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Trip Report Puerto Rico/Culebra Trip Report 5/17-5/26

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Hi everyone. My spouse and I recently got back from our first visit to Puerto Rico and here's a report. First off, we only had 8 days so had to make hard choices about what to not visit this time around: the entire West coast, interior mountains, Southern part of the island, and an extensive visit to San Juan. Instead, we opted for a loop trip from San Juan/Ocean Park to the El Yunque rainforest area to Culebra Island and then back to Old San Juan. As outdoors people who love snorkeling but also crave some city time, this seemed like (and turned out to be) a good itinerary.

Day 1 (Thurs): Drove from southern WI to Chicago for a much cheaper flight than available from our city (Madison, WI). Booked one nite and 8 days parking through at the Hyatt Regency, which had reliable shuttles to O'Hare. Highly recommended at around $130 for the whole thing.

Day 2 (Fri): Early flight to San Juan, and we got in around 2pm and took a cab to Cocqui Del Mar, which is a small inn located in a residential neighborhood (Ocean Park) about 15 minutes from Old San Juan. The place has about 7 rooms, and we got a studio apt with a kitchen, clean bed, and a computer that could stream KCRW radio (my fave, so a plus!). It's nothing fancy, and like staying in a friends apt, but the innkeepers are great and it's a nice way to get out of the tourist zone. That is, you have to be comfortable with being in neighborhoods with broken sidewalks, spikes on tops of walls, etc., though this neighborhood is decidedly upscale. The beach is a block away and a business strip with bars and restaurants about 4 blocks away. So we immediately ate at Inka Chicken and had a great roasted bird and mofongo, and then went to the beach and floated in the sea until dark. Then another round of dinner (ceviche, fried plaintains) and beers at local bars, and then called it a nite. Couldn't stay up till 11pm which is when the locals start going out dancing!

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    Day 3 (Sat): (Forgot to note that after lunch on Friday we walked down the beach and explored the neighborhoods east of Ocean Park, and found a tiny fruit market in a beat-down business district and got water coconuts) Woke up early to the sound of tropical birds and took the inn's bikes for a spin around Ocean Park. Beautiful sunny morning, biked along residential roads and well designed and landscaped homes, then to the Kasalta cafe where we had $1.25 cafe con leche's and some meat-filled pastries. Many locals here (a locally famous place), and then biked back to pack up. A long walk down the beach to Condado (I walked and my spouse swam much of the way) took us to the Avis outlet in the tourist district (hello Starbucks, Armani, and lots of bling), where we realized staying in Ocean Park was a great idea! Also, not having a car that first 24 hours was a great thing - we found a 1-way rental from San Juan to Ceiba (near the ferry) for about $40/day (inc taxes).

    A quick stop at the grocery store (papayas, mangos, pineapple, cheap local rum!) and we were off on Route 3 towards Luquillo, which is the town down the hill from the El Yunque rainforest. I had been nervous about driving but found that it was less violent than LA or DC, but once off the superhighway sections of Route 3 the route goes through many towns, traffic lights, and past lots of very cool looking roadside stands. If we come again to PR we'll stop in Pinones and at some of the stands further out of San Juan with people cooking over open fires with lots of pigs on spits and frying of foods.

    Our place was called Sue's Place ( and it was in the hills above Luquillo in Sabana, and we had to meet someone off of Route 3 so they could guide us into the mountains! After 15 minutes of winding roads up progressively more and more beautiful and forested hills, culminating in a narrow rutted dirt road, we ended up at a magical house with a magnificent view of the mountains. Lush landscaping (some planted, most rainforest), birds, coqui tree frogs, and we were enchanted. Immediately the stress of many months of overwork melted away. Truly a find.

    And then I dragged my spouse down to get some food at the famous kiosks on Luquillo beach, which are a row of 40+ restaurants located in what are basically garages. Some ceviche, lots of fried pork, but mostly all over-priced, we finally picked a place with a nice view of the ocean but had a very mediocre and expensive meal. So not recommended - and overall we found much of the food in PR to be overpriced based on our WI standards, even small local places. But back up to the rainforest and we were A-OK. And on the way back home we had to stop for a parade of about 50+teenagers on horseback galloping down the road on the way to some fair. Back up at Sue's Place we were greeted with very loud cocqui frog chirps, and fell asleep to the sounds of the rainforest.

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    Day 4 (Sun): Today was hiking day in El Yunque. It had rained off and on all night so we were expecting a wet hike, but what do you expect in a rainforest? We drove down the road and over to another road that entered into the forest proper - huge tree ferns, bamboo stands, epiphytes high up in the trees - this forest is beautiful! It's not old growth by any means, but still impressive and on this side road (988) we were all alone driving through this green, wild wonderland. Once on the main road (191) we headed up the hills, stopped at a few waterfalls, but then parked and headed out on the El Yunque trail which gets you to the top of the mountain.

