LUQUILLO, Puerto Rico — Draped in clear plastic ponchos, tourists seemed to float through the rain forest like curious ghosts. Rain shed from the tips of glistening palm fronds, turning mountainside paths into rivers of warm water that washed over my hiking boots on its way to the sea.
The hike seemed hopeless and not what I expected. I kept my camera dry under a poncho I'd bought at the visitors center, but the parts of my body not covered in cheap plastic were soaked. On my tropical winter vacation I hadn't packed for rain, and certainly didn't think the trails would be open during such a gully-washer.
"Yes, they are," said the ranger when I called to ask. "It is, after all, a rain forest."
So I arrived at the park in time to tag along with a tour group that followed an easy trail along the banks of a river that seemed to rage more by the minute, and through the forest under a canopy of foliage in a scene that could have been plucked from Jurassic Park. Tempted by the prospect of going deeper into the rain forest, I broke off on my own and followed the Mount Britton Trail on a continuous climb that took me to a medieval-looking tower built in the 1930s. I scurried up three stories to the top, leaned out through one of the open windows and pressed my face into a marshmallow-like cloud overlooking the forest below. Mist. It was all I could see.
I'd come to Puerto Rico's El Yunque rain forest — the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. forest system — after several days of dodging tourists on the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan. It was the first stop in my search for the mystical mountains and laid-back beaches that make for big fun beyond the walls of the old town.
I'd rented a car just outside the old town and drove to Luquillo, a working-class seaside town about an hour east of the city. Soon, the high-rise hotels and condo towers that overlook the dark Atlantic on the island's north shore were behind me.
I'd picked Luquillo as a base for exploring the northeast corner of the main island, which is 110 miles long and 40 miles wide, and several smaller ones that are popular for their remote beaches. This area offered lots of possibilities for day trips off the big island because it's the jumping-off point for Culebra and Vieques, two small nearby islands.
I arrived in Luquillo in the afternoon and drove among modest houses and vacant lots. Some of the houses seemed abandoned and this tiny outpost offered a stark contrast to the charming cobblestone streets of the Old San Juan. Loud music thumped from a car on a nearby street and as it came closer I saw that it was a funeral procession, Puerto Rican-style.
Mourners followed the hearse on horseback and in cars. A group of teenagers pushed a stalled Volvo along the procession. The grieving mother and grandmother walked along, each with one palm pressed to the casket and the other to her heart. The clerk at my hotel, the small and spotless Luquillo Sunrise Beach Inn, said that these were the services for a much-loved teenager from a nearby neighborhood.
It was a moment that reminded me that this was a real town where people live, work and die, and not just another Caribbean tourist trap.
I slathered on the sunscreen and walked along the public beach — the balneario, a mile-long, crescent-shaped bay that's protected by the rough waters of the Atlantic by a reef. Rows of palm trees cast late-afternoon shadows on the warm pink sand, and when I heard a thump behind me I turned around to see a just-fallen coconut roll across the deserted beach. It was a Gilligan moment, for sure, and though storm clouds threatened I was starting to feel the island vibe that I'd been promised in advertisements for the area.
Luquillo isn't known just for its beautiful public beaches. Tourists and Puerto Ricans alike come here to sample the region's frituras (fried food) at a string of colorful kiosks that are sandwiched between the highway and the beach. That night, most of them were closed, and some looked abandoned with broken bottles and garbage littering the concrete floors. Stray dogs roamed the dirt lot and drank from shallow puddles between begging for handouts.
Two guys on the sidewalk flagged me to Dieguito and Markito's, which had just opened and was clean. The proprietor told me that the kiosks are the hub of the Luquillo social scene during the summer, especially for people who come here to camp on the beach and to sample local fare. I stayed for a Puerto Rican appetizer and drove back to my hotel in time for dinner at Pasta y Pablo, a tiny restaurant with a phenomenal location overlooking the beach. The modest plywood walls and ceiling barely provided shelter for the four or five tables in the restaurant, but there I had some of the best food of my trip and went back every night that I was in Luquillo. As I finished my shrimp that night I could hear the surf rolling onto the beach, but couldn't see it, and I thought about my trip the next day to Culebra, a tiny island that has what is considered one of the best beaches in the Caribbean.
Culebra is only about 17 miles east of the mainland, but I'd heard the horror stories about the rough ride on the public ferry and considered signing up for a more expensive chartered catamaran trip. Instead I decided to take my chances on the $4.50 (round-trip!) ferry.
I wanted to make the best of my time — I'd reserved just one day on the island, so I got to Fajardo, a grungy port town, in time for the first ferry of the morning. It didn't take long to understand why people call it the "barf boat." I could smell it. Within minutes of hitting the open water the seas started rolling, and I started worrying. I held on tight, watched the horizon and distracted myself by talking with a couple from the East Coast who had been all over the Caribbean and had been disappointed by the less pristine beaches of Puerto Rico.
