Driving from waterfall to waterfall through El Yunque Rainforest is a Puerto Rico highlight. // © 2012 Mark Rogers
Years ago, when the prospect of travel to Puerto Rico was raised, I wasn’t interested. I thought Puerto Rico would be too Americanized and that it wouldn’t offer the surprises I look for in travel. When I finally did visit (my first of an eventual six trips), I realized how wrong I had been. Within a few hours of exploring the beachfront city of San Juan, I was hooked. The city’s cuisine, music and history made it one of my favorite destinations. And while a lot was familiar, the genuine friendliness of the people was unique. During my recent trip, I had the option of renting my own set of wheels and venturing out to see more of the island.
When I called my agent at Delta Vacations, I had a good idea of how I wanted my trip to go, but my choices were based on imperfect knowledge. When my agent and I discussed the hotels I’d chosen, I learned that one of my selections was fully booked and that a two-night minimum was required at my other choices. My agent helped me rearrange my schedule and pointed out that the San Juan city tour I requested wouldn’t be available on the dates I was in the city. All of the adjustments to my itinerary were accomplished in minutes. With her help, I was also able to stretch my budget and add an extra night on the island. While I’m a seasoned traveler, the expertise of my Delta Vacations agent assured me that there would be minimal glitches in my trip.
Welcomed advice wasn’t restricted to my booking. When I was checking in for my flight at the Delta ticketing counter at LAX, the Delta agent noticed I was flying into San Juan. It turned out that San Juan was one of her favorite destinations, and she gave me numerous impromptu dining and nightlife tips.
My first three nights were spent in San Juan at the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. This Condado neighborhood property is a great recommendation for those looking for a beach resort experience within minutes of Old San Juan. Condado itself is filled with shops, restaurants and nightlife, so options abound directly outside of the hotel. I relied on taxis in San Juan, so I can’t really comment on driving conditions in the capital. From observation, it looks more challenging than the rest of the island, and I was told that parking can be a hassle, especially in Old San Juan.
I had arranged complimentary transfers between the San Juan Marriott and the airport and this made it easy to pick up my car when I checked out, since my driver dropped me off at the off-airport location for my Alamo rental.
Out on highway 22, heading west to Rincon, driving was a breeze. Visitors from the U.S. should find driving in Puerto Rico relatively easy. Driving is on the right and highway signs are in both English and Spanish. You may find yourself relying on maps, since there are spots on the island where a GPS doesn’t function (for example, Rincon, where I was heading). A couple of things to watch out for: Puerto Rican drivers use their turn signals at whim, and merging onto the highway can be a test of wills so definitely drive defensively.
I fell in love with Rincon and hope to return for a longer stay. The pace is laidback, the ambience is rustic and the beaches are fantastic. It’s a prime destination for surfers, although you don’t have to be an accomplished surfer to enjoy the waves, which are great for body-surfing. I spent a pleasant couple of hours at sunset, on the deck of Tamboo, dining on steamed mussels and drinking Medalla, a popular local beer. Tamboo has been singled out as one of the best beach bars in the world.
While in Rincon I took a day to drive south to explore Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city. I headed to the old part of town, which is great for exploring on foot since there seems to be a historic building on every block. The afternoon in Ponce was another example of how having a rental car added flexibility and increased options for my trip.
I stayed at The Lazy Parrot in Rincon, which is a two-star hotel with only 21 rooms. It’s a good choice for travelers who don’t require coddling. You’ll find yourself carrying your own luggage from the parking lot across the street; the pool could use a little tender loving care and the rooms are modest. Recommend the Lazy Parrot for budget-minded travelers who would rather spend their money on local restaurants and sightseeing.
The third leg of my visit to Puerto Rico required a drive back along the way I came, and then further east of San Juan to the Rio Mar area, where I was booked into the Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa. During my two days, I especially enjoyed the seafood kiosks of Luquillo and a drive through the El Yunque Rainforest, stopping at one waterfall after another and enjoying brilliant views from the rainforest’s observation towers. These experiences would have been more difficult and less customized if we hadn’t opted to rent our own vehicle. It gave us lots of room for serendipity during our trip, from stopping by the side of the road to chat with a local selling Labrador retriever pups, sharing oysters at a Luquillo food stand with Wyndham workers on their day off to shopping for souvenirs in sleepy Aguadilla.