We returned to Puerto Rico for our friends’ wedding. The bride and groom exchanged their vows on a sweet spot on San Juan‘s Condado Beach. Witnessed by beloved family, friends, the ocean, the wind, and the sun, the happy couple beamed. They looked like they just stepped out of a fairy tale, breathtakingly beautiful. We were all enchanted.
After two days of wedding fun and catching up with friends, Jeff and I set off to Ponce. Wanting to experience the mountainous region of Puerto Rico, go off the beaten path for a bit, and absorb the local culture, we chose a less straightforward route from San Juan to Ponce. We went west on route 22 and then south on route 10.
We stopped by La Cueva del Indio, an off-the-map cave site by the ocean, in Arecibo area. A woman named Carmen welcomed us as we parked in front of El Coayuco cafe. She gave a brief overview about the cave and told us how to get around the site. According to Carmen, Taino Indian (15th century) used the cave to hide from the Spaniards. We then paid $2 for parking and went on a short hike to the cave. The challenging hike on the cliff’s spiky and rocky surface led to a few magnificent views of the area. The cave itself hid at the bottom of the cliff. It looked like some kind of an entrance to the underworld. A ladder was prepared for those who wanted to see the inside of this small hiding place with an opening to the ocean. Carmen said that the Taino used that opening to swim away from the Spaniards chase. A few petroglyphs covered the walls of the hideout and some bats hung out at the very tall ceiling of the cave. We climbed back up to take in the gorgeous scenery of the ocean and the surrounding beaches. The ocean breeze sure felt nice. We ended the visit with gulping coco frio that Carmen sold (at $1.50 a coconut) at the cafe. The perfect thirst quencher on such a hot day.
Another off-the-map site we visited was Cueva Ventana on route 10. A short hike inside of the cave would have taken us to a picturesque view of the valley. But as we got close to the mouth of the cave, the sky turned dark and started to growl with thunder and lightning. Not fully equipped with hiking/rain gear we decided to retreat. The minute we reached our car, as if on cue, the rain poured hard and lasted for the whole afternoon.
We continued the trip to Lagos dos Bocas, a merely 10-minute drive from Cueva Ventana, for lunch. I asked a girl, who was waiting around with her family, to tell me about how to get on the ferry to go to the restaurant across the lake. She explained that there were four restaurants we could go to. She also mentioned that this particular line she was in was for El Fogon de Abuela restaurant and that I should get on the wait list. Then she pointed to a guy who has the wait list. This friendly and kind gentleman, Francisco, took down our names and asked us to wait for the ferry. He warned that it might take a while since all of the four restaurants were full and busy. It was Mother’s day after all! (You could also drive to the restaurant. But hey, “When in Rome…”) Thankfully, Jeff and I had a big breakfast to hold us over. Joining all local tourists, mostly families with children, we waited. Meanwhile, the rain continued to fall.
Finally Francisco called our names and the short boat ride took us to El Fogon de Abuela. The restaurant has this open-air but covered seating area with a nice view of the lake and a relaxed ambiance. Jeff ordered a super delicious goat stew and I had my favorite Puerto Rican cuisine: shrimp mofongo. We only heard Spanish conversations that afternoon. I wished I spoke the language so that, at least, I could respond properly to the nice woman who offered me her umbrella. But she also understood and spoke English anyway (as many do in Puerto Rico). In a strange but good way, it felt nice not being able to tune into any conversations for a moment. We simply enjoyed the happy and friendly environment.
After refueling with mofongo and goat stew, we headed south to Ponce. Route 10 became this curvy route 123 passing through small towns such as Utuado and Adjuntas. From the road, the little towns looked like they had these low-hanging clouds, mountains, and valleys as the backdrop. The view reminded us of Tretes in Java. Quaint and beautiful. Each little town we passed seemed to have its own little cafe playing either reggaeton or salsa music. Local patrons sat and enjoyed each other’s company. We crawled slowly on this very narrow and winding two-way road. Thankfully we got a small rental car.
It was late when we got to Ponce. We drove into the historic colonial district and checked into our hotel. Didn’t want to waste a beautiful night, we joined the Ponceños and just hung out at the their town’s main square, Plaza Las Delicias.
The next morning we drove northeast toward Fajardo to catch our East Island Excursion catamaran tour to Culebra island. Ocean fun was next in our itinerary. With all English speaking tourists we snorkeled for a bit at the Luis Pena underwater preserve and then spent the rest of the afternoon at the Flamenco beach of Culebra. While in Fajardo, we also caught a night tour to check out the Bioluminescent Bay. It was my first time to kayak…at night…in an ocean bay that illuminated when touched!
We left Fajardo late morning. It was time to return to San Juan and the airport. I tried to stretch our Puerto Rico experience a little longer by asking Jeff to pull up for an early lunch somewhere along highway 3. There were tons of food kiosks along the way. As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” 🙂
- On the part about snorkeling in Culebra, the tour provides snorkeling gear. But we brought our own since we have them. Lunch, snacks, and drinks are provided during the tour.
- Bring a light rain jacket when traveling to Puerto Rico in May. It’s their rainiest month!
- The restaurants at Lagos dos Bocas are open during the weekend.
- A smile and saying “Hi” goes a long way. The Puerto Ricans we met were the friendliest people.
Travel info sources:
- NYTimes Travel section on Puerto Rico (along with the readers’ comments)
- Puerto Rico Day Trips
- Puerto Rico Places To Go 2011/2012 travel book (online version: enjoypuertorico.com)
Photos property of The Traveling Chili Pepper