Explore Beyond the Shore...the tagline to Puerto Rico’s latest tourism campaign was more to us than a slogan. It became our mantra.
Our trip began as most trips to Puerto Rico do, in San Juan. The flight down was packed with cruise ship passengers, many of whom were novice travelers, but ran smoothly and on time. As we flew over Florida’s Atlantic coast, our side of the plane got a great view of the space shuttle Atlantis sitting on its launching pad, followed by equally great views of some of the Bahamas.
The first three nights we stayed in a small hotel, At Windchimes Inn, in the area of San Juan known as Condado. It wasn’t fancy, didn’t have an ocean view, a big lobby or a myriad of amenities, but this was exactly the kind of place at which I am most comfortable. I posted a full review of At Windchimes on Trip Advisor, which, you can read here: At Windchimes Review
Our first full day was a Sunday and that is the day the locals head to the beach with their families. We love being part of the local crowd, so we headed to an area called Piñones, just east of the city. Our first stop was Soleil Beach Club, a beach bar/restaurant where we had a couple of drinks and appetizers.
I would say Puerto Rico has not yet figured out that chair and umbrella rentals are needed at public beaches in order to draw tourists. In general, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, it seemed Puerto Rico has not yet honed the craft of tourism. This actually is good because it indicates the economy of the island isn’t dependent upon tourism and there is plenty else to keep the economy humming. Everyone is friendly and helpful...they just haven’t developed a tourist-driven infrastructure. With the new passport regulations that will impact travel to most other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico is poised for a boom in tourism because no passport is needed. As they develop a stronger tourist trade, they’re going to have to make changes to cater to tourists...things like chair and umbrella rentals.
Instead of sitting on towels directly on the sand, we chose to work off the snacks we had at Soleil by walking the boardwalk that runs the length of Piñones Beach. Great idea...except we worked up our appetites again and after a good long walk, we jumped back in the car in search of more snacks.
The main road skirting Piñones is lined with “mom & pop” kioskos, all doing a hopping business with the locals on Sunday. The style of cooking in this area used a grill with a big vat of boiling oil bubbling away on the grilltop. Everything we ate was deep-fried rather than grilled, but it sure was tasty, and I don’t think we spent more than $12, including a couple of Medalla Light beers.
All those snacks were not enough to spoil our appetite for dinner. We left the car parked near the hotel and set off down Ashford Ave., the main drag through Condado. We ate that night at Yerba Buena, a Cuban-style restaurant with good food and moderate prices.
The next day we set off for another outdoor adventure. About 45 minutes east of San Juan is El Yunque Rainforest, encompassed within the Caribbean National Forest. We spent some time in the visitors’ center there, getting the lay of the land and deciding where to hike. Being the flabby middle-agers we are, we opted for the “easy” hike to La Mina Falls.
Easy? Umn...maybe 20 years ago. Although the trail was paved – sort of – it had a lot of steep uphills that challenged the quadriceps and steep downhills that jammed toes into shoes. There were also spots where the path was narrow and the adjacent drop-off rather severe...when I uttered a small “Yikes” at one point as we rounded a corner, John turned to me and said “You never were a Boy Scout, were you?” Hey, I’m from Illinois. They call us Flatlanders for a reason!
After 45 minutes or so of hiking, we finally reached the reward at the end of the trail: La Mina Falls. Some people were swimming in the pool at the falls’ bottom, but I stuck my feet in and it was COLD! Overall, the rainforest looked a little like Jurassic Park, without the dinosaurs.
That night, we walked to a non-touristy restaurant called Bebo’s, which had been recommended to us by several locals. This was more of a diner-style restaurant, with typical Puerto Rican cuisine. It was also very inexpensive. As you might expect for this type of restaurant, there were several families with kids. When we were seated, we found we were in a room with two other tables that each had several children with them. This experience and others it struck me how well behaved Puerto Rican kids are compared to many of their mainland American counterparts. They all sat quietly and ate their dinner without running around, and the older ones helped look after the littler ones.
Well, so far, this was a pretty active vacation. We hiked during the day, and we left the car parked and walked to dinner every night, a mile or more each way. That’s one thing that gives Puerto Rico an edge over other tropical isles, where we tend to sit on a bar stool or a beach chair, sucking down adult beverages.
