Puerto Rico

In the spring of 2012 I sailed around Puerto Rico for a month.

After visiting most of the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico was probably the biggest surprise for me.
It is part of the USA and yet it feels like a completely different world. The country is a nice mix between the ‘civilization’ of North America (eg the road system) and latin america (mostly rural living, close to nature, love of happy music and social interaction. The houses look mostly like this and every beach boulevard has the oldfashioned ‘shaved’ ice cream.

Years ago a referendum was held, asking the Puerto Ricans whether they wanted to become fully part of the US, become fully independent, or remain as it is. A whopping 53 % answered ‘none of the above’… Confused? So was I. Something else that confused me were the road signs. Speed limits were given in miles per hour, whereas distances to different towns were indicated in kilometers… Apparently Puerto Rico buys second hand signs from both the USA (miles) and european countries (kms)…

Old San Juan is a great place, ouzing with charm. Even though the place gets frequented by cruise tourists, it still feels kind of authentic. The oldest paved street is here, dating from 1531. Can you imagine arriving here alive after months on a sailing boat, not really knowing where you were heading and what you would encounter along the way? No wonder the early travellers first stop was the cathedral of Old San Juan…
The cathedral is still there, as are the old city walls, fortifications and many of the old buildings. Old San Juan also has great souvenir shops, galleries, cafes and great restaurants and night life.
I stayed in the simple but very centrally located family-run Fortaleza Guesthouse for only $40 per night.

Ponce in the south is the second largest city of Puerto Rico, but to me it felt just like a village. I was there just in time for Ponces famous carnaval. Now I live in Curacao and I am used to carnaval being one big drinking,mflieting, dancing and loudnmusic festival, but in Ponce everything was very controlled and friendly. Yes, there were beautiful uniforms and a colorfulmparade. Yes, everybody was dressed in their best clothes, parading on the Plaza de delicias, the main square in town. But I haven’t seen one drunk person, no disturbances of a great festival.

In the center of town is the old firestation, los bomberos. A beautiful old red, wooden building dating from the 1800’s.

Las Salinas is a sheltered bay where many sailors gather. On Sunday it becomes crowded with people from San Juan who flock to the village to eat the delicious fresh seafood in one of the many restaurants.

Palmas del mar is a gated community with many gated communities within. Happy people live there, mostly North Americans, who choose to live their ‘ideal’ life, without crime, in a nice house by the water. It is a place of all smiles and beauty. Still it made me feel like I had landed in the Truman Show… remember the movie with Jim Carey where he finds out he has been living in a tv studio, unknowingly the main player in his own soap. As he tries to escape in a small boat, the director turns up the wind to a full storm. Just like Jim eventually managed to escape, so did we, in out sailing boat. The winds re blowing fiercely as we set out for the island of Vieques.

The virtually unknown island of Vieques feels like a different world. No fast food restaurants at all, Wild horses running free and even frequenting the ‘cities’, a relaxed island pace and beautiful beaches.
Still there is something weird about the island. Until a few years ago it was controlled by the navy, who used it to test their bombs… So one third of the island was off limits to everybody and was bombed regularly. Another third of the island was used for storing ammunition and was also closed to the public. After huge protests from the locals,mthe bombing was finally stopped a few years ago and since tourism has picked up. One ‘advantage’ of the amy occupation is that the parts of the island that have been closed off for so long are virtually in their natural state. No houses, roads, or other developments.

The two towns Isabel and Esperanza are tiny and easily covered on foot. On Sunday you’ll see the local youth parading the towns and villages. Not in their cars or on their scooters, bikes or skateboards, but rather….on horseback! Wearing baseball caps, moders clothes and mp3 players, apparently it is cool to trot up and down the main street on your horse, mostly without a saddle. Cool!

We did some kitesurfing and visited the bioluminiscent bay. Unbelievable how tiny organisms make the water light up at night with the slightest movement. As you row in your boat or kayak, you see fish flashing away, leaving traces of light, like fireworks underwater. Magical!

Vieques is not for consumerism. Everybody is so relaxed. Getting a ride is easy. Great seafood. Charming. Vieques has 3 flags. The order is clear. Pople feel first Viequense, then Puerto Rican and finally, but only reluctantly American.

I wanted to buy some local free range eggs, but the mini supermarket in esperanza only had cage eggs from the USA. I went outside and asked the owner of a little snack if I could get some local eggs somewhere. A guy waiting for his food, took me to his house around the corner, where lots of chickens roamed around in his garden and gave me a bag full of fresh, happy eggs… For free!

Culebra is the other Spanish virgin island part of Puerto Rico. It is much smaller than Vieques and the people here claim that it is much more relaxed than Vieques as well… It is surrounded by a number of smaller islands with beautiful beaches.

I can definitely recommend Puerto Rico. As a matter of fact, I will visit again int he VERY near future, because I won the raffle on Insel Air and got a free return ticket from Curaçao to Puerto Rico. I will definitely visit old San Juan and Vieques island again. Will I see you there?

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