Thursday, October 25, 2012

Puerto Rico Travel: Old San Juan and Culebra Island

I like the model we adopted for our last couple trips outside the continental USA:  picking a cool location that's relatively easy to fly to, where we could stay in one place for an entire week and not have to rent a car.  This worked for the urban/outdoorsy environment of St. John's, Newfoundland and for the relaxing atmosphere of Boston Beach in Portland Parish, Jamaica.  

In St. John's, NL we rented a lovely one-bedroom ground floor suite in a bed and breakfast, walking distance to all the bars, restaurants, hiking paths and other attractions.  In Jamaica we stayed in a cliff-side hut at a small rustic eco-resort in a remote location with beautiful beaches right outside its gates.  For our next vacation of this sort, I think we've found the best of both worlds:  Puerto Rico.  For starters, Puerto Rico is one of the cheapest places to fly to in all of the Caribbean.  Round trip air fare can be as low as $228 per person from Washington, DC to San Juan.  Because the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, they use U.S. currency and Americans don't need a passport to enter.  Puerto Rico's water quality is held to the same standards we enjoy here in the States, so you don't have to worry about drinking the water while there.
Old San Juan
From the airport, Old San Juan is a only a short $20 taxi ride away.  The city is visually stunning with a historic district, Spanish colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, oceanfront fortresses and plazas dating back hundreds of years.  A cultural vibe also runs through Old San Juan, bolstered by its many foodie-oriented restaurants, hip galleries and contemporary shops.  It has a very cosmopolitan feel and even has a brewery - Old Harbor Brewery - the only one on the island.  We'll be looking for an apartment or hotel with balcony in the heart of downtown for a 3 or 4 night stay.  During our time in San Juan we hope to go on a guided tour/hike in El Yunque rainforest, about 25 miles to the east.
Culebra Island
Quite the contrast to Old San Juan, Culebra is a small (7 miles long by 3 miles wide) island about 17 miles east of the Puerto Rico mainland and 12 miles west of St. Thomas.  From 1901 to 1975 the U.S. Navy used Culebra as a gunnery range and as a practice bomb site during World War II.  Unlike other Caribbean  destinations, development and commercialism has not found its way to Culebra.  Today the island has about 2,000 permanent residents and not one single traffic light or high-rise hotel.  Portions of Culebra have been designated a National Wildlife Refuge the island contains beaches that have been ranked among the best in the world.  You can get there by flying or by ferry.  I think we've found an awesome small cottage on the island's northeastern edge near Zoni Beach.  I'm hoping we can get by on Culebra without renting a car, but we'll see.  

Sure there are other attractions and destinations worth considering:  bioluminescent bays, caves, the surf town Rincón, the charms of Cabo Rojo and Boquerón and the Museum of Puerto Rican Music in Ponce come to mind.  But studies show that relaxing, stress-free vacations are the most happiness-boosting so I don't want to go through the hassle and frustrations of renting a car and managing all the logistics that come with that.  Not when we can experience pretty much everything we want through a combination of Old San Juan and Culebra!

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