Trip Coach: November 11, 2008
Stephen Keeling, author of the first-edition "Rough Guide to Puerto Rico," answered your questions about Puerto Rico.
Stephen Keeling: Hi! This is Stephen Keeling, and I'm excited to chat with you today about Puerto Rico. Let's get started!
Arlington, Va.: My wife and I will be taking a trip to Puerto Rico in March. We have one week to do anything we want and are trying to decide between Vieques and Culebra for a relaxing week while still having options available for things to do. What are the benefits of each island and what do you recommend?
Stephen Keeling: Great question. The two islands have a lot in common, but there are quite a few differences. Vieques is far larger, and with a population of around 10,000 it can seem much busier at times (Culebra has around 3000 inhabitants), though it's relatively easy to find a secluded strip of sand. Much of the tourist infrastructure is run by American expats on Vieques—Puerto Ricans still dominate on Culebra (though pretty much everyone speaks English on both islands). Unlike Vieques (which does occasionally experience bouts of car theft), crime is virtually unknown on Culebra: much of it shuts down in the afternoons for a siesta. Both islands have absolutely stunning beaches, though you'll have more choice on Vieques—the hotel and eating options are also far better on Vieques. Culebra has the most famous beach, Flamenco, and is a bit better for diving, snorkeling and kayaking, though if you get tired of the sea and sun, Vieques has some enticing cultural attractions (such as the old Spanish fort and prehistoric site) that are lacking in Culebra. In short, Culebra is best for a really tranquil, beach and water-based holiday; but Vieques offers more options in terms of wild, unspoiled beaches, eating and drinking, and activities. I love them both—hope this has made your choice easier!
Rochester Hills, Mich.: How is the scuba diving and snorkling offshore and by boat?
Stephen Keeling: This really depends where you are in Puerto Rico, but as a guide, I'd budget $100-120 for two-tank dives (this assumes you are certified of course), and $50-75 per snorkeling session (2-3hrs). Most scuba trips will involve a boat ride. Remember that there are also many places to snorkel just offshore for free—paid trips will normally be an organized boat trip to an offshore reef. In general, operators in La Parguera and Culebra are slightly cheaper than San Juan, Fajardo and Rincón.
Provo, Utah: I've only been to Puerto Rico as part of a cruise, so I've really missed out on the island's interior. What can you tell me about Camuy Caverns?
Stephen Keeling: I'm glad you've asked about Camuy! Puerto Rico's interior is definitely well worth exploring, but the problem with Camuy right now is that the best part—the guided walk through Cueva Clara, the biggest, most spectacular cavern—has been closed since January this year, when a tourist was actually killed by falling rocks (the first time this had ever happened).
What you get instead for your $12 entry fee is a brief introductory video and trolley bus tour around the mouth of Sumidero Tres Pueblos, a colossal sinkhole. The sinkhole is amazing, but to be honest, it's probably not worth visiting Camuy until the main caves re-open (hopefully sometime in 2009). If you're curious anyway, the park is open Wed-Sun 8.30am-5pm. Call the park at 787/898-3100 for the latest, though you need to mention Cueva Clara specifically—otherwise they tend to insist that 'the park is open' and leave it at that.
If you fancy something a little more energetic, contact a private tour operator. Acampa is a reliable outfit (787/706-0695; acampapr.com), and runs caving day-trips to the Río Tanamá area for $149. Expediciones Palenque (787/823-4354; expedicionespalenque.com) also runs caving excursions to the Camuy area from $90 per day.
Santa Maria, Calif.: Will be with 3 others one day in San Juan off a cruise ship. Never been there before. Question: We prefer a private guide. Do you have a suggestion on who to contact, or using Google search? And, we're going on a four hour tour—what would you suggest as the focus? We plan to end the tour with lunch in city. Where should we go for a tasty meal, well served and prepared, not the usual junk stuff. Thanks, Dan
Stephen Keeling: Hi Dan! I'd start with "Legends of Puerto Rico", who tend to arrange the best guided tours of Old San Juan on foot (legendsofpr.com, Tel: 787/605-9060). Four hours should be enough to get a taster of the old town (which is where the cruise ships dock), though I'd certainly recommend coming back to Puerto Rico to really make the most of it! As for focus, given you'll be wandering around the old city, I'd concentrate on history; El Morro, the massive fortress guarding San Juan Harbor, is the premier sight, and the nearby historic cemetery is wonderfully picturesque. You should also check out the Galería Nacional, an easily absorbed gallery of Puerto Rican art, the cathedral, and the central square, the Plaza de Armas (where the kiosks serve great coffee). If you can squeeze it in, visit Casa Blanca, a gorgeous old mansion dating from the early sixteenth century. You have plenty of choice when it comes to lunch! Assuming you want to try Puerto Rican food, I'd recommend El Jibarito, at Calle Sol 280, which serves cheap and tasty local dishes, or Café Puerto Rico, at Calle O'Donnell 208, which knocks out excellent mofongo (mashed plantains stuffed with meat), the national dish.