Puerto Rico off the beaten path
Last time we showed you what to do in San Juan, this time we’re going to go off the beaten path. As soon as you drive out of San Juan, you will meet the “real” Puerto Rico. Small Mom and Pop shops along the streets, potholes everywhere 😉 and some of the nicest people around.
Where San Juan can seem hectic or rushed at some times (especially when the cruise ships just came in and all the tourists flow off the megastructures) the rest of Puerto Rico seems more laid back and relaxed than its capital. During our two weeks on the island, we went clockwise all around it. Which brought us to Fajardo as our next stop.
Fajardo – More than the harbor
Most people only know Fajardo for its ferries to Vieques and Culebra. Therefore most tourists only stay a couple of hours in this small town, waiting for their trip to one of the smaller islands of Puerto Rico. We decided pretty early in our planning for this trip that we wouldn’t go to either one and stay on the main island to explore. We had a couple of reasons for that, but our main concern was that we wouldn’t get enough time to really see anything while having to take ferries and booking serval rental cars etc.
The main reason why we decided to make a stop in Fajardo was the possibility to take a Bioluminescence Tour in the Laguna Grande, just 15 minutes north of Fajardo. Bioluminescence is a natural phenomenon where living organisms produce their own light. The most common know bioluminescence organism is the firefly. In the Laguna Grande, though, you can observe a completely different experience in the bioluminescence spectrum: glowing plankton in the water that makes the water sparkle like a thousand diamonds.
Kayaking the Bioluminescent Bay
There are only a handful of places left on earth where you can observe a strong glow of the bioluminescence and three of them are in Puerto Rico. One is on Vieques, one near Fajardo and another one in the southwest of Puerto Rico. Though the last one has been severely diminished in its glow due to unresponsible tour agencies that let the tourists swim in the water. It’s crucial to go on a tour with a provider that forbids swimming in the water when you book. The contamination of the water through sunscreen, bug spray etc. will kill the plankton that is responsible for the glow.
We booked a kayaking trip to the Laguna Grande with Kayaking Puerto Rico. There are a lot of tour agencies that do kayaking or boat tours, and it can get difficult to chose which one to take. But in the end, we were really happy with ours. We had three great tour guides that not only took care of us in the dark mangrove canal you have to paddle through to get to the laguna, they also provided a lot of background information on the bioluminescence and the surrounding nature reserve.
I would absolutely advise you to book a tour on a new moon night when you can see the glow the best. Also, wear clothes that can get wet, because you will. And don’t go on the tour if you’re really afraid of the dark. The guides will always be there and you shouldn’t be afraid of anything, but people with real phobias will have a problem with the completely dark mangrove canal, as you won’t be able to see anything and will just follow the small light of the kayak in front of you.
Welcome to the jungle!
Fajardo is also a great base for exploring the only rainforest in the US National Park System: El Yunque. For us, it was our first trip into a rainforest and we were amazed by the abundance of different plants we only knew from botanical gardens. And don’t even get me started on the sounds you hear. Jan was always recording while on the trail.
El Yunque is a relatively small National Park that you’ll be able to explore in a day or two. Seeing as we only had about a day, we decided to hike the famous La Mina trail to the waterfalls with the same name. It’s a moderate trail, that you’ll be able to hike even if you have kids with you. A highlight for most of the hikers is the natural pool at the foot of the La Mina Waterfalls.
Another really cool place is the Las Cabezas Observation Point, where you can walk up the tower and get an amazing view over the forest and the surrounding area. We would recommend going to the Visitor Center first in any way, as the park rangers there can help you find the perfect trail or points of interest for you. The center also has an exhibition about the park with a lot of really useful information about its history and flora and fauna. The park, in general, is free, but the visitor center will cost about 4$.
Well, we hope that gives you a small overview of what there is to see outside of San Juan. Next up: Ponce and the South Coast. Stay tuned if you want to know where you can learn to make coffee and where to relax on this beautiful Caribbean island.
As always happy travels and see you soon,