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1st August
2010
written by Steph
Along the Ruta Panoramica

Along the Ruta Panoramica

After spending four beautiful days on Vieques, it was time for us to start our adventure on the big island itself. Our plan was to drive the ruta panoramica from the east to the west side of the island over the course of two days, stopping one night in a mountain retreat, and the second night in the surfer town of Rincon (known as the “California of Puerto Rico”). Up bright and early Wednesday morning, we made our way to the airport on Vieques and took another 10-minute flight on a 10-seater plane back to the airport in Ceiba. Our rental car was supposed to pick us up at 9 am from the airport, but it didn't wind up getting there until well after 10. Although the wait was less than ideal, it did allow us the opportunity to people watch (always fun), and resulted in us receiving some pretty substantial discounts on our car when we did finally make it to Enterprise. The guy manning the desk, Axel, was pretty fantastic and very charismatic, and was really excited to hear all about our planned tour of the island. Here’s a tip for you: if you go to Puerto Rico, visit more than the resorts of San Juan. Not only will you see the “real” Puerto Rico”, but the locals will love you for it. People were always really impressed and gratified to hear we were seeing more than just the Hilton resort in San Juan, and were always really interested in sharing tips on how we could best experience their Puerto Rico. Axel told us the name of his favorite lechonera (roast pork restaurant) on the pork highway, which we noted and promised to visit it (you have to know us well enough to know that the pork highway was one of the motivating forces that compelled us to visit Puerto Rico in the first place!).

El Yunque Rainforest

After gassing up the car and picking up some cold meds at a local Walgreens (unfortunately I had picked up a runny nose and achy head the previous day), we were on our way! Rather than taking the main highway PR-3 all the way up to San Juan and starting the ruta panoramica from there, I used my mad navigational skills to bypass the more urban roads and get us onto some scenic backroads. Puerto Rico has two types of highways – the local ones, which really do not look like highways at all and are simply terribly congested roads with tons of traffic lights, and the toll highways which are more like what those from the continental U.S. consider to be highways. PR-3 is a local highway and the traffic on it is terrible. So we diverted through a back road that wound up taking us through parts of El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s tropical rain forest (and the only tropical rainforest in the United States). It was GORGEOUS. The foliage was lush and dense, with tons of bamboo and waterfalls throughout. We kept stopping to take pictures, and we definitely wished we had time to explore more on foot. We vowed that on our next trip to Puerto Rico, we would make time to do some hiking in El Yunque, because simply driving through it does not do it justice. Of course driving through it with a few pit stops here and there was certainly preferable to not visiting it at all!

Along the Ruta Panoramica

Slowly but surely we made our way westward towards Cayey, leaving El Yunque and wending our way through small mountainside towns. The scenery was breathtaking and like none other that I’ve ever encountered. It was at turns tropical and rustic, and while at times it was clear we were in the Caribbean, it also sometimes felt like we were somewhere in South East Asia (or so we imagined) or in the Mediterranean. It was really exhilarating to slowly motor our way through the coiled roads, feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere, only to encounter little houses along the side of the road. I’ve always considered myself to be a big city girl, but there was part of me that longed to snatch up one of those homes and settle down. The views were just spectacular, and it felt like you’d be living in the middle of paradise.

Steph enjoys Cracklin at Los Pinos

Eventually we made our way to Cayey (after a few wrong turns… signage in Puerto Rico leaves quite a bit to be desired) and headed towards Guavate which is affectionately known as the aforementioned pork highway. As you drive along Route 184, the road is lined with open air restaurants that specialize in roast pork. On the weekends, Puerto Ricans from all over the island flock to these restaurants to gorge themselves on food and festivities; along with the pork, there are bands and music aplenty, so after chowing down, you can dance off your meal to make room for more! Alas, we were there during the week, so the music was lacking, but thankfully the food was there. We bypassed many restaurants in our search for Los Pinos, which many Puerto Ricans call their favorite. Once inside, we used our broken Spanish plus the universal method of pointing and nodding to order our meal (these restaurants are set up cafeteria-style). For $20, we got mounds of roast pork that melted in our mouths, the best rice & beans I’ve ever had, roasted sweet plantains, odd white yams (not awesome and just felt like starch bombs), and some potato salad. It was heavenly and some of the best pork Tony & I have ever eaten. And the cracklin’… mmmmmm! After sneaking some leftovers to this sweet stray puppy (the number of strays in Puerto Rico is heartbreaking… If Tony and I ever lived there, we’d have to buy a huge plot of land and then would become the crazy dog couple), we rolled ourselves back to the car and set out for Utuado, our pit stop for the night.

