TRAVEL: Puerto Rico, an adventure without a passport
Driving to Puerto Rico’s Villa Montaña Beach Resort on the island’s northwest corner was done in pitch-black night, on the tail-end of a torrential downpour. There were no street lights and the humid air was fogging the windshield of our tiny Toyota Yaris. We drove further and further into nothingness as the thick foliage on the sides of the narrow road closed in.
“Are you sure we’re going the right direction?” I asked my boyfriend, Eric. “This doesn’t look right.”
We had arrived in San Juan by plane earlier that day, and embarked on a two-and-a-half-hour drive not for the faint-hearted. Even though Puerto Rico is an American territory, its residents do not adhere to the same driving rules found in the States. Brake lights aren’t deemed a necessity, and folks rarely use their blinkers. It’s a free-for-all of swerving, merging, breaking and speeding, with police cars’ flashing lights a common sight.
Eric continued to drive as I strained my eyes for signs of life.
“I think I see a sign,” he said, and veered the car onto an even narrower, darker road. At that point, I was sure we were lost. In a few more twists and turns, we arrived at the gate, however, entered, and got lost again looking for the main office. It was still raining when we found our room, hunkered down and drank a beer. We still had no idea what the place looked like, having arrived in complete darkness. But the loud croak of the indigenous Coqui frog filled our ears as we drifted off to sleep. (I later learned this big sound comes from a frog no bigger than a half-inch).
The next morning, we awoke to sunshine, clear skies and 85-degree weather. So, we explored our new home base for the next week. We had access to swimming pools, an onsite restaurant, and daily cups of complimentary strong coffee (yum!). But more importantly, the private beach was pristine, the ocean was like bathwater, and we felt like we had it to ourselves. That’s because we’d taken a big risk, and made travel plans to this remote area of Puerto Rico during its shoulder season and on the tail end of hurricane season. Villa Montaña bustles from December through March, but our mid-November stay meant we had our pick of the place with an off-season rate.
We spent the week exploring by car, snorkeling in the Blue Hole (a well-known area just a five-minute walk up the beach), paddle boarding with Verde Azul (ask for Scott, http://www.verdeazulpr.com), sunbathing and hanging with the “pool cat.” This sweet little black feline hung out with us by the restaurant pool for most of our stay, and even slept on our deck one night.
Up the road from the resort, we walked most days to the Breakfast Club at Ola Lola’s (Facebook.com/TheBreakfastClubatOlaLolas), an open-air restaurant open Friday through Tuesday. There, we ate fresh, local food (I was partial to the greek yogurt, granola and fruit while Eric opted for the burrito), while enjoying sassy looks from the horses across the street; these funny animals would often stand facing the restaurant, wiggling their ears and swinging their tails. Ola Lola’s turned into the busy Garden Bar & Grill (www.ola-lolas.com) come evening (open four days, Friday through Monday). I highly recommend its peanut-butter burger (an odd combo you’ll most likely love). Brunch and dinner services are operated by separate businesses, both friendly Americans who moved to Puerto Rico for the laid-back lifestyle.
Ever the adventurous scuba diver, Eric got certified for cave dives and spent a morning deep below the ocean surface off the Blue Hole and Shack’s Beach. He said he saw a gigantic sea turtle, and plenty of colorful fish. He used La Cueva Submarina Dive Shop in Isabela. It was a quick drive from Villa Montaña, which is located conveniently between Isabela and Aguadilla.
Fun fact: Before Puerto Rico, also known as the Isle of Enchantment, became an American territory in 1902, it had early ties to Spain. Thus, both English and Spanish are mixed into a charming combination of Spanglish; street signs are mostly in Spanish, though you’ll get English now and then; and American stores are found throughout the island. The northwest side of Puerto Rico has embraced tourism as a main economic driver, so many island residents are fluent in both languages (though some still only speak Spanish). It was easier than expected to communicate and conduct business throughout the island. Pricing at some of the restaurants were comparable with stateside prices. And you don’t need a passport to go.
If you have the time, venture out to La Cambija in Rincon, Puerto Rico. It was about a 45-minute drive one way; much of it was through tight city streets, winding and turning into one-ways. Once we got there, we ordered fish tacos, and four different fish-on-a-stick options — everything was fresh-caught, including some shark (its texture more muscle-y than fish, tasted good) and tuna (delicious!). The fish came straight from the ocean that day, and we washed it down with the island’s own Medalla beer. Again, it was an open-air restaurant and we sat under just a roof during a torrential downpour. I loved everything we tried, and it was very affordable.
Staying at Villa Montaña was a treat in itself. The staff was friendly and helpful. Plus, when we had a minor room issue, we were given an amazing beach-side upgrade (thanks again!). The resort’s Eclipse Restaurant offers tapas at the bar, along with a full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My recommendation is to reserve a table overlooking the beach at sunset; that really ups the “wow” factor. I also loved munching on tapas poolside, with the charming “pool cat” always close by.
We lucked out on the weather, too. Though it could have gone either way, sunshine prevailed for most of our trip, with rain mostly while we slept.
For more information about Villa Montaña Beach Resort, visit http://www.villamontana.com.
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