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Puerto Rico, all about the unexpected

SmarterTravel

I certainly didn’t expect “dinoflagellate” to be the one word that came to mind when recalling my recent trip to Puerto Rico. Dinofla-what? But I learned a Puerto Rico vacation could be all about the unexpected; when once uninformed impressions of a busy Caribbean port were instantly washed away by a secluded snorkeling swim and a lunch break high in the rainforest.

For me, the outing was one big learning experience with classes in science, history, art, and of course, Spanish. Even more eye opening was how affordable the so-called tuition was, with consistently low airfare, a range of hotel options, and dollar-sized activities. Here’s how it played out for me, all under $500.

And by the way, dinoflagellates are microorganisms in the sea that dazzle at night when disturbed by movement, leaving a trailing glow of greenish light. Puerto Rico’s waters happen to host an uncommonly high concentration of these creatures, creating what are called bioluminescent or phosphorescent bays. Now that’s a fascinating lesson, even though it’s vacation.

What’s the deal?

To me, Puerto Rico had always been the “built-up island” with Spanish flair that resembles an extension of the U.S. rather than a Caribbean hideaway. Although it does have its share of highways, high-rises, and chain restaurants, I found pockets of intrigue and solace lurking in corners, even in the two major cities of San Juan and Ponce.

To get a flavor of the whole island, I decided to explore the more rural south coast and parts of the mountainous interior in addition to the cities. Travel costs were low across the island, so I could pack in plenty to do without going over budget.

Getting there

There is no secret insider strategy for finding Puerto Rico airfare deals. Fares are just plain cheap, most of the time. Low-fare airlines like Independence Air, Jet Blue, and Spirit keep adding routes and lowering prices, forcing the competition to keep up. For instance, Independence Air recently added a nonstop from Washington Dulles airport to San Juan, and Spirit expanded to include cities across the U.S. such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles. Not to be left out, Continental added a nonstop from Newark airport to Ponce.

In general, expect departures from the East Coast or Midwest to cost around $300 or less, often less than $200. Add about $100 from the West Coast. Because flights are frequent, fares remain consistently low year-round. Several months before my departure, I booked a nonstop to San Juan on American Airlines for $227.20.

Getting around

Because I was splitting my time between different parts of the island, I rented a car to get around more easily. Rates remain consistently affordable at around $25 per day for an economy or compact car. Of the options near San Juan airport, local agency Charlie Car Rental often has the lowest prices. I paid $98.89 for four full days, including gas. Normally when renting, I waive the gas offer, as it’s usually more economical to fill the tank upon return. However, the math for Charlie’s offer worked out in my favor this time.

I covered considerable ground, from San Juan in the north to Ponce in the south, northwest through the mountains, then due east back to San Juan. Many of the major highways are toll roads, so it’s wise to have plenty of quarters and singles on hand. I shelled out $7 over the course of the trip. Also be aware that smaller routes seem to disappear once you enter towns. Be prepared to drive around a bit or to stop for directions (even though English speakers can be rare) to find the junction you want. Traversing the mountains can be difficult and time consuming due to winding roads, but my Hyundai had plenty of pep to make the climbs.

Where to stay

Puerto Rico might be known for big name hotels, especially in San Juan’s Condado district, as well as gated resorts, but its pint-sized options are profuse. Small inns and paradors (country inns guided by government quality assurance) pepper the coasts and countryside. In San Juan’s quieter Ocean Park area, smaller, privately owned hotels come with reasonable price tags.

While exploring the south, I spent two nights at a small inn called Mary Lee’s by the Sea. It’s located in Guánica, a tiny seaside town within easy driving distance of Ponce. The property is made up of multiple dwellings, all personally decorated with a Caribbean theme by Mary Lee herself. I stayed in the Suzie room for $88 per night for two, including tax. Although the smallest room available, it was unpredictably spacious with a bedroom and bathroom, plus an efficiency kitchen in a breezeway connecting the two. Despite showing minor signs of wear, the rooms are cheerful and offer an ocean view.

The Guánica State Forest, a dry forest and bird sanctuary designated as a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations in 1982, serves as a backdrop for Mary Lee’s. Also, just a minute’s boat ride away lies the tiny, uninhabited Guilligan’s Island (sometimes spelled “Gilligan’s” for the tourists), which has an impeccably groomed beach and is a great spot for snorkeling. One morning, I had the island all to myself to investigate its shallow coves and mangroves, as well as count bird species—five in the first 10 minutes. For $5, one of Mary Lee’s staff members will take visitors over by boat. Kayaks are also available.

For my short time in San Juan, I just needed to book a basic hotel for one night—a simple task that turned tricky. Many hotels were filled up with pre- or post-cruisers, and some smaller inns required multiple nights’ stay. Availability can be limited, especially during high season from late October through March, so it’s best to book more than two to three months ahead. After a few inquires at several properties, I finally found a room at Hosteria del Mar, a small hotel right on the beach in San Juan’s Ocean Park. There, a basic room cost me about $87 for two, including taxes.

