San Juan Travel is always an adventure, a mixture of blessings and curses, and our visit to Puerto Rico at year’s end as been all of that.
We found Ponce interesting, as Puerto Rico’s second city. We stayed in an AirBnb near the water where the views were industrial, but we could hear the sounds of the water from the patio, so were happy. Driving along the neighborhoods along the water’s edge on the western side of the island, we could see signs of the struggle to come back from Hurricane Irma, but most seemed to be making it. Thirty miles up the road near Guanica, past the chemical plants and refineries, we found a state forest that was a jewel with walkways built in several spots down to the water in a gorgeous setting of water and crab-pocked sandstone before the waves hit and scooped up the huge conch shells as the deepened sharply.
Culebra is not as famous as its neighbor Vieques, though both were bombing practice sites for the US military. On a beautiful beach we walked along the water’s edge on a windy day where red flags warned people out of the water. The beach featured abandoned tanks painted with graffiti. One in the water, read “PEACE.” We snorkeled at a local’s beach called Mehones, which was a new treat for me that took some leaps of faith to embrace. The reef seemed to be dying, though the yellows and blues on the fish were amazing, bringing me back to my many years as a boy and young man when I had an aquarium. It was a bit of a trial for my daughter, the more experienced snorkeler, since everywhere on the sea bed were black urchins and the potential danger of their stings, and her felt responsibility to constantly warn me away.
Puerto Rico is pricey when it comes to gas, food, and anything that has to be shipped over from the mainland. The ferry from the main island to Culebra is one of the great bargains though at two dollars for a 50-minute ride. Flamingo Beach was similar. The industry understands that they need to get you there, and then caveat emptor.
With a couple of days left in old San Juan, we dumped the rental car with great relief. Sixt, a 100-year old rental car company that is primarily European with German roots and a minimal US footprint, was an experience. Its off-airport location seemed sketchy and picking up the car was a commitment with waits that ran multiple hours. We got the car in a bit over two hours, others in line reported three- and four-hour waits. We had braced ourselves for the worst, but fortunately were in an out in minutes, somewhat offsetting the earlier horror.
Situated finally, we ventured out and stumbled on a great local restaurant, Deaverdura. In Spanish that means roughly Vegetable Goddess, though it wasn’t a vegetarian restaurant. We walked in at a lucky moment around 630 pm missing the line that formed out into the street immediately after we were seated. We wondered if we were in for a Sixt-style waiting experience, but couldn’t have been more surprised to find the food was excellent and the price was the most reasonable we had found on the island.
We wondered how they would manage the crowd with only two waiters, but these were among the best we’d ever seen. They ably placed different couples together where it seemed impossible. Creating familiarity, our waiter had a seat at the table to take the order next to us. Another bent down below the table to look up to take his orders. We watched our waiter handle the crowd, giving a true estimate of wait times and alternatives. It was masterful. I tipped at the top, having seen about the best ever.
Getting ready to leave though I walked over to another nearby table. Two younger couples had separately come up to the door not long after we were seated. Both had accepted the wait time and stood on either side of the doors, looking at their phones, and patiently hoping. When a table opened, the man in the first couple walked over to stand next to it with a nod to the waiter. His partner followed him over and then in a moment of pure grace, he motioned to the strangers whether they would like to stop waiting and take the other two chairs. They jumped at the chance, and we could see them smiling and chatting amiably. Leaving I walked over and thanked him for letting us witness this moment that was such a pure traveler’s blessing.
Puerto Rico still opens its door to these kinds of riches.