NIGHT ONE: SAN JUAN
*if you haven't read the intro, go do it!
LIFE WITHOUT WHEELS
We landed in San Juan around 5pm, so we went straight to our AirBnB to freshen up and drop our bags. We didn’t have a car for the first week in Puerto Rico. It wasn’t always the easiest or most convenient, but I’m glad we were able to save some dough this way, and it also forced us to get creative and put ourselves out there in some instances. I must say: we quickly discovered that Puerto Rico isn’t exactly the easiest island to get around on without your own wheels. It’s doable, but be prepared to spend some time planning and waiting and spending a little money on rides. Aside from the obvious walking, we found our way around the island by:
TAXI : Yep, just a good ol’ taxi. At the airport, you stand in a line to snag one (just like most places), and when you’re in a city like San Juan or a busier town, you can keep your eye out to flag one down. You can also text or call them, which unravels a somewhat comical chain of communication in order to get a ride – but more on that when I talk about night 2.
Here’s the thing about taxis: it is totally up to the driver if he/she feels like driving you. You can surely ask for a ride to XYZ, but they may reject you pending any of the following reasons:
1) They don’t want to drive you to your desired destination. Maybe because they don’t know where that is, maybe because they want to only stay in a certain area in order to make more profit, maybe because they only go from point A to point B and back and never, ever, under any circumstance stray to point XYZ.
2) They simply would rather drive someone else. It could be based on the fact that you’re a gringo tourist, or maybe because they see someone that would be more worth their while up a block ahead.
3) They are busy. They are on their way to pick someone else up, they are waiting for a phone call, or they just saw a friend up ahead and would rather stop to visit with them.
4) They may roll down their window to talk to you and then simply give you the silent treatment when you ask them if they can take you somewhere.
5) It’s too rainy.
6) It’s too dark.
7) They just don’t feel like driving you, but their wife will be along shortly who will (true story!).
In no way am I putting down the taxi drivers in Puerto Rico. In fact, we kind of enjoyed the crazy adventure of finding - or not finding - a taxi ride (see BE PATIENT in Part 1), and everyone we encountered was always very kind and transparent with us whether they ended up giving us a ride or not. One thing that I did really like about the taxis is that not even one of them ever used the mile/time counter. They simply stated a flat fee and we paid them this fee upon our arrival.
UBER : Uber was a fantastic, cheaper ride than the taxis in most cases. Typically, we found the Uber rides to be about half to 2/3 the cost of what a taxi ride would have been for the longer rides. The only thing about Uber is that they are only available in larger cities and aren’t as abundant as you may be used to in your home town. It’s still a growing entity in Puerto Rico, so before you make concrete plans that involve you saying, “oh let’s just get an Uber,” pull up your app and check on the availability around you. We were able to snag them easily in San Juan and a few of the more populated communities around it, but outside of that it was pretty darn quiet on the Uber front.
PÚBLICOS : The públicos. The slow-moving community vans that are dirt cheap. Theoretically, you can travel the entire island in these privately owned and driven vans. They are the closest thing that Puerto Rico has to an island-wide public transportation system (as far as my understanding goes, at least). They run between major hubs, at different frequencies and times depending on where you are. Ask around at a local store or bar or pick up a guide book like the one we used to get the low-down on meeting places and times. We only used them a couple of times, but if you have time to spare (it may take about 3 hours to get to a place that is usually a 1 hour direct drive), are on a tight budget and have a little bit of Spanish communication skills, this will be a fantastic option!
In general, here’s how they work:
- You arrive at the meeting place, usually a central location in the town like a plaza or transportation hub
- You speak with the público drivers, find one that is going to your preferred destination and confirm the price (we found prices ranged from $3-$5 per passenger, depending on where you were going).
- Load in the van with other people who are traveling to the place you are going or to a stop along the way.
- RIDE! ENJOY! MEET NEW PEOPLE!
HITCHHIKING : Okay, we did not partake in this, but it seems to be an accepted way of getting around Puerto Rico. We had a couple of our hosts mention getting around via thumbs-up. Of course, be smart and aware of your surroundings, and I would probably NOT recommend doing it if you are a woman traveling on your own (unless you’ve got some serious self defense skills), but if you’re feeling adventurous, why not give it a try!?
SAN JUAN – CALLE LOUIZA
We stayed with a most gracious AirBnB host, Antonio, in his San Juan home with his wife and two dogs. We were in an area Calle Louiza (Louiza Street), which was alive with bars and restaurants and night life. We had a great time walking around that first evening, basking in our “fuck yeah we’re on vacation!” mode. We started acclimating ourselves to the slight time change, the humidity, the generosity of complete strangers, and the unpredictability of drivers on the roads.
One of our favorite meals of the entire trip was actually the first meal we had in PR. A fresh tuna poke salad from Panuchos. We also stopped in for a few Medallas (if you drink cheap beer, you will quickly learn to say, “una Medalla por favor”) at the luchador-themed bar La B de Burro.
I also really wanted to step foot in the ocean on our first night there, so we walked down to the Parque Barbosa and the nearby beach so I could wet my toes. Vacation had officially begun.
