Vieques: Puerto Rico’s Best Kept Secret

You’re probably wondering why I’m blogging alot these days about the trip I took to Puerto Rico earlier this year. As the cold weather starts to set in here in Chicago, I’ve been scouring the internet for cheap tropical travel deals. In the meantime, I’ve been reminiscing about the serene island of Vieques.

On our trip in June, my mom and I planned to take a snorkeling cruise with East Coast Island Excursions from Fajardo to Culebra, an island about 17 miles off the coast of mainland Puerto Rico. Known for it’s pristine waters and amazing snorkeling, we were so excited to check it out.

After being warned before boarding the boat that the Caribbean waters were fairly rough that day, we took off to sea. About twenty minutes into our cruise, water flooded the catamaran and about half of the vessel was submerged underwater. No one was injured although we were definitely shaken up.

The captain told us it was too dangerous to continue on our current path, so we were forced to turn around. We were all disappointed to be unable to explore Culebra, an archipelago consisting of a main island and 23 small islands, thought to have harbored pirates during Spanish trade with the New World. The captain didn’t want the choppy waters to ruin our trip, so he suggested we divert to the island of Vieques in the Spanish Virgin Islands, located only 8 miles from mainland Puerto Rico.

IMG_0352

We weren’t disappointed. We lounged on the upper deck of the boat, snorkeled for hours, and tried the crew leader’s delicious rum specialty. We even had the chance to learn some interesting trivia about this sparsely populated island thought to be discovered by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. Our crew told us that Vieques was the place where Mariah Carey’s infamous “Honey” video was filmed way back in 1997 (can you believe it was really that long ago?). “Honey” was Mariah’s third single to debut at the top of the Billboard 100, a feat that has yet to be repeated.

One thing I wish we had the chance to do was explore the bioluminescent bay (bio bay).  A bio bay is a body of water containing millions of micro-organisms that glow in the dark when agitated. The best way to view this phenomenon is by kayaking on a moonless night. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, Vieques is home of the brightest bio bay in the world. Oh well, you can’t do everything – it’s definitely on my to-do list when I return.

IMG_0355IMG_0371IMG_0359

Of course I couldn’t leave you without the “Honey” music video, for your viewing pleasure…

 

Photo Essay: Hiking El Yunque

Hey ya’ll! I know it’s been awhile since you’ve heard from me, but I’ve got a few projects in the works that have been occupying my time. Since the summer is slowing down you’ll definitely be hearing from me more often! 🙂

On my trip to Puerto Rico last June, it was my goal to get out and explore as much of the territory as possible. After speaking with a few locals about the best way to do this, my mom and I decided against the guided tours and opted to go off the beaten path instead. My one “can’t-miss” activity of the trip was a hike through El Yunque National Rain Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System.

On our last day of the trip, my mom and I set off in a rental car, driving the 45 minutes to El Yunque. The directions given by the concierge at the hotel were mediocre at best, but we still managed to find our way with no major issues. Although my Spanish is definitely a bit rusty, I was quite impressed with my ability to read the road signs!

When we arrived at the Rain Forest, we decided to hike the trail along La Mina River, which is a beautiful trail along the water. It’s the shortest trail to La Mina Falls, which is located at the end of the trail. Although the hike itself was only about a mile, I will give some caution to those of you who ever attempt to hike this trail – the terrain is very steep and precarious in some places. But it is sure to give you a good workout!

IMG_0375

IMG_0376

Lucky for us, it was a cool day with no rain. Surrounded by lush foliage and massive trees, it was hard to believe we were at a popular tourist destination…it seemed as if we were truly out in the wild. You can see in the picture below that the leaves were more than 3 times the size of the palm of my hand!

IMG_0387 IMG_0406 IMG_0386

After hearing the calm rush of water as we followed the river down the trail, we came to the biggest attraction of them all: La Mina Falls. Many people were climbing on the rocks and reveling in the cool water.

