Islands, Jungles, Hammocks, and Machetes … a rare Puerto Rican adventure
**Warning: This story is longer than most because it’s not a story it’s an epic journey.
We were four best friends looking for something different, searching for adventure, and redefining travel for broke college students. During Spring Break of 2008 we set out on a journey that we would never forget.
As we approached the island I was shocked to look out of my Delta Airlines window and see towering green mountains jutting straight out of the ocean! For a second I thought we may have boarded the wrong flight and flown somewhere in the south pacific, but the truth was we were exactly where we wanted to be, Puerto Rico. We were there! The island was full of lush jungle covered mountains, turquoise water, and white sand beaches. My expectations of Puerto Rico were shattered and my heart was beating out of my chest. A full year of dreaming and planning and our adventure was about to start. Touch down was in San Juan, Puerto Rico a city enriched with history and Spanish culture, as well as the home of the Pina Colada and Bacardi Rum!
We came for adventure. To backpack an island. To explore a rainforest. To summit the highest peak. To get out and live…
We were equipped with cameras, backpacks and hammocks…the mission…to live the island life in a pure and primal fashion! So six out of the eight nights on the island we slept in hammocks under the stars! It was a Spring Break so out of the ordinary, it defied any kind of a budget, and had us waking up every morning to the sound of crashing waves as we dangled from palm trees at waters edge, asking ourselves “what the heck are we doing?” and “why do we ever have to leave?” Each night as the warm sea breeze swayed us to sleep I couldn’t help but dream of where this expedition might lead us tomorrow.
Our first night on the island we spent going out in the Old City!
We wound our way through the cobblestone streets searching for an authentic Puerto Rican restaurant and that’s exactly what we found. It was called “Barrachina” home to the original Pina Colada! It was invented here and is still served today. So for $7 you can enjoy the true taste! As we ate Spanish salsa, dancers performed on stage and got us in the festive mood to go out after a few more Pina Coladas!
If you want to go out and dance then you won’t find many discothèques in the Old City, but there are plenty in downtown San Juan. The Old City has open air bars that are usually full of local college students. Be careful to not take your drink on the streets, it is illegal to drink on the streets but this is not strictly enforced, but just to be safe, try to enjoy your brew inside the bars. We didn’t come to Puerto Rico to party it up with the locals. We had a different plan than most college spring breakers, we were here for adventure.
So we got some sleep in a hotel in downtown San Juan (diamond palace hotel casino, $149 a night, was a miserable hotel, but safe and cheap when split 4 ways). This would be the last bed we would sleep in for the next week and we wanted to rest up.
We headed southeast, in our rental car, to the rain forest of El Yunque to summit El Toro mountain, elevation 3,524 ft. El Toro is the highest peak in the Sierra de Luquillo of eastern Puerto Rico. We loaded up our backpacks with food for the next two days, rain jackets, gore-tex shoes, gaiters, cooking gear, and most importantly headlamps as it was about 6 p.m. when we began our trek into the wild. The trails were muddy, everything was wet, the sounds were beautiful..birds, frogs, and crazy unidentifiable noises.
Waterfalls all over this area made a showering easy, and we took dips in the cool pools underneath. This was the real deal! We were in the rain forest slugging through the mud on our way to the top of El Toro.
The sun set about two hours into the hike and the rest was by headlamp. We made the summit at around 10 p.m.! The peak is bald and we could almost see 360 degrees around us. It was one of the most beautiful summits any of us had ever seen.
It was dark of course but we could see the city lights of small towns all around the mountain, and the passing clouds caused an eerie flow as the lights appeared and disappeared behind the clouds! All four of us stood in amazement, wet, cold and mesmerized by this unexpected glow. We slept on top of the mountain that night, wet and cold. It was a night of little sleep and dreams of warm beaches cut short by our shivering bodies and chattering of teeth. The night seemed to last a lifetime.
It started at the first crack of dawn and four minor cases of hypothermia. Trembling as we packed our packs, we hit the trail as soon as we got loaded up.
Our bodies warmed up quickly as the sun broke through and we were down the mountain in about two and a half hours! It was beach time!! We drove to the port town of Fajardo and parked our car in front of a food stand that served fried empanadas and cooked plantains. We asked the owner if she could watch the car over the next few days, and prayed that it didn’t get broken into or towed! We got to the ferry docks and payed $2 for a 1.5 hour ferry ride to the island of Vieques (pronounced: Viekez). These ferries left only 3 times a day (make sure you get a real schedule of departure … they are hard to come by).
We had the option of paying more and taking our car but we decided we could deal without it. After the relaxing ferry ride from the mainland to the island, we got a short taxi ride to the south shore and the city of Esperanza. There we found beautiful white sand beaches, and chilled there all day. Rebelling against the miserable chain linked camp sites that cost $10 per tent, we decided to hike a 100 ft. sand bar by moonlight to a small uninhabited island just outside the city. There were seventy foot cliffs on the backside of the island and sturdy trees to set up our hammocks!
We set up camp and hiked back in town for dinner and a few drinks at the local bar! After dinner we signed up for a bioluminescent bay tour. For $30 the four of us and a few others got to paddle out in the middle of a still saltwater bay in the middle of the night! As we glided over the black water we noticed tiny lights in the water! Every time we touched the water with our paddles their was a burst of white light out of the darkness!! It was beautiful! Once out in the middle of the bay, we jumped out of our kayaks and swam through the dark water which illuminated with our every move! This was the craziest thing I had ever seen in my life and it was well worth the money!
