Exploring Puerto Rico

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Central America Caribbean » Puerto Rico
December 28th 2009
Published: April 6th 2016
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The ferry from Vieques dropped us off in the town of Fajardo, on Puerto Rico’s east coast. We found a ride to the rental car office about twenty minutes south of town and a short time later we were in our rental car heading west along the north shore of the island. We passed the capitol of San Juan and continued for a while before we turned south and headed into the island’s mountainous interior. After a few more hours of winding mountain roads and stunning vistas we crossed over a deep ravine and found our home for the coming days.

We were staying at Casa Grande, a lovely yoga retreat located on a lush hillside in the rugged center of Puerto Rico. We quickly got moved in and started relaxing. Our room had a lovely view out over the grounds and beyond to the steep, forested mountains. We spent the remainder of that first day swimming in the lodge’s small pool and relaxing with coffee and tea while we read and took in the lovely mountain scenery. That evening we ate in the lodge’s dinning room and then we headed back to the room for some much needed sleep.

The following morning started early with an amazing yoga class in the lodge’s studio. The owner of the lodge, a man who had relocated to Puerto Rico from somewhere in New England, was the yoga instructor. The class ended up being one of the best yoga classes I had ever had. The tropical breeze blew in through the louvered windows of the studio and a hard rain drummed on the roof as we practiced our breathing. By the time our hour was up we were thoroughly relaxed and ready for our day. At breakfast we discussed our plans. It was Christmas Eve and I knew that it would be my only chance to see a place that I had wanted to see for years. I also knew that Maria had no interest in seeing it, so she stayed in the hammock with a book and I hit the road.

A few hours later I pulled into a non-descript parking area beside a sign that said Arecibo Observatory. I climbed up a steep series of stairs that led to the top of a ridge and from there I continued to a small building at the end of the long path. I paid my admission and then I entered. The museum was small but informative and I spent a while learning about the science that took place at the observatory. When I had seen it all I walked out on the viewing platform and took in the full majesty of the world’s largest radio telescope. The 1000-foot diameter spherical collector was built into a karst sinkhole in the early 1960s and has been in continuous use ever since. I first learned of the telescope from James Bond and again in the movie Cosmos. It was amazing to stand above the massive collector and look out at the receiver structure that was suspended high above the spherical surface. It was a beautiful engineering marvel and it was set in a lovely landscape of rugged, forested hills. I bought an ice cream and then I started my slow walk back down to the car. It had been an amazing visit to a place that I had always wanted to see!

I found Maria asleep in the hammock at Casa Grande when I got back. She had had a relaxing day filled with swimming, and tea, and her book and she was happy that I had gone off on my own – She was not as interested in space as I was, so she would have been bored. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at Casa Grande and then we headed into town, about forty-five minutes down the road for some pizza. On the way back we stopped at a small jungle reserve where we took in the lovely greenery for a while. We made it back to Casa Grande before dark and we spent the evening watching the stars and listening to the breeze blowing through the palms.

We woke up early on Christmas and went back down to the yoga studio for another wonderful class. The rain was back, as was the breeze, and the class was even more relaxing than the previous morning. We spent all of Christmas at Casa Grande and walking around the adjacent settlement on the opposite side of the gorge. The gorge itself had some stunning scenery so we had a lot of fun. We ate a special Christmas dinner at the lodge and then we sat around reading with a cup up tea. Our Christmas in the Caribbean had been wonderful and relaxing.

The following day was a long one. We ate breakfast at Casa Grande and then we said farewell and set off. Our destination was the city of Ponce on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, but we took a circuitous path that had a few interesting places to see along the way. We were in Puerto Rico’s famous coffee growing region and we loved coffee, so a stop was in order. The hacienda we were headed to was near another interesting spot called La Piedra Escrita. The place was known for its well-preserved petroglyphs and I wanted to take a look. It took a little while to find the place, but before long we were parked and headed off to explore. The trail led from the parking area down the slope to the Rio Saliente where we found a beautiful swimming hole in a lush canyon. In the center of the river was a large boulder with the carvings – There were geometric carvings, and some that resembled people, and a few that looked like strange creatures with big eyes and ears. The whole place was well preserved and very popular with the locals as a swimming area. We spent a while there and then we climbed back up the trail where we had lunch at one of the nearby restaurants.

When we were finished with lunch it was time for coffee. We headed to the well-reviewed Hacienda San Pedro. The Hacienda was a working coffee plantation and processer where the locals could bring their harvested beans and sell them. We could see the whole process from the rustic gift shop and the aroma of coffee filled the air. The roaster was not working when we were there, so the tours were not running. Instead we looked around a bit and then we got some coffee from the café. To say that it was the best cup of coffee I had ever had would have been an understatement – My taste buds were in heaven! We ended up buying several bags of their wonderful coffee and then we set our course for the coast. After a few hours of driving we came down out of the mountains and glimpsed the Caribbean as we drove into the famed colonial city of Ponce.

We didn’t have a hotel in mind when we arrived in Ponce. We knew that we wanted to stay near the heart of the city on Plaza Las Delicias. We found parking on a small side street near the plaza and we set out on foot to find a hotel. The first place we went was in a grand colonial building, but the smiling man in the ornate lobby told me that they didn’t have any rooms. He directed us to another hotel on the opposite side of the plaza called the Hotel Meliá. The Meliá was located in a grand old building located just off of the plaza. The hotel was built starting in 1895, which gave it the distinction of being the oldest hotel in Puerto Rico. We walked into the grand wood-paneled lobby and were told that they did have a room available. A few minutes later we were checked in and on our way up the grand stairs to our home for the night.