    We were the first ones out, based on the cobwebs crossing the trail, and we walked uphill through different plant communities, waterfalls and creeks, and clusters of birds as we made our way up. Near one of the junctions with another trail the heavens opened and luckily we had a rain shelter nearby, and for 20 minutes we watched the rain from inside of a cloud. More magic. With a hurt foot starting to hurt, we then headed down, marveling at the unusual plants and ferns, and back to the car. After at stop at a roadside stand for more fried foods, we took 988 back and stopped for perhaps one of the best moments of our trip - a short hike on the Angelito Trail to an incredible swimming hole on the Mameyes River. A few local kids were goofing off, hucking rocks at trees, but we floated under the rainforest in this slow moving river. A hike back out, then back to the house for an afternoon of a whole lot of nothing. Reading, napping, eating, drinking, then sleep with the coqui frogs. (One in the house kept us up a bit!)

    Day 5 (Mon): Today was our day out to Culebra, and we woke up early so we could return the car and get in line for the 9am ferry. I dropped my spouse off at the Fajardo terminal at 7ish (about 15 minutes away from Sue's) and then I returned the car in Ceiba (about 15 minutes south of the ferry). After an Avis shuttle ride back, we hopped on the ferry with tons of locals toting beach chairs, cases of Medalla Light (PR beer like Keystone), and charcoal. The ferry cost about $2 pp. Awesome. After churning out of the dock area we headed past some islands with huge hotels, and then a couple of idyllic white sandy beach islands, and then the open sea. Large swells made a few people sick, but we loved it. The skies cleared, Vieques was in the distance, and after 1 1/2 hours or so we arrived in Culebra - our home for the next 4 days.

    At the dock we met Rogelio who was the caretaker for the place we rented - Zoni Beach Retreat - and he showed us the old Montero Jeep we were renting, and then led us out of town (a small, island dock town of Dewey) through the dry, dusty hills of Culebra out to the quiet part of the island. Though the whole island is quiet, out near Zoni Beach there's no hotels, lots of subtropical forest, and scattered homesteads of locals or rich expats. Our place was a converted double-wide that was actually quite like a SoCal beach house strangely enough, set on an acre parcel with a condo at the top of the hill, surrounded by mostly woods with a great view of 2 nearby mountains/hills.

    We immediately hopped in the jeep, drove the 4 minutes to Zoni Beach, which is where leatherback turtles lay their eggs, and set up beach chairs under a coconut tree. Total Corona commercial. Turquoise water, white sand, very few people. Then took the new snorkeling equipment out for a spin on a nearby reef, saw lots of fish and coral, and then some baking in the sun. Awesomeness. After cooking at home (a couple of grocery stores in town hooked us up), we watched the stars for a bit and then passed out happy.

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    Day 6 (Tues): On our first full day on Culebra we awoke to the surprisingly vociferous birdsong, and a very bright, hot sun rising over the sea. Being on the eastern end of the island the morning was quite sunny and the evenings nice and cool. With coffee in hand we went to Zoni beach, which we had all to ourselves, and I took a long walk checking out the many leatherback turtle nesting areas. Zoni is a magical beach, with 2 cays/mini-islands right offshore and St. Thomas visible in the distance, though the snorkeling is only so-so as it's quite windy and choppy (good kite surfing though), and in terms of sheer oh-wow beauty, Flamenco has got the other beaches beat.

    After lounging a while, we got the snorkeling gear together and hit Tamarindo Beach, which is known for lots of turtle grass, and thus, lots of turtles. The beach is past the airport near the island landfill on the western side (facing the mainland), and is part of the maritime nature preserve (with Carlos Rosario Beach and Melones). This time we headed off to the right from the parking lot and just saw lots of grass and some small coral. So no big sightings. After that we got more ambitious and headed to Flamenco beach where we parked and then headed off on a trail (through a chain link fence with a big sign saying "DANGER! Unexploded military ordinance" to take the 15 minute hike to Carlos Rosario beach, which many had said was the best snorkeling on the island.

    They were right. Simply incredible. It was like swimming in the most magical aquarium you can imagine. After 2 hours or so in the water, we took a break and just melted in the sun. A hike back to the car, and another look at Flamenco (couldn't get enough of the psychedelic colors) then we headed back to the cabin for a siesta. That afternoon was lazy, and the rum was broken out. We headed into town to check out the restaurants and were very surprised at the entree prices at Mamacitas ($18+) and since Zaco Taco's was closed we just had some drinks at Mamacitas, enjoyed the view of Ensenada Honda and the tarpon right near the dock, and then back to the cabin for some stargazing and Avengers #2 on the satellite.

