I saw that JetBlue had very cheap flights to Puerto Rico. The cheapest flights were not San Juan but rather Aguadilla and Ponce. Having never been to Puerto Rico, I decided to go! I picked Aguadilla because the flight left later on Sunday.
March 4, 2023: The Northwest
Flights from New York to Puerto Rico often leave at horrible times and this one was no exception. It left New York at 23:30. The flight left on time and took about 3.5 hours. With the time change, we landed at 4:00, making it not quite a red eye.
The Aguadilla airport is a former military base, and the terminal is a converted hangar. I walked to my pre-booked rental car at Dollar Rent-A-Car. When it came time to pay, the number he quoted seemed high. So, I checked my “confirmed” Expedia reservation and noticed that he was overcharging me by $30. He said that bookings on third party websites are “merely estimates” and the car rental company is free to charge you whatever they want.
While I could obviously pay the $30, I was angry on principle and decided to shop around and see if there were any other companies who had cars. Shockingly, every other rental car company was out of cars for month! With my tail between my legs, I walked back to Dollar and paid the higher rate. After more closely analyzing the bills, it appears I was charged the same base rate for both bookings, but the actual bill had higher taxes and fees than on the Expedia reservation. One of those fees was for using my own insurance and declined their coverage, which is total BS means one can never pay the listed price.
By the time I got my car, it was 5:30 and I was very tired. I drove to a random parking lot and slept in the car for 2 hours. Not great, but it was something. Add in the 3 hours of sleep from the inbound flight and I had just enough energy to get through the day.
I noticed that all the signs were in Spanish. Despite being a US territory, Puerto Rico felt very different. I also noticed that gas is priced by the liter here.
For breakfast, I stopped at a local bakery for a classic ham/cheese sandwich. It was very tasty.
With a lot to explore, I decided to start by driving to Ruinas del Faro, just a few minutes from the airport. The park had ruins of the 100-year-old lighthouse as the name suggests, but the best part was hiking in the nature nearby.
Next, I drove slightly further south to Playa Crash Boat, one of Puerto Rico´s more famous beaches. I´m not sure where the beach gets its name, but there is a jetty extending into the water that causes some unusually shaped waves. I really enjoyed the beach culture, which had lots of grilling, music, and casual drinking despite being only 9:00.
Heading further south, I reached the actual town of Aguadilla. The southern end of the town has a park where Columbus reportedly landed in 1493 on his second voyage. The park also has a large banyan tree with a walk-through treehouse.
Based on a recommendation, I drove inland to Cascadas Gozalandia. After paying the $10 for parking, I was free to explore the two jungle waterfalls. Both waterfalls were a 5-minute walk from the parking lot. While at the second waterfall, I saw the car rental guy leading a tour group! He walked by me and gave me the meanest side eye.
Before heading to lunch, I stopped at their bar for a passionfruit mojito, a specialty of the island. For some reason, passionfruit is called parcha on Puerto Rico (unlike everywhere else where it is called maracuya).
For lunch, I drove into the nearby town of San Sebastian for mofongo, a food that I ate often in the Dominican Republic. As the islands are adjacent, the cultures are very similar. The big difference is the level of English. Despite the signs all being in Spanish, everybody in Puerto Rico knows perfect English – which is not true in the DR. For somebody trying to practice their Spanish, Puerto Rico is a frustrating place because the people will immediately jump to English as soon as you make the slightest mistake.
I then drove to my final stop of the day, Rincon. Rincon is known as a gringo surf town. The vibes were there. As soon as I pulled into the town, I noticed two bleach blonde very tan guys holding surf boards. I checked into my hotel- which is technically a surf hostel- in the center. There I met some of the other guests including another weekend tripper from Orlando, a group of spring breakers from Florida Atlantic University and a long-haired 19-year-old from Connecticut who put his life on hold to become a surfer, dude.
It seems like Rincon is a place where people intend to spend a couple days here and it suddenly turns into a couple weeks or even months.
After stopping for kombucha, I headed over to Rincon´s most popular beach: Playa Domes, named for the abandoned nuclear facility nearby. The beach itself was beautiful. There also was a café overlooking the beach playing music with excellent vibes.