Every house in Puerto Rico

We headed back to Highway 52, which is a proper highway that feels like the interstates we’re used to here, and assumed that since the Ruta crosses the highway that there would be an exit. Not so much. We ended up getting off on route 1 and driving some perilous roads up and down the sides of mountains, hugging cliffs and navigating one-lane roads on our way back up to the Ruta. We did eventually make it back to the Ruta proper and headed west. It seems unlikely that there are any roads anywhere on the island that don’t open up onto spectacular views of the mountains, lush forest and tropical scenery at some point, and the Ruta (and the few spiderwebbing roads connected to it) did not disappoint. We had intended to drive straight west on the Ruta, but due to the aforementioned poor signage we managed more of a snaking north-south meandering that centered on the Ruta, jumping on and off again as we could find signs and our GPS managed not to be confused by changing elevations and multiple switchbacks.

Utuado

As twilight began to set in we finally managed to find our way off the Ruta and slightly north to Utuado where our stay for the evening, Casa Grande Mountain Resort, was located. Based on the internet site, it looked like a perfect mountain paradise, a wonderful little hideaway. When we drove onto the grounds, things were promising – there’s a beautiful little pool and you’re given a private little hut with a balcony (and a hammock) where you can just chill out and relax. Unfortunately, as we were there in the height of bug season, lying out in the hammock was not so much relaxing (and I love a hammock) as it was an all-you-can-eat feast for the mosquitos. I soon retired inside to seek some solace from the bugs, only to find that our room was without air conditioning and was only cooled by the mountain breezes with the aid of a feeble overhead fan. I am not a hardcore A/C devotee, so I wasn’t all that bothered by this (though I admit my low fever meant that I really just wanted to zonk out in luxury), but when we went to open the blinds over the windows of our room, we realized most of the screens had holes in them, so they would be pretty ineffectual at keeping the bugs out.

Our "compound"

As we were in the middle of nowhere, we decided we’d just eat at the retreat’s restaurant that evening. Alas, we struck out here, as the retreat was hosting a yoga group (which kind of seemed like a cult), and so they weren’t serving their regular menu. Instead they were doing a vegetarian buffet that consisted of the grossest tortilla soup I’ve ever had (it had soggy pieces of tortilla floating in a gluey black bean paste), white rice, green salad, and falafel. Of all the wonderful Puerto Rican food there is to eat (and so many wonderful veggies and fruits grown locally), this was such a flavorless letdown. And of course to add insult to injury, we were charged $20 a plate for something I could have whipped up (provided you told me I couldn’t use any spices) for about $3. What a rip off!

One of our many bunkmates

Our moods increasingly darkening, we head back to our cabin for some R&R. We were soon accompanied by a little lizard friend who slipped under the door, and as the sun set we realized that we would have to close our wooden shutters for good as the light in our room was a huge magnet to the bugs. Along with mosquitos, we soon found ourselves set upon by little tiny black bugs that crawled all over our bed, much to my dismay. I can put up with a lot of things, but I HATE bugs in my bed, which seems like a fair stance to take. It was like camping in a wooden tent, only worse since at least in a tent you can zip yourself off from the elements. At one point I wondered if I would have better luck sleeping in the car… not what you expect to proclaim when you’re staying at a so-called relaxing retreat that will wipe your stress away. Finally we gave up on  reading and tried to pass out. Of course our bad luck continued as rolling brown-outs meant that our overhead fan kept stopping during the night, and our shutters were closed to keep out the bugs. Relaxing it was not, and the only way we got through was by reminding ourselves that it would make a good story and would probably be funny one day. I’m still waiting for that day to come.

Mailboxes along the Ruta

Needless to say, we were up fairly early the next day, skipped the retreat breakfast, and left the Casa Grande Mountain Retreat behind as quickly as we could. For one of our most expensive nights in Puerto Rico, it was also our most disappointing and also felt the least authentic. It seemed like the kind of place you would go if you don’t want to actually experience Puerto Rico at all and if you only want to interact with other tourists. It certainly enforced for us that we are not resort-travelers!  We will return to Puerto Rico, but we will not be back to this place! Next time we might try our luck at the coffee plantation in Jayuya.

Ruta Panoramica

Levaing behind our night of horror, we were soon back on the Ruta Panoramica (we think). There is little to say about the Ruta Panoramica that pictures won’t say better, but suffice it to say that the area is not short on beauty or charm. Muliti-colored pastel and neon houses tucked away next to the road, their front doors practically on the tarmac and their back porch surely hanging over the abyss the road so narrowly skirts. Wild horses, roosters, dogs, lizards, people of all sorts sitting on their porches watching life go by. Breathtakingly beautiful views off the tops of mountains so high you’re nearly in the clouds, hidden valleys so low that the light of day is dimmed and filtered by layers of trees and vines, hidden waterfalls and roadside food vendors. 18-wheelers and Suzuki Samurais and horseback riders and Hondas all vying for their part of the road. Narrow bridges curving over gorges, dense copses of bamboo, fallen trees and boulders obstructing the road. When a part of the road falls off the mountain or is swallowed by the jungle a barrier is constructed around the obstacle and that part of the road is lost to cars for good.

