Puerto Rico Trip Coach

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Stephen Keeling, author of the first-edition Rough Guide to Puerto Rico, answered your questions about Puerto Rico.

Nampa, Idaho:What should I see/do on the one day my cruise ship docks at San Juan?

Stephen Keeling: If you fancy a few hours on the beach, soaking up the salsa and a couple of cocktails, make for Isla Verde, San Juan's best strip of sand (a taxi should be $19). If that sounds a bit too much like life on ship, stay in the old town (where the ship is likely to dock) and wander the cobbled streets, soaking up the atmosphere and eighteenth-century Spanish architecture. Old San Juan is packed with stores, bars and restaurants, but you should also visit El Morro, the massive Spanish fortress that overlooks the harbor, and grab a potent coffee in Plaza de Armas, the main square.

If you'll be there on a Monday, most of the other museums will be closed. So instead take a peek inside the cathedral instead, or take a guided tour of La Fortaleza, the governor's mansion. Casa Bacardi, on the other side of the harbor, is a fascinating introduction to the world's largest producer of rum, even if you're not a drinker—though the drinkers get a couple of free cocktails at the end of the tour.

Assuming you have time to squeeze in a side-trip to Vieques (and plenty of cruise-ship visitors do so), the bio bay is simply stunning! It's hard to describe. It looks normal at first, but boats leave glowing trails in the darkness, while swimmers are engulfed by luminous clouds, the water spilling off your hands like glittering fireflies. It's really like something out of a fantasy movie! Note that moonlight can really affect your experience, because if it's too bright, it can be hard to see anything. Checking the handy moon calendar at biobay.com, it looks like Dec 30 should be fine. The website belongs to the best bio bay tour operator, Island Adventures. Enjoy!

What are nice, affordable hotels near San Juan's beaches?

Stephen Keeling: San Juan's best beach, in my view, is Isla Verde. Lots of white sand, with plenty of bars and music nearby and a great party scene at the weekend. Needless to say, the best hotels here are not cheap! Inexpensive alternatives, a short walk from the beach, are Coqui Inn (coqui-inn.com) and Hotel Villa del Sol (villadelsolpr.com), but you could also consider the sleepier neighborhood of Ocean Park, where Hosteria del Mar (hosteriadelmarpr.com) offers great value for beachside accommodation. Failing that, you could always try "naming your own price" at priceline.com—you can sometimes get an Isla Verde five-star for $100.

Santa Maria, Calif.: Where is the best snorkeling on the island?

Stephen Keeling: Hi Ardis, great question. Though it's theoretically possible to snorkel almost anywhere along the coast of Puerto Rico, the power of the surf in winter (when you'll be there), coral damage, and the large number of silt-carrying rivers flowing into the sea, makes much of this inaccessible or unremarkable. In general the small islands offshore always offer the best coral and fish life.

Isla de Mona and Isla Desecheo on the west coast are definitely my picks for the best snorkeling and diving; Mona is quite tough to visit, but you can arrange trips to Desecheo from the surf town of Rincón. I'd also recommend Culebra and Vieques (Culebra is slightly better), which both have snorkeling areas that are sheltered from the big December swells. You can fly direct to both islands from San Juan in thirty minutes. To guarantee calm seas, head to La Parguera on the south coast, which offers plenty of snorkeling sites and mangrove islands. You might also see a manatee or two.

What about diving? The sites off the east coast (Fajardo) and San Juan, are OK for beginners, but may disappoint seasoned divers. Better divers should try La Pared (the reef off La Parguera), Culebra, and Isla de Mona and Isla Desecheo, off Rincón. For Culebra, as I say, you can fly direct from San Juan, and once there it's so small you don't need to rent a car. It's stunningly beautiful above ground too! Contact Culebra Divers for more info (culebradivers.com).

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: 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.

New York, N.Y.: We're a couple in our 30's and are going to spend 4 night in San Juan next week. What are your recommended for not-to-be-missed attractions and restaurants?

Stephen Keeling: So much to see! I'd definitely spend a lot of time in Old San Juan; visit El Morro, the Galería Nacional, Casa Blanca, Museo de las Américas and just wander the streets, taking it all in. If you like art, it's worth making a trip to Santurce, an inland neighborhood, to see the contemporary art museum and excellent Museo de Arte, a real showcase of Puerto Rican talent. If you prefer the beach, head to Isla Verde. It has all the usual water sports are also on offer. For off-the-beaten track adventures, head to the university district of Río Piedras, where you'll find some real gems: the famous Francisco Oller painting El Velorio, in the university museum, and the Plaza del Mercado, where the market boasts a huge range of fresh veg and fruits, but also cigars, traditional botánicas and the best (and cheapest) food court in the city. Casa Bacardi, across the harbor, makes a great half-day excursion.

So many restaurants. In brief, in Old San Juan I'd definitely try Cafeteria Mallorca (try the eponymous mallorcas!), the Parrot Club, El Jibarito, and the cocktails at Maria's (piña coladas were invented in San Juan). In Condado, don't miss Ajili-Mójili and Bebo's Café, a real local hangout; Zabo is nicer for dinner. Pikayo in the Museo de Arte is the home of celebrity chef Wilo Benet, while the nearby district known as La Placita is fun on Thursday or Friday nights, for drinks, salsa and seafood. If you like casinos, visit the El San Juan Hotel for some 1950s class.

After dinner: For modern local music and at least a hint of authentic culture, I'd recommend Piñones, just east of San Juan proper, which really starts jumping at the weekends. To be fair, this is a bit more local and authentic than truly hipster (think blaring salsa and raw reggaeton, lots of rum and plenty of chickens ambling between the food shacks along the beach), but there are a few bars here that attract a cooler set: Bamboobei and El Balcón de Zumbador are good examples.

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 3,000 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.

What else is there to do besides visit San Juan?

Stephen Keeling: Luquillo is a good idea, as it has some fabulous beaches, and is a short drive from the El Yunque rain forest and San Juan; it's also close to the attractions of Fajardo and the ferry to Vieques and Culebra. Having said that, you could also opt for somewhere on the north or even west coast, which can also provide access to some enticing attractions inland. My two picks would be Boquerón, on the southwest coast, and Playa de Jobos, on the northwest coast. Plus points for Jobos: the beaches are excellent, there's great snorkeling at Playa de Shacks nearby (as well as horseback riding) and it's a short drive into the mountains (the Bosque Estatal de Guajataca is one of the best state forests for hiking); and you could be in Old San Juan within two hours. Boquerón is a trek from San Juan, but the beach is truly magnificent, and you have Ponce and San Germán, another historic gem, within easy striking distance. On top of that, you could explore the other-worldly landscapes and reserves of Cabo Rojo, the mangroves (by kayaks and boat) of La Parguera (also good for snorkeling), and the tranquil dry forest reserve near Guánica (which has numerous hiking trails). Both places have plenty of accommodation options (hotels and self-catering apartments). Hope that helps!


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