Viajamos a Puerto Rico! (Part 1)

One of the best things about college is Spring Break. Since I started grad school at Western Illinois University in January, I have been looking forward to the week off from classes and dreaming of where I could go. After looking into several options, I ended up deciding on Puerto Rico and convinced two of my friends from DC to join the trip. Flights from DC were cheaper, and I had enough miles accumulated to cover my flight from Bloomington to DC so I figured it would work best to fly out of DC. So I flew to DC and met up with Sarah and Chelsey, and also had a good chance to see some of my old friends from my time in DC. I went to the Iowa State gamewatch and even went to brunch. Our flight left late Sunday night, and we arrived in much warmer San Juan at 2 am.

We rented a car for our three days in Puerto Rico since public transportation is not great. And since we had a limited amount of time the car provided us the opportunity to get out and see a little more of the island. After a slow start, we did some shopping in San Juan to get a few supplies, including some lunch to have a picnic in El Yunque. Many of the franchises in San Juan are American, including plenty of fast food restaurants and pharmacies.

We headed out on the open road, following Google Maps for directions to El Yunque. As we got further from San Juan, the Burger Kings and Walgreens gave way to roadside produce stands and small restaurants. We kept climbing higher and higher and finally decided to stop and stretch and take in the view. While we were standing on the side of the road, a helpful Puerto Rican man stopped by and asked us if we were headed to El Yunque. We said we were and he told us that we were way off – apparently this happens a lot as Google Maps gives the incorrect location! He was very kind and helpful in giving us the right directions and we headed back down the curving road to try again.

La Coca Falls, Puerto Rico
La Coca Falls in El Yunque National Forest

We made it to El Yunque without any further problems and headed into the rainforest to check things out. El Yunque is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, it is approximately 28,000 acres of Carribean tropical rain forest, which is on the small size for a national forest. Much of the protected area is the Luquillo Mountains, with an elevation of 3,533 ft. above sea level. Like Table Mountain in Cape Town, it is named for a distinctive topographical feature. El yunque is Spanish for ‘the anvil’ and reflects the flattened top of the namesake mountain. Much of the rainforest is drivable, but there are also many trails. Unfortunately, we were low on time and even lower after our detour, so we didn’t have much time to really go for a hike. We stopped at the first waterfall, La Coca Falls, which is right on the main road.

La Mina Falls, Puerto Rico
Swimming in La Mina Falls

After taking a few pictures, we continued down the road to La Mina Falls. To get to La Mina, there is a short hike, but the path is well maintained and well trod. This is a popular swimming spot, and even though it was a little cool in the shade there were tons of people swimming and frolicking in the waterfall. It was a great place to have a picnic and chill out for a hour or so.

After checking out the highlights at El Yunque, we headed to Fajardo, which was where we would be spending the next two nights. We were looking forward to taking a nighttime swim in the Bio Bay – until our host told us that while the water was open to the public, in order to get there you had to rent a kayak or go with a tour group. After some last-minute research, we admitted defeat. Guess we’ll just have to come back!

We decided to go out for a nice dinner and found a place called La Estacion (an homage to the fact it used to be a gas station). We decided to sample a few different things, including traditional dishes of mofongo and pinchos. Mofongo is made from fried green plaintains, mashed with seasonings, usually garlic and bacon or pork rinds. This was served with a mahi-mahi and shrimp sauce and was absolutely delicious! Pinchos are skewers of meat, similar to a kabob or souvlaki and were also delicious! Fully satiated, we grabbed a few local beers and headed back to our apartment and ended our first full day in Puerto Rico.