Help me Puerto Rico!
February 16, 2015 10:04 AM   Subscribe

We're going to Puerto Rico in ~a month, for a week. We have our plane flight & our AirBNB, now it's time to figure out the rest! Advice on things to do, places to visit, how to get around, and anything else appreciated!! This is on a student budget, btw. Bonus question: What's the best way to learn traveller's Spanish in the next few weeks? I am an advanced French speaker, if that makes a difference...

I am SO EXCITED to go to the Caribbean for the first time!

We're staying in San Juan in the "Parque" district, 5 minutes from the beach. Things we would like to do: hiking in the rainforest and splash around in the waterfall, day-trip to the hot springs in the south, day-trip to go kayaking in the mangroves, friend mentioned bioluminescent lagoons, explore Old San Juan & the fort, hang out on the beach, a modicum of shopping, snorkeling.

We are thinking about renting a car, I found one rental that is $128 for the whole week with unlimited miles. Even if we don't use it every day, that seems cheaper than trying to get around with a taxi/bus/train combo? What is driving like there?

I would also love general travel tips for Puerto Rico. The websites have only been a little helpful. Is it better to book things ahead of time, or just have an idea of what we want to and figure it out day by day?

What other things are a can't-miss?

Food: when I was in Paris, my mom & I would make breakfast at home, pack lunch, and (mostly) eat out for dinner. This saved a lot on our food budget. Is it logical to do this in Puerto Rico? Or are there really cheap places to get local fare? We are staying close to a cafe, will they have breakfast (generally) at cafe's like they do in the States?

I'm sure I have a million questions I don't even know yet, so any thoughts you have about my trip will be very much appreciated!

I have seen this question, which was helpful.
posted by DoubleLune to Travel & Transportation around Puerto Rico (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: We did this last spring break. Renting a car was definitely the only thing if you want to do anything outside of San Juan at all, but the driving experience was...well, we both agreed we spent wayyy too much vacation in the car. There are some really great, well-maintained roads and highways that will suddenly lapse into tiny, windy slippery mountain roads that only seem big enough for one car but are full of speeding two-way traffic. This is true at El Yunque and definitely on the western half of the island.

If I had it to do over again, I would definitely pare down my itinerary and do fewer driving trips. Google maps is trustworthy around San Juan and not so much in the middle of the island (and make SURE your phone will work in PR because no one sells maps anymore.) Like, I went to the hot springs in Coamo if those are the ones you're talking about, and while it was nice it was two medium sized pools and a snack bar. Hour and a half stop, max. I guess you could combine that with kayaking the mangroves, but with the two hour drive on either end, that's a really long day and you're going to be cranky. Whereas, if you skip the springs and do your kayaking on the bioluminescent bays (or take your day trip to Vieques instead), you've got time to sleep in, find food, and just wander around and soak it in. I know it seems like there's so much to do, but plan yourself at least one day of vegging out. You don't want to be tired at the end of your vacation!

This kayak tour was fun, though I'm not sure it would be as much so if you weren't also staying at the guest house like we were. Humacao is nice for a day, though, if you're tired of the tourist crush - the nature preserve is beautiful and strangely enough, the best restaurant of the trip was a crepe store across the street from a Walmart.

We went to El Aracibo because I'd just finished The Sparrow, and while it was amazing I'm not sure the driving was worth it. Give El Yunque at least a full day, and definitely bring food with you. The path which goes to the waterfall is very crowded, but definitely worth it - bring a bathing suit or at least clothes you don't mind getting wet, because EVERYONE swims there. The path to the tower is shorter, but there's no guarantee that you'll be able to see anything when you get there. Don't bring things to El Yunque that can't get wet. Also, bring wet wipes. Trust me.

In general, dining around San Juan is pretty expensive and I think your plan of packing lunch is an excellent one. We tended to eat about six meals a day when we were there. The cafes do have breakfast, but it's still expensive.

The historic sites in San Juan are amazing. In particular I was jealous of the people on the big lawn out in front of El Morro who were flying kites. Seriously, if you slip a cheap kite in your bag and bring it with you, you will be my hero.

