My latest trip took me to the island of Puerto Rico. This was going to be my first time in the Caribbean and initially I thought I would spend my time primarily on the beach. However, once I researched all that Puerto Rico had to offer, I realized merely spending time on the beach would waste an amazing opportunity to experience this island. I shifted my focus from beach resorts to potential Airbnb hosting opportunities. To my delight I found amazing places to stay throughout my trip which allowed me to have the most authentic experience one can have as a visitor. More on that later, but suffice to say Airbnb was a huge part in me putting together this type of trip. I honestly don’t think it would have been possible without using their service.
I can’t speak for the general perception of Puerto Rico, but it is far more engaging, interesting and picturesque than I ever imagine. The island is a decent size and requires a car rental to successfully navigate. But once I made that commitment I knew I would be traversing everything from tropical beaches to rainforest and mountain towns. The adventure was set to begin when I landed in San Juan.
San Juan is like three distinct cities: there is the San Juan of native Puerto Ricans, there is Old San Juan and then there are the enclaves and resorts designed for tourist. No need to speak to the last one, that isn’t what I do, nor where I am interested. My time was going to be spent taking in the beaches, the food and the nightlife with locals.
I stayed off a street called Calle Loiza, located just 10 minutes by car from the historic centre of Old San Juan and a few minutes by foot from the best beaches of the north coast, such as Condado, Isla Verde and Ocean Park. I fell in love with the neighborhood around Calle Loiza and if I were to move to Puerto Rico (I am seriously thinking about it) this is where I would make my home. Imagine Bushwick in a tropical island and you get the picture: art galleries, tattoo shops, murales, food trucks and restaurants blend harmonically with the nearby beaches. Everyone is friendly and within 30min of putting my stuff down and exploring the bit of the neighborhood I was invited into a local gallery and spent the evening with local artist Javier Cintron, his family and other artist on the Puerto Rican art scene. This let me know my next few nights would be a whirlwind of salsa, rum and warm hearts. I visited scenes as diverse as La Placita, a local market turned salsa block party at night and a hipster art collective party called Black & White at La Respuesta nightclub. Puerto Rico is alive with a variety of party and creative scenes.
Late nights don’t stop full days and I spent considerable time in Old San Juan. The rainbow-hued houses and the multi-colonial historical sites make Old San Juan timeless and picturesque. El Morro the fortress that witnessed military presence from the Spanish conquistadores to the American army during the Second World War is the most important landmark in the old part of the city. High walls, ramparts, and lookout towers offer an unparalled view of the ocean.
Walking down the tiny streets of the Old City I came across El Galpon, a cool shop that sells original and handmade panama hats, cigars, santos and masks. I then stopped for some food at Punto de Vista, a rooftop restaurant with a quaint view on the city and a great selection of mojitos. You need something to go with all of the mojitos you will be drinking and these are some of my favorites food spots.
🍴 Kamoli Kafe Butik, a hip coffee shop with a vintage decor that spaces from old sewing machine cabinets converted into tables, lamps made of tea cups and vintage magazine pages as placemats. The food is organic and it offers a complete selection of breakfast favorites such as pancakes, scrambled eggs and fresh juices.
🍴 Molini’s is perfect if you want a romantic and authentic food experience. This is a highly regarded meal experience by both locals and visitors alike. if you go, a must is the local specialty: mofongo with shrimps.
🍴 La Cueva Del Mar, specializes in seafood and other staples of Puerto Rican cuisine including a reputation for the best tacos and empanadillas around.
EL YUNQUE NATIONAL FOREST
The next day I put on my trekking boots and I drove into the El Yunque National Forest the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. At nearly 29,000 acres, it is one of the smallest in size, yet one of the most biologically diverse national forests hosting hundreds of animal and plant species, some of which are only found in Puerto Rico. I opted for the Big Tree Trail, it’s not an easy trail but your reward will be scenic views, waterfalls and the big tree with your soundtrack being the sounds of the forest and your own breathing.
After the hike, it was time for food and the beach so I drove towards Luquillo. Luquillo is one of the best beaches in the north east coastline, the water is shallow and the shore is surrounded by palm trees. Between the road and the shore there are several kiosks selling tons of food. Compared to the tranquility of the forest Luquillo is wild! Motorcycle clubs, loud music, hundreds of voices all come together and watch the day turn to night. A pretty unique vibe, that you won’t see anywhere else in the island.
The driving continues and now I was rolling to Fajardo harbor where I took the ferry to visit Vieques. This island is all the best elements you can wish to find in a tropical island: empty stunning beaches (don’t miss La Chiva and Sun Bay beach), lavish greenery, gigantic iguanas and wild horses. And of course one must visit the most bioluminescent bay in the whole world, Mosquito Bay.