IMG_0407

IMG_0409

After our workout for the day, my mom and I spent the remainder of our afternoon at Luquillo Beach, located about 5 mi from the rain forest and frequented mostly by locals. We made friends with a basket-weaver and a waiter who served us drinks from coconuts! The scenery was perfect – with El Yunque in the background and the ocean running over our feet, it was a pretty good day.

IMG_0417

Exploring Old San Juan

Last month my mom and I took a much-needed vacation to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Chicago is a lot farther from home than DC, so I was getting a tad homesick and wanted some family bonding time. After long flight delays leading me to miss my connection to San Juan, I was so relieved to finally get there, albeit 5 hours late.

Our first full day in San Juan was filled with rain showers and storms. I had read that it rains daily, intermittently, (especially during the summer) so I was hoping the weather would eventually come around, and it did.

We stayed at the Conrad Condado San Juan, which proved to be an excellent choice. Although the hotel’s beach was smaller than some of the other resorts, we were in a prime location, equidistant to both Condado and Old San Juan. The first night we explored Condado, an oceanfront neighborhood consisting of designer shops, hotels, museums and vibrant nightlife.

The next day, we set off on our first adventure – exploring the quaint town of Old San Juan. Built while under Spanish possession, Old San Juan is located on a small island connected to mainland Puerto Rico by three bridges. Lined with cobblestone streets and brightly colored buildings, Old San Juan architecture dates back to the 16th and 17th century.

IMG_0342

It was a perfect day – the sun was shining brightly over the water and visiting one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, was at the top of our agenda. Located at the entrance of the San Juan Harbor, el Morro is an intricately designed fort that was built by Spain to guard Puerto Rico – which at that time was considered the gem of the New World.

IMG_0268 IMG_0270 IMG_0279

From the 1500s-1700s, Spain was successfully able to ward off attacks from the English and Dutch. However, during the Spanish-American war, the old cannons and structures at the fort were no match for US weapons. Parts of the fort were destroyed and rebuilt, including the lighthouse. During the war, US claimed Puerto Rico as US territory, and later used the fort during World War I and II.

IMG_0289

IMG_0288

It was amazing to walk around and view a structure that has gone through so many changes and modifications. To my left was a sentry box the Spanish used in the 1500s, while to my right was the modern observation deck the US used in the 1900s. Breathtaking views combined with centuries of history makes El Morro a must see in Puerto Rico.

IMG_0302 IMG_0297

Our next stop was the Cathedral of San Juan Batista, the second oldest church in the Western hemisphere and the oldest in the United States. The cathedral contains the tomb of Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer that discovered Puerto Rico in 1508.

IMG_0319 IMG_0320

Built in 1521, the Cathedral boasts gorgeous stained glass windows and grand ceilings with intricate designs. As we entered the Cathedral quietly, there was a traditional Roman Catholic wedding ceremony in progress. We noticed that the wedding party was a group staying at our hotel – and we had briefly spoken with them at the pool earlier that day! The fact that we had spoken to the couple earlier in the day and just so happened to stop at the cathedral at the exact moment the vows were exchanged really made this trip special.

IMG_0321

As we continued to navigate through the streets of Old San Juan, we saw a group of people admiring a variety of paintings and drawings on the side of a building. We stopped to ask a group of locals what was going on. They told us that once a month, children from all over Puerto Rico showcase their artwork in the hopes of being discovered.

IMG_0312

IMG_0313

We ended our day by grabbing a drink on the patio at a a Puerto Rican restaurant featuring live music. Looking around at the streets and buildings it was easy to forget that I was still in US territory. The vibrant Spanish influences continued to pulsate through this town on this lazy, hot day, turning it into a mysterious city with a culture all its own.

IMG_0341

 

Travel Diary: Willemstad, Curacao

Before I moved to Chicago, I had only experienced winter temperatures in the teens. So after five months (and counting) of winter in the Windy City, it was definitely time for a tropical getaway.

Last month I met up with a few of my best girlfriends from DC for a few days of fun in the sun. We thought about doing the traditional all-inclusive vacation, but after some research, decided to go somewhere off the beaten path. It was my friend’s idea to check out Curacao, a constituent country of the Netherlands, and the more we looked into it the more it seemed like a viable option.

