We had planned to be in San Juan for 2 days before our cruise. Instead, the first cruise was oversold and we were bumped to a 7 night cruise for the same price. What a deal! So our tour of San Juan was brief. We hopped a tour bus for a short ride around town before getting dropped off at the airport to pick up our rental car.
We stayed at the Hilton resort in Ponce on the south side of the island. Ponce was reported to have a great historic area. We thought Saturday night we might find a great restaurant, but the area was dead. On Sunday we decided to give it another try. Our travel book, the local entertainment magazine and even the signs next to the museums all said everything is open on Sundays. Everything was closed and the only people around were cops and a woman bumming cigarettes. I asked a cop why everything was closed. He looked at me in disbelief and said, "It's Sunday." When I said that everything indicated the museums and shops would be open, he just shrugged his shoulders.
We decided to get out of town. Tyler really wanted to see the World's Largest Radio Telescope near Arecibo--straight north through the mountains--and this was his only chance. (If you've seen the movie "Contact", the telescope was shown right at the beginning.)
Driving in Puerto Rico is a challenge. No matter which direction we headed, it would take at least an hour longer than it should have. I always had 4 maps spread across my lap and no 2 ever said the same thing. And none of them ever correlated with any road signs either. One way streets are not marked. Slow drivers do not stay to the right. Many of the roads wind around the edge of steep mountains. When drivers take curves on those winding roads, they make no attempt to stay in their own lane and come at you head on. To top it off, Tyler insists on taking pictures through the windshield while he's driving. When we returned the rental car, Tyler had to look on helplessly as I shredded all the maps with my bare hands.
It took us an hour to get out of Ponce and even then we didn't find the "new 3 lane highway" that would take us straight to Arecibo. We were on one of those winding mountain roads at 20 mph with plenty of curves. We did finally get over to the new highway, which dramatically increased our speed. That is until it ended 5 miles down the road. Turns out the new highway was missing a big segment right in the middle. There was no way but the winding way.
On the way back from Arecibo, we rounded a bend and were confronted with burning trees across the road. A few locals pulled some burning tree trunks off the highway, but they left the tops right out there in our lane. There were still some burning trunks suspended above our heads as they leaned against the cliff. Out my door were plenty of flames and in the other lane was a string of about 20 cars that had no intention of pausing a moment so we could get out of there. (Unfortunately, I have no pictures of this because I had my mind on other things.) Tyler finally got pushy and nosed his way into on-coming traffic so we would not be a sitting bomb. A few miles down the road he snickered and mocked me saying, " 'Holy shit.' You know, you sound just like your mother only you use different words."
Puerto Rico may be US territory, but it has a flavor all its own. During our long drives, we stopped at the little "colmados" or roadside bars and tried all the local specialties. Here are some of the interesting dishes:
Piononos--Coils of plantains, stuffed with meat, batter dipped and deep fried.
Mofongo--Balls of mashed plantains with seafood or meat, deep fried
Alcapurrias--Deep fried fritters
Bacalaitos--Deep fried codfish fritters
Tostones--Fried plantain chips
Lechon Asado--Roast pork
If you like plantains ( big, starchy bananas) and fried food, you'll love the local specialties. The redeeming feature of their diet is all the fresh fruit. I really like the tiny, sweet bananas--only 2" long and about as thick as my finger.
The local beer is Medalla, which is about like a Coors. We tried Malta India, which is a non-alcoholic barley beverage. If you like drinking molasses, you'll love it.
The ecosystems on the island are really diverse for such a small area. The south side is very dry, while the north is lush, green and tropical. One day we hiked through the dry forest near Guanica.
The next day we visited El Yunque--the mountainous tropical rain forest. This was definitely the highlight of the trip. We hiked to the top of the mountain.
My advice, if you should decide to visit Puerto Rico, is just to relax and take it slow. The island, at its widest, is only 39 miles, but those miles aren't like you find in Nebraska. It takes time to get somewhere and you don't want to be imprisoned in your car when there are great beaches and towns to explore along the way.
One more piece of advice. If you go to Luquillo Beach, just pay the 2 bucks to park in the lot. Even though the locals may park on the grass, it's illegal and parking tickets in Puerto Rico are $25 minimum.