Other Puerto Rico hotel options

For an off-the-beaten-path retreat, I recommend La Hacienda Juanita, a parador in the western mountain rainforest of Maricao. The inn is part of a nineteenth-century coffee plantation. Its new ownership has been making renovations and promises to cultivate the land to grow coffee for its restaurant, which serves simple but authentic Puerto Rican cuisine. The property features a pool, a tennis court, nature trails, and mountain views. Guest rooms (some with four-poster beds) range from $82 to $265 per night, including meals and taxes. If you’re driving through the mountains, the Hacienda is at least worth a stop for lunch.

Old San Juan’s El Convento hotel, a converted Carmelite convent from the 1600s, is what I call a value splurge. Although out of my budget, those willing to pay more will get their money’s worth. Rooms and common spaces have many Old World Spanish details, but the hotel is also up-to-date with three restaurants, wireless Internet, a business center, and complimentary evening wine and cheese. Rooms are deluxe and start at $225 May through September, and $355 December through April. El Convento also offers value-added packages on a regular basis.

Affordable activities

With more than 500 years of history, Puerto Rico is more of a Caribbean cultural and educational Mecca than I anticipated. Both major cities, San Juan and Ponce, are loaded with historical sites and museums, while natural and scientific phenomena dot the rest of the island. Compared to other destinations, admission charges are relatively low, usually only a few dollars.

The glowing waters make La Parguera’s bioluminescent bay unique and memorable. La Parguera is a small fishing village, located to the west of Guanica. It comes to life at night with a carnival-like atmosphere where stalls sell fried snacks and pina coladas. Boats line up by the water’s edge to take people to quiet coves where the dinoflagellates light up the sea. $5.

The Arecibo Observatory, built in the 60s to discover and study celestial bodies, houses the world’s largest radio telescope. Its appearances in several movies such as Contact and Goldeneye give it a secondary claim to fame. Adult admission is $4.

Ponce, named after Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, is Puerto Rico’s second-largest city. Many parts of town exhibit European characteristics, especially its art collection. The Ponce Museum of Art is a world class gallery with mostly pre-twentieth century European works. It owns an impressive pre-Raphaelite collection featuring Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June as it’s signature painting. Adult admission costs $5.

Another worthy stop just a few miles outside of Ponce is Hacienda Buena Vista, a restored nineteenth-century coffee plantation owned by The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico. Trained guides walk visitors through the process of harvesting and processing coffee, and even offer a hand-roasted sample to drink. Tours also include a walk through the plantation house and forest to see a waterfall that powers the plantation’s machinery. Admission costs $7 for adults and is by reservation only. Only select tours are given in English, so call ahead.

No Puerto Rican escape is complete without a visit to Old San Juan. Much of the town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, its biggest attraction is El Morro, a fort built in 1539 that is now run by the National Park Service. Self-guided tours take visitors up ramparts, across bastions, and inside sentry boxes, while detailing events of the Spanish-American War and other battles dating back nearly 500 years. Admission costs $3 per adult.

A note on dining

I found food to be expensive, with lunches alone averaging $15 per person at times. Much of the cuisine is also fried. So if you’re going to indulge in both dollars and calories, it’s best to get the most out of it. Here are my top picks:

  • $ King’s Cream: This popular ice cream stand is located across from Ponce’s historic downtown plaza. Flavors include coconut and a variety of tropical fruits like tamarind, passion fruit, and pineapple.

  • $ La Bombonera: Situated in Old San Juan, La Bombonera is the perfect place to stop for a morning coffee break. Local pastries, particularly Mallorcas, which are sweet buns dusted with powered sugar, cost a mere dollar.
  • $-$$ Piñones: Piñones is a small town lined with open-air eateries just a few minutes from the San Juan airport. Shortly after landing, I stopped for lunch to sample an array of fried treats like yuca balls, pork, and plantains, as well as fresh-squeezed lemonade and aqua de coco frio (cold coconut water) right from the coconut.
  • $$$ El Picoteo: One of Hotel El Convento’s three restaurants, El Picoteo is a lively tapas bar that serves traditional Spanish dishes such as chorizo, empanadillas, and baked goat cheese with tomato sauce. If available, I recommend the local tres leches (three milk) cake for dessert.
  • $$$-$$$$ Mark’s at the Meli&aacute: Tucked inside Ponce’s Meliá hotel, Mark’s at the Meliá is consistently rated one of the best restaurants on the island. The dining room had no more than 15 tables and service was friendly and subtle. Chef Mark French prepares signature dishes with Caribbean and French flavors such as Shrimp Mofongo (fried, mashed plantains) and beef medallions in béarnaise sauce.

Always seeking out unique experiences, I was more than pleased at how my Puerto Rican trip dispelled any preconceptions I had about the island. I learned my lesson with the help of a tiny microorganism that burned bright with the unexpected. Sometimes it takes something really small to realize something big. And there’s a lot in Puerto Rico that’s too big to miss.

I’m always on the lookout for new destination ideas. If there’s a place you’d like me to explore, please email me at advice@smartertravel.com.

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