Up to this point, I think we were drinking more coffee than rum or cerveza. After all, Puerto Rican coffee is some of the best in the world. And therein lies the motivation for the next chapter of this trip...
Tuesday morning, we packed up and left the easy familiarity of At Windchimes Inn to begin our journey to the mountain town of Jayuya in the heart of the island’s coffee-growing region. Ah, but it just so happens the Bacardi factory was on our way out of town. The tour – and its tasting pavilion – beckoned. An informative tour and a couple of samples later, it was time to hit the road.
After rum samples, it’s a good thing the easy highway portion of the drive to Jayuya came first. After an hour or so of driving, we had to leave the smooth, multi-lane toll way that would be at home in any state in the U.S., for winding, twisty mountain roads. John swears that the road spiraled around in complete 360-degree curves more than once. It wasn’t quite as bad as the sheer drop-offs I had envisioned, but I’d hate to have to make this drive every day! And yet people there do...we talked to one man who had recently left a job with a two-hour commute in each direction.
Finally, we arrived at our next hotel, Hacienda Gripiñas. This is actually a parador (country inn), rather than a hotel. Puerto Rico’s network of paradores is registered by the government and is intended to provide a more authentic experience than a cookie-cutter hotel. In this case, Gripiñas is a former coffee plantation. It’s definitely more rustic than your typical hotel. But what it lacks in amenities and extra pillows it makes up for in peacefulness and tranquility. And it’s a bargain, with both breakfast and dinner included in the $125 rate. Want to know more? Follow this link to my Trip Advisor report: Hacienda Gripinas Review
The Gripiñas website had warned of a nighttime filled with the sounds of croaking coqui frogs and crowing roosters...and I actually did hear a rooster around 3 a.m., but all in all we both got a very good sleep. In the morning, we explored the grounds a bit and then set off on our holy grail: coffee, right from the source.
The folks at Gripiñas had referred us to a local grower/roaster called Café Tres Picachos. The season’s harvest had ended just days before, but they gave us the nickel tour and then we went to the retail room. Roughly 20 lbs. of coffee later, we left...wondering how we’d get it all home. Never fear, I’m a master at the cram ‘n’ jam. But I’ll admit that when we arrived back home, everything in our luggage smelled quite a bit like coffee.
Aside from coffee, this region of the island has a rich heritage based in the Taino Indian culture. After leaving Tres Picachos, we headed back to downtown Jayuya for a visit to El Cemi, an archeological museum and the adjacent Taino Cultural Center, a combination of a museum and gift shop. There, we met several artists who staff the center as volunteers and create works for the gift shop. Margie, the center’s president, spent a lot of time with us, telling us about the work the center is doing to expose the local population to their heritage. It happened that we arrived there around noon and rather than ignoring us to take a lunch break, the staff at the cultural center insisted that we joined them for a bite to eat.
Satisfied by our impromptu lunch and our Taino learnings, we were ready to hit to road to Rincon, on Puerto Rico’s northwest coast. There is a road that runs east-to-west across the island called La Ruta Panoramica. As the name suggests, this road is known for sweeping vistas and scenic overlooks where you can see from the mountains all the way down to the Caribbean, some 15 or so miles away, as the crow flies. La Ruta is also known for being narrow and winding. After an hour, we had covered only 20 miles, a pace that would have us getting to Rincon long after nightfall. That was enough of the Panoramic Route...we headed for the highway and from that point, made it to Rincon in less than two hours.
Rincon got its fame during the 60s as a surfer’s paradise – it’s mentioned in the Beach Boys song Surfin’ Safari. Even today, it remains a laid-back town without touristy attractions. My personal opinion is that this is Rincon’s calm before the storm and it won’t be long before this area is “discovered” and it becomes another Caribbean Destination, with a capital D.
