Editor’s note: one of the best things about having writers on The Royal Tour other than myself is to experience a shared destination from a different perspective. While my Puerto Rico trip was largely an in-depth look at San Juan, Sam Spector journeyed to other places on the island, and uses that experience to share a deeper glimpse of this amazing destination with us here. For more of his writing, click here to visit his index page.
Since I met my wife, Jill, we have been to over a dozen countries together. Each one has been special and amazing in its own way; yet, when we are asked where our favorite spot was, we always hearken back to our very first trip together, Cuba. In particular, the colonial city of Old Havana with its liveliness, yet still with character, was one of the most romantic places we have ever been. Yet, Jill and I like on our trips to always explore new places and not necessarily return to the places we have been. However, with Cuba being so special in our hearts we yearned to go somewhere new that still captured some of that same Cuban flavor. This nostalgia led us to our most recent trip, Puerto Rico. However, there was another reason that I wanted to visit Puerto Rico, too. As I mentioned in my article on Bali in January, I like to spend my tourism dollars on places that I think could really benefit more than others from visitors. There is no place that I could think of, especially within our own country, that needs visitors more than Puerto Rico.
In August 2017, the music video for the song Despacito was launched and immediately became a viral sensation, with the artists dancing in the colorful, yet impoverished, neighborhood of San Juan called La Perla. There was immediate interest with young adults wanting to visit the area en masse and it looked as though Puerto Rico was going to get its big tourism break. However, a month later, Puerto Rico suffered horrific devastation when it was hit by the Category 5 Hurricane Maria. The aftermath would be $90 billion in damages, approximately 3,000 Puerto Ricans dead as a result of the hurricane (making it the deadliest hurricane in 21st century, more so than Katrina), and parts of Puerto Rico being left without power for an entire 11 months, the worst power outage in American history. I truly believe that because Puerto Rico is not a state and has no votes for president, and no voting members of congress or the senate, it was neglected in a way that the mainland United States never would be. A couple years later in December 2019, Puerto Rico was hit by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake causing $800 million in damage, and then after that we were all struck by the COVID-19 pandemic, which was devastating for an island with few exports that relies heavily on tourism. Clearly, this US territory could benefit from us visiting. Now, especially with Jonathan having visited Puerto Rico a month before me, it must be the place to go. While Jonathan focused his travels and his writing on San Juan, which I could also write about from my time there, I spent a fair amount of time of my much-too-short 5-day trip to Puerto Rico outside of San Juan – and there is a lot to do there. Unfortunately, I did not have time to visit the surfing and fishing towns of Puerto Rico’s western coast, or the historical city of Ponce on the southern coast, but in this article, I will share how Puerto Rico’s northern and eastern coasts are well worth visiting.
In visiting the northern coast of Puerto Rico, as you make your way out of San Juan, be sure to stop in the suburb of Bayamon, a lively and proud city, whose residents will take offense if you mistakenly believe that you are still in San Juan. There, you must visit the Ron del Barrilito rum distillery. With your visit, you will be given a complimentary cocktail from their bartender that you can choose from their expansive and delicious cocktail menu. Even though we visited in the morning, the cocktail still hit the right spot when you are on island time. Ron del Barrilito is the oldest – and considered most authentic – rum distillery on the island, having been founded as a family business in 1880 in the same location. At the distillery, you can take three tours: a mixology tour, where you get to make different cocktails; a tasting tour, where you try different sipping rums; or the heritage tour, where you learn about the history of rum making and the distillery. As we had our baby with us, the only tour we were allowed to do with a minor was the heritage tour, a fascinating 45-minute tour, where we were taken around the distillery and saw the bottling and corking process happening before us and learned about the history of rum making. They also have rum for sale that you can bring back as a souvenir, ranging from a $20 mixing bottle to their more common $39 three-star bottle of rum aged 6-10 years, to even their five-star bottle that costs a whopping $750, aged 35 years. At the distillery, one barrel that is unopened is one from 1952, estimated to be worth millions of dollars, but that was instructed by the then-owner of the distillery to never be opened until Puerto Rico obtained independence.