You are going to have a great time!
posted by theweasel at 10:38 AM on February 16, 2015

Best answer: (Oh yeah, and I wouldn't book most stuff until you get there. Maybe if there's the one thing you will just die if you don't get to do.)
posted by theweasel at 10:40 AM on February 16, 2015

Best answer: I was just in San Juan in December, and stayed in Condado...right next to where you are. Most of my vacation consisted of sitting by the pool and destressing, but we did get out a bit. Our go-to breakfast place was Pinky's on Avendida Ashford. Good, inexpensive, and some solid smoothies (I liked the Vitamin C Boost, my wife and our goddaughter liked one which was basically banana, spinach, honey, and ice). The breakfast sandwiches (especially the Drunken Pilot) are large enough for two people.

Traffic in San Juan is UNBELIEVABLE, and I say that as a downtown Chicago resident. Avendida Ashford (the main drag through Parque and Condado, and the best way for you into Old San Juan) is pretty much bumper-to-bumper during standard rush hours. On Saturday evening when we were there, it took us over an hour to go the 6 km to a restaurant in Old San Juan. Other than that, driving there seems pretty tame by my standards. No one was overly upset at being cut off, turn signals were used, and overall everyone seemed pretty laid back and polite about things.

For to dos, like I said, I mostly read and relaxed. We did go to El Yunque rainforest one day (~45 - 1hr from SJU) for a hike on La Mina Trail, which has the benefit of a waterfall in the middle of it. It's accessible from two points along the route. We went up and then hiked down. Not super long (under a mile), but you'll want real shoes (not sandals). It is a rainforest though, and gets over 200 inches of rain a year, so I'd suggest going in the morning for your best chance of not getting drenched. That day we also hit up Ceviche Hut on Calle Marginal, and a local beach, which were roughly half an hour from El Yunque.

I'd plan on spending a full day / evening in Old San Juan. My wife and I are planning on going back and exploring a LOT more.
posted by moitz at 10:42 AM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is a ten-minute guide to learning Spanish I composed a time back. Not exactly ten minutes, but I hope it covers the most basic rules.

Learn Spanish pronunciation in ten minutes (for English speakers).

1. The most important tool for understanding Spanish is pronunciation. Many words are equal or very similar in spelling in Spanish and English but they don't sound the same. If you spoke the word with an English pronunciation, the Spanish speaker wouldn't understand you. If the Spanish speaker spoke the word with a Spanish pronunciation, you wouldn't understand him.

2. Spanish pronunciation is easy and consistent. A few simple rules will suffice for 95% of situations and a few more will get you the final 5%.

Vowels have a single sound. They maintain that sound under nearly all circumstances.

a is always ah as in bah.
e is always ay as in bay.
i is always ee as in bee.
o is always oh as in blow.
u is oo as in boo.

Two words sum these up: Bruno "Broo-noh;" media "may-dee-ah."

With the exception of "u" (discussed below) vowel combinations, pronounce consecutive vowels separately. "Fiesta" (seven) "fee-ays-tah."

Most consonants have a single sound. Those that don't follow roughly the same rules they do in English. You don't have to memorize the following consonants. They have a single sound and sound the same in English and Spanish:

b, d, f, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, w, x. (note: s does not ever have a Z sound. Only s-s-s)

Those that have a single sound and sound different in Spanish (memorize the exceptions):

h (silent in Spanish). ha is pronounced "ah."
j (sounds like a harsh h). ja is prononced hah.
qu (sounds like a k). que is pronounced kay.
v (sounds more like a b than a v). va is pronounced "bah."
z (sounds like an s). zeta is pronounced "say-tah."

Those that have more than one sound but follow the pattern of English.

c can be "k" if followed by a, o, u or a consonant. "Cruz" is pronounced "kroose."
c can be "s" if followed by e or i. "cinco" (five) is pronounced "seen-coh."
ch sounds like ch in English.
g can be a hard g if followed by a, o, u or consonant. "gato" (cat) is pronounced "gah-toh."
g can sound like a harsh h if it is followed by e or i. "gente" (people) is pronounced "hayn-tay."
y can be a consonant "y" as in yuca "yoo-kah." Depending on the country of origin of the speaker, "y" might sound like "j" as in "just." So yuca may also be "joo-kah." In the US you will probably encounter more "j-type" pronunciation. Similarly, "Yale" is "jail."
y can be a vowel sounding like "ee." "Tu y yo" (you and me) is pronounced "too ee yoh."