Our home for our three nights in Rincon was a hotel called Rincon Beach Resort. Although I loved Rincon, we both had some mixed feelings about this hotel. Read all about it here: Rincon Beach Resort Review
By this time, we were ready to slow down a bit. If you’re not a surfer, there’s not much to do in Rincon itself, although the nearby cities of Mayaguez and Aguadilla offer more activities. From my point of view, I was just as happy to splash around in the pool, walk on the beach and enjoy a “Pirate’s Special,” the signature drink of a beach bar at the hotel Villa Cofresi. It’s a potent concoction of three kinds of rums, coconut juice and condensed milk, served in an actual coconut. Three of these shared between John and myself was quite enough, and resulted in a rather embarrassing incident where we left the credit card at the bar and then managed to somehow to get our car trapped in a gated private parking lot when we went back to retrieve the card.
Rincon is also known for whale watching, and supposedly we were there in prime season. A lighthouse that sits on a cliffside over the Caribbean is known as the place to be for sightings. So, we went there one hot afternoon, hoping to catch a look at some whales...in retrospect, my expectations were unrealistic. I anticipated seeing frolicking, cavorting marine life that looked like hopefuls for the show at Sea World. Alas, we did not see even one spout from a blowhole or any other sign that whales were out there.
After our three days in Rincon, we set our course back toward San Juan, passing through the western towns of Aguadilla and Isabella. Our next stop was Arecibo, the astronomical observatory that movie fans might remember from Contact and GoldenEye. This again required a drive through twisty mountain roads...and seeing how huge the observatory radio-telescope is, I was amazed at what it took to build it. We may look back and consider ourselves lucky to have made the visit, as recently announced funding cut-backs could lead to Arecibo’s closure in the next couple of years.
Back to San Juan we go. This time, our destination hotel was the Caribe Hilton, a mega-resort. Generally, it is not our style to stay in large, American-owned resort hotels. But, with the Bears in the Super Bowl, we wanted to stay where we knew we could watch the game. Read my full write-up on the Caribe Hilton here: Caribe Hilton Review
One of the best things about the Hilton is its easy proximity to Old San Juan. We headed into town for a late dinner that night at Agua Viva, one of Puerto Rico’s up-and-coming Nuevo Latino restaurants. John and I were mixed on this restaurant...I liked it, he didn’t. I can see his point to some extent: it put an emphasis on trendiness over quality of cuisine to a large degree.
After dinner, we booked ourselves on La Rumba, basically a party barge that cruises around the harbor, playing salsa music and reggaeton all the while. We were on the midnight cruise, which goes until 2 a.m. At this point, I think I discovered the secret behind all the well-behaved children in restaurants: they’re simply too tired to make a fuss. I couldn’t believe all the people who had their small children with them on this late-night party cruise.
The next morning we headed back to Old San Juan for breakfast to dine at an icon of old-style Puerto Rican restaurants called La Bombonera. They are best known for the Mallorca pastry, a delicious cardiologist’s nightmare involving lots of butter. It’s best chased with café con leche from La Bombonera’s decades-old coffee maker that looks as if it was built in the garage of a mad inventor.
The Hilton has a beautiful pool and as this was the last full day of our trip, we decided it would best be spent there. The day passed much too quickly, and in late afternoon we went upstairs to pack and get ready for the Super Bowl party.
The hotel’s lobby bar was entirely taken up by the festivities, with a projection TV measuring at least 50 feet wide. One of the best things about any Super Bowl is the commercials...but many of the ads were different than those shown on American TV back home. All the hype wasn’t enough to prevent a disappointing Bears loss, but it was still a lot of fun to watch the game in this setting.
It was also disappointing that the next day we had to leave. Our flight wasn’t departing till the late afternoon, leaving us time for another hour or two in the pool, soaking up the sun and marveling, with some dread, that it was several degrees below zero back home.
So cold, in fact, that our flight was delayed because the plane coming in from Chicago was late, thanks to the frigid weather. However, the lines through security at the San Juan airport were so long that if our flight wasn’t delayed, we may have missed it anyway...it took over 90 minutes to get through security.
Otherwise, the trip home was uneventful. The sub-zero temps brought us back to reality in a hurry when we trudged out to our car at O’Hare...without coats.
Even now that we’ve been back from this trip for several weeks now, I still find my thoughts often turning to this enchanting island, figuring out when we can return again to explore more of its shores, and beyond.