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  1. #1
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
    Posts
    13,063

    Default Puerto Rico: Roadtrip Around the 51st State!

    So back in December I took a quick family Roadtrip around Puerto Rico. The trip lasted 6 days, including flights, and was done on a serious budget. In fact, the whole trip was sparked largely because I had won a free plane ticket that was nearing the expiration date. Puerto Rico was one of the furthest distances I could go with that ticket, and there were cheap airfares for the rest of the family, plus no passport was needed (the kid doesn't have one.)

    Did I mention this trip was done on a serious budget? The entire trip cost about $1200, for 3 people.

    Over the course of the week we did a loop around the eastern half of the island. We saw San Juan, the Rainforest, the Beach, Swam in hot springs, saw some winter league baseball, ate some incredible food, and enjoyed some of the most interesting and fun mountain driving I've ever done.
    Here's a rough loop of the trip we did (its hard to get all the roads exactly right via google, but this is covers the basics)


    More details to come....

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
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    13,063

    Default day one: getting there

    So the first day of the trip actually started the day before, when our first flight was canceled!

    We were scheduled to leave Milwaukee at 5:30 am, have a short layover in Atlanta, and then arrive in San Juan about 2:30. However, the afternoon before our departure the first Blizzard of the winter started to move in, and in a preemptive move, the airline canceled our flight. 18 inches of snow wound up falling during in the storm, but thankfully, the airport didn't get hit as bad so our new flight got off on time. About 7:30, we were up in the air, and after a 3 hour layover in Orlando, we finally arrived in Puerto Rico about 6pm.

    We headed out of the airport and waited for the shuttle to Budget Rental Car (and waited, and waited, and waited), which eventually took us to the rental office where we picked up our car. I'd booked through Hotwire and got a Full Sized car for just $21 a day - $143 for the total trip. When we got the car, it was a brand new Nissan Altima. And when I say brand new, I mean 7 miles on the odometer new!

    From there, we headed to our hotel, the Courtyard Miramar. After a wrong turn turned into a quick drive through old san juan, and some some other out of the way zig-zagging, we eventually got there. We booked the room through Priceline (3stars, $59 for the night), and it wound up being a pretty nice place. It was more in a neighborhood than a typical resort area, and we walked down the block to a diner.

    The diner wasn't anything special, but it was my first time ordering Amarillos - fried ripe plantains. As I would discover, this is a very tasty and popular Puerto Rican side dish. I probably had it at least once a day throughout the trip - include a several times when we'd later cook at our camp site.

    Anyway, after eating, we went back to our motel, spent a little time in the pool before calling it a night. It was a pretty slow start to the trip, but it was an enjoyable way to get going for the real fun that was just about to begin.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jan 1998
    Location
    Las Vegas, Nevada
    Posts
    10,059

    Default Day One and then.....

    Hey, Michael, Don't leave us hanging... What were the other days of exploration like?

    Mark

  4. #4
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
    Posts
    13,063

    Default they're coming

    Sorry, I've gotten busy - I do plan to have at least the next day or two posted this week, though!

  5. #5
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
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    Default Day Two: Old San Juan, Bureauocracy, and the Beach

    So as I was saying, the real fun started with Day 2.

    After getting up and checking out of our motel, we headed to Old San Juan, really the heart of the tourist district with tons and tons of shops designed to get money out of the hands of the frequent cruise ship visitors who apparently love cheap t-shirts and trinkets! We parked our car in a ramp above the bus depot and headed out on foot, walking through the streets, just getting a feel for the old city. We stopped for a quick breakfast, grabbed some batteries at a Radio Shack (If you love your American Chain stores, you'll never be too far away from one in PR!), and popped into a visitors center to get more information about the sites of Old San Juan, and to get information about camping for later in the trip.

    After that, we hopped onto one of the free trolley/shuttle buses that go around Old San Juan, and headed for one of my favorite stops of the entire trip: El Morro. We started our tour just by walking around the walls that surround the edge of the fort, providing remarkable views of the Ocean. I think we spent nearly an hour just taking in the views, before we actually went inside the Fort. I will say, I didn't go into El Morro with a ton of expectations, but between the views of the city and the ocean, the exhibits showing its remarkable history - from when it was built in the 1500s, how it was uniquely placed to provide perfect protection to the city, how it was attacked by the US during the Spanish American War, and even how it was still being modified to be used during World War II - and just the building itself, this was a real highlight and I now understand why it is really one of the signature landmarks of the island.

