A trip to a tropical paradise

During a casual conversation with AT in September, I got the idea of going on a winter trip with him. I was already thinking of going somewhere in the winter and figured it would be good to rope in a travel partner. After considering Spain and Argentina, we finally settled on a 10 day trip to a tropical vacation in Puerto Rico. As I have been doing in some of my recent trips, I logged a travel journal on each day and some of the highlights from my journal are recorded here.

Day 0

A party before the party
A party before the party

The 2014 APT holiday party was just on the night before my flight left for San Juan from BWI in the early morning (A bad combination, I know). As I left the holiday party at 2:00 am in the morning, I was very aware that I would have to strain my eyes and stay awake and not miss my flight at any cost. I had booked a Super Shuttle for 2:30 which instead arrived at 3:40 am. As we’re rushing to the airport, a huge accident happens right in front of us and we’re good to escape unharmed. I’m too tired as we get to the airport and manage to catch an hour of sleep at the airport gate. Not the best way to start a vacation.

Day 1

I arrive at San Juan ahead of schedule and am already pretty tired from not having slept on the previous day. It is surprising that the airport is pretty boring and plain but the worse part is that I neither have any cellphone coverage, nor is there any internet at the airport. Finally after paying from WiFi from what looked like websites designed in 1995, I got in touch with AT and it’s good to meet him after 3 years.

We take the shuttle to the car rental center and spend the first two hours of our vacation waiting in line there. A 10$ per day car rental price goes up to 144 for 4 days (good job, hidden charges!), but the worse part is that they don’t have any GPS devices left. So, no WiFi, no GPS, and we have no option but to go old school with physical maps. As expected, instead of driving to the hotel, we get horribly lost and end up in the worst part of the traffic in Old San Juan. We can’t really make any sense of the signs as they are all in Spanish and after using AT’s extremely expensive roaming signal (more on that later), we some how make our way to the hotel.

The La Concha Renaissance Resort

The view from the room is great and we’re glad that we went for a sea facing room. One of the walls of the rooms is fully glass with a gentle sea breeze blowing into the room from the blue ocean. Welcome to Puerto Rico. A quick tip from the car valet then takes us to a cuban – puerto rican restaurant for lunch. After stuffing ourselves with amazing food and with a lot of plantains, we hobble back to the hotel. We’re too tired to really do anything and just decide to chill out at the pool. The pool is calming and also has water jets that are really relaxing. After spending time talking there about random things, we realize that there is a Jacuzzi hot tub a few feet away and go there instead. The Jacuzzi is even better with the jets of hot water melting the stress away as we watch Frozen that’s playing in an open air theater that’s right next to the hotel. After spending about an hour overall in the pool we come back to the room being very relaxed and fairly unable to do anything else.

Day 2

We wake up pretty late and are still quite tired. We take a walk to a Ben and Jerry’s for brunch and both get waffles and eggs on the side. The waitress is surprised that we’ve ordered so much food (I thought Puerto Rico was still in the US!). The Caribbean hot sauces are really good, but AT’s experiment of adding them to his fresh orange juice is a horrible failure. It’s almost afternoon and we decide to make our way to Camuy caves and Arecibo which is about a 1.5 hour drive away. Finally we’re on our way and surprisingly we don’t get lost. At Camuy, we take a trolley car along a windy road through the forest to the actual cavern. We learn that a cave has only an entrance and no exit, where as a cavern has both. We go through the massive cavern and exit to the other side at a massive sink hole. We then walk toward the ‘Labyrinth’ which houses more than 100,000 bats at night as a massive roaring river flows below.

The massive cavern at Camuy
The massive cavern at Camuy

As per the plan, we then head out to Arecibo. The drive is easy as we have now mastered the map, but at the same time painful because the roads are bad and very windy with many blind spots. We get to the observatory at exactly 4:07 pm while the place closes at 4. As that is closed we decide to drive to Sardinera beach that’s a short drive away. Instead we get lost (had to happen once at least!). We then decide on the fall back option of going back to the hotel and chilling out by the pool again.

