A Car, A Car, My Kingdom for a Car - in Puerto Rico
From San Juan, to the opposite - south west - corner of Puerto Rico. I'm searching for the scenery that gives Puerto Rico the nickname of The Enchanted Isle. I'm particularly excited about hunting down some gorgeous beaches.
I’ve booked a hire car through an agent in the UK and I order an Uber to take me to the pick up office, opposite the air port. It’s a seedy dilapidated area. And I’m deposited, after some difficulty in finding the address, outside a shuttered building. The Uber departs and it quickly becomes obvious that thus branch of SIXT is no longer functioning. There’s even a post lady with a little van complaining that she has no forwarding address. Several phone calls later, another Uber is summoned and I’m off to the other side of the airport and the new office. They’ve been there four months they say. You would think they would have told people, including the post office, by now.
The toilets for clients aren’t working and they haven’t picked up the flashing tyre pressure indicator on my Nissan Versa either. There’s no GPS and no GPS connection with my phone. So I’m having to navigate with my mobile balanced on my knee. I’m not in the best of moods.
(Trying to) Drive Across Puerto Rico
I’m taking the toll highway. I’ve been warned that Puerto Rican roads through the mountains are narrow and precipitous, with no guard rails. I don’t think they sound like a good idea, as I’m GPS lap driving. Fortunately, Google’s directions are easy to follow. The road surface is mainly good, but even the toll road is subject to the odd pothole.
And the measuring systems here are even more confused than those in the UK. Speed signs and speedometers give miles per hour. The distance makers alongside the roads are all in kilometres.
The mountain scenery down to Ponce (guess who that’s named after) is stunning. Though there is no stopping place en route as far as I can see, so no chance to enjoy it or take photos. And all the signposting is in Spanish. Maybe there are directions to filling stations and rest areas. As far as I can see you just have to go exploring down a slip road if you need something.
My hotel is on the outskirts of La Parguera, a port to the south of Lajas. There’s much more of a colourful Caribbean vibe down here. The town is dotted with brightly painted timber bars and booths. But it’s quiet. Much is still closed. The supermarket has little of interest. No fresh fruit or vegetables. Or fresh deli for that matter. So it’s ice cream for dinner. And breakfast. The hotel restaurant is closed two days a week as well. But the bar is open, so I can still get cocktails to go with the ice cream.
La Parguera Boat Trip
There are a line of boats on the pier at La Parguera, waiting to sail visitors through the mangroves to the reefs and little cays dotted off shore. Snorkelling off one of the cays is on offer, as are trips to the nearby Bioluminescent Bay. So a combination of the two seems like a good idea. The snorkelling isn’t magnificent, but there is some fan coral and a smattering of fish. The other 19 folk on the boat are all Americans with no idea of snorkelling etiquette. I’m battered and bruised.
The Bioluminescent Bay is warm but still moonlit – and pitch dark is required to see the glow properly. Boats are moored alongside each other to try and create some cover. We swim though in our masks – funnelling around 40 folk with no sense of decorum is fraught. but there are green firework like specks to be seen radiating through the water and filmy swirls around hands and feet.
Beaches of La Parguera
There’s no beach though - even though the hotel blurb says it’s near one. I’ve read that Playita Rosada is a six minute drive away. But no, this man made pool and decked area is closed off. The nearest decent seashore is a 30 minute drive away.
So, I’m off searching for the elusive sand. I’ve looked up the best beaches in Puerto Rico and headed for Boquerón, on the west coast. As usual, I’ve forgotten that I’m driving on the right this morning, until I spot a car coming towards me on the same side of the road. But, in my defence, the Puerto Ricans don’t seem to drive on any particular side of the road for the most part. In their defence, the country highways are narrow and drivers have to be constantly vigilant for the potholes, taking last minute action to avoid them.
The drive is worth it. Playa Buye, just to the north of Boquerón, is deservedly on the list. White sand, dappled turquoise water, patchwork casuarina trees and iguanas. Utterly gorgeous. And it deserves more than one visit. Except the restaurant here is closed on Tuesday too. What is it with Tuesdays and eating?
It seems that beaches here tend to be accessed via paths through beach resorts. A captive clientele. Except that most of the visitors in this part of the island are locals. They’ve brought picnics in cool boxes. There’s even a guy with a trolley who helps roll the picnics and deckchairs down to the beach from the car park.
It’s 26 degrees Celsius. Perfect for me, though the locals think it’s cold. Blissful sunbathing, except for the mosquitoes. All my hotel rooms here are plagued with the tiny no-see- ums. I’m covered in bites by Day 2 and stuffing antihistamines. The day on my beach begins in relatively tranquil fashion. But others obviously rate the beach highly too. There’s a steady procession of sun worshippers and the sand fills up. The locals kindly share their soundboxes. And behind me there’s the relentless squeaking of a metal detector.
Next on the list, Boquerón town beach. This too is accessed through a resort . Though the gates are barred to cars and guarded. It’s a long strip of golden sand, but it’s browner, a little more concretey, backed by a few buildings. Nowhere near as pretty as Buye.
Playa El Combate
Further south still, El Combate. Another small town and another long stretch of pretty sand, softened by low bushes. I’ll rate this one number 2.
Down to the tip of Cabo Rojo (Red Cape) area, crossing a wild life refuge. On the way, Las Salinas de Cabo Rojo. Heaps of salt, alongside flat rectangular evaporation lakes. The salt pans beautifully reflect the clouds in rosy hued seawater. The route follows a narrow spit down to the lighthouse, El Faro Los Morrillos. Here the land widens into a small horseshoe at the bottom of the peninsula. This is called, slightly confusingly, Rojo Cabo. It’s a rough ride. Increasingly huge potholes more like craters, along the spit eventually give way to a horribly bumpy stretch, with no surface at all. It’s like being in an earthquake.
The lighthouse is closed, of course, but the scramble, up to the top of the cliffs forming the horseshoe, delivers a great view down the 200 foot cliffs to the jagged stacks and pillars beneath. To the east, an impressive headland and the long curve of white sand that is Playa Sucia. The sea inlets behind have turned it into a tombolo, almost surrounded by water. It’s a good place to go if you want seclusion. Initially, I bump El Combate down to three and make this number two. It’s lovely but it’s a ten minute hike from the car park. No men with trolleys here. And definitely no restaurants.
But after spending all day on Buye, perhaps it should be promoted to number one.
Food in Puerto Rico
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of seafood. Snapper. Delicious prawns in coconut sauce or garlic sauce and a marinaded pork chop called a Kan Kan that is a huge semi circular slice - a meat mohawk. Most of it is served in the open air, because of Covid and the weather. Which means I have to battle the flies and the beady eyed great tailed grackles (great name for these very common birds) looking for their share. And of course - empanadas - the Spanish version of the Cornish pasty.
The Language Barrier in Puerto Rico
Spanish and English are the official languages in Puerto Rico. Wikipedia says that Spanish still predominates. A slight understatement. Many folk don’t speak English at all. I can get by with my rusty Spanish in the supermarket ‘donde este…’ buy trying to track down a covid test is much trickier. Everything on the internt is in Spanish. Thank God for Google Translate. It seems that you can’t get a PCR for travelling at all on Puerto Rico. They are only done on a doctors referral. Antigen tests have to be done no more than 48 hours before arrival. It’s all very distracting.
So, Puerto Rico is surprising and very rewarding. Anguilla next. If the test results come through…