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    Day 7 (Weds): On this day we woke up with a slight fear of the sun, and were in no hurry to get outside. Though after a while I went down to Zoni to enjoy a beach all to myself. And then we went into Dewey to get a pastry and cafe con leche, and went back to Tamarindo to try heading off to the left of the parking lot. This time, Bingo! We immediately saw about 8 turtles chomping on turtle grass, and then off to the left near the point a wonderful reef kept us captivated for a couple of hours. Here too there were several old crab cages (I think?) that had what looked like elk antlers growing from them (coral), and inside, tons of coral reef fish enjoying the protection from the current.

    After this snorkel session we went back to Flamenco, got some snacks at the kiosks and set up the beach chairs for some serious chill time (the word of the week was "chillaxing"). Though I had to check out the snorkeling right off of the rusting tank on the beach, though nothing too remarkable. After a great local lunch at a small restaurant next to the airport, we hit Melones beach which had some nice reefs but we were too tired to really do it justice. After another siesta back at the cabin, we came back into town for a good meal at Zaco's Taco's (the best, and most affordable, meal we had on Culebra - the fish tacos/grouper were awesome), and then back to sleep off the sun and sea.

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    Day 8 (Thurs): For our last full day on Culebra we wanted to make sure we had lots of time at Carlos Rosario (the best snorkeling so far), chillax time at Flamenco, and one nice dinner. So after chilling at the cabin for the morning, we spent the entire rest of the day until lunch at Carlos Rosario, and there had probably the best morning of snorkeling either of us had ever had in our lives. We ranged from the point to the left, out to the Wall (a 30 foot drop off from massive coral reefs to the deeper sea) and over to the sandy beach area on the right. We saw a huge manta ray, turtles, and gazillions of wonderful fish. There were many moments of just floating over gads of fish, wondering at the beauty of it all. After this morning, and a coco frio at Flamenco, we headed back to the cabin for siesta. A short afternoon session at Zoni (reading in a beach chair with cold beer - nothing like it), we had a fancy dinner at a resort on top of a hill (forgot the name) for a mostly overpriced and mediocre meal, and then back to the cabin to do some packing up.

    Day 9 (Fri): On our last day in Culebra we planned on one last snorkel before our flight left at 1pm. So we packed up and went back to Tamarindo, this time to snorkel the area to the right of the parking lot. After some turtles and new reefs, we did a last Flamenco beach session, had some tacos, and then caught what I thought was an awfully fun flight to San Juan, but that my spouse thought was pretty awful (small turboprop plane). Awesome views of the entire coastline and the fort.

    It was great to have out last day in Puerto Rico in Old San Juan, and it was a perfect segue from the quiet and sun-drenched island of Culebra. We stayed at the Hotel Plaza de Armas, which is right on a plaza in the old city. Immediately reminded of the French Quarter, it didn't take long to be enchanted by the architecture of the city. We strolled around for the rest of the day, had cafe con leches and mojitos, checked out some forts and especially the wonderful seaside walk on the western side of the city, and ended our day with a raucous and tasty meal at Punto de Vista, where I got good and drunk and mofongo. Then we wandered around looking for the famous night life of San Juan, and while we saw lots of young uns drinking and hanging out on the streets, and we went to Cafe Nuyorican and watched some Latin Jazz for an hour or so, it wasn't exactly a hopping crazy party scene. Perhaps much of the dancing is taking place in the casinos or outside of the old city, or perhaps we didn't stay out late enough! (turned in around 1am). The flight back to the States was early the next morning, so it had to be that way.

    All in all a great trip, a little bit of city, some rainforest, and lots of beach. While the food was a tad disappointing, and the island is quite crowded and developed compared to places like St. John, we think we'll be back. Thanks for reading.

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    I really enjoyed the rest of your report! I was sorry to hear you hit some disappointing food on Culebra- we found most of it very good when we were there a few years ago but our only truly bad meal was at the place you are probably describing- was it Bahia Marina? The prices may have gone up some at Mamacita's since we visited but we thought it was quite good (and compared then to recent trips to the USVI/BVI and the out islands of the Bahamas we thought it was much less than we had paid for food in those places). Our "more expensive" (for Culebra) meals were at Juanita Bananas (still there?) and Club Seaborne but those were also good- we found several small places on recommendations from that were good but I don't remember all the names.
    Again, thanks for the great read!!

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    thanks for the detailed report bufftiger - planning 3 nights on culebra and looking forward to it.

    Also thanks to ishkribbl for additional food rec's. I'm a bit concerned about the food situation but i'd be happy to eat grouper tacos and burritos everyday if we can find a great place.

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    Have a great time! Like I said, it has been a while. I have not been on this forum in several weeks and did not read through the posts so this may be redundant but another suggestion for just a nice view and simple food is the Dinghy Docks- the bar can be a good place for drinks and an easy dinner- we had one breakfast and one lunch there, too, although I preferred the food at Mamacita's, the view was nice at DD.

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