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#IslandLife: exploring the Puerto Rican perimeter

After an unfortunate apartment incident, I accidentally threw away my passport in the middle of a NYC move-out. For anyone who has lived in New York, they would know the process itself is already stressful enough, so add on losing a valued $100-something necessity doesn’t exactly make things any more fun. I was incredibly bummed when I realized what I had done since I had my heart set on traveling outside the country to Toronto and Mexico during the wintertime. 

Anxious with cabin fever in the coming colder days, not to mention added holiday stress AND December was the busiest time of year for work, a winter escape was inevitably in order after all the craziness.

But where? WHERE DOES ONE GO without their only key to international travel? Well the answer is simple: Puerto Rico, duh!

I booked the trip sort of on a whim via Hotwire’s air + car travel booking feature about a month in advance, and was pleasantly surprised at not only the price of the two (barely costing $450) but my impeccable JetBlue experience; everything went smoothly—zero delays, smooth flight, awesome service—leaving me partial to flying with them again over my usual domestic bookings (let’s just say the coach seats were so nice I felt like I was in first class).

Now, looking at a map Puerto Rico looks relatively small (it is only 3,515 square miles), but one should have a general plan of where they are going and staying in order to have a smooth trip circling around. 

I personally flew into San Juan, but there are other airports along the coast you can fly into for a more direct route if you plan on only being in one specific area. 

Oh, and I definitely recommend getting some sort of travel guide like Lonely Planet‘s that helped me tremendously, although I did not necessarily follow it 100% and mostly did my own thing.

puerto_rico_vacation_lonely_planet_guide

Fajardo & the East Coast

I started my stay on the island in Fajardo at the El Conquistador Waldorf Astoria Resort, because sometimes you just have to treat yo-self. 

The morning views were well worth the investment, and I knew it was all too good to be true as my limited stay ended very quickly and I was already on to the next.

el_conquistador_resort_fajardo_waldorf_astoria

I am really into the idea of balance in every possible way, so with every super-fancy stay there was a definite less-fancy stay. 

Next up was the Moonlight Bay Hostel located right next to the Vieques and Culebras ferries, which is pretty convenient if you plan on venturing to the remote islands about an hour or so boat ride away (I however did not get to experience Vieques or Culebras and I have regretted so every day since I left). If you’re just looking for a place to crash and don’t necessarily care about five star hospitality, then Moonlight is a perfectly affordable joint with a friendly staff and decent rooms located near many of Puerto Rico’s most-known destinations; it also boasts a pretty tropical rooftop view.

moonlight_bay_hostel_fajardo_puerto_rico

If you do decide to make it to Fajardo you HAVE to have breakfast at Las Vistas Cafe; they serve fresh homegrown fruit (from their garden!), delicious gourmet breakfast, and warm friendly service on their rooftop patio overlooking the sea.

las_vistas_cafe_fajardo_fruit_bowl

Besides Luquillo Beach and its more populated strip (try a crazy-good Pina Colada at Fruitty World at the Luquillo Kiosks; you will not regret it), my favorite beach in the northeast region was Seven Seas Beach near the Reserva Natural De Las Cabezas De San Juan, that if you walk far enough leads you to a path to another “secret” beach—however signs will insist you not crossing over due to torrential waves and the risk of drowning (basically just don’t get in the water and you’ll be OK).

seven_seas_beach_fajardo_puerto_rico

From Fajardo on down the east coast you will experience the richness of Puerto Rico’s tropical nature: mountains, palm trees, sporadic rain showers, gorgeous remote beaches, and some of the most delicious-tasting food I’ve ever tasted, like these octopus arepas I had on the side of the road in Yabucoa (Kiosks de Yabucoa).

kiosks_de_yabucoa_puerto_rico_food

A definite pit stop in Punta Tuna is required if you are anywhere near the southeast. Here you can walk through a tunnel of palm trees to the Punta Tuna Lighthouse and then head down the path to an unforgettable Caribbean landscape that’s likely uncrowded due to its remoteness (I had the beach to myself up until sunset!).

punta_tuna_lighthouse_puerto_rico

Ponce & the South:

Surprisingly my favorite part of the trip was the quiet and seemingly uninhabited south coast and quaint streets of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city. If you plan on visiting, book hotels in advance because it can be a popular destination for travelers and the whole city has been known to book up for weekends.

ponce_puerto_rico_spanish_colonial_architecture

Ponce is pretty central to the south coast and there is plenty to immerse yourself in whether you want to stay local and enjoy the heart of Puerto Rico’s Spanish colonial architecture or head into nature. For two nights I stayed at the Ponce Plaza Hotel and Casino that is pretty average-costing and located at the city’s center, just a few minute’s walk away from the city’s famous attractions like La Parque de Bombas (Puerto Rico’s first firehouse that is now a museum).

parque_de_bombas_museum_ponce_puerto_rico

The views from my room overlooked the entire city, giving me one of the most peaceful and beautiful sunsets I’ve witnessed in my entire life (it was SO hard to leave this place!); you won’t even want to sleep the landscape is so great.

ponce_plaza_hotel_and_casino_room

Cabo Rojo & Rincon:

Earth is amazing, and it’s at its most impressive in the southwest coast of the island in Cabo Rojo. 

