On Monday, February 16th, the anchor is up in Esperanza, Vieques for the 23-mile run to the town of Ceiba on the east coast of Puerto Rico. Ceiba is located just a few miles south of Fajardo.
The wind today is out of the northeast, which makes for a pleasant broad reach under cloudy skies along the southern coast of Vieques. Clearing the west coast of Vieques, our course to Ceibo places today’s gusty, 20-knot winds, directly on the bow. Intermittent rain showers add yet another element of intrigue to the journey. Cutter Loose reluctantly accepts her assignment, pounding through the wind-driven waves and hobby-horsing her way to Ceibo. Our destination for today’s bouncy trip is Puerto del Rey Marina.
With 1,000 wet slips, 500 dry-stacked spaces, a travel lift and a boat storage yard, Puerto del Rey is the largest marina in the Caribbean. Many Puerto Ricans prefer to moor their boats on the island’s east coast for easy weekend access to Culebra and Vieques. This is a massive marina, filled to capacity with mega yachts, large, sport-fisherman-power boats and sailing vessels. Our slip at the outer extremity of the facility requires a 15 minute walk to the marina office. Marina “wet slip customer service” personnel are on hand 24/7 to provide transportation via golf cart from the drop off area to one’s slip and vice versa. Each golf cart pulls a small trailer to carry the customer’s bags, groceries and boat supplies. Marina employees are efficient, polite and bi-lingual. The marina’s laundry facility alone makes our visit worthwhile.
Cutter Loose is one of only a handful of transient cruising boats in the marina. Since our visit takes place during a weekday period, we enjoy the exclusive use of showers, rest rooms and laundry facilities. The marina is currently undergoing a facelift, including the construction of a new cascade pool. On site is a Thrifty car rental office, which provides wheels for our inland exploration of Puerto Rico.
Our first venture is an overnight stay in the Old Town section of San Juan with Pittsburgh friends Nancy and Glen. Thanks to Nancy’s travel planning, our comfortable accommodation at the Casa Blanca Hotel on Fortaleza Street provides an excellent base for the exploration of Old Town on foot.
After a paella dinner, a leisurely stroll through the charming, European-style streets of Old Town, leads to a cozy bistro owned by jazz pianist Carli Munoz. Fortunately, our arrival is perfectly timed to listen to Carli’s final set of the evening. The hour is late when we return to the Casa Blanca, but the streets of Old Town are still filled with late-night revelers.
The following morning begins with a stroll along Paseo de la Princesa, a promenade that passes alongside the massive original walls of the City.
Reentering Old Town through the San Juan gate, it is an easy walk through pleasant neighborhoods to El Morro, the imposing fortification overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
After dropping Nancy and Glen safely at the airport, the next stop is a suburban Costco to purchase 24 rolls of paper towels and other provisions in support of our voyage. After three years of plying the waters of the Eastern Caribbean, being in Puerto Rico with easy access to Costco, large supermarkets and a giant West Marine store is a cruiser’s dream come true.
The major highways of Puerto Rico feature all of the familiar commercial trappings of the U.S., except that the billboards and road signs are in Spanish. Many of the secondary roads near major population centers are congested with traffic, particularly from mid to late afternoon. Puerto Rican drivers are aggressive but mellow. Unlike in the U.S., horns in Puerto Rico are not generally used as an expression of road rage. All of the major expressways have EZ Pass auto-pay lanes. Even our rental car is fitted with an EZ Pass transponder. Our automotive GPS does a reasonably good job of guiding us to the marina at the end of the day’s travel.
On Wednesday, it is off in the rental car again, this time to explore the Cordillera Central, a scenic route of twisty, narrow, local roads which traverse the east/west mountainous “spine” of Puerto Rico. The route in its entirety covers 165 miles from Yabucoa on the east coast to Mayaguez on the west coast. With frequent stops, we managed to cover only about a third of the Cordillera in one day (from Yabucoa to the town of Aibonito) before returning to Ceiba late in the afternoon. Directional signage is not abundant along the Cordillera. Therefore, one must allow extra time for becoming lost on narrow roads where there are limited opportunities to stop and reverse direction. This is a travel scenario where even one’s mistakes leads to breathtaking scenery.
An automobile ride along the Cordillera reveals a facet of Puerto Rican life that is distant from that of the major coastal cities. The setting is rural, much of it in rainforest. The pace of life in the mountains is slower and less complicated. Along the route, modest homes dot the roadway promontories, offering outstanding views of the lush, green mountains and the expansive valleys below.
On Thursday, our final tour in the rental car, involves a drive to the El Yunque National Forest in the Luquillo Mountains. This is the only tropical rainforest in the United States park system. Today’s hike through the rainforest along the Mount Britton trail leads to an observation tower that provides a bird’s eye view of San Juan and the northeast coast of the island.
Tomorrow, we bid farewell to the comfort and security of marina life. An early departure is planned for our cruise of the Puerto Rico’s south coast.