Puerto Rico: Making the Loop

Baggage claim, rental car, highway, exit, wrong exit, weird detour, frustrating traffic, hotel, complimentary drink, a shower that has no choice but to send a cascade of water onto the bathroom floor, and finally sleep.

Landing in San Juan, your first impressions are pretty much the same as arriving at the airport in any other large city. Lots of concrete, lots of signs, and all the anxiety associated with being tossed into the middle of a metropolitan area that was chugging along just fine until you arrived. Please don’t take this complaint as a hint of what is to come. This is not San Juan’s fault, but rather something I need to get out of my system before moving onto the good stuff. Of which there is plenty. (Note to self: Write Blog on the necessary evils of air travel)

After the initial crash-landing, you quickly come to realize just how accessible San Juan is. Not only San Juan, but the whole island seems to fit, as a tattooed map, in the palm of your hand. It wasn’t long before I was challenging Google Maps to take us further and further…

30 minutes to the next town? Okay.

How about that Eco Lodge in the mountains? The one Yelp reviewers had warned of “winding roads”, and “unmarked intersections”? Oh. Only a little more than an hour

Fine. Take us to the other side! All the way to the opposite corner where the tropical rainforest turns to grassy plains, and where I’ve heard called the only desert on the island. This must require the better part of a day’s travel… Nope. About two and a half hours. Maybe three if you take the scenic route and get lunch along the way.

This is why, despite all of the amazing things we discovered in Puerto Rico, the ease of travel is almost always the first thing we mention when asked, “So, how was it?” Nowhere else has it been so easy to make a must-see list, and actually complete it.

Normally we would have a fairly strict itinerary. But, for this trip, we only planned a few days. Land in San Juan, Spend a couple days in El Yunque, make our way to the island of Vieques, and then… who knows.


1. Puerto Rico is part of the United States, right?

I’ll save you the history, politics and geography lessons, and give you the Cliff Notes version. Yes. Since 1947 Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth territory of the US, complete with its own governor.

What’s more important is how this impacts travelers, specifically from the US. First off, you will not need a passport to visit PR. Your standard drivers license or state ID should have you covered for anything you want to do between here and there. The infrastructure is very familiar. You’ll feel at ease with road signs, and highway etiquette.

A couple quick points about driving in PR…

  1. Do it! Like I’ve said a million times, this island is a joy to explore. A rental car only cost us about $26 per day, and we only filled up the gas tank once in the 10 days we were there.
  2. Reserve your rental car online, but do not opt for insurance until you’re at the counter. It may sound like a deal to get your insurance through Orbitz or Travelocity or CheapoCars.com, but those third-party insurance companies are in no way affiliated with your actual rental agency, and can be a pain in the ass to get a hold of.
  3. Try to get a car with an AutoExpress tag. There are TONS of tollways around the outer loop of the island. This tag will let you breeze through.
  4. Don’t worry about 4WD. All the roads in PR are in good repair. We DID come across a washed out stretch of road on the way to the Guajataca Forest, but 4WD wouldn’t have made a difference.
  5. Don’t plan on taking your rental car on a ferry. There’s a good chance it will be passengers-only. What little cargo space there is seems to fill up with vehicles with much more important things to do than whatever you have planned.
  6. If When you do go to the island of Vieques, rent a car  well in advance. It is a small island with only so many cars available, and this time you will want something with 4WD. Try to avoid getting a Jeep. You realize pretty quickly that nothing screams “Tourist!” louder than some pale-skinned mainlander in a lime green Wrangler… Well, maybe a fannypack.
Suzy the Suzuki
Suzy the Suzuki

2. Do they speak English?

Sí. Hablan Inglés también. ¿Dónde está el baño? Yo quiero helado con chocolate.

If you understood ANY of that, you’ll be fine. While most of the locals do speak Spanish, there is a very very very good chance that they speak English as well. You could probably play your cards right and never encounter a language barrier your entire visit, but what fun is that?

Puerto Rico is a great place to brush up on your Spanish, or stretch your comfort zone if you’re incapable of counting past diez. If you know you’re not ready to take the plunge, simply greet everyone with “Hello”, they’ll get the point. Otherwise “Hola” is going to get you a much more memorable experience. Locals are well aware that you’re probably not fluent, and seem to have no problem going slow or delivering a Spanglish version of the conversation. This isn’t Mexican Spanish either. We ran across hardly any slang, and it seems like their normal speaking pace is much slower, laid back, and casual. Just like you’d expect on a tropical island.

3. Is it safe?

Oh yeah.

We are not prone to getting ourselves in sticky situations, but it seemed like PR was the kind of place you’d have to look pretty hard to find any real trouble. There was not once time during our ten days that we felt unsafe, uncomfortable, or even a little iffy about the goings on about us. Even the panhandlers were polite as well as few and far-between. We DID encounter one pair of vacationers that had heard stories of locals on horseback that would ride up and down the beach in search of unattended belongings to steal, but that seemed pretty unlikely. Besides, sunscreen snatching cowboys would almost add to the experience.

¿Dónde están los ladrones?
¿Dónde están los ladrones?

So. Where to?

I’d like to think that we did a darn good job of knocking out a majority of the island during our ten days. It’s not hard to do, and who knows when you’ll have a chance to come back!

Here’s my list of blog entries for Puerto Rico.

  1. Vieques: The Island We Couldn’t Leave
  2. El Yunque: Spanish for “The Yunque”
  3. Cabo Rojo: Southwestern Puerto Rico
  4. Lechon: You’ll have to be a stronger vegetarian than me…
  5. The Western Coast: Boqueron & Bacalaito, Mayagüez & Maize, and Rincón
  6. Bosque Estatal De Guajataca, y la cueva del viento: Guajataca State Forest, and the Cave of the Wind
  7. So, this guy has a waterfall in his backyard…
  8. Arecibo Observatory
  9. Old San Juan

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