With English personal names and place names you can use the correct English pronunciation. You can call "New York," "New York." You are still Susan. (Soo-zun)

However, every language has their own special pronunciation and often name for geographic locations and if you do have a location or person with a Spanish name, pronounce these with correct Spanish pronunciation.

If the word has an accent mark, accentuate that syllable. If not, you can guess that you should accentuate the second-to-last syllable. Maria is "Mah-REE-ah."

3. The five per cent.

Special letters and combinations in Spanish.

Double L sounds like "y" as in "yellow" or "j" as in "just" depending on the dialect of the speaker. So llama is "yah-mah" or "ja-mah." In the US you will probably encounter more "j-type" pronunciation.
Double R gets trilled. Burrito is "boo-r-r-r-ee-toh."
ñ sounds like "ny" as in canyon. Año (ah-nyoh) is year. Ano (ah-noh) is anus.

In English, the letter u changes the sound of q into kw. In Spanish the u before another vowel adds the sound of a w to the consonant (except q). For example, g becomes "gw," c becomes "kw," etc. Iguana is "ee-gwah-nah."

4. Beyond pronunciation. Recognizing Spanish words.

In Spanish, you never run into "th," "sh," or "ph." Words using these letter combinations come from Greek - and Spanish is a Latin language. (English is a mixed bag.) Ph becomes F. "Filadelfia." Th sometimes becomes "t." Thesis becomes "tesis." Often with English words using th or sh, the Spanish equivalent is completely different and difficult to predict.

-tion (with an sh sound) becomes -ción "-see-OHN." You can use this rule to recognize and pronounce a thousand Spanish words. comunicación. educación. This rule works about 95% of the time, often enough that you won't look foolish.

If a word starts with "s" and then a consonant - besides sh - (sc, scr, sl, sm, sn, sp, spr, spl, st, str, others) the word will usually get an "e-" added in front. Special becomes "especial," "ay-spay-cee-al." Station becomes "estación."

Other than rr and ll, double consonants disappear. In the above example communication is comunicación (one m). Lasso is laso.

-ology words can be changed to -ología, "-oh-loh-HEE-ah." sociology, sociología.

-ous words can be changed to -oso (-oh-soh). Famous, famoso. Delicious, delicioso. (since these are adjectives they may be changed to the feminine form at times)

-ism words can be changed to -ismo. (-ees-moh) imperialism, imperialismo. idealism, idealismo.

-ty words can be changed to -dad. (-dahd) reality, realidad. locality, localidad. banality, banalidad.

-cy words can be changed to -cia (-see-ah). urgency, urgencia. emergency, emergencia. democracy, democracia.

-ic words can be changed to -ico (ee-coh). dramatic, dramatico. artistic, artistico.

Institutional and technological words (including inventions going back the last two hundred years) tend to be the same or very similar in English and Spanish. Radio is radio. Television is televisión or televisor. Hospital is hospital.

An "-a" at the end makes the noun feminine. An "-o" at the end makes the noun masculine. From spouse, esposa is wife. Esposo is husband. Esposas are handcuffs. (Don't blame me.)

-ero or -ador at the end of a word transforms that word into a person related to the subject. "He kills" is "mata." A matador is a killer. Caballo is a horse. Caballero is a horseman, or a knight (they ride on horses), or a gentleman (those knights were gentlemen).

The above rules work between 90 and 100% of the time.

A bad rule: Adding -o at the end of words to make them sound Spanish-y. E.g., what is that thing-o? Works 10% of the time and has you sounding like an incomprehensible idiot the rest of the time.

5. Applying this knowledge. The website lists 231 words that follow the -dad rule, 253 words following the -ico rule and 321 following the -ción rule.