After the pool we are pretty hungry for some Mexican food and Yelp shows a ton of restaurants nearby. We head out to one of them and after walking a bunch we realize that there aren’t really any Mexican places around. We go back to the concierge and realize there are a fair number of restaurants and that Yelp just has been showing them in incorrect places. We then try one of them only to find that it is closed. We both are really hungry at this point(10:30 pm at night) and finally head to a seemingly decent Italian place that we had passed on earlier. The menus are the most worn out menus I’ve ever seen and we both order pizzas. Based on what the waitress says, we expect  really small pizzas and begin planning where we should go next. The pizzas take forever to arrive and we just devour them when they do. Fortunately they are large enough and we thank our stars and head back.

Day 3

The day starts with what has becomes our everyday routine of eating dessert for breakfast. After finishing up on the loaded Belgian waffles, we head out to Arecibo telescope as we barely didn’t make it in yesterday. As I’m parking the car at the lot, AT manages to get between the car and a railing which I don’t end up noticing. I brake just in time to save any horrific unnecessary injuries. The telescope is enormous and we learn a lot about how it was built and how it works. The telescope is basically built in a valley among many hills and the view is good too.

Arecibo Telescope, the world's largest radio telescope. The dish is made of perforated aluminium panels.
Arecibo Telescope, the world’s largest radio telescope. The dish is made of  thousands of individual perforated aluminium panels.

We then decide to head to Arecibo city, which unfortunately isn’t as good as the telescope (We later realized that this was because we got lost and ended up in a corner of the city). The area is just full of hospitals / medical clinics and just run down broken down ruins. There is also a  smaller statue of liberty here, which I find very surprising.  As Arecibo city isn’t really what we hoped for, we head out to Dorado beach as a travel magazine we had read earlier suggested it. Upon reaching Dorado, we find out that “Dorado beach” really is the name of a resort and pretty much everything in Dorado is owned by resorts. After driving around a bunch, we reach a public beach where the locals are riding horses in the beach but there is nothing great there otherwise. We drive back to the hotel and by this time it is too late to do anything else.

Arecibo City. Apart from this church, the rest were all just hospitals or clinics.
Arecibo City. Apart from this church, the rest were all just hospitals or clinics.

Day 4

We decide to go to a very popular brunch place, Pinky’s,  in the Condado area and are not disappointed. Their large smoothies served in the blender containers are fresh and energizing. According to the plan we made yesterday, today we’re supposed to go to Bosque Nacional El Yunque, the rain-forest. We hadn’t really checked the weather yesterday and it’s raining heavily. We decide to go to the rain-forest anyway and only after reaching El Yunque, we realize that heavy rains have closed the rain-forest (pretty ironic). Despite that, we park the car and decide to walk around a little bit. The waterfalls are roaring with all the rain water and the rain-forest is breath taking, but everything else is closed.

One of the many waterfalls at El Yunque.
One of the many waterfalls at El Yunque.

With no options left, we decide to drive back and just go to Old San Juan. On the way however, we see an outlet mall and for some reason, decide to go there. AT gets a call from work and we’re just walking around the mall at this point. There isn’t really much to do there. We finally get the idea that we can watch a movie at one of the theaters at the mall and end up buying tickets to Interstellar. Only after the trailers start, we realize that the entire movie could be in Spanish. Fortunately it isn’t and after the movie we drive back to Old San Juan to go to Tijuana’s, a Mexican place that we’ve been trying to go to for the last couple of days. Inside the restaurant, we’re told that the car has been parked in a no-parking zone. A policeman is starting to give tickets to the other cars parked there just as we take our car out. Fortunately for us, there is a Tijuana’s near our hotel and we end up going there.