Following the Ron del Barrilito tour, make your way further west along the coast. A place that you can stop is the Cueva del Indio, which features petroglyphs from the Taino indigenous people. A couple of places that are closed due to destruction are the Cueva Ventana, with its famous views, and the world-renowned 1000-foot diameter Arecibo Telescope, that was destroyed in the aftermath of the earthquakes and hurricane. But a place that reopened after tremendous destruction that is well worth visiting is the Caves of Camuy. A frustration that I have to express with Puerto Rico was that of all the places I have been, this was the hardest island to get up to date information on what was open and to make reservations; for weeks I tried to call the three different phone numbers that I found for the Caves of Camuy to make a reservation, but received no answer. Arrive early in the day to try to get a spot for that same day. If you do, it will be well worth a few hours. The Caves of Camuy are caves that are above a subterranean river; it is the third largest subterranean cave system in the world. You will enjoy a nice hike with your guide, while wearing a hardhat, down to the caves, and stop along the way to hold giant (but harmless) spiders found in the area. While there are hundreds of caves, the one you visit is the largest, the Clara Cave, which at one spot is from floor to ceiling 170 feet. During the hurricane, this entire cave was filled nearly to the top with the water from the flooded Camuy River, giving you an idea of the power of the hurricane. Over a dozen species of bats call the cave home, and it is filled with stalagmites and stalactites that make fascinating formations.
Following your visit to the caves, be sure to cool off at one of the northern coast’s many waterfalls; while I almost went to the one that was a hydroelectric dam that had become a waterfall, I went instead to the beautiful Gozalandia Falls, a picturesque waterfall with caves to explore that plummets into bright blue water below filled with fish. It was a perfect way to end a long but fulfilling day.
The eastern coast is no less exciting than the north, and probably sees more tourists. One of the must visit spots is El Yunque National Forest, which is the only tropical rainforest in the United States. There, you will hear all around you the call of the symbol of Puerto Rico, the little coqui frog, and go on beautiful hikes to vistas where you can see down to the ocean, on the other side of thousands upon thousands of palm trees in a dense forest. There are also plenty of waterfalls to swim at there as well. A trip to El Yunque is certainly a must for any visitor of Puerto Rico, but be sure to get a reservation online in advance as we saw those who did not be turned away. Yet, the real gem of the eastern coast is the great beaches. In Fajardo is the Seven Seas Beach, which has a forested hiking trail to a beach known as “hidden beach” that offers a beautiful and secluded white sand experience. Our favorite beach was Luquillo Beach, which was lined with palm trees, warm water, and the occasional sea turtle popping its head up to say hello. About 10 minutes from Luquillo Beach are the famous Luquillo Kiosks, about 60 pop up restaurants ranging from fast food to gourmet sit down, serving up fresh seafood and other great eats. Hop from stand to stand exploring all the area has to offer. And finally, the most famous beach, which has consistently been ranked as one of the best white-sand beaches in the world, is Flamenco Beach on the island of Culebra, a 45-minute ferry ride from the main island city of Ceiba. Be sure to try to go to the ferry port very early in the morning – or even the day before – to get tickets for a daytrip to Culebra. On Culebra, we also ate at a restaurant well worth the two-hour wait called Dingy Dock, a seafood restaurant. Looming just off the floating dock restaurant is a school of hungry 5-foot terrapin fish, eager to fight over any scraps that you might have left on your plate that you can dump to them. The eastern coast overall was where we found the best food in Puerto Rico. A couple of recommendations that you might want to make reservations for in advance are the Carabali Bar & Grill outside of Luquillo and Las Vistas Café in Fajardo. At the Carabali Bar & Grill, you will eat in a treehouse-like atmosphere at a dude ranch in the forest. With great pina coladas, flan that is to die for, and the best mofongo anywhere we had in Puerto Rico, it serves as the perfect setting for Puerto Rican food after a day at the beach, with l the friendliest staff you will meet anywhere. At Las Vistas Café, dine atop of rooftop with 180 degree views of the ocean and palm trees as the eccentric owner flirts with the customers and serves up delicious fruits from her own garden and the best brunch that you will have had in a lifetime.
As Jonathan has well covered, San Juan is a city with lots of history, great nightlife, and wonderful restaurants. It is also the place where I saw more mask enforcement and had more requests to see my vaccination card before entering a store or restaurant than anywhere else I have been during the pandemic, making this traveler feel safe. But rent a car and explore these other places, all within a couple hours of the capital, and it will show you that some of America’s best spots for nature, relaxation, dining, and drinks are not in any of its 50 states.
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