FIRST FULL DAY: THE JUICE BAR
The sun rose in San Juan and we headed down the block to a café that is a local favorite called Kasalta for breakfast and coffee at. And it was delicious. Well, it must be because Obama ate there, and as Matt said, “well if it’s good enough for Obama, it’s good enough for me.” According to signage in the shop, Obama ordered the Medianoche sandwich on his visit, which prompted Matt to do the same. We were in sandwich heaven. The breakfasts at these locally-run bakeries reminded me a lot of the breakfasts I ate in Brazil – meat, cheese, bread, fruit and coffee (well, actually it was espresso – I’ll save my coffee confusion for another entry). I’m a savory-over-sweet kinda gal, so this was right up my alley.
But enough about food. Back to the plan. Or lack thereof. We actually were flying by the seat of our pants here. We knew that we needed to catch the ferry in about 36 hours in the city of Fajardo, so we at least knew that we needed to start drifting eastward. After reading in our travel book and having a lovely conversation with Antonio about a beach with a string of restaurants we should see, we settled on the area of Luquillo, on the northern coast, east of San Juan. By a stroke of luck, a private camp site that was behind a juice bar opened up last minute so we packed our bags, hopped an Uber, said farewell to Antonio and his dogs, and headed towards Palmer, just outside of Luquillo and near the entrance to the El Yunque national forest.
We were camping at a juice bar! I was really excited about this.
CHARLIE THE JUICE GUY
Degree 18 Juice Bar is run by Charlie and his sweet pup. Charlie is another fantastic human we met, and he was more than happy to impart his own knowledge upon us about Puerto Rico. He is originally from the NE United States, and grew up traveling between there and PR to see family that lives there. He’s lived in PR for a number of years now, and started Degree 18 a year or so ago, incorporating the AirBnB campsite (complete with air mattress) for people like us who were looking for some affordable and easy camping on the island.
Charlie gave us some helpful nuggets while we sipped on some of Degree 18’s delicious nectars:
- You should really go into El Yunque National Forest when you have your own car
- The bakery down the street from the juice bar is delicious
- Playa Fortuna is a little bit of a walk, but doable and a fun place for drinks and beach
THE LONG WALK
We settled into our tent behind the juice bar and decided to adventure to Playa Fortuna since now Antonio, our Uber driver AND Charlie had mentioned it. Charlie guessed it was a 30 minute walk, so we laced up our tennis shoes, packed our swimsuits and headed out.
Okay, so it was about a 50 minute walk (“Island Time” is really a thing!). But luckily we split it up by stopping a small outdoor bar/horseback riding venue called Ponylandia (how could we not stop!?) for a couple of brewskis.
This walk was our first experience with the flash rainstorms of Puerto Rico. I’m fairly certain that Rupert Holmes was referring to his experiences in PR when he wrote about piña coladas and getting caught in the rain. Luckily, the rain storms are nothing like Oregon’s, and so the short bursts of warm falling water were a bit of a welcomed refreshment on our long, hot walk.
PLAYA FORTUNA : YOU CAN CARRY ALCHOHOL ANYWHERE
Playa Fortuna was described to us by Antonio, our Uber driver and Charlie as the following: a line of about 60 restaruants/bars that are open-air to the beach where you can get a ton of seafood and strong drinks. This is EXACTLY what Playa Fortuna is. So we ate conch (my first time having it!) and Matt’s favorite, sweet plantains, and drank mojitos and slushy fancy drinks. We swam in the ocean, read our books on the beach, and then drank more slushy fancy drinks. It was here that we learned something that we would utilize on the rest of our trip: you can carry an open container anywhere. After learning this, we truly looked like one of the locals: strolling down the chain of bars, sipping on whatever was in our hand, ducking inside when one of the rain storms rolled through. Ahhhh, vacation.
TAXI? I’LL CALL YOU BACK
The sun started to go down, and we had decided that we wanted to grab a taxi home since we were full of fancy slushy drinks and the walk wasn’t exactly safe in the dark (the entire walk is right next to the highway).
And so began our first foray into getting a taxi in Puerto Rico. Matt flagged down one that was cruising the “strip.” He didn’t want to drive us, (please refer to above: reasons why taxis may not drive you), but gave Matt a list of about 8ish numbers that we could text or call. So as we sat under a cover, sipping a Medalla amidst another flash rain, we sent out a text to these people. About 2/3 texted back, saying they were busy. We called back the remaining people who said they were available. Two answered. Both listened to our request for a ride. When Matt hung up the phone, I said hopefully, “Well? Did we get a ride?” He looked at me puzzled and a bit amused and said, “they said they’ll call me back.” So we waited. We had no place to be but in the moment, so we enjoyed people watching and rain watching and each other’s company while we waited for a phone call back. And then – ONE person called us back! A no-nonsense woman (who, by the way, was NOT anyone we had contacted) who was there within minutes to give us a ride back to Charlie’s juice bar.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” I think that’s a fitting quote to end this section on.
Next up, my favorite part of our whole trip: NYE on the island of Vieques.