The final scenic and rocky road on your way to the Los Morrillos Lighthouse from the countryside highway shows off some of the most interesting ways time and mother nature work together to bring the most breathtaking rock formations on the planet.

cabo_rojo_rocks_los_morrillos_lighthouse

Cabo Rojo, literally translating to “Red Cape”, is given its name for the red colored tint of the salt flats and seaside cliffs. According to a legend, it was actually Christopher Columbus who gave the region its name—though, let’s be real: he probably didnt.

You can hike along the lighthouse easily and there are beaches scattered along for views of the rocks. If you are facing opposite the lighthouse and walk towards the right path, you will come across a GORGEOUS natural bridge (people walked on top of while taking photos but I was way too terrified).

Cabo_rojo_natural_bridge_puerto_rico

El Yunque National Forest:

North America’s only rainforest lies in the central northeast region of Puerto Rico, and visiting it can be done two ways: short n’ sweet, or for the long-haul. I personally prefer short n’ sweet, but definitely set aside 6-12 hours for your El Yunque visit including travel time; crowds peak after 11am, so if you’re looking to get that perfect shot head there early (park opens at 7:30am).

el_yunque_national_forest_yokahu_tower

Only about 45 minutes from Fajardo and around the same from the city of San Juan, driving through a mountainous rainforest is as expected: pretty freaking amazing! 

Once you enter the actual forest the entire drive is uphill, so make sure you have a suitable rental vehicle to make it up. You don’t necessarily have to hike very far to see the sights. 

On the way up to the main visitor’s center you can stop at La Torre Yokahu at 1,575 feet to get some nice captures.

torre_de_yokahu_el_yunque_national_forest_puerto_rico

The quickest hike is down to La Mina Waterfall. I would rate the trek as super-easy, only taking around 20 or so minutes to hike down. 

YOU MUST JUMP IN THE WATERFALL; your spirit will become reborn once your skin touches the fresh water. I was solo so I didn’t have the opportunity for an award-winning waterfall pose shot; I settled for a couple selfies and this image shot with my 35mm Minolta:

la_mina_waterfall_el_yunque_national_forest_puerto_rico

Rincon:

You know the song “Surfin’ Safari” by the Beach Boys? Well, there’s a special meaning behind that song, and it’s Rincon. “At Huntington and Malibu / They’re shooting the pier / At Rincon they’re walking the nose / We’re going on safari to the islands this year /So if you’re coming get ready to go”.

Here was probably my other top Puerto Rico stop; the vibes one gets when entering the Rincon region will cause you to only be able to consume rum, eat fresh fish, and mingle with locals and other tourists (go figure I met some New Yorkers who also got their JetBlue flight deal)—who knows, you might even be able to catch a wave too, bro.

I had an amazing caribbean meal at Calypso Cafe right before sunset:

calypso_cafe_rincon_puerto_rico_mahi_mahi

And well, you know, more palm trees and stuff:

rincon_puerto_rico_sunset

San Juan & the North:

You always hear about San Juan when Puerto Rico comes up, so I wanted to save the best for last. 

It was the week after the San Sebastian Street Festival (an annual 4 day festival to celebrate the end of the holidays) and when I arrived on Monday morning the streets were deserted; there was a moody sky with light rainfall, the first *real* showers I felt throughout the entire time in PR. I stayed in an Airbnb (Santurce Urban Arts District) only about 10 minutes from Old San Juan. It was an artsier, hip neighborhood with street art covering the buildings and young people seen everywhere—sort of reminding me of Bushwick, Brooklyn in a way. 

santurce_arts_district_san_juan_puerto_rico_graffiti

As far as all of the historic stuff goes, you can really walk the entirety of Old San Juan to see everything. 

I parked in a garage (parking is sort of a pain and the streets of Old San Juan are mostly brick), starting my day at Castillo San Cristobal for the usual morning San Juan rituals: scanning for enemies, etc.

Castillo_San_Cristóbal_old_san_juan

After Cristóbal I sort of just wandered along the north coast to see views of Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis (as you can see, the moody skies worked in my favor).

cementerio_santa_maría_magdalena_de_pazzis_puerto_rico

Later in the day the weather ended up clearing up, making the streets of Old San Juan light up in their own kaleidoscope of color. While the city was a nice change of pace, I would much rather be lounging on the beach with a pina colada in hand.

old_san_juan_puerto_rico_lonely_planet

The North Coast

My last day I knew I had to squeeze in one last sunset, so I left the city and headed back west along the 22 where I pretty much picked a random beach on Google Maps. 

Well, it must have been meant to be, because in Bulneario de Vega Baja I was gifted with a rainbow/sunset combo that made for the perfect ending to my trip: (bittersweet!).

playa_puerto_nueveo_vega_baja_puerto_rico

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kaitlinduffy

Kaitlin Duffy is a writer from Cleveland. When she's not blogging or pondering the great complexities of the world and outer space, she is finding rare vinyl steals, visiting new places, laughing often, Instagramming everything in sight, watching movies, or working on her first feature Port de Cleve.