We woke up in our hammocks and packed into town to eat some breakfast at a little café` called “Bellybuttons” where we got an amazing omelet! We hiked down the beach from the restaurant a few miles and found black sand beaches and beautiful cliffs and boulders lying in the shallows! That night we found an amazing campsite on the beach under a palm tree forest! This was by far our favorite campsite of the entire trip! It captured what we were there for … four hammocks hanging from the palms with a fire that we started in a coconut. We cooked our dinner, drank Mexican beer, told stories, and ran around the beach in loin cloths holding spears like we were performing a tribal ritual after a epic hunt! Once the clannish dances had settled down, we lay down on the warm sand and stared into the sky at the vast array of stars. As our huge fire crackled beside us, we passed out to crashing waves no more than fifteen feet from camp.
We woke to the beauty we had said good night to. We put out the fire with some ocean water and headed into town to get a cab to the port city. Today we headed to another island just north of Vieques called Culebra. The same stiff rate of $2 applied to this hour long ride through paradise. We had to go back to Fajardo on the mainland and take the next ferry to Dewy, Culebra. From there we jumped in another cab in search of Travel Channel’s #2 ranked beach in North America: Playa Flamenco Beach. It did not let us down. We grabbed a bit of lunch and walked to the beach gasping at the beauty inbetween bites of our chicken-on-a-stick Caribbean style. The whiter than Destin, Florida sand served as a dramatic contrast to the light blue waters and had us all stuck in a real Corona commercial. We set up our hammocks wishing we were on our honeymoons. Too bad we were four dudes camping.
We hiked over a hill on the west side of Playa Flamenco. A trail that started in the back corner of the parking lot took about half an hour to hike and led to great off shore snorkeling! We spent the last hours of our trip exploring the tropical coral and colorful fish! On our hike back to the beach we came to the realization that this insanity had to stop somewhere. The ferry ride was quiet with reflection. The four of us leaned on the back of the boat staring, as we sailed away, at the paradise we called home for the last week … wishing it never had to end we all understood we had just experienced the purest adventure of our lives, only leaving us wanting more.
Although this story sounds like something you would find written on papyrus in a lost cave, we actually did this last year for spring break all for under $600 per person including airfare !!!
-go to Esparanza
-black sand beach
-Kayak Fly Fishing ($150)
- Playa Flaminco beach (Travel channels #2 beach)
Airfare: $300-$360 out of Atlanta. The Caribbean doesn’t get much cheaper than this!
What to see:
Old San Juan:
Watch the sun set over the Caribbean as you stand on the ancient walls that protected this city. San Juan is one of the largest and most easterly cities in the Caribbean. It was the first fortress that enemies confronted when entering the Caribbean islands. The Old City has a small town European feel to it. Go fly kites with the locals in the old city park area right on the water, bordered by the old fortress wall.
1. San Juan National Historic site – public park popular for flying kites, on the edges of the park is SiteCastillo San Felipe del Morro (or el Morro) – the main Spanish fortress called Castillo San Cristóbal, $5 entry, great panoramic view of the bay
2. Alcadia – San Juan’s City hall, built in 1602.
3. The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture
4. Casa Blanca, western end of Calle San Sebastián, (787) 721-7000, ext. 2358. Ancestral home of the Ponce de Leon family, now a museum.
5. La Fortaleza, western end of Calle Fortaleza, (787) 724-1454.- Oldest governor’s mansion in continuous use in the New World.
6. San Jose Church – (1532) Second oldest church in continuous use in the New World.
7. San Juan Cathedral, 153 Calle Cristo. (1540) Burial site of Ponce de Leon.
8. San Juan Gate – Traditional entrance to San Juan.
9. Ballaja Barracks – Museum of Americas highlights colorful folk art.
10. La Casa del Libro – Museum of the art and history books through five centuries.
What to do: This Island is overlooked by most travelers, from island hopping to surfing to partying it up on the west coast! Puerto Rico offers endless Adventure! Beaches, islands, rainforests, surfing, fishing, hiking, camping, kayaking, snorkeling ..what ever the scene Puerto Rico probably has it! This island is filled with towering mountains, tropical rainforests, picturesque islands, and bustling cities that will make your break one to remember!
The Old City:
-Night Life: As the sun sets, the night heats up! Bar hopping in San Juan’s Old City is an experience in itself! Walk the cobblestone streets and mingle with the local College scene, and sipping pina coladas from the bar where they were first invented! As you hop from bar to bar, this home to Bacardi Rum beats to Caribbean steel drums and house music!
Rincon: West coast College town. World class surfing. Young crowd
How we did it:
We rented a car (Enterprise in San Juan, who will rent to 21+), Confusing streets, groceries, saved $$ by sleeping on the beach, we got a 2 person room the first and the last nightw we were in San Juan, so 2 of us snuck in after the other 2 were already up in the room.
How much it cost us:
Airfare: $350 out of Atlanta. Rental Car:$200 total, so $50 split 4 ways Hotel:$140 total per night (2 nights)
Ferry rides $2 each.
Food: $100 – $150
By Campbell, Clark, Andrew, and Hunter