    By the time our self-guided tour of El Morro was complete, it was early afternoon, and it was time to think about moving on. There is certainly much more to see in Old San Juan, but we knew we would have another chance to come back on the back end of the trip. We got back on the shuttle which took us right back to our car, and headed off to get camping permits.

    Camping in Puerto Rico is a bit different than the US Mainland. There are 2 main state park organizations. One is Compañia de Parques Nacionales (The National Parks Company), which runs most of the beachfront campgrounds scattered around the island, and for most of these you can simply pull up and take an open site. The other organization is the DRNA (Dept. of Natural Resources) which runs the State Forests. The DRNA sites are more remote and you're required to get get permits in advance - which we did at the office in San Juan.

    Getting those permits was an experience all its own. The office is certainly not in a part of the city you'd normally visit as a tourist - in fact there wasn't much else around it. We'd been given very rough directions (basically an intersection) from the Tourist office in Old San Juan and told to look for a green tile office building. Finding the building was almost as much luck as anything, but we spotted it relatively quickly and went inside.

    Of course, once we got inside, we asked the security guard where we needed to go, and he didn't appear to have any idea. We wandered around a bit inside this building (which was the most Orwellian place I think I've ever been, with stale white concrete walls clearly built in the 1950s) and found what appeared to be the right place. After standing around for 15 minutes waiting for someone to come to the window, someone eventually came forward and told us we weren't in the right place, but led us to the unmarked office where we did eventually get our permits. Again, this was a bizarre and time consuming processes, where you had to fill out paperwork at one window, go to another window to pay the fee, and then go back to the first window to actually get the permits. The whole process makes you think the DMV is a streamlined juggernaut of efficency, but eventually we did get everything we needed.

    The downside is that by the time we did get out of there it was 3:30, traffic was already picking up for the afternoon rush, and we had a good 70 miles to get to our first campsite - a beachfront spot at Seven Seas on the near the town of Fajardo. It was my understanding that the park was open until 5, so I was concerned that it might be too late by the time we arrived. We also needed to make a stop to pickup some camping and cooking supplies that we hadn't been able to fit with us on the plane.

    After eventually getting through town, and making our way out towards the Northeast Coast, we started making decent time. We actually arrived at Seven Seas right at 5 o'clock, however they had already closed the gate. We were told, however, that there was a hole in the fence, and we could park on the street and just walk into the park through the hole. So that's what we did! It was a bit unsettling because we were leaving our brand new rental car out on the street, but we did still need to go back into town for supplies so at least we knew we could come and go as we pleased.

    We eventually found a nice site just a few steps from the atlantic ocean, set up our tent and spent a few minutes with our feet in the water, before eventually heading back out for food and supplies...

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jan 1998
    Location
    Las Vegas, Nevada
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    10,059

    Default dot.dot.dot?

    Come on now, we need to know if the car was still there in the morning!

    Mark

  7. #7
    Join Date
    May 2003
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    Green County, Wisconsin
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    Default Onto the Rainforest

    After getting camp set up, we took advantage of our ability to get back to the car, and drove back into the town of Fajardo for some food. After driving around the town a bit, and eventually stopped at a little Drive-In chicken place where they have a huge gas grill with racks of chickens on a rotisserie. We saw the parking lot was full, and so learned why - they were all waiting for the next batch of chicken to finish! We waited about 10 minutes, got a whole chicken, and two huge containers of sides Rice and Beans, and Amarillos - a huge meal with enough for left overs for about $15.

    We then went back out to the highway and stopped at Walmart and a Grocery Store to pick up the camping supplies that we didn't bring with us on the plane, like a few blankets, some charcoal, a foam cooler, some basic food items, and a 6 pack of Medalla - Puerto Rican beer. We returned to the campground, walked back in through the hole in the fence, sat on the beach for a little while, before turning in.

    The next day, we got back up - checked on the car, and it was unharmed - made some breakfast and then took off on the day's adventure: El Yunque National Forest - the only Tropical Rainforest in the US Forest System.

    Or visit to the National Forest started with a quick stop at the Visitors Center - which is one of the nicest, most beautiful visitor centers I've seen. They did a great job of working the center into it surroundings. After talking to the guide, getting some advice on how to best explore the area, we continued our push up the hill to our first Destination: Mount Britton.

    Mt. Britton is a tower at an elevation of 3,100 feet that provides an incredible scenic view of the entire northeast corner of Puerto Rico. Getting there requires about a mile long hike that gains about 500 feet of elevation. Its a fairly steep hike at times, but the path is actually has a narrow strip of pavement for most of the walk. All told, we spent about 2 hours hiking up, spending time up at the tower, and then coming back down.