Toro Negro

Our second day of driving lasted us around six hours, finally depositing us in Myaguez on Puerto Rico’s west coast. Home of the 2010 pan-American and Caribbean games, Myaguez is an interesting study in contrasts. It appears to have a charming historic district, though less well repaired than other cities on the island, a nice promenade and some good bones. However, this is starkly contrasted by urban sprawl, industrial infrastructure and overwhelming traffic congestion. We crawled our way north towards the exit for Ríncon, hoping that the relaxed reputation it holds turned out to be true. After driving down a flooded, tree lined avenue we made our way through the bustling downtown area of Ríncon and headed to the beaches where our hotel was located. After several wrong turns on poorly marked roads with no addresses to speak of, we finally made it to our room.

Toro Negro

The beach at Ríncon is a very different kind of beach than what we experienced on the east coast, mainly due to higher surf and less refined sands; not exactly an ideal swimming oasis. Apparently, Ríncon has one of the top three beaches in the world for professional surfing and plays host to an international surfing competition every October.

Rosa and I are facebook friends

Our hotel was nice, the rooms clean, air conditioned, and bug free (!) but the real highlight of our stay was our hostess, Rosa. It turns out that due to lucky timing and the season that we were the only people staying in the entire hotel. After a little reading down by the deserted infinity pool we decided to go sit at the bar and see if we could strike up a conversation with the general manager. It turned out to be a delightful 3 hours filled with Spanish lessons, delicious drinks, and locals-only tips on things to see during our stay and Spanish telenovelas on in the background. To say that the people of Puerto Rico are welcoming and kind is an understatement. Rosa was emblematic of the many wonderful experiences we had while traveling across the island, and it’s safe to say that no trip to Puerto Rico (or anywhere really) is complete without speaking (if you can) to the locals.  It really felt like we had found a home away from home while staying in Rincon, and it’s certainly a place we look forward to better exploring on our next visit. One night was certainly not enough, so it’s certainly nice to know we have some more exploring to do on a future trip. In our next post: a coastal site only the locals know about, and our days in Old San Juan! We promise to get it up sooner than this last one!

Mailboxes on the Ruta

Our hotel - Bungers - In Ríncon

Rosa's specialty - Huevos Rancheros

More Ruta Panoramica

Typical Ruta Panoramica road sign

11 Comments

  1. 08/01/2010

    I have been loving you PR posts! Well, I could do without the cracklin picture – yuck! – but I love the rest of it, and the narrative. Thanks so much for sharing all of this!

  2. taryn
    08/01/2010

    Hey Tony, nice post 😉

  3. 08/01/2010

    I love these travel posts – I think there’s a book in there!

  4. 08/01/2010

    It sounds like there were a few ups and downs during this trip, but I am sure the ups far outweighed the downs. I am loving the beautiful pictures that you posted and will have to remember that if I ever travel to this area I must stay away from The Casa Grande Mountain Resort! I will be interested in hearing how the rest of the trip went. Hopefully you will have encountered no more bug infestations!

  5. 08/01/2010

    Beautiful photos! And I love reading about all the great stuff that awaits throughout the island. I’ve been many times and agree that it’s important to go beyond the big resort hotels in San Juan. There is so much to see and enjoy!

  6. 08/02/2010

    Love the travel posts – pork and all. One of the joys of travelling is definitely eating.

  7. 08/02/2010

    Ah so many pictures! Gorgeous! I can’t wait to visit Puerto Rico. Love the lizards. 😀

  8. dare i ask what exactly ‘cracklin’ is? and as for the hotel with lizards and bugs, i’m not sure i’d be on board with that place. PR looks GORGEOUS and when i visit i’ll be sure to go off the beaten trail a bit. loved the pics!

  9. Julie
    01/10/2011

    where’s the best place to stay in Puerto Rico?

  10. 01/10/2011

    @ Julie: It really depends on what you’re looking to do and where you’d like to go. I definitely recommend spending some time in Old San Juan, and then trying something on the coast. Rincon is beautiful, as are the side islands. If you have the time, I’d highly recommend trying out Vieques, which is a short ferry/plane ride from the main island. It was an island paradise!

  11. Isaias
    06/17/2012

    Thanx for all the great pics, it brings back a lot of memories of all the great time I had in the island when I was a kid,thanx a bunch

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