five years and just moved back to Vieques to open his own restaurant. He gave us some awesome restaurant and beach recommendations. One of the backpackers we met in San Juan actually slept in a makeshift tent on the beach for 5 nights in Vieques, no more than a solid 6 iron away from our apartment. The same guy told us a story of how he hitchhiked an hour and a half to San Juan after a Marine found him passed out in the pouring rain at a bus stop. We knew we’d meet some interesting characters on this little journey – just a taste of what’s to come hopefully.
A little more about where we went in Puerto Rico…
Vieques – There are two primary islands off the east coast of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques, collectively known as the “Spanish Virgin Islands.” We picked Vieques after hearing there was a bit more to do there, namely the Bioluminescent Bay, where microorganisms light up when provoked in the water as a natural defense mechanism to attract larger predators (a must do while there). The general look and feel of the landscape and beaches is very similar to the other Virgin Islands, with a lush green forest throughout surrounded by a multitude of beautiful beaches. There are two small, sleepy towns (loose definition of “town”), Isabel II to the north and slightly smaller Esperanza in the south, where we stayed for six nights. Esperanza has a strip of 7 or 8 bars and restaurants on the Malecon, the walkway that lines all 200 yards of the beach town. We didn’t spend much time in the slightly larger town of Isabel II, with the exception of an awesome mofongo meal at La Gran Parada. The greatest thing about this island is that if you rent a car and brave the awful road conditions, there are some virtually untouched beaches that are hard to beat (with great snorkeling as well). We lucked into a free Jeep upgrade, which ended up being essential to access the beaches Javier (our friend mentioned earlier) suggested.
All of that I’m sure sounds great and wonderful, which indeed it is, and Vieques proved to be an awesome, relaxing place to get away from it all. However, this is not your average Caribbean getaway. Although there are only 10,000 human inhabitants, I would bet if you add all the stray dogs, cats, horses, and chickens you could probably double that number. Have you ever seen a horse eat out of a trash can? Been awakened by rooster crows at 5am in a tropical paradise? Had a dozen stray cats and dogs creeping around your beachside abode? Played hopscotch through equestrian feces on a walk to the beach? All part of the daily routine in Vieques, where with the right mentality you can find yourself exploring an undiscovered Caribbean gem and leave with a much thicker wallet than many other comparable destinations. As for where the horses came from in the first place, I never got a good answer on that despite asking every local we came across (maybe it was my poor Spanglish).
San Juan – We spent the majority of our time here in Old San Juan. Aptly named the “Old City” this is a peninsula in the northwest part of town that developed after Columbus discovered Puerto Rico on his second voyage in 1493. The Old City served as a key strategic gateway to the rest of the Caribbean/ colonization for centuries, until the US made a (wise) acquisition during the Spanish American war in 1898. Definitely worth checking out the two forts on either side of Old San Juan to learn the history of the place. The rest of Old San Juan has a latin Charleston-like feel w/ cobblestone streets, pastel buildings, and a homey/ historic atmosphere. Alison fell in love with the place. Also worth going to the rain forest at El Yunque, a 40-45 min drive (in between San Juan and Fajardo, the launch point for Vieques and Culebra).
Overall we had an awesome 9 days and would recommend giving Puerto Rico a serious look as a potential destination for your next trip.
Some picture highlights:
One of our favorite beaches, La Chiva. We were the only ones there all day.
The roads to get to most beaches were horrible but well worth the journey.
Horses on the beach in Vieques.
Our hostel room in San Juan (where I’m writing this post from now).
El Yunque rainforest
Hammock on Red Beach in Vieques
Saying goodbye to Old San Juan