    After the hike, we stopped at a little cafe right in the middle of the forest called Yuquiyu Delights. Typically, I'm a find a lot of the cafes and restaurants inside of national parks to be very overpriced with mediocre food, but that certainly wasn't the case here. They had reasonable prices and were making some great, homemade food, including my next great discovery of Puerto Rico cuisine: Pinchos. They are basically kabobs of marinaded meat (pork or chicken usually) that are grilled and served on skewers, while covered in a tasty bbq sauce. They were being made on a grill right outside the front door, which filled the entire area with an incredible smell!

    Once we'd filled up, we headed off for our next stop in our tour of the park: La Mina Falls. There are two ways to get to the falls, and we chose to follow the La Mina trail which starts above the falls and follows the river for a little under a mile as it works its way down through a number of small waterfalls, eventually reaching La Mina falls. The other option, is to start below the falls and follow the Big Tree trail. You can also do a complete loop, and simply walk a mile back up the main road through the park to get to your car.

    I'm a big fan of waterfall hikes, and this is up there with the best. The falls themselves are about 35 feet high, but the neat thing here is that there is a nice rocky area where you can walk in and get into the water, and even go for a swim! This is a very popular area, so you can expect to see lots of other people, but it is very much worth it.

    We spent about 45 minutes enjoy the falls, when we got a good reminder that this is the rainforest. After starting with just a light sprinkle, the rain came, and it came down hard. It rained for the entire walk back up the hill to the car, and it rained so hard, I had to stop several times just to ring out my shirt! Of course, the rain stopped as we finally made it back up to the parking lot.

    At that point it was approaching 4 o'clock, and we decided we should make our way back to the campsite so we could get there before 5 o'clock and they closed again!

  8. #8
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
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    Default Day 4: Pork, Hot Springs, and Ruta Panorámica

    So we arrived back at our campground just after 4:30, figuring that would be plenty of time to get into the parking area - but once again we hit another detour. The park was still open, and they even had one gate open to let people leave, but the enter gate was already closed, and the staff decided they weren't going to let us in - once again telling us to park on the street. This time, we took a different approach, there was a restaurant right next door that had a gated parking area. Instead of cooking our dinner, we ate there in exchange for letting us park overnight. It was a bit more than we planned to spend, and even though they didn't actually lock the gate like they said they would, it was still off the street and a lot more comforting than being right on the street.

    The following morning it was back on the road heading towards Ruta Panorámica the scenic highway that goes east west through the mountains that cross the entire island. The first part of the drive was nice, but the real highlight of the day, and perhaps the entire trip was just a slight detour away to the town of Guavate.

    Guavate is basically a town that is filled from end to end with lechoneras, which are basically just little cafes that all serve slow roasted whole pigs. As a fan of bbq, this may have been the most tender juicy and tasty pork I have ever eaten. And just so you know the experience is authentic, its even served with the crispy pork skin! The pig itself is also on display in a glass case along with the other foods and side dishes (equally tasty) that are served cafeteria style. As I mentioned, the town is filled with these great little restaurants, we simply picked one that looked good and had a small line. I don't remember the exact cost, but the everything was sold by the pound, and it was really quite reasonable.

    After filling up on pork (and filling the cooler with leftovers), it was back on the highway, I'd originally planned to get back on the Ruta, however when I got onto the freeway (PR-52), I went a bit too far, missed the exit and wound up at the south end of the island - which is one of the dangers of enjoying the scenery on an island that is only 40 miles from north to south. However, this didn't end up being a bad thing at all - the Freeway trip through the mountains was incredibly scenic and it may have surpassed Colorado's I-70 as my favorite freeway for scenery.

    Once we reached the south end of the island, I decided to get off the freeway and spend a little time driving along PR-1, which follows the coast along the Carribean Sea. It wasn't the most remarkable coast drive ever, but it did have several nice views of the ocean, with a few parks dotting the way.

    We drove for a few miles before cutting back north to our next planned destination - Coamo, the home of the only hot springs in Puerto Rico. There is public access and the pools are free, or at least they usually. Unfortantly, during the time of our visit the public pools were closed for a major renovation project. We were able to salvage the trip, however, as the adjacent hotel which has a regular pool and a pool filled with the hot spring water and few a few buck each were were able to enjoy them without staying at the hotel. This wound up being a great place to relax and have some fun playing in the water for a few hours.

    Up next, the most intense scary road I've ever driven, and yet another campground "surprise."

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