Yo sé lo que son los encantos
De mi borinquen hermosa
Por eso la quiero yo tanto
Por siempre la llamaré Preciosa
-“Preciosa,” Rafael Hernandez
Marc Anthony’s rendition of the song, “Preciosa,” a love song to the island of Puerto Rico, still gives me goosebumps. If you ever want to know why I love the beach so much, all you need to know is, it’s in my blood. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, I always have been and always will be most at home near the ocean.
Visiting my family on the island is a rare, special treat these days, but every time I go, I try to see someplace new. If you’ve never been, here’s some of what you’re missing out on: some of the world’s best beaches, three bioluminescent bays, the third largest cave system in the world, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, the world’s best food (I’m only a little biased), historic Spanish forts, lush green mountains with awesome hiking trails, tiny coquí frogs (our version of crickets at night), “coco, piña, parcha” ice cream at the beach, and so much more.
Our trip to PR in August 2016 was just what I needed — and by that, I mean, lots of beach time. Here are some highlights of our time at Cerro Gordo Beach, on Gilligan’s Island in Guánica, and on Vieques Island. If you’re looking for paradise-like beaches, read on!
1. Balneario Cerro Gordo
Located in Vega Alta, PR, about an hour west of San Juan along the northern coast, this is a government-run beach, part of the Parque Nacional de Cerro Gordo. We went on a Monday, so there were hardly any other people at the beach. I was excited to see the crystal clear and perfectly calm waters. My dad quickly found some palm trees from which to tie our two hammocks. (That’s one thing I love about PRican beaches — there are plenty of palm trees for shade and hammocks. You just have to watch out for falling coconuts!)
It’s a nice stretch of beach, not too long but also not too small. Lifeguards on-duty, picnic tables and trash cans located throughout. Overall a great, easy beach to get to!
2. Cayo Aurora (aka Gilligan’s Island)
Did you know? In addition to Vieques and Culebra, two inhabited islands off its eastern coast, Puerto Rico also has 140 uninhabited cays, or tiny islands, to explore. After some research, we decided to check out Cayo Aurora, or “Gilligan’s Island,” off the southwestern coast of PR.
We drove the two or so hours from San Juan to Guánica and rented a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom unit through Mary Lee’s by the Sea. I highly recommend them! They’re a small resort offering 10 units with different views and amenities. Our unit, Sirena #1, had beautiful ocean views, air conditioned bedrooms, a big (stocked) kitchen and living room, and spacious balcony. The owner was very friendly and warm.
Side note: If you rent Sirena #1, don’t miss out on the delicious quenepas hanging from the tree right by the balcony! My dad found a pole and net along the side of the house, and was able to pick some fresh quenepas off the tree. SO GOOD. Quenepas are a typical fruit in Puerto Rico. You usually see people selling them by the roadside. Just bite into the skin, peel it back, and suck on the pulp!
Mary Lee’s conveniently offers boat rides to Cayo Aurora for a small fee (you can bring your cooler, too). The best part was that they leave earlier in the morning than the main tourist ferry does from the nearby pier, so we arrived on the island before the big crowds did! (That’s our boat on the right already heading back, while the main ferry pulls in on the left.)
Cayo Aurora is a really unique place. The small island is covered in mangroves, with coves that are shallow enough for kids, and fun for snorkeling. There are a limited number of picnic pavilions (hence why you want to arrive early), some BBQ grills, and public bathrooms (warning: unfortunately, these are not clean or pleasant by any means…). You can walk around the island some, but there’s really only one main area where everyone congregates. There are a couple other small shores on the other side, but nowhere near facilities.
Keep an eye out for the island’s reptilian residents. They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them! Although, Will said he saw one swimming while he was out snorkeling….
All in all, we had a fun day on Gilligan’s Island. Definitely worth the trek across Puerto Rico. Just make sure to bring plenty of food, snacks, water, and, oh yes, toilet paper.
You can’t talk about Puerto Rico without mentioning the food at some point. On the way back to San Juan, we had dinner at El Dorado restaurant in the coastal town of Salinas. Air conditioned with views of the marina, their food was pretty good. Below you’ll see photos of appetizers (sorullos, empanadas, and I think fried calamari), mofongo with tostones, and some kind of seafood rice (I think it had crab meat) and beans.
