Then Puerto Rico is the place to be! Bryant and I traveled there last week for spring break, and while we only drank one piña colada and got caught in the rain just once, it was a fantastic trip. We were there for six days and experienced a wide variety of settings in such a short amount of time, experiencing the urban history of San Juan, examining the Caribbean reef ecosystem up close while scuba diving, beach-hopping in remote Vieques, and hiking through the dense jungle of El Yunque.
We arrived in San Juan late on a Sunday night, and the next day was dedicated towards exploring Old San Juan. It is the second-oldest European-founded city in the Americas, and features a myriad of brightly colored buildings nestled within the walls of a many-centuries old fort. We first explored the two castles, Castillo de San Cristóbal and Castillo de Felipe de Morro, with a beautiful red and white cemetery in between. El Morro only fell once, to pirates, but just for a few days – so this fort was pretty formidable, and very impressive.
Next, we wound our way through the colorful buildings of Old San Juan, peering into churches, petting stray cats, and grabbing a piña colada for an afternoon cool-off. On our way to the beach at the end of the day, our taxista told us that new buildings in Old San Juan have to follow a specific set of rules to keep up the color scheme and tradition of the city.
The next day, we got together with our Stanford friends Sierra, Julianne, Blanca, Andrea, and Lauren and went scuba diving off Fajardo, which is on the east coast of Puerto Rico. It was my first time diving in the Caribbean, and I was amazed at how different it was from the Pacific marine ecosystems that I’m more used to. In the Pacific, many coral reefs feature eye-popping color and a huge diversity of organisms. Here, there were fewer colors and less diversity (even in the relatively healthy reefs), but that’s not bad – it was just different. I was so impressed by the enormous fan corals and gigantic lobsters that I saw, and was delighted to see a loggerhead turtle on our second dive.
On Wednesday, we got up early to head to Vieques – a 4 by 21 mile island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. After an hour-long cab ride, an hour-and-a-half long ferry, and a 20-minute ride in a local “public car” to cross the island, we arrived in the quaint little town of Esperanza. With one main street, five restaurants, and a handful of guesthouses, it was the perfect setting for an island getaway. We checked into our bed and breakfast, then walked across the street and jumped into the ocean, where we snorkeled around a little quay just off the pier. On our way back, we were prevented from safely reaching shore by a couple of crazy jet-skiers, but luckily a few sailors picked us up in our dinghy and returned us safely to the pier.
After a much-needed siesta, we took a sunset stroll along the beach, scrambling over rocks and quickly reaching some secluded spots where the sunlight refracted through the palm trees and the water lapped gently at our feet. We kept rounding the bend to reveal more and more empty coastline until we reached Black Sand Beach.
On Wednesday night, we visited Mosquito Bay, which is the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. The bay is cut off to the ocean, so it has is ten degrees warmer and has a different chemistry – it is brackish water, which means that during the day it looks dark brown, kind of like the water we saw in the Amazon. There are mangroves around the edge of the bay, and as their leaves fall into the water, they bring nutrients that feed small plankton-like organisms called dinoflagellates, enabling a healthy population to grow and thrive in the bay. Dinoflagellates use photosynthesis to get energy from the sun during the day, and emit that light at night. When there’s no moon and the day was very sunny, the bioluminescence is very bright – and those were the conditions we had.
On our tour, we went out into the middle of the bay in kayaks. Our paddles stirred up hundreds of sparkles, each sparkle the conglomeration of thousands of individual dinoflagellates. It really did look like the light from Moana or Avatar – not a super bright light that you could capture on camera, but a strong glow that lit up every place we touched in the bay. The light only comes on when the dinoflagellates are disturbed, so the wake of our kayaks, the sweeping of our paddles, and even fish, brilliantly lit up as they darted beneath our boats, were bathed in the yellow-blue glow. I dipped my hand into the warm bay and tried to grab at the sparkles, watching them slip down my fingers and disappear as I brought my hand out of the water. Overall, it was a magical experience and I will never forget that warm, instant glow.
The next day, Thursday, was my favorite day. Bryant managed to convince the rental place that he knew how to drive a scooter and we were off, going beach hopping all afternoon on the more secluded southeastern part of the island. Each successive beach was more beautiful than the last – soft white sand and waters that were not only a beautiful bright blue, but four different shades of blue in succession as we looked away from the shore. We snorkeled, watched stingrays slither in the shallow water, and bumped our way along the dirt roads, Bryant driving the scooter while I hung on for dear life, clutching a map in one hand and our flippers in another. At about 2pm, we drove over a hill, where we got a gorgeous view of green jungle and blue beaches along the squiggly coastline, and it absolutely took our breath away.
On Friday, we slowly made our way back to the main island (our ferry was three hours late so we made some friends with other travelers) and visited El Yunque National Forest – the only rainforest under the U.S. National Park Service – at an unusual time of day. We got there around 5:30pm, so while we headed in to hike to a famous waterfall, everyone else was heading out. We actually got the waterfall all to ourselves – a spot that’s normally home to a few hundred visitors during the day – and as we walked back to the car, we heard the rainforest coming alive. We just listened, hearing the constant shrill of bugs, fabulous bird calls, and even the occasional monkey cackle. It was really special to experience the rainforest through sound, and by ourselves!
On our way back to San Juan, we visited “los kioscos”, a row of dozens of kiosks with deliciously deep-fried Puerto Rican food right along the highway. Back in town, we experienced some nightlife and Latin dancing in “La Placita”, which was a market by day and a full-on fiesta at night, with people dancing in the streets and bars full of people. We absolutely loved our trip to Puerto Rico – while not a top destination for West Coasters, we were so impressed by its natural beauty and vibe, and would return again in a heart beat. There’s so much left to see on this beautiful island!