Puerto Rico brings forth many images: sandy beaches, a lively local culture, gorgeous rainforests, and the colorful colonial architecture of Old San Juan. And despite it being a mere thirty-minute flight from St. Thomas, we had never visited our neighbor island to the northwest. That is, until this past September when the four of us planned a three-day, three-night trip to Puerto Rico over Labor Day Weekend. On the days preceding our trip, I observed how the then tropical storm Irma was in a beeline towards St. Thomas. I wasn’t too worried though, it would, I believe, veer up in the end.
In our first three days there, we followed our planned itinerary, which took us away from San Juan quite a bit. We rented a car to to take in many sights outside of San Juan on our own. Some of the highlights included:
The 44 sq. mile El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest within the U.S. National Park System. It is incredible to walk through the many trails, passing waterfalls and hundred of different plant species. We had strong rainfalls on the day we visited. But when the rain would cease, the canopy of emerald would glisten and enhance the mystical qualities of the forest. The lower trails, such as the La Mina Trail that passed through streams and a waterfall, had many visitors. The highlight of our visit was taking the El Yunque trail to Cerro El Toro, the highest point of the forest with an elevation of 3,533 ft. While parts of the climb were steep, the reward was the cool air at the peak and the panorama views that truly captured the lushness and majesty of the rainforest.
Cavernas de Camuy
On the north coast of Puerto Rico, the Cavernas de Camuy is the third largest underground cave system in the world. The Rio Camuy runs through it and the river’s waters have formed a spectacular collection of stalagmites and stalactites, including Puerto Rico’s largest stalagmite. The cave ceiling reaches heights of 10 stories. Parts of the cave system let in natural light. Sumidero de Empalme is such a spot where the sun rays shine through a sinkhole entrance 450 feet above. The caves are accessible with a guided walking tour, with guides fluent in both English and Spanish. The caves are about an hour and half by car from San Juan.
Old San Juan
Old San Juan, Viejo San Juan in Spanish, is the oldest city in the United States and its territories. We visited Old San Juan twice. On the first, we visited the sites, including the Fortaleza San Felipe del Morro, an imposing fortress dating back to 1539, and the Castillo de San Cristobal, a bastion designed to protect against land invasions. The second time was an unplanned visit when we realized we couldn’t fly back to St. Thomas because of the impending hurricane. With an extra half-day, we stopped by the old city again. Old San Juan was sunlit and the streets were surreally cleared of the people and parked cars we’d seen the day before. The physical signs that the hurricane was imminent were the sandbags lining doors and the preparations of the local police. We walked the cobblestone streets lined with the saturated pastel splashed colonial buildings. This area really captures both the vibrancy and sense of historical place that is San Juan.
Many of the locals seemed calm about the approaching hurricane. They have faced this threat many times over and in most cases, the worst of the hurricane bypassed them. We were fortunate to be at the Ritz Carlton in San Juan during Hurricane Irma. Among the other guests, our case was the rare one where San Juan was a safer place to be during the Hurricane. The other guests rushed to make the last flights leaving Puerto Rico. Hurricane Irma landed on St. Thomas as a category 5 Hurricane on September 2, 2017. Its course deviated to the north at the last minute when approaching Puerto Rico. Although almost a million people lost power, it was spared the worst of it. It was incredibly sad that a place that represented such a safe haven for our family would suffer so much from Hurricane Maria two weeks later.
Some of these places may be closed or with limited access due to Hurricane Maria, and Puerto Rico, as well as St Thomas, face many years of rebuilding. We hope to visit again soon and hope others will continue to support the U.S. Territories by visiting or contributing to one of these charitable organizations.
U.S. Virgin Islands:
Tim Duncan’s 21 US Virgin Island Relief Fund:
Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands:
United for Puerto Rico:
Thank you for taking the time to read my post. Read more articles on my travel blog NirRonen.org.