Using the above you should also be able to recognize and pronounce the following Spanish words.

canal (A canal is a type of channel. A television channel is also canal in Spanish.)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:35 AM on February 16, 2015 [11 favorites]

If you have a few days to kill, please go to Vieques!! I LOVED it. I heard that you can bring your rental car on the ferry if you reserve well in advance, though you should check that. The bioluminescent bay is probably still out of commission, but it is still totally worth the trip. Stunning, almost deserted beaches and great snorkling.
posted by LeeLanded at 1:06 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have you already seen this AskMe?

I'd repeat my answer from there, recommending Old Town San Juan, Arecibo Observatory, and Vieques. Also my caveat that my experience is several years out of date.
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:44 PM on February 16, 2015

Just went to PR recently! Tips for San Juan:

- give special consideration to driving times in planning your days. We tried to go to Arecibo and Rio Camuy Cave Park and were sitting in the car, wondering why we were on highways all the time.
- San Juan can feel a lot like the US. Spanish isn't necessary on San Juan, but more useful on Vieques
- For El Yunque, I heard good things about this tour. Everyone flocks to the main waterfall at El Yunque but a fellow traveler mentioned this groupknew about a smaller one, off the beaten path, that was tranquil and equally beautiful.

Another vote for Vieques! Some tips:
- if you're adept w a scooter, this is a great way to get around the small island: Fun Brothers
- not so easy to get good cell reception or maps when you land at the port from the ferry, so it's a good idea to get maps prior to landing so you can show your destination to your taxi driver
- this is a helpful island guide: Vieques Insider
- Some of the best beaches are on the Wildlife Refuge, so worth getting a good scooter and walking down some of the unmaintained roads or renting a jeep
- there's only 2 gas stations on the island. If disaster strikes and you get a flat and both stations are closed (eg for New Years), you can buy a can of air at a convenience store and that should carry you for another 24 hours.
- for the biobay tours, try booking at least 48 hours in advance
posted by hampanda at 3:42 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm on the fence about renting a car. Traffic in San Juan is beyond insane.

For breakfast buy pan dulce at any bodega. Or hit a Panaderia. Either should sell a decent cafe de leche.

There are tons of little shacky places to get sandwiches and seafood. Any grocery store should have a hot food section.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:21 PM on February 16, 2015

El Yunque was great, and the only reason I rented a car on my trip to Puerto Rico. Inside San Juan, we took taxis or walked from place to place (but I'm a big fan of walking). Walking around Old Town is the best way to go, the roads are too narrow for traffic to move quickly.
posted by garlic at 1:40 PM on February 17, 2015

We (me + 4 friends) did a week in PR last Feb so I have Thoughts. Our itinerary: a night at a hotel in Old San Juan, 3 nights in an Airbnb house in Yabucoa, a night at a hotel in Ponce, and 2 nights at an Airbnb house in Cabo Rojo. Rented a car and were VERY glad we did, since we wanted to see as much of the island as we could.

The car came in very handy when the fabulous lady at our first hotel tipped us off to Charco Azul, a sacred swimming hole tucked away in the mountains. It was easily one of the highlights of the trip for all of us. She told us to go on a weekday because the weekends are super crowded. We had the place to ourselves for the entire day, until just before we were leaving. It is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen and was by far the most relaxing day of our trip. The drive there up the mountain was absolutely gorgeous.

Favorites: stopping at the roadside bars for empanadas and cerveza, a cruise on the bio bay, El Yunque (though we cut our day to a half day so we could go back to San Juan for a festival that some of our friends were performing in), Charco Azul, snorkeling cruise to Vieques, a day at Playa Sucia in Cabo Rojo (and DO NOT MISS sunset on top of the cliffs next to the beach, though you don't want to try hiking up there in flip flops.)

Meh: Ponce was a little disappointing for a full day but worth a stop if you are passing through. It was a lot smaller than we thought.

Next time we will: try to stay on Vieques for at least one night because you don't get to see much of it from a snorkeling boat, try for a better balance between culture and nature, reserve a full day for El Junque, try to plan for a darker night (new moon) to do the bio bay cruise, go back to Charco Azul. I can't wait to go back!
posted by deliciae at 2:11 PM on August 22, 2015

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