Day 5

It’s Pinky’s time again and we hit the smoothies again. We’re supposed to return the car today, but find out that it is literally impossible to go around without a car. Fortunately we’re able to extend the reservation for the rest of our time there. I also realize that I need a haircut and go to a salon nearby. The hair stylist manages to give me a distinctly Puerto Rican look which I don’t know if I like. We drive to Fajardo after a trip to the car rental place and realize that we just missed the Ferry to Vieques, We go to the seven seas beach to relax for a while. It’s day 5 and this is the first time we’re actually going to the beach.

After an uneventful ferry ride, we finally reach Vieques and we have no car as we parked it back on the main island. We take a taxi to the hotel, but we’re already running late for the bio bay tour that we had booked earlier.  The bio bay is a special bay on the island, where the water glows in the night because of the special micro-organisms that are found in the water. It’s also a great day to do the bio-bay tour as it’s a moonless night and is the best to experience the bay. Vieques also in general really does not have a lot of lights and as we walk in the darkness, we see the near infinite stars in the sky : something you don’t get to see in a city at all. Vieques also has a lot of wild horses which are generally roaming around and grazing in the fields.

The Blue Horizon resort. These were probably the only lights around the resort.
The Blue Horizon resort. These were probably the only lights around the resort.

We get to the bio bay in a rackety old school bus and we get on a boat to experience the bio-luminescence effect. The boat reaches the middle of the bay and the tour guide starts stomping the boat hard and as the fish move around, we see the glowing effect. Initially we think that the glow is because of these fishes, but only after the tour guide’s explanation, we realize that it’s actually everywhere in the water and is motion activated. They bring up a bucket of the water on board and as we swirl our hands in the bucket, thousands of tiny specks of light form in the water. We also use spray guns to spray the water and “paint” the water with the glow. There is a also a astronomy expert on board and he starts telling us interesting stories about the different constellations and those keep us occupied as the boat reaches ashore.

After the bio bay, we grab dinner at Duffy’s and have to walk about a mile to get to the resort. The only way is through a narrow road that cuts through the forest and there are absolutely no lights on the road and we just have to hope that none of the vehicles zooming at over 50mph actually hit us. Also as we’re walking back, we see two stallions fighting on the road and manage to slowly walk past them. Just as we think this long walk in the darkness is over, a black dog comes charging at us out of nowhere. AT’s scared out of his wits and so am I, but we quickly realize that it’s dog that just wants to play. We slowly walk back to the resort as meteors light up the sky.

Day 6

Walking up at the Blue Horizon, we realize that the view is really spectacular. We really didn’t know about it yesterday as we arrived late in the evening. Too bad that we’re staying in Vieques only for a night. After some super sweet breakfast, we walk to the Esperanza and rent some snorkeling gear. We snorkel right in the Esperanza beach and it’s full of colored fish and corals. There are also apparently turtles there, but I don’t spot any. After this we decide to go to some of Vieques’ famous beaches. There are many options for us : Blue beach, Green beach, Red beach and Mystery beach among others. As we only have time for one beach and don’t have a car, we just decide to go to Red beach. The Red beach isn’t really red in any sense except for some red sea weeds at the beach (not that I expected anything to be red). The water is crystal clear and the beach is colored a bright blue. I go in for a quick swim and also explore some caves at the end of the beach.

Playa Caracas or the Red beach.
Playa Caracas or the Red beach.

The ride back from the Red beach to the ferry terminal is very interesting as we have a very talkative cab driver. She gives us a lot of information on the history of the island, a quick tour of the downtown area and also has great humor. At the ferry terminal, we get fruit smoothies from a street stand and they are amazing as usual (the standards for smoothies had risen to very high levels at that point). After an almost sickness-inducing ferry ride, we get back to the main island and drive to Rio Mar for the night. The Wyndham resort, where we are staying, is huge but pretty much everything there is closed. We get dinner at an all night cafe at the hotel and call it a day.