We were only going to be in Ponce for one night, so we quickly got settled in and headed out to explore Puerto Rico’s southern gem. Ponce was named for the Spanish Conquistador Ponce de León, from which its nickname, City of Lions, was derived. We headed out to Plaza Las Delicias to take in some of the city’s most famous sites. We strolled through the huge plaza and took in the monumental Catedral Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe, which was a massive cathedral built in 1931. Its twin bell towers formed an iconic part of the city’s skyline and helped set an artistic tone to the plaza. We paused at the odd red and black striped Parque de Bombas, a historic building that once housed the city’s volunteer fire department and we took in the revelry around the massive fountain. The fountain, Fuente de Leones, was originally part of the 1939 World Fair in New York and had been moved down to Ponce because of the lion motifs that dominated it. The fountain served as the plaza’s focal point and made for a festive place to sit and take in the sights. There were several colonial buildings surrounding the plaza, including the grand city hall and an old building that was being converted into a museum. We spent the entire afternoon and evening walking around Ponce and eating in the cafés and drinking coffee. We walked back through the plaza after dark and it was still a bustling, lively place. We headed back to the Meliá and called it a night.

The following morning we ate breakfast at the hotel’s buffet and then we headed out to walk around the plaza one last time. Afterwards we checked out of our historic hotel and said farewell to Ponce – It was a city that needed a lot more time than we had allotted, but it was time to move on. On our way out of town we made a detour to La Guancha Paseo Tablado, a recently developed boardwalk area on the sea. We spent a few hours walking around its lovely shops and restaurants while we took in the festive sights. The water surrounding the boardwalk area was filled with giant tarpon, a popular fish among sport fishermen, and there were pelicans and gulls everywhere. We ate lunch in one of the small fish stands and then we headed over to the beach for one last swim in the Caribbean. Once we had our fill of sun and sand we pointed our car eastward and headed out of the Ponce area toward unknown adventures in the jungle of El Yunque.

Our journey to the jungle took the rest of the day. We watched the sunset from the road as we headed back up into the mountainous interior of the island. By the time we left the highway and started finding our way on the narrow local roads it was dark. We followed the road signs that pointed towards El Yunque National Forest and eventually the road started climbing as it wound its way up the mountainside. After a bit of backtracking we arrived at the Casa Cubuy Ecolodge. The darkness hid the landscape from us, so all we could see of the lodge was its massive concrete, roadside structure. We spent the next few hours getting settled into our new room. The interior of the lodge was welcoming and pleasant. The common areas beckoned us to sit and play games and read. Our room was large and had a solid wall of windows that opened up to a huge balcony that looked out over the mysterious darkness of the jungle – We would have to wait until morning to see the view. We spent the evening relaxing and talking to some of the other people staying at the lodge and then we drifted off to sleep to the cacophony of the famous coquí frogs as they sang their nightly serenade.

The morning greeted us with a stunning view of the misty jungle sweeping down a huge gorge beneath our balcony. Our view of the jungle was unobstructed, with the exception of a few picturesque palms growing beside the building, and the blanket of trees and the muffled roar of a waterfall beckoned us to explore. We headed down to the dining room where we found a huge table set with breakfast. We sat down with the rest of the guests and had a wonderful communal breakfast with some of the first fresh fruit we had encountered on the island – It was a great way to start the day!

During breakfast we talked to several people about the different things to do in the area. They all spoke highly of the trail that started at the lodge and headed down into the gorge. It sounded amazing, so we decided to take a quick walk down after breakfast. The first part of the path served as the garden for the lodge, but it didn’t take long before we were in the jungle proper. There were plants with leaves the size of a person and there were big trees with sprawling buttresses. The trail eventually reached the small river that flowed down through the gorge and continued across via a rocky path that allowed you to hop across without getting wet. The river was not flowing strongly, but the waterfall and the surrounding landscape were beautiful. We headed back up to the lodge to get our swimsuits and to relax with a cup of coffee for a while.

After lunch we were in the jungle again. We followed the path back down to the river and then we crossed over and continued deeper into the jungle. The huge trees and the thick vegetation had some similarities to the forests I had explored in Peru, so I spent a lot of time pointing out some of my favorite features to Maria. Eventually the path returned to the river and we found some amazing swimming holes and more fun waterfalls to explore. We got acquainted with the small freshwater shrimp that called the jungle streams home. The small transparent shrimp would swarm us each time we stood still in the water and their bite felt like a tiny pinch that, when multiplied by dozens of shrimp, ended up being fairly uncomfortable. Despite the shrimp we both swam for a while in the cascading pools as we headed further down the river. Eventually we came to a twenty-foot drop-off that had a beautiful waterfall cascading into a turbulent pool at the bottom. Maria decided to sit in the sun while I climbed down to the lower pool. When I reached the pool I discovered that it was deep and so turbulent that I could not swim much, but it was like a cold spa with forceful jets so I stayed in for a while. When I climbed back up to where Maria was sitting I was exhausted.

We retraced our route back through the forest and up to the lodge. We spent the afternoon playing games with some of the other travelers there, and reading in the hammocks. When dinnertime arrived we decided to walk down the road with a few of the others staying at the lodge for a dinner at a local place. The dinner was simple, but good, despite the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables and we had a lot of fun. We returned to the lodge after dinner and relaxed a bit more before drifting back in to a coquí frog induced slumber.

The following morning found us back at the massive breakfast table for another great meal. After breakfast we packed up and said farewell to the magnificent rainforests of El Yunque. The road that led up and over the mountain had been washed out years before and never repaired, so we had to retrace our route back to the main highway and then we turned north and set our sights on the fabled city of San Juan and its massive fortress…

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