It was a gloomy autumn day in Oslo when I decided to book flights to San Juan. I hadn’t done much research except for checking the average temperature in March: 29°C. That’s around 27 more than at home. It didn’t take me much thinking.
Only afterwards I’ve realised that we’ll need US visas to visit Puerto Rico. Which is not a big deal for most of EU citizens – one online form, a couple of bucks and you’re good to go. Unfortunately there are exceptions and I fell under one of those. But eventually, after a couple of weeks, long hours with various documents, an interview at the US embassy, fingerprints collection and $160 later my paperwork was done too.
We wanted to couchsurf and camp as much as possible. The first proved difficult (not many people with high response rate, a lot of profiles fully in Spanish) but we got 3 positive replies (out of which one host stood us up quite late at night, but that’s a different story). Yay.
When it comes to camping, by and large it is illegal to wild camp. There’s also no one organisation that could help you arrange camping at designated sites and the majority of private campings doesn’t have websites or doesn’t keep them updated whatsoever. And if you want to camp in national parks, you need to obtain special permits: you apply by post or fax and after it’s approved you still need to pick it up in person in the outskirts of San Juan (where you also pay for it – cash only) during their highly limited operating hours. And you need to apply at least 2 weeks in advance for them to even consider it. I am not kidding you.
As you guested by now, off went our spontaneity. Whether we wanted it or not, we had to make at least a rough plan. Our main goal was not to turn this trip into a standard Caribbean beach holiday and this part turned out to be easier than we expected. We went around the island in the clockwise direction, making lots of detours, so only our main stops are marked on the map.
Moving around without a car is quite difficult in Puerto Rico so unless you have lots of time or are ok with sticking only to the main tourist attractions, it’s not really recommended. We rented a car for our whole stay, even though we had to leave it overnight in Fajardo when we travelled to the island of Vieques (it is possible to take your car there but only if you book the ferry in advance and you’re lucky with the weather – we haven’t met any of these conditions).
So we started off in San Juan, with it’s beautiful Old Town of million colours. The city was packed with people when we were there and – like most of capitals – it’s rather overpriced, so after half a day we headed further, first to Caguas to pay a visit to their local Fablab, and finally to El Yunque National Park.
It is not called a tropical rainforest for nothing (that’s also the reason for the questionable quality of my pictures from there as they are all taken with an old phone placed inside a plastic bag for protection from water). It’s the only rainforest in the US National Forest System so don’t miss out on such an opportunity. We were awed by the biodiversity and all the greenery. Camping inside the national park is surely not for pussies but hey, how often do you get to spend a night in a jungle? If the looks of the forest were already something, the sounds of the wild nightlife brought it to a whole new level. Loud, thrilling, spooky, soothing – all at once.
Soaked but happy, we went for some sunbathing and chilling to Vieques, a tiny island which belongs to Puerto Rico. It takes a while to get there with a ferry but it is definitely worth it. The island’s beaches are among the most beautiful we’ve seen during our whole trip (our camping was right next to one) and the local nightlife will keep you happy if you like rum.
After taking a ferry back to Fajardo, we headed south along road 3. Since our plan still was a bit rough, in the evening we found ourselves… without a plan. But as it usually happens in those situations, we met a friendly guy who offered us space for our tent in the backyard of his restaurant. The place is called Villa Pesquera Punta Pozuelo, it’s based right in front of a small harbour so fish doesn’t get fresher than that and is also great for pastelillo – deep-fried turnovers filled with meat, seafood or vegetables.
Next day we continued along the coast until Santa Isabel, where we took a detour to Piscinas de Aguas Termales de Coamo to catch up on our skipped shower and enjoy the thermal hot springs for as little as $3 per person. In front of the pools we met an older guy selling coconuts. Thanks to his tip we ended up having the best lunch of our whole stay in Puerto Rico. Reaching this cosy place with a hideous facade (explained by the name: El Castillo Del Pollo) took us some time and driving in the opposite direction to what we intended but it paid off. More than fair prices and extraordinary comfort food. As name suggests, it’s mainly known for roasted chicken, however it’s the sides that really makes the dish: I never imagined that rice with beans could be something I’d be longing for but there, they did it. Topped with mouthwatering fried plantains. I could eat it anytime.
Not to get too spoilt we decided to spend the night in the Toro Negro Forest. We hadn’t managed to get a permit to camp there but we were lucky enough to get in touch with amazing people from Amigos del Bosque Toro Negro who let us camp at their sports field*. The highlight of the forest is the Área Recreativa Doña Juana with lots of hiking routes, a natural pool where you can take a dip and an observation tower.
After a short stop to catch up with civilisation in Ponce, we went to the national forest of Monte Guilarte (the mountain is well worth the short climb), where we had a cabin booked for 2 nights. Yes, in addition to camping permits in some forests you can also stay in wooden cottages. Be smarter than us though and try to push through the small print in Spanish because when you arrive after your check-in time you might not be as lucky as we were to meet a neighbour who knows a guy who’s friends with the ranger, who will also be willing to drive to that guy with you although it’s over half an hour one way just to drag the ranger away from his game of cards in order to check you in.
Then came the time for beach hours: the Jungle Beach is really beautiful and remote, with huge mangrove forests and large colonies of crabs, a bit hard to reach without a 4×4 car but it’s still doable. Afterwards we drove towards Parguera, where we also got to see the bioluminescent plankton. In the evening we got hosted by a middle-aged couple, who didn’t let us put up our tent in their garden but prepared a bedroom for us instead.
The next day brought one of this trip highlights: the marvellous beach and salinas of Rojo Cabo: secluded, quiet and picturesque.
The last stop of our journey before going back to San Juan was Rincon. It’s a great place for surfing but in the end we regretted dedicating full 3 days to it. Prices are steep, bars and beaches more crowded than elsewhere. The west coast is definitely one of the most americanised parts of Puerto Rico, and it has a somewhat hipster vibe. Not really what we were after.
To wrap it up, here’s the list of our top 10:
1. Food. Road bars and all things fried (plantains!!)! Fresh fruit and smoothies were just the icing on the cake.
2. Camping in the tropical forests with all the (loud) nature around us.
3. Vieques – when on a small island, why not find an even smaller one?
4. Sun and beaches (with Rojo Cabo as a strong leader).
5. Huge lizards everywhere (ok, maybe not huge, just large, but come on, we’re from Europe, what do we know).
6. Colours! Houses, flowers, water – everything seems to have more vibrant colours in the Caribbean.
7. Rum. It actually should be higher on this list. We particularly liked the coconut and passion fruit ones.
8. Fresh coconuts.
9. Hospitality of the locals. Those who hosted us but also those who gave us brilliant tips or shared food with us.
10. Swarms of fireflies in Bosque Guilarte and their aquatic counterpart, the bioluminescent plankton.
Puerto Rico, you are missed!
* Here comes a life lesson: if you ever have a choice between putting your tent under a roof and on a concrete floor or on a grassy field in full rain, don’t make our mistake, go for the latter. ALWAYS go for the latter.