Thursday, May 29, 2014

How Puerto Rico Stole My Heart

I come from a very diverse family. My immediate family growing up was quite Polish, we still have family on a hill once called “Pollock Hill”. The Polish festival was always one of my favorite days of the year because my great uncle would make homemade pierogies. Om nom nom.
When I was around 10, I think don’t quote me on that, my mom married an Italian man. His parents lived in South Africa, he had family still in Italy, his brother was married to a Puerto Rican woman, and he had lived about a gagillion places I swear. Including living in a van in Michigan for a year.
The introduction of my step-dad changed the shape of our family culture. I swear I didn’t know what loud was until I saw my step-dad and Uncle in a room together. They switch back and forth from Italian, Spanish, and English mid-sentence. And as Italians, all conversations are loud and have lots of gestures. With my uncle and step-dad there is always lots of swearing in three languages as well. Along with my new uncle also came my new Puerto Rican aunt. A loud and sassy woman who used to live in a house with both my uncle and my step-dad, you know she has got to be one brave tough lady.
I have grown up with these characters and the diversity they provided my family for so long I barely remember a time before them.
The point of this spiel though is that if my mom had never married my step-dad I may have never traveled to Puerto Rico.

Most of my aunts family still lives in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. Nearly every year she and her two children, my awesome stepcousins who I adore, would take a trip to Puerto Rico. (They live in Florida so it really is not Too expensive for them to fly there) I was always enamored with the stories my cousin, we shall call her C, would tell of their trips there.
So two, almost three now, years ago C and I decided to plan a trip to Puerto Rico. Since her abuela (grandmother) lives in Mayaguez, we decided to stay with her. Staying with relatives, especially in a place that is not San Juan, my experience of Puerto Rico is probably quite different from what most visitors experience.

San Juan is often the only place in Puerto Rico that people have heard of, so I doubt most visit Mayaguez at all. I personally love it there, but my perception is a bit biased. My family lives there, and they are amazing people. I had never met most of my stepfamily in Puerto Rico before staying with abuela for a month, yet they were so welcoming and immediately treated me as family. I think, had I not been staying with my abuela, Mayaguez may have been a bit intimidating. I did not realize until a week or so in that we were pretty much staying in el barrio (like a ghetto). Most windows in houses had metal shutter or bars, or both. Only certain stores had glass in their windows, I rarely saw houses that did. Most houses do not have any sort of air-conditioning either, you just turn on lots of fans and try not to melt in the heat.

Puerto Rico is ridiculously hot in the summer, though at least it normally thunderstorms in the afternoon. This brings the heat down for a bit at least. Though when planning excursions in Puerto Rico you have to plan them either early enough in the morning to be done before the afternoon storm, or wait until after it has passed. Otherwise you’re going to get soaked. Which can be nice when it is raging hot.
I also recommend having a bit of Spanish at least. I went through culture shock a couple days in, since my Spanish is only good enough to scrape by, and cried to my mom on the phone. It gave me a constant headache for days trying to understand the Spanish all around me. Only C and her brother really spoke any English, so with the rest of my family it was a constant struggle to understand and be understood.
One of my proudest moments I have had was when my Puerto Rican cousin told a joke in Spanish and I was the first to get it and laugh. Everyone turned to look at me and was so pleased that I had understood. The joke telling cousin was thrilled; most of the time talking to him was a game of charades. Though using miming to have a conversation is always amusing.
Other than spending time with my amazing family and improving my Spanish drastically, which I forget almost entirely now (sigh), Puerto Rico stole my heart with its natural beauty.

Here are some pictures of my favorite places in Puerto Rico:

El Cuevo del Indio
Quite possibly my favorite location. This spot is kind of off the beaten track, and we had to park at some person’s house to reach it. Which I have heard can be very hit or miss, tourists occasionally have their cars broken into when parking there. My best suggestion is not to leave anything remotely valuable sitting out in the car. My cousins and I looked pretty poor, so no one bothered our stuff. My cousins also look Puerto Rican and speak Spanish fluently, which made everything a hundred times easier.

El Cuevo del Indio is a little cave right along the beach with a wooden ladder you climb down to explore. It is not very large and is mostly open, the sun was always visible. The cave itself is beautiful, but the cliffs surrounding it were my favorite part. We hiked along the cliffs for quite some time, and it was breathtaking. The water is unbelievably blue and the cliffs could be straight out of a fantasy movie.

