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Welcome to Puerto Rico: home of beautiful beaches, crazy drivers, and fried food! Seriously, all three of these things exist in abundance on this gorgeous island.
Let me tell you about my quick jaunt to Puerto Rico…
Even though Puerto Rico is part of the United States (a territory, in fact) it is still part of the Caribbean and a full day of travel from my home base here in New Mexico. So after a flight to Fort Lauderdale, my friend and I hopped an interesting flight to San Juan. By interesting I mean this:
- Approximately two-thirds of our plane was reading Fifty Shades of Grey including a woman whose husband was seated in our row. We did our best to ignore the “romantic interludes” happening as he read over her shoulder. (Insert eye roll here. Save it for the bedroom, people).
- After being pushed away from the gate, we had to go back to the gate for a “medical emergency.” By this I mean, four people seemingly changed their minds about flying to Puerto Rico, stood up and exited the plane. Everyone seemed to be able-bodied and not currently in the throes of a medical condition.
I overhear this half of an exchange from a flight attendant: “Oh, he’s a service dog? Well, he still can’t sit on the tray.” (People make fun of me for carrying Clorox wipes on the plane. THIS is exactly why I carry them. A dog’s pooper was on the surface where you enjoy your peanuts and drink. Think on that a while.
People sitting in the exit row refused to help but then didn’t understand why they were asked to move.
Everyone applauds when they land the plane. Maybe I just fly too much to appreciate the spontaneous joy of touching down on a runway.
My friend, Jenn, and I hop off the plane, avoid the baggage claim as we carried on and set off to find her friend (and now mine!), the Greek-a-Rican. (Brilliant nickname for a Greek who fell in love with Puerto Rico and moved there!)
Our first stop is to get a bite to eat and we end up at this wonderful little place that I’ll describe as a series of “food trailers” (think food trucks that are permanently parked). It is here that we are introduced to the Puerto Rican institution of fried food. Our Greek-a-Rican tour guide orders up a selection
of alcapurrias – delectable little things: meat that’s been deep fried in a delicious covering – and some cold Medalla beer. The weather is beautiful, there’s music and deep fried deliciousness, everyone is dressed to impress and is enjoying the evening. It’s almost enough to make me forget that I’m wearing sneakers and a pair of capri pants with Oreo filling smushed on the thigh. I vow to do better tomorrow and we head home to catch up and get some sleep.
Our first full day includes breakfast in old San Juan and I’m immediately struck by how crazy the driving really is on the island. Secondly, I’m struck by the buildings. Everything looks straight out of a movie set. Buildings are done in the colonial style and are brightly colored. I know we have time to see much more of the old city on Monday, so we head out to see the sights. When I say sights, I mean beaches and Puerto Rico has some stunning ones.
Spending a day at the beach seems to be the Puerto Rican way to live. People come prepared to lounge, swim, eat and drink for the span of an entire day. Our friend tells us that in Puerto Rico it’s not legal to have a “private beach” and
for that reason, you’ll see folks pulled over pretty much anywhere it looks safe to swim. Carpe diem, I say! We stopped at a secluded bit of beach to finally jump into the waters.
I cannot get enough ocean swimming even though I know a sunburn is inevitable. We stay in the water as long as possible, but as we have a destination in mind for today, we eventually haul our waterlogged bodies out of the surf. Since our friend and guide, Manos, promises to feed us more fried goodies and to make a stop along The Pork Highway (what?!) for some lechón (a whole pig slowly roasted on a spit), we pile into the car and head out.
We’re headed eventually to a little town on the southwestern coast called La Parguera, but we’ve got a few stops to make along the way. Stop number one is at a roadside stand where we meet some friends of our guide know simply as Juan y Cuba. Juan y Cuba are cooking up the tastiest frituras in all of Puerto Rico and we make a quick stop at the stand for some bacalaíitos – salt cod fritters or, as I like to call them, fried heaven on earth – and for some pinonos – slices of plaintain filled with seasoned ground beef,
fried of course. Las Frituras while not super diet friendly are amazingly tasty.
Don’t be afraid to stop at one of these little roadside stands. The cooking isn’t fancy, but it’s delicious. Ask around for a recommendation or stop at one with lots of locals on line. If you’re headed along our same route, make sure you stop along The Pork Highway (really, it’s a thing) to have a taste of lechón. This slow roasted pork is delectable. We ate very well in Puerto Rico.
Along our drive to the other coast we pass through the beautiful mountains of Puerto Rico. Wait…what? Mountains? Yes! I didn’t know it either, but the island is quite mountainous.
Plenty of gorgeous beaches await us this side of the mountains as well and I’m thankful that we have a couple of days to swim, meet up with some friends, to explore – oh, and eat more food: pinchos, corn drenched in butter, papas asadas….yummy!
There’s so much to do on this side of the island, but we’ve come to La Parguera for one specific reason…to swim in the Bioluminescent Bay.
Puerto Rico has a few of these bioluminescent bays. Both of my friends have been to the bay in La Parguera before. After some crossed wires and a cheap (and fairly disappointing) outing into the bay the first night, we all agreed that we’d postpone our drive back to San Juan to have another go at the bioluminescence. We signed up with Paradise Scuba and Snorkeling to go out on the 6:30 tour. There are lots of tour providers in town, but I would highly recommend springing for the experience you’ll get with Paradise.
We headed out into the balmy evening on a beautiful boat where we were fed chicken empanadas (yay! más frituras!) and more ice cold Medalla (yay! más cerveza!) while we made the slow cruise to a secluded bay of water about 12 feet deep. Once anchored, Captain Kiko shares with us all a little bit about the bioluminescent bay and what makes it so special. Conditions are just right in this area of water to attract and retain tiny plankton called dinoflagellates. These little guys light up or luminesce when agitated. How do you agitate plankton, you ask? Well, you swim with them. Jenn and Manos jumped into the water before the captain had finished the last word of his speech. I remained on board for a few moments to try to capture this phenomenon with my good camera – to no avail. After a few shots that didn’t render the desired outcome, I left the camera aboard in a dry bag, and jumped into the warm water myself.
There are really no words in English or in Spanish (or in any other language) to convey what a magical experience this is, but I’m going to try. The water in this bay is warm, about 88 degrees F, and it’s calm. With the boat lights out, you can see what seems like every star in the universe in the sky and in the water you see a magical glitter. These little plankton begin to shine and twinkle as you swim. It’s almost as if you’re covered in some kind of magical fairy dust or water stars. The experience is enough to make grown men giggle in delight like little girls – and they did. We all did. Our 45 minutes in the water with these little dinoflagellates ended much too quickly. I plan to go back – as many times as I can in my lifetime. There’s nothing like it.
Feeling giddy from swimming in such a magical environment, we hate to leave, but we’ve got reservations at the Hilton Caribe in San Juan for a couple of nights…..