After arrival, we spent most of the first and second days lounging beach and poolside at the spacious Marriott Emerald Resort and Casino, a hotel I would highly recommend. As we weren’t looking for a crazy dance-on-tables spring break experience, the Marriott was perfect for us – low key, relaxing, and not very crowded.

0320marriottpeaceful5

On the evening of our first full day, we decided to check out downtown Willemstad.

Time seemed to stand still as we sat outside by the water watching boats both large and small pass swiftly through Queen Emma’s Pontoon Bridge, a floating bridge in downtown Willemstad. The bridge, separating the Punda and Otrobanda quarters of Curacao’s capital city, seemed to capture the unique and eclectic nature of the island.

Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge

Luckily, the fact that time seemed to stand still was a good thing, considering the bridge would stay open for up to 45 minutes or so at a time. Unless you took the ferry across, you were stuck in Punda until the bridge closed back up again. This didn’t seemed to be a problem for the locals and tourists alike, as no one seemed to be in a hurry. This mentality would not go over well in the States, where people always seem to be antsy and impatient to move on to the next destination.

Willemstad, formerly known as the capital of the Netherlands Antilles until it’s dissolution, is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and serves as the island’s cultural epicenter. Handelskade, located on the Punda side, is a picturesque row of brightly colored buildings and beautiful Dutch 17th century architecture on the harbor.

As we sat at Iguana Café that evening, we tried the island’s own liqueur, Blue Curacao. And let me just say that after two drinks (and only $12) later, I was definitely feeling the effects of the “Blue Lagoon” concoction that was served by our young 20something waiter (who just so happened to look exactly like Chris Brown.)

On our second day, we took a taxi to Jan Thiel Beach, a commercial shopping/man-made beach area catering to tourists. Our private beach at the Marriott was much nicer, but it was definitely nice to venture out a bit.

As we were en route to Jan Thiel, our cab driver, Ida, let us stop at a scenic overlook to take pictures.

Many of the people we met had moved from the Netherlands and were fluent in Dutch, or were studying in the Netherlands and completing school internships in Curacao. The natives speak “Papiamentu”, a creole language derived from Spanish, English and Dutch. I took several years of Spanish in high school, yet the only thing I could come up with was “Donde estas”…pathetic I know.

palm tress at jan thiel.

gorgeous sunset at the resort.

Klein Curacao

Although Curacao definitely has more to offer than sandy, pristine beaches, lying on one for hours sure doesn’t hurt.

On our last full day, we took a Bounty Adventures catamaran out to Klein Curacao (or “Little” Curacao in English.) It was by far my favorite day of the trip. We boarded the boat around 7:00 am, so it was definitely an early start for us that morning. The boat ride over was a little bumpy but the view of the Caribbean Sea was beautiful.

After arriving on Klein, it was time for snorkeling and beachcombing. The coastline was gorgeous and the beach so serene– there’s just something special about an uninhabited, desolate island. The only structures on the island are an old lighthouse, several huts and an old tanker, which looked a lot like an abandoned shipwreck.

Our crew was amazing. They were super laidback, very helpful and thoroughly enjoyed talking to the tourists on the boat, most of which were Dutch and English. What a life – these guys take the boat out, cook BBQ, and maintain steady suntans almost everyday of the week.

After a full day of snorkeling and swimming with sea turtles (I was pinching myself for not bringing an underwater camera) we  sailed back to Curacao at dusk.

We ended our evening, and last night of our trip, watching the sunset on Piscadera Bay at an outdoor restaurant near our resort.

All in all it was definitely a tropical vaca for the books. I would recommend taking at least ten days to island-hop all over the Dutch Caribbean, hitting each of the ABC islands – Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao (that’s my plan for next time!) But if you only have time to visit one spot, Curacao is undoubtedly the place to go. The beaches along with the culture and nightlife make it an unforgettable vacation destination.