Yes, I was a little anxious to travel to a distant island where most people don’t speak English (contrary to reassurances in the Lonely Planet guide). But, I would do it all over again.
The thing about solo travel is the immersion in every little thing.
There’s no one to monitor or react to or share with. There’s just you, curating your own day and experiencing everything that comes without any undue influence.
Plus, you can pretend you totally didn’t throw up off the back of the dive boat.
My flight left at 12:45 AM and I didn’t start packing until 10:15 PM, all while tracking down my sister who had forgotten she was supposed to take me to the airport (thanks for the late night ride, suss!).
It’s family tradition to squeak in just before they call your name on the PA.
Arrived in San Juan and stripped down to the tank top and shorts (yes!). Then headed over to Hertz to wait for.ev.er. to pick up my rental car. First time renting a car under my name and I will admit the Hertz gal scared me straight about damage to the vehicle.
Took off for Luquillo and checked into my bed and breakfast, Luquillo Sunrise Beach Inn, and that’s when it finally hit.
I was in Puerto Rico. It was 84 degrees. I was wearing shorts in December and staring over my balcony at the gorgeous and empty beach.
And I was starving.
A quick walk over to Boardrunners Cafe resulted in a “rum punch” and Mahi fish tacos (curiously with no silverware). I went with it and tried to blend in while the surf crashed in, random dogs said hello, and a rainbow teased over the horizon.
Feeling warmly buzzed, I strode down the beach and just kept going…for a couple miles. I encountered just a handful of other beach-goers, mostly locals.
One teen out fishing, Will, stopped me and deftly formed some beach plant into a rose and commented, “Lucky me” since no boyfriend was tagging along. Indeed.
Day 2 – Road Trip from Luquillo to Rincon
I stopped in Old San Juan for a few hours, walked down tiny cobblestone streets, wandered through one of the oldest churches on the continent with the tomb of Ponce de Leon, and checked out both of the historic forts.
Then I continued my drive across the north coast to Rincon, to spend the night in a crazy airbnb with no hot water and way too many angry roosters.
That didn’t stop me from enjoying a good book on the beach at sunset, being caught off guard by the emerging crabs, and enjoying conch fritters, a traditional Medalla beer, and some live music before attempting some futile shut eye.
Day 3 – First Real Dive
Up early for my day of diving at Desecheo Island and was mildly surprised that I survived to brag about the sea turtles and stingrays. Taino Divers is a great dive outfit (with cute dive masters).
A quick (frigid) shower after a late lunch and I left Rinco behind to drive through the mountains to La Parguera on the south coast.
I met up with Aleli of Aleli Tours around 5:30 PM (little known marine biologist who is uber laid back and bad at branding) and headed out on a kayak for the first time ever (sans life jacket), alongside a couple who were my tour buddies for the evening.
As I paddled confidently down the channel made by the mangroves off shore, the sun was setting and it was simply warm, beautiful, and fun.
Kayaking was my new favorite thing.
After a mile, with a strong headwind making forward progress quite difficult, I started to wonder where the heck this bioluminescent bay we were heading to actually was. Aleli pointed across a HUGE bay and said, “See that dark green patch of mangroves way over there?” I chuckled, realized he was serious, and then said out loud: “Impossible.”
It got dark (really dark) shortly after and we were paddling across an enormous bay with decent size waves and that damn headwind. My hands, arms, back and thighs were on fire.
I actually started talking to myself.
But we all three pushed on (the couple with two paddles, I might add) and after two and a half miles, we pulled into a small round bay. The half moon and hundreds of stars were firmly settled above us, making for a surreal setting, but one that was not great for seeing the glowing dinoflagellates.
I didn’t care. I got to see the magic, albeit on a smaller scale, and then I laid back in my well-named “scrambler” kayak and floated there in the bay by myself looking up at the stars.
Then, after the LONG day of physical adventures, like the crazy person I am, I drove 3 hours back to Luquillo, pulling in just after midnight. A bit of an overly ambitious day, I’ll admit.
Day 4 – Beach Day a la Jimmy Buffet
I woke up feeling remarkably decent (thank you Raelyn for busting my ass every Saturday morning at the gym) and was rewarded with the most delectable cream cheese-stuffed coconut french toast (I love the ladies at Luquillo Sunrise Beach Inn!).
I roamed the beach all morning and then ventured out to the famous Luquillo kioskos for lunch. I was hoping to find lechon – suckling roast pig, another PR favorite, and one that is typically only available on Sundays.
However, none of the kioskos were offering it and I settled quite randomly for some tamarind ribs plus fried sweet plantains that seemed to be way overpriced at $15. After waiting 20 minutes for my ribs and dying of hunger, I pulled out of the parking lot to find a lechon truck on the side of the highway!
I (of course) got some of that, as well. “Uno” order turned out to be approximately 4 pounds of roast pork, comparable to the amount of ribs I also had in tow. Apparently Puerto Ricans eat family style.
I enjoyed my personal massive meat buffet in my room, paired with a great movie that *almost* made me go out and buy pie to top it all off (Waitress). I wasn’t confident that I could find pie in PR at 10 PM though.
Up at 5:30 AM to meet up with my “rainforest guides” on the south side of El Yunque. After driving to Kalichi’s “basecamp” and a quick breakfast, we geared up in helmets, life jackets, gloves, knee pads, and river trek boots and headed into the wild.
I threw all caution to the wind (er…ocean breeze) and spent the next four hours on the river body rafting down natural slides, cliff jumping into and out of waterfalls, and rock rappelling.
After an incredible day and quite a few scrapes and new bruises, we got showers, homemade empanadas, and a viewing of the blooper reel (as in life, some people like to land on their face).
It was a delightfully small tour group and our guides, Jose and Fernando, were fantastic. By far my favorite day in Puerto Rico.
Holding true to it’s allure, it seems there is always more time on the island. I got lost in a good book on the beach and then put away some of those leftover ribs for dinner.
After a tropical pancake breakfast, I attempted to venture further down the beach, but got caught in a torrential downpour and ended up slipping on some rocks, cutting open my toe and scraping my leg and butt. It was totally graceful.
I limped my ego a mile back, showered and regrouped. A little blood is just part of the excitement.
After a little google research, I headed to the north (i.e. tourist) side of El Yunque, bypassed the welcome center, and went straight to the 9.5 km marker, where you will find an empty hiking trail to Juan Diego Falls.
Falls is plural. After hiking up the river for about a mile, I had seen so many breath-taking waterfalls that I wasn’t even impressed anymore. The two larger lower falls have natural wading pools and after that you are completely alone with the beautiful rain forest and the water, for as far as you want to go.
After hiking to an uncomfortable distance, where I finally questioned what would happen to me if I should get injured and not be able to leave of my accord, I managed to avoid such a graphic ending and headed back to my little Luquillo homebase.
Had enough time to wander several miles down the beach (this time more carefully!) and collect shells and a bit of beach sand for memories.
Read on the beach (again, yes. It was a trilogy) while the sun set and then took myself out on a date to Parilla (a fancy restaurant in the kioskos) for a GIANT lobster dinner that I barely touched but thoroughly enjoyed.
How is there so much more time here??
Woke up early to watch the sunrise over the ocean while I read on my balcony. Then, I packed up and enjoyed a poached egg breakfast with this incredible Caribbean hot sauce called Bahio (ordered 6 bottles for home already!).
Slipped in a bunch more reading overlooking the beach for a couple more hours until check-out and then drove into San Juan for cafe con leche and tuna carpaccio at Pinky’s until it was time to fly home.
Honestly the most fulfilling trip of my life. Perhaps a December tradition in the making…