Playa Domes is also near the historic Rincon lighthouse (Faro), which is a local landmark. The area surrounding the lighthouse is a popular park with locals.
Back in Rincon, I wandered the tiny town before grabbing a piña colada to watch the sunset. Seemingly the entire town turned up to the beach.
Interestingly, the sun did not set right on the water – it instead set behind the 3,000+ meter-tall Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic which was normally invisible to the naked eye during the day but revealed by the sunset.
For dinner, a few of us from the hostel went to a brewery before going dancing in the bar attached to the hostel. There was live music and the young surfer dude from Connecticut was rizzing up the spring breakers. Young love!
March 5, 2023: The Southwest
While I probably could have stayed another day in Rincon to take a surfing lesson, I decided to continue exploring. Many people recommended I visit Cabo Rojo, the southwestern-most point in Puerto Rico, so I planned a day around that.
My first stop heading south was the town of Mayaguez. Mayaguez is Puerto Rico´s 9th largest city and is a university town. It is also known for the landmark Ricomini Bakery, home of one of the best Brazos Gitanos (a rolled cake that literally means “Gypsy arms”) on the island. After waiting in a quick line, I ordered my cake – guava flavored – and proceeded to eat 3/4 of the enormous roll in the car. It had at least 600% of my daily recommended intake of sugar but it was worth it.
The center of Mayaguez was not far, so I also stopped by there. The city has a colonial center centered around the plaza major. Like in every other Spanish colonial city, the square had the city hall and the cathedral. Since it was Sunday, the cathedral was packed for Mass, but I get the feeling that this place is a ghost town the rest of the week.
From Mayaguez, it was a 1-hour drive to Cabo Rojo. As the name suggests, the cape is more than just a single point, but rather a district. However, the tip of the cape is a national wildlife refuge run by the US federal government.
I took a 30-minute hike around the wetlands.
Next, I drove towards the lighthouse that marks the end of the cape. However, the road was blocked due to damage from Hurricane Maria. The 2017 storm enacted horrible damage from which the island has still not recovered.
So, it was a 15-minute walk to the lighthouse. The lighthouse was just okay, but the surrounding headlands were stunning.
Just north of the cape is Playa Sucia, located on its own impossibly shaped peninsula.
The name translates to dirty beach and seem appropriate given all the washed-up seaweed. Still, it was the most peaceful beach I have seen so far on the island.
It was now lunchtime, and I was hungry. Based on some blogs, I headed up to Annie´s Place on Playa Combate, the only real town on the peninsula. The restaurant was situated on the water and provided stellar views of the beach. I especially enjoyed seeing the jet skiers in the water.
With that, it was time to head to the airport to turn in my rental car (I actually had more time to kill before the flight but the “24-hour” rental car shop closes between 6-8pm on Sundays. Go figure). On the way, I stopped for the most delicious smoothie ever, picked up a friend from the hostel in Rincon and got a sandwich.
We dropped the car off just in time and wandered around the town before heading to back to the airport to fly home.
Let´s start with the obvious: the weather and the beaches were impeccable. For most people, this is all you can ask for in a tropical vacation. I enjoyed the different beach vibes from the party at Crash Boat and Domes to the quieter Sucia. There is a beach for everybody. My friends who have spent time on the island say that the West is wilder and quieter.
The rest of the landscape was okay. I enjoyed my hikes, but it wasn´t anything super special. The eastern part of the island has the famous El Yunque National Forest, so perhaps that is the better place for nature.
The towns were nothing special. Puerto Rico clearly has a strong culture and history, but it did not show in the west. I am certain that you can find this in San Juan. The one exception to this is Rincon, which has the surfing culture and is an anomaly.
The people all seemed nice enough. I have no strong opinions on the Puerto Rican people except that they have zero tolerance for speaking Spanish poorly. If you are not fluent, they will just switch to English, which I suppose is a nice courtesy but is frustrating if you are trying to practice. I also find it funny that they called me “papi” everywhere.
All in all, I am glad that I went to the West, but 2 days was enough for a non-surfer. I do look forward to seeing the rest of the island – especially San Juan.