Puerto Rico: La isla del encanto

Enchanted Island by Claudia Vogt

If you come from Europe, you probably don´t even know where the hell to find Puerto Rico on your world map… At least Daniela and me, two Austrian students, didn´t have a clue originally.

Let´s start the story at exactly that point... In spring 2002 we decided to go and study abroad again, as we both had done before. Daniela had spent a wonderful year in southern Spain and I had lived on Gran Canary for eight months – not only because of the prestige of the island university in Las Palmas, as you can imagine. What had brought me to my favorite Canary island were the incredibly steady conditions for windsurfing all year round and the chance to stay in Pozo with friends of mine who live there…

After this amazing experience I knew that I would be looking out for the next chance to study at a place that allows me to sail and study at the same time. In the meantime I had a course about language and politics in Latin America, and my topic was Puerto Rico. At a certain point it became clear that I wanted to go there.

First, Daniela and me figured out that it was a Caribbean island, which meant, for us: cruiseships in the crystal-clear sea, endless sandy beaches, tropical nightlife and exotic wildlife. And, to me: sailing in boardshorts! I had heard stories about the Dominican Republic and Isla Margerita, and since Puerto Rico didn´t seem too far away from both, I expected it to be the same. This would definetely be a wholly new experience for an Austrian sailor who sometimes even takes water temperatures under 10° C just to be able to sail on one of our lakes in fall or spring…

Claudia & Daniela

Before leaving Vienna there were lots of things to organise: the scholarship of Vienna University which would cover some of our expenses, the U.S.-visa (Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States), a few injections… being busy with that, time passed by unbelievably fast and in October we found ourselves sitting on the plane from Madrid to San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, reading the travel guide with increasing interest.

We hadn´t really given too much thought to the accomodation issue till then – and the crime rates that the “Lonely Planet”- guide listed for the metropolitan area of San Juan didn´t contribute to our inner peace! San Juan International Airport didn´t welcome us the way we had imagined. Loud, extremely busy, the crowds at the immigration checkpoints… what about the Caribbean way of life?! What we experienced at the immigration counter was to be typical of all Puerto Rico: speaking Spanish is the only way to get through to the Puerto Ricans, to be accepted and treated politely. As soon as we said a few words in Spanish, the officer would stop his questioning and let us pass.

Puerto Ricans still see themselves as underprivileged compared to U.S. citizens from the mainland, and they, seen from a juridicalm point of view, certainly are. That and the fact that all the tourism, industry and manufactury are in the hands of Yankees, or “gringos”, causes a somewhat negative attitude towards white U.S. Americans. Our fair hair and the blue eyes might be an attraction in the Caribbean – but they proved to be the major obstacle when trying to “integrate” in Puerto Rican society. At first sight everyone took us for the typical All-American-Girls and treated us like that: either you´re ignored or they try their Spanish swear words on you.

But speak some Spanish and tell them you´re from Europe, and Puerto Ricans will love you. We got invitations from almost strangers to spend Thanksgiving with them, they served us typical Puerto Rican dishes like “pasteles” (turnovers stuffed with meat, rice and plantains) or “mofongo” (crisp green plantain-balls to eat in fish-soup) to try at home, others phoned friends on the other coast of the island to make sure we´d have a place to stay in case we wanted to go there…

Ocean Park

It took a while for us to figure out how everyday life worked on “La Isla del Encanto” (literarally: Island of Joy): you need a car in the metro area (not easy to rent one if you are under 25), never rely on buses and always take your time if there´s no other way, stay away from the public housing projects if you want to survive the day, don´t expect lanes on the highways nor that drivers use their indicators before they turn. And that´s only the inofficial traffic rules!

At university, life wasn´t much easier. Studying abroad is always about learning - learning about different ways of life and different rules that guarantee the working of a certain society. Here on Puerto Rico, it also meant to learn what the term “developing country” means and how difficult it is for Europeans to cope with a bad infrastructure: In Vienna we know what it is like to wait in a queue for the copy machine, but compared to the public Puerto Rican University, it is almost nothing!

As much stress as the city bore for us, as much potential for relaxing was offered by the rest of the island. If there was only little time, we would go to Isla Verde or Carolina, which are both still in the metro area but wealthier and more tourist like! Driving to Isla Verde you pass one of the best places to live in San Juan, especially if you love wind- or kitesurfing. Ocean Park offers nice one-story beach front houses or exclusive appartements in big condominios, a long strip of golden sand and turquoise water and some nice places to meet and greet.

The wind conditions vary: more consistent and stronger in spring and summer, less windy days but some good swell coming in from November to February. You should bring slalom gear or a middle-size freestyle board and as the smallest sail 5.0. If you want to go out and play in the reefs, which unfortunalety are almost a mile out, bring a big waveboard.

The "Team"

What I liked about this spot called Punta Las Marías is that you sail with at least ten other people, who are mostly Americans, but also Argenitians or Boricuas (as the Puerto Ricans call themselves; just listen to one of Jennifer López´s songs, she always mentions Puerto Rico, where she was born). Need a drink? No problem, someone got a cooler full of refreshing coke and beer… Something´s broken? Someone will drive you over to the shop. Certainly, don´t expect the best windsurfing conditions ever. It´s not El Yaque, but you can count on two days for your big board every week. For kitesurfing I´d say it´s perfect, since there´s always enough wind for your big kite and the long beach makes launching a relaxed affair.

Daniela and me declared “Pinky´s” our favorite breakfast/brunch place. It´s in Ocean Park and it´s the secret meeting point for everyone who enjoys watersports and loves healthy fast food. Order a spinach-tuna-wrap and a papaya-smoothie, lay back and either listen to Morcheeba or hear the latest gossip. Oh what a wonderful world! But don´t expect any Spanish here, Ocean Park is more American than everything else… If there´s a weekend off, there´s lot of opportunities. You get to know why Puerto Rico is so attractive for American tourists.

After struggling through urban traffic, we made it to the northwestern and western coast several times, where especially the area aorund Isabela and Rincón fascinated us. Isabela is a midsize town and consists of Spanish-speaking native population and English-speaking U.S. military personnel. This is because of Ramey Air Base, located ten miles outside the town. Going to the post office around Christmas in Isabela is an experience of its own: the whole town seems to be picking up parcels from relatives on the U.S. mainland or sending letters to their “queridos”, their beloved.

When we went there for the first time, we thought that it would save time and money (for the gas) to have a good map. There were many roads that we weren´t able to find on the maps car rentals and tourist information provided, most of them winding down from Highway No.2 to the sea and leading through lush forests to some of the best spots for windsurfing, surfing, snorkeling and diving. We truly “discovered” several of them, since the only guide we had was the “Stormrider Guide” which mentioned Puerto Rico´s West as the Caribbean Hawaii but never revealed too many details of how to get there. I guess it´s good like that, otherwise we would have missed some of our best adventures and too many people would disturb the loneliness and still healthy environment and wildlife.

Windsurfing in a bay called Shacks means wavesailing and it means knowing more than a power jibe, since the waves break on a sharp coral-reef, which sometimes is only about 20 cm under the surface… It´