Day 7

We wake up at the Wyndham resort and take a walk around the private beach. The beach is really clean, but isn’t really impressive as there isn’t any blue beach here as advertised in the brochures. We initially decide to stop at a Puerto Rican looking place for breakfast. Unfortunately the menu is just pancakes and eggs again. Nevertheless, we order their “super” breakfast which we expect to be huge. Instead we get a small plate with crappy eggs and the most dry pancakes ever. We realize the need for a second breakfast and then head to Illuvia, which is an ultra classy cafe in the middle of nowhere (How do these people make that much money here?).

The ferry to Culebra is at 3 pm and we have time to kill so we head to El Yunque to try our luck again.This time, the park is open but all the waterfalls are a shadow of themselves from the other day. The other forest attractions are open and we head to the top of Yokahu tower, which has spectacular panoramic views of the entire rain-forest.After that we want to go to the famous La Mina falls which is famous but  we don’t really have time for an 80 minute trek. We head back to the ferry building and catch the ferry to Culebra.

They built the Yokahu tower in the right spot.
They built the Yokahu tower in the right spot.

At Culebra, we take a bus that takes us to Casa Mango, which is different from Casa Blanca which is where we have a room to stay the night. The locals don’t really know Casa Blanca and we end up having to use AT’s phone which ends up charging a mind boggling 150$ just to load a map. Instead of taking this room in a condo complex in a corner of the island, we could have taken the classiest room in all of Culebra and totally skipped on the WiFi spend. The room is fully dusty with a lot of mosquitoes and the toilet flush doesn’t work. Looks like we’re headed for a great night ahead.

There is nothing really much to do at the apartment nor can we go out as its dark already. So we decide to go grab an early dinner. After roaming around the city area a bit, we decide to go to Zaco’s Tacos, a brightly lit place, which is full of tourists in the sleepy town. We tried the Bushwater, a sickeningly sweet drink, but otherwise the food is really good. There was also mosquito spray at the restaurant which was basically saved us for the night.

Day 8

After waking up, I  repair the toilet’s flush and restore it to a usable state. Having woken up early, there isn’t really much to do and I just end up walking around nearby Culebra. Its already 10 am at this point and we need to visit at least one beach before taking the 1 pm ferry back to the main island. The obvious choice is Playa Flamenco, the most beautiful and the most popular beach on Culebra.

We head to Palinda bakery where we get what has now become the standard fare of eggs and french toast. From there, we walk to the ferry terminal to grab a cab and we’re lucky that the place is full of cabs for the arriving ferry. We take the cab to Playa Flamenco which looks straight out of the movies with absolutely perfect sand, blue beach and crystal clear waters. We spend about an hour at the beach and then take a cab back to our place.We pack our stuff and call a cab to take us to the ferry but the cab never arrives. We end up dragging our luggage by the side of the main road for about a mile and a half to get to the ferry station in blistering heat.

Playa Flamenco: The best of the lot.
Playa Flamenco: The best of the lot.

Upon arriving in Fajardo, we decide to drive all the way to Old San Juan with the hopes of seeing the parts that we missed a few days back. The roads are narrow and there are absolutely no parking spots. So we decide to drive to Sheraton, check in and then take a cab to Old San Juan. We first go to Raices restaurant which is popular for its Puerto Rican food. We get the traditional Mofongos and I get a Pina Colada (for the nth time ) all of which come in really rustic looking tin plates.

Fully stuffed with food, we walk around the old streets and the colorful buildings. Its getting dark and we finally get to the fort and the end of Old San Juan. We estimate the hotel to be about a 5 km walk and we decide to walk back along the edge of route 26 which I presume to be a reasonably scenic walk. The walk soon takes us through really shady areas and after walking for about 30 mins we are tired as hell. Fortunately AT flags down a cab and we are glad to get back to the hotel.

Day 9

AT leaves early in the morning for his flight at 11:45. I am also able to finally call home after many days, despite the choppy internet connection. I check out of the hotel, return the car and head to the airport (I already remember most of the routes in San Juan by this time and don’t really need a map or anything really). After a brief unidentified package scare at the airport, I’m all set at the gate waiting for the airplane to start boarding. It has been a great trip and I can’t stop thinking about where the next one will be.


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