In the waters of Mosquito Bay there are organisms called Dinoflagellates (dinos) that are responsible for this amazing natural phenomenon. When the “dinos” come into contact with another organism or they are shaken they produce a bright burst of blue light. The best way to experience this phenomenon is at night. So I did a kayak tour by night and it was one of a kind experience. Not only because it was my first time ever on a kayak, and I was in the middle of the lagoon and it was pitch dark, though those are all important. Rather it was the atmosphere. The water was as dark as the sky and every time I touched the water with my hands or the paddle it was like touching million of stars. It was one of those moments in which you realise how perfect and enchanted nature is.
Back on the road and back on the mainland I headed into the mountains. My destination was Guavate, a mountainous area famous for their local specialty: pork on a spit. I went to the famous El Rancho Original and proceeded to down a pound of crispy pork with delicious sides of rice and plantains. Worth the winding roads and mountain roads in my little car rental. It wasn’t pretty but it got me there. Shout out to that little Nissan with the roll up windows!
I mentioned how the spirit of this trip helped me discover quite a bit about myself and what kind of traveller I want to be. I not only wanted to spend time with locals but I also wanted to find some solitude in a unique environment. Again, Airbnb did the job and I opted to spend my next days in a treehouse located on the Organia local farm. The farm is located inside of a natural reserve at Lake Carite. To say this was removed from everything is an understatement. No cell service, no wifi, no people. These could be scary for anyone but for a woman they take on a special significance. Not to be put off my mission I went for it and it was one of the highlights of my entire trip. I had to cope with being without any form of digital and human connection with the world for two days, no people, no internet, no mobile service, no restaurants and so on. I had to live with my own company for 48 hours and learn to let myself go of the fear of missing out. It felt scary but also empowering. After those days, I felt mentally detoxed. I had to get comfortable with myself but also comfortable with the immersion in nature. This means after 6pm, the forest comes alive with all manner of animals: lizards, frogs, garden snakes and even the occasional rodent (I am talking about you noisy rat that woke me up running around outside). They are all harmless but I am a city girl and it was tough but at the end of the day still makes me laugh to think back on it.
My next stop was Cabo Rojo, which is home to the most romantic and scenic lighthouse in the whole island, located in the most south-east peninsula of Puerto Rico, in a reddish cliff from which it takes the name. From this view in front of you, there is only the ocean. Cabo Rojo is also famous for its beaches, my personal favorite is Playa Sucia. With beautiful waters and fresh seafood served in small kiosks right on the beach make this playa a popular destination.
Almost at the end of my trip, I headed to Rincon. Rincon is mecca for the many surfers that come here, especially during the winter season to find the perfect waves hence its nickname the Caribbean’s Hawaii. The most famous surf beaches are: Domes, Marias, Tres Palmas, Sandy Beach, Pools Beach, and Rincon Town Beach Plaza. The vibe is absolutely relaxed, to the point that even if you wear jeans you will feel overdressed. Flip-flops, shelled jewelry, shorts and a beer in your hand would make you feel more at home. Thursday is the best night in town as in the central square becomes the focal point for local artists to gather and sell handmade creations. It’s the night in which the surf and hipster crowd hang out around Rincon Beer Company to drink some artisanal brewed beer and listen to local indie bands. On Sunday morning the square becomes home to a local vegetable and food market. Rincon is home to the most mainland Americans who have emigrated on the search for a more laid back, warm and chilled lifestyle. Can you blame them?
My trip in Puerto Rico has been fantastic. Puerto Rico is a bit of an underappreciated jewel and I am almost afraid to hype it up too much at the risk of it losing the charm that makes it so special. It provided the incentive for me to leave my comfort zone and the luxuries that usually accompany a more traditional way of traveling. I came back to NYC feeling freer and more energized than I had in a long time. Until next time, Puerto Rico!
PACKING & STYLE TIPS:
👜 When packing make sure your travel essentials range from bikinis to a light rain jacket. Tropical weather means that all of a sudden heavy rain can fall down so you need to be prepared.
👜 Carry with you high sun protection, sunglasses and a hat. Puerto Rico is hot all year long.
👜 Sandals, flip flops but also sneakers would be needed if you are ready to some adventures.
👜 Carry with you some insect repellent, mosquitos are everywhere.
👜 Pack up a ruffled dress or skirt and high heels for some salsa.
👜 Always wear a bikini underneath even if you think you are not going to the beach. Even in the most unexpected areas there is the opportunity to bathe or sunbathe. It happened to me when I was in the rain forest, where actually you can find waterfalls where you can swim.
👜 If you are planning to drive in the island make sure you have a real map with you. The GPS and Google Map not always work.
👜 For all U.S citizens, you won’t even need a passport to travel here as Puerto Rico is an American territory.