Sunday, November 23, 2008
Puerto Rico Trip
I just got back from a short trip to Puerto Rico! I had decided that I wanted to spend my recent birthday abroad, and decided that I would go to wherever had the cheapest airfare. The only restrictions were that it had to be some place I hadn't been, and it had to be outside the continental US. I wound up in Puerto Rico, and had a great time. I spent most of my time in/around San Juan and on the small island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico's Eastern shore.
2)Genuinely friendly people
3)Endless beaches for everything from surfing and kiting to snorkeling and laying out
4)No passport necessary
5)No currency exchange
6)Mass Transit that's cheap or free (but see The Bad)
8)Cell Phone Service (I wasn't even roaming)
1)No Hostels or hotels under $70/night
2)Mass transit is largely limited to the San Juan area and Ferries
The San Juan area is made up of Old San Juan (which is the oldest permanent settlement in the territory of the United States), two resort areas (Condado and Isla Verde), and some residential areas. Old San Juan is a beautiful mix of old buildings, modern shops (including restaurants and stores from all the big designers), and beautiful vistas. Additionally, you can take a free ferry ride across the harbor to the Bacardi rum factory. The tour was free, fun, and interesting, and you get two free drinks with it. I definitely recommend it.
Nearby, around the barrio of Isla Verde, are great beaches and spots to kitesurf. With nearly constant 15mph winds and warm, shallow water, it would be a fantastic place to kite. I tried to set up a session through Kitesurf PR for a day's worth of riding. My contact their was very friendly and helpful, but called me the morning we were supposed to go out and said that there wasn't enough wind. He said the forecast didn't look good, but he'd call me if that changed. He didn't. By 2:00 there were perfectly steady winds in the 10-15mph range but my phone never rang. Tried calling their number, but got no answer. So, no kiteboarding for me.
Getting around the San Juan area was easy. The city buses were quite an adventure - they were driven as if they were Ferrari's, so you had to hold on to something even if you were sitting down, but they were straight-forward to use and they were free. Ferry service across the harbor was also free and arrived frequently. Getting around outside of the San Juan area required that you either 1)rented a car, 2)paid large sums to take a taxi, or 3)attempted to use the unscheduled and confusing Publico minibus system. None of these options was very appealing to a traveler on his own, but luckily I found there was another way to get out to Vieques Island. There are charter flights from San Juan for about $50 each way. Since that was about 1/2 the price of renting a car for 3 days or taking a cab, it was definitely the way to go.
The Island of Vieques is about 8 miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. The US Navy used a large part of the island for artillery practice until 2004, so much of the island is still undeveloped. The island is known for it's pristine beaches and its bioluminescent bay. The "bio bay" is a large shallow bay on the South Side of the island that has the highest concentration of dinoflagellates in the world. Dinoflagellates are microscopic critters that glow when they're disturbed. There are so many of them in this bay that the water literally glows whenever anything moves it. I took a kayak/swimming trip out into the bay and was absolutely amazed. The paddle, the kayak's wake, even the fish swimming underneath you all glow as they move through the water. To make it even cooler, the swirling water that follows the movement also glows, so everything has an amazing tail of light following it. If you dip your arm in and then raise it up, you'll have streams of light running down it. It's totally amazing and definitely in my top 5 coolest things I've ever seen. Unfortunately, my camera housing leaked on this trip and my old water camera is now finally dead, so there's no pictures.
The second thing I did on the island was go diving. I got in with a young group of German and Spanish folks who were about my age. They spoke excellent english, and we all got along great. Two of the girls in the group were new divers, so the dive was an easy one. The visibility wasn't great, but we saw some lobsters, an octopus, a HUGE eel, and some turtles. Unfortunately, the dive camera was dead, so I have no pictures. :(
I stayed in Esperanza, a small tourist village on the South side of the island. It's an extremely laid-back place right on the water with pristine beaches just a couple steps away and great snorkeling right in front of the the hotel. At night, you can sit on the piers and watch spotted eagle rays and tarpon swim by beneath you. Great Caribbean atmosphere and incredibly friendly people.
On the whole, it was a fun and relaxing trip. I'd love to go back and do some kiteboarding and some more snorkeling. Definitely a nice break from reality