Old San Juan. Cemetery and fortress by the water. Photo by Kristin Carlson.
A crapped out Geo Tracker, a bottle of rum, a couple peanut butter sandwiches, and miles of postcard perfect beaches all to yourself---what could be better? If you’re willing to hit Puerto Rico during hurricane season, this lush otherwordly island is cheap, too. The best summer vacation I’ve taken yet was a 10 day trip encompassing Old San Juan, El Yunque Rainforest, and Isla de Vieques. In fact, it was so good that I did it three times and even got married during the last one.
High season (expensive season) in the Caribbean is November through May. That’s why summer, or hurricane season---June through October---is the best time to go. Personally, I don’t like an “escape” to the islands with a flock of other people. If I’m going, I want to be alone in the jungle with a good book and my Bacardi. In my experience, capitalizing on other people’s fear of hurricanes has proven a very effective way to make that happen. With direct flights to San Juan from almost any major airport hub in the country, you can be there in a matter of hours with nothing more than a driver’s license and a swimsuit.
I have ordered the subsequent sections by degree of isolation, from least to most, for your convenience in total alone-with-the-wilderness Caribbean vacationing.
Vieques from the air. One of the many beaches you'll discover. Photo by Kristin Carlson.
The Bacardi Factory. Don’t go. It’s a mob scene, a long bus ride then ferry ride then second bus ride and walking sequence, and you don’t even get to see the real rum production area. You ride a little trolley through what is basically a Disney-fied stage set and earn a couple of free rum punches. There is no rum tasting. You are then funneled into a gift shop where you can purchase marked-up Bacardis that you haven’t been allowed to taste.
The Old San Juan region of the capital city is quietly bustling with locals and travelers. It provides history, culture, architecture, and original pirates’ forts to visit. Its above-ground cemeteries are filled with beautiful statues of angels and saints, white marble headstones, and changing memorial candles and flowers set against a backdrop of blue sky and crashing waves. In the streets, you’ll find vendors with carts full of coconut and papaya chipped ice, pina coladas, and fried plantain. Children run through fountains and outdoor museum lawns in the late afternoon sun, while adults slip into vine-covered brick courtyards for a mojito or black beans and rice. After dark, innumerable alley cats appear, families stroll together chattering in the streets, and pigeons roost in fortress walls along the sidewalks. Between my first trip to Old San Juan in 2004 and my most recent in 2008, a more prominent younger, urban nightlife has taken shape as well. A set of high-end restaurants and glitzy watering holes have appeared; the food, service, and company are worth experiencing, and only a short walk from any hotel in the neighborhood. Avoid coinciding with the one-day-a-week landing of the Princess Cruise ships. The place becomes overrun and arguably loses its charm.
El Yunque Rainforest is a twisting, scenic drive from the city, easy to reach by rental car (or Jeep). The popular waterfall hikes just a short walk from the main road tend to be absolutely bursting with crowds all year round. Try driving as far up the mountain as possible, and taking the most decrepit hiking trail you can find, the kind with two or fewer other cars at the trailhead. Shifting mist, budding flowers, and a shroud of heavy, humid, complete quiet promise to be more rewarding than a small tepid pond filled with 45 giggling high schoolers and a sprinkling of fanny-packed tourists. Sorry, fanny-packers.
Old San Juan. Cobblestone streets and colorful buildings. Photo by Kristin Carlson.
Isla de Vieques is the most desolate of all, and is my paradise. People-persons will prefer the more active Culebra next door. Vieques is for velvet dark nights of deafening treefrog songs, days waking up with the sun and driving along potholed dirt tracks miles into the jungle, watching urchins and starfish in the tidepools and wild horses on the banks, walking white sands, and listening to waves without seeing another person. I will say that last summer I did see a shark during an afternoon of snorkeling, another rather unwelcome visitor in my book. However, in addition to near total isolation, the other bonus of hurricane season is watching afternoon monsoons billowing in over the water on a daily basis. You can see this view from your beach towel, or a hammock in your hotel room. Eat lots of fresh bananas and mangos, drink your typical gas station priced Bacardi with some pineapple and cranberry juice, and enjoy.