As I sat on the plane I thought, “Oh my God, this is really happening, I am really going to the Carribean!” This has been another one of my many travel dream destinations for many years. And now, here I was only hours away from white sandy beaches, turquoise waters and palm trees waving in the breeze….and somewhere in there Alex and I suntanning or frolicking in the water. Besides having seen some spectacular photos over the years, the very thought of the word Carribean conjures up not only such visual images, but a certain atmosphere and attitude, and we were so very ready to experience it.
As we landed in San Juan, the capital, we were immediately overwhelmed by the heat, but more so the humidity. Nothing we couldn´t cope with, however. As we looked around we noticed that we were the only back-packers around…I lie, Alex told me that he saw one leaving. It would not take us long to realise why! Logistics, which I will go on to explain later. But we did see some of those very beaches of my dreams, and although “independent travel” was not easy, we saw some spectacular places and met some phenomenal people.
I can categorically say that I have NEVER traveled in a country where catching public transport, or even obtaining information pertaining to where to catch it, has been so very difficult. Without boring you with particulars, this is what it amounts to: Take into consideration its land mass – Puerto Rico is the most populous country on earth, with some 4 million people, and as I was told, some 2.5 million cars. So, the first obstacle is that most people do not use public transport, as they have a car, or 2, or 3 or….
The other part of the equation is that Puerto Rico is predominantly geared towards package tourists, tourists who who go to resorts and finally the Cruise Ship Set. Excluding the final category, the other two groups either have a car included in their package or hire one. Heaven forgive those of us who want to feel the culture and do it as the locals do…..after many questions, bus changes (including in places we were later told were supremely dangerous!) and long waits, we did finally reach our destination…each time feeling we had made it through another chapter of Mission Impossible!
The highlight of our 10 days in Puerto Rico was without a doubt the island of Culebra, to the east of the ” Big Island”, as it is referred to by the “Boricuas” (Puerto Ricans). Once weaving through the public transport system and arriving at Fajardo, we caught a ferry over to Culebra which took only a little over an hour. The island is quite small, some 7 miles long by 4 miles wide, and as we neared I could see those “cliches” jumping to life before me! Yes, the waters were a cross between turquoise and iridescent green, there were palms swaying on the beach, and of course the sand was a “Cocktail” golden colour.
As usual, Alex was the “Keeper of the Backpacks”, whilst I went in search of a place to sleep…… that was “bueno, bonito y barato” (comfortable, nice and cheap, as they would say in Ecuador). We found an excellent place called “Mamacita´s”, close to the city centre, which was all of only a few blocks in total. The hotel was painted in pastel colours, which really gave it that Carribean feel. Our room had a little balcony and overlooked a little lagoon. Aaaah, just as I had immagined.
People rave about Flamenco Beach, which is deemed one of the Carribean´s best, but we had the good fortune of visiting some other spots on the island that simply blew us away! On our second day on the island, we befriended a guy called Eddie Rivera. Not only did he end up showing us some secluded and breath taking beaches and places on the island, but the three of us forged a truly special friendship. Eddie touched our hearts with his generosity and beautiful soul, and if you read this Eddie, I want you to know that we will never forget you and promise to stay in touch ( Eddie, quiero que sepas que nunca vamos a olvidarnos de ti, y te prometemos de quedarnos en contacto).
Our favourite place was a beach called Zoni, which was actually far more secluded than Flamenco, due to its accessibility…..when we walked onto this beach for the first time, we were simply blown away (for the umpteenth time!)…….every possible Carribean cliche was surfacing before our very eyes…..all that I mentioned before, as well as several other islands and cays, and we could even see St Thomas (US Virgin Islands) in the distance. On several occasions we had the entire beach to ourselves – to swim in the warm waters, sunbake and crack open coconuts to both drink the milk and eat the flesh.
On the 14th of October (Happy Birthday to me!) we went to another island, called Vieques, which is a little south of Culebra. As Alex and I are always looking for a more quiet spot, rather than flocking to where all the tourists are, we decided to make our way across the island to the little town of Esperanza. Unbeknown to us, that very night, in the little hamlet of….Esperanza!….. there would be a big reggae concert happening, and after much asking, and no accommodation within coo-ee, we made our way back across the island to where we had originally landed only an hour earlier! We were almost ready to return to the mainland, but after chatting to an American couple, who told us that they had just come from Esperanza and could give us the details of a great place to stay…..we called, organized our accommodation, and went back to Esperanza!
We stayed at a place called Acacia Apartments, run by a great Puerto Rican/ American couple called Jose and Doug. Immaculately clean with excellent service, I highly recommend this place to anyone who is thinking of visiting. And the guys are just great – friendly, helpful and down to earth! I had a great birthday, and yes we did go to the reggae concert down the road. You will NEVER beleive who we saw there either……Nicholas Cage (yes, THE Nicholas Cage and his lovely wife!)….with photo to prove it!
Our highlight on Vieques, was definitely doing a “Bioluminescent Bay Tour”. This island is home to the most spectacular bioluminescent bay in the world. Look up www.biobay.com for more information. The night trip involves a bumpety-bump bus ride to a place called Mosquito Bay, from which you board a boat and go out into an area which is full of a particular plankton that glows! Of course, it is not actually the plankton that you see glowing, but anything which moves through it! To be scientifically correct, the mysterios blue-green light is created by an organism known as dinoflagellate. Fish flash by in the dark water, and anything that moves lights up. We all got a chance to jump in the water and experience it for ourselves. It was rather freaky to be able to see our limbs moving in the water, but it was surreal and of another dimension to see sparkles running down our arms, as we lifted them out of the water and let the water run down them. I felt like I was somewhere between the world in which I live and whatever lies beyond!
In a nutshell we had some amazing experiences in Puerto Rico, and although we pushed through with the transport thing, I want to make no qualms as to how hard it was. Special thanks to Joe and his lovely wife Raquel, who were on the ferry back to the mainland with us (of course the ferry broke down…yet another story…and of course we had to be on that ferry!), and who drove us back to San Juan in their car! Now, there was an easy travel experience indeed. Puerto Rico is NOT a backpackers haven and nor is it cheap. We found it to be around 10% more expensive than the USA. Still, we had a great time!
Next destination: the Dominican Republic!