We had high hopes for Culebra, which on a clear day is within sight of the British Virgin Isles, but we arrived under dark skies. It looked like it was going to rain.
In Dewey (the island has only one town, and even it isn't much of a town at all), I stopped by a real estate office to borrow a scissors to extract a memory card from its case, and met the owner. He lent me the scissors, gave me some tips about what to see on the island, which is just 5 miles wide by 7 miles long, and then offered to give me a tour because taxis can be hard to find.
My goal was to spend most of the day riding the surf on Flamenco Beach, but by the time I arrived it was already raining, so I hid under a palm tree where I changed into my bathing suit.
The horseshoe-shaped beach glistened even under a cloudy sky. The skies were gray, but the beach was as promised: fine coral-colored sand that squished between my toes and swallowed my feet to my ankles. The palm-sheltered camp sites were vacant and the food stands were shuttered. I hid my backpack in the low scrub that borders the beach, and started wandering.
I knew that until the 1970s the U.S. Navy used the beach as a live firing range, but aside from two rusty, seaweed-covered tanks at one end of the beach, it looked more like paradise. I passed a guy sitting on the beach in the Lotus yoga position, and stopped to ask where he was staying. I decided to scrap my plans and stay the night in hopes of better weather the next day. He said that he lives on the beach most of the year, and survives entirely on the kindness of strangers. Sort of. He uses tents, boogie boards and other equipment left behind by campers who don't want to haul them back to the mainland.
I smiled in envy at his bohemian life, and he asked how long I was staying.
"Just today," I said. "But I wish I had more time," yearning to watch the sun rise over the snow-white waves.
"You have all the time you need, but it's up to you to decide how to spend it," he said, scolding me for my existential ignorance. He stared at the endless horizon in a zen-like trance. It was the nudge I needed. I walked straightaway to the resort at the opposite end of the beach and inquired about a room for the night. There was one available, but the clerk warned me that if I wanted to take the early ferry the next morning, I'd be out of luck. The taxi driver was known for sleeping late in the morning.
I grimaced, then remembered the words of the beachcomber, and walked to the edge of the beach, where I dropped my now rain-soaked clothes — and my big-city expectations — and ran straight into the clear surf to savor the last of my island getaway.
IF YOU GO:
Deciding how to spend your time outside the walls of Old San Juan can be a challenge because Puerto Rico is big, and there's so much to do. Many people simply spend their time at one of the many all-inclusive resorts that line the beachfront. Using Luquillo as a base, I spent my days building sand castles at Luquillo Beach, hiking in a rain forest and island hopping.
Where: About 30 miles from San Juan.
Lodging: I stayed at the Luquillo Sunrise Beach Inn (www.luquillosunrise.com) which is just across the street from the beach. Rooms are spotless, staff is charming and some of the 14 rooms have ocean views. My nightly rate was $125, including a delicious homemade breakfast served in a room overlooking the ocean.
Restaurants: My far and away favorite restaurant within walking distance from my hotel was Pasta y Pablo, where chef Freddie is likely to step out of the tiny kitchen to check on your food. Don't miss the shrimp with coconut rice; I had it three nights in a row. Another popular option is Sandy's Seafood, which is a block from the main square and draws people from all over Puerto Rico. Try the jalapenos stuffed with lobster and shrimp.
EL YUNQUE NATIONAL FOREST
Where: About 45 minutes southeast of San Juan.
Lodging: Luquillo Beach is about 20 minutes from the park entrance, but there are dozens of other options, including a few all-inclusive resorts in Fajardo and some small resorts that border the forest.
Eating: A couple of modest food kiosks inside the park serve local fare, so no need to pack a lunch.
Cost: Entrance to the El Portal Visitor Center is $3 for adults.
Hours: Daily from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Details: The forest is home to more than 240 plants, 26 of which are endemic to the island. It is also home to 50 bird species, including the critically endangered Puerto Rican Amazon. It contains more than 600 uncommon species of plants and animals, including 48 that are endangered and 16 endemic to Puerto Rico. For a strenuous hike, head toward Mount Britton.
More info: www.fs.fed.us/r8/caribbean/ or call 1-787-888-1880.
Where: Catch the public ferry from Fajardo ($4.50 round-trip) or fly. There are also private boat charters. Info at www.islaculebra.com/puerto-rico/culebra-ferry-schedule.html.
Lodging: I didn't stay overnight. If I had, I would have stayed right on Flamenco Beach at Culebra Beach Villas, or I would have camped on the beach itself. But there are lots of other options elsewhere on the island. Mike McCarty sells real estate on the island and manages vacation rentals. He's at www.culebravacationplanners.com.
Eating: I had delicious rice and beans at the food kiosks at Flamenco Beach, but you'll also find several other options. Don't miss Mamacita's, which is the hub of activity in downtown Dewey, Culebra's only town. There's always live music, too.