3. Vieques Island
I’ve been wanting to go to Vieques for a long time. It’s supposed to be less touristy and less crowded than neighboring Culebra, which I’ve been to several times (and still love, by the way).
Note: Vieques’s controversial history as a U.S. Naval training and testing site — they occupied roughly two-thirds of the island for several decades — means it just fairly recently opened up to tourism.
The main methods of getting to Vieques are by ferry or plane. Our friends recommended we fly out. While it’s more pricey ($2 roundtrip for the ferry versus $72 roundtrip for a flight through Vieques Air Link), it’s much less of a hassle. Typically for the ferry, you have to get in line at the crack of dawn, deal with the frenetic crowds when boarding, and then endure the 1-hour-plus ride, potentially on choppy seas. Our flight from Ceiba airport (José Aponte de la Torre airport) took us roughly 10 minutes. You heard me.
It’s especially an adventure if you’ve never been on a really tiny plane. So tiny, in fact, they seat you based on your weight so as not to throw the plane off-balance. Here are some pics and videos of our flight over. Beautiful views!
Tip: Take one of the early flights out, if you want to make the most of your day. Also, you will likely need to rent a car if you plan on going to the beaches along the southern coast of Vieques. It’s a small island, but you still need a car to get around.
Our first stop was Playa La Chiva, aka Blue Beach, located inside the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. I think we got there around 9am, so there was no one around. We left our car in parking area #10 and quickly discovered the large palm tree our friends have mentioned. We had the beach entirely to ourselves for quite a while. Even when people started showing up, it never got even remotely crowded or busy.
This beach is pure heaven. White sand, clear blue waters, raw vegetation, and beautiful views. I could’ve stayed all day at this beach and been perfectly happy. We went snorkeling, too, but there wasn’t anything real exciting to see. You can swim out to the small island in the distance, but it is off-limits due to possible live munitions left by the U.S. Navy.
After a few hours at La Chiva, we headed back down the main road we drove in on, and turned into Playa Pata Prieta, aka Secret Beach, also located inside the wildlife refuge. This is a smaller beach, but still has beautiful, clear waters. We snorkeled here for a bit, and then left.
Our third and final beach destination on Vieques Island was Balneario Sun Bay. This is a public beach with bathrooms and showers, a cafeteria with food and drinks, and lifeguards on-duty. We were greeted by wild horses just outside the entrance, and, once inside, there were chickens and roosters running around as well. One of my favorite sights wasn’t even on the beach — it was the majestic, red Flamboyán tree in the parking lot. Flamboyán trees are iconic in Puerto Rico, found all over the island.
Sun Bay is just another picture-perfect beach in Vieques. We spent another several hours here, enjoying the calm waters and walking up and down the long stretch of beach. We even discovered some black sand further down the beach!
Before I get to the end of our day trip to Vieques, let me tell you a little bit about driving around the island. First off, you’ll notice a lot of SUVs and trucks. We quickly realized people rent those to easily navigate the many gravel and dirt roads on the island. Second, don’t speed! There are many wild horses along the roads. Some roads are narrow and windy, and you don’t notice them until they’re right in front of you. Sadly, we drove past a horse that had been hit, and the authorities were just pulling up on the scene.
If you have a little bit of time to kill before taking your flight or ferry back to the mainland, make sure to swing by La Gran Ceiba, a large, 300-plus-year-old Ceiba tree (silk-cotton tree). The Ceiba is Puerto Rico’s national tree. It was a sight to behold, with powerful roots that formed walls around the base of the tree. Have you ever seen anything like this?
This blog post only covers a little bit of what Puerto Rico has to offer. In previous travels, I’ve been lucky enough to kayak to the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo, explore San Cristobal Canyon, hike in El Yunque rainforest, eat lechón in Guavate, relax on Flamenco Beach in Culebra, fly kites with my niece and nephew in front of El Morro in Old San Juan, and more.
If you’ve discovered other amazing beaches and/or sights in Puerto Rico, please let me know in the comments below! As I said earlier, I’m always looking for new things to do and places to explore on the island.
For more photos from our recent trip, visit my Flickr page.