Lighthouse and Cliffs
I don’t think I ever actually wrote down the name of this lighthouse, but after some googling I am pretty sure it was Los Morrillos lighthouse. The lighthouse itself was pretty, but the best part of visiting it was the cliffs surrounding the lighthouse. They are amazing. They’re very high and you can see so far. There are also iguanas, which was super exciting to me. 

Standing at the edge of a cliff is probably one of my favorite things to do. There is not really any shade here, so be prepared for scorching sun and heat.

El Yunque
The rainforest in Puerto Rico. This was the first ever rainforest I had visited, and I loved it. The area is not huge, and the trees are not Amazon rainforest big, but it is all impressive anyway. There are some great paths to walk and waterfalls to see. Be warned though, it is called a rainforest for a reason. If it is just drizzling feel free to keep exploring, but if it starts to truly rain I suggest leaving immediately. Most of the trails in the rainforest, especially to the waterfalls, and the roads all flood when it rains. 

Flooding as in more than a foot of water on the road. Though apparently floods do not worry Puerto Ricans at all. They all drove through the water past the bottom of their cars like it was nothing. C used the wake a truck made to cross a section of road covered in probably two feet or more of water. Even using the reduced level of water in the truck’s wake, the water seeped into the bottom of our car. Probably one of the more terrifying moments of my life, I was so scared that the truck would get too far ahead and we would get swept off the road when the wake dispersed. We made it though, thank god.

Guilligan Island
This island is amazing for snorkeling! The water is crystal clear and you can float between the trees. You take a little boat out to the island and I suggest spending a couple hours or a full day. The water is warm and clear, there are fishies to see, and relaxing spots in the shade under the trees.

La Finca
La finca just means ranch or farm in Spanish. We only got to go here because our family owns some land there, but it is still worth mentioning. If you see any places where you can go and play in the rivers in Puerto Rico, I definitely suggest it. We had a ton of fun swimming in the river, hiking along it, and jumping off rocks along the side. The only downside was almost getting attacked by a swarm of wasps when exploring. Only one person got stung though, and only once, so we escaped unscathed. Just because Puerto Rico is known for its seaside cliffs and beaches, does not mean the interior of the island isn't worth exploring as well.

Crash Boat Playa
(Which I sadly have no pictures of because I had to leave my bag on the beach and did not want my camera stolen)
Speaking of beaches, Crash Boat Playa is one of the most famous beaches in Puerto Rico. It is located on the west side of the island, practically directly diagonal from San Juan. The beach is huge and pretty. It is always packed with tons of people though, both locals and visitors. The beach food in the stalls around the playa is delicious as well.

Arecibo Telescope
Though not a natural wonder, this telescope is impressive. I had no grasp of how huge it truly was until we visited. That thing is enormous! Having just studied astronomy in college as well, I loved seeing the famous telescope in person.

San Juan
Though San Juan may be the stereotypical tourist area of Puerto Rico, it is completely worth visiting. The beaches in San Juan are gorgeous, and the cheap icecream and alcohol everywhere along them is a huge plus. Have I mentioned before how much I love beach icecream in Puerto Rico? It is to die for. I recommend parcha, passion-fruit, because it is the best thing in the world. I could eat all of it and die of yumminess quite happily.

The fort, el morro, in San Juan is quite impressive as well. That was our first stop upon landing on the island and was a great introduction to the city of San Juan and Puerto Rico in general.
The bar scene in San Juan, and the whole island really, is also amazing. There is salsa music everywhere, which has a special place in my heart. I love to salsa. The drinks are delicious, especially anything given to you in a coconut and gasolina. The one bar we visited lit drinks on fire! Things you can't do in most cities.

I visited lots of other places in Puerto Rico which I either do not know the names of or do not have great pictures of. The most notable being the bio-luminescent bay. It was just as magical as you would imagine. My camera at the time was not good at all with night photos though, so I have none from the bay. Guess I will have to go back at some point.

Also, if you want me to add a post about how to be an obnoxious tourist as demonstrated be the family I met on the boat in the bio-luminescent bay, just let me know. So ridiculously touristy. Not that there is anything wrong with being a tourist, just do not be obnoxious about it.

So there you go. Reasons why I absolutely adore Puerto Rico and plan to travel back in the future. It is an island of natural beauty, friendly people, yummy drinks, warm water, and the best icecream ever. Have I mentioned the icecream before?

Have you visited Puerto Rico? What did you think? Did you try the icecream?
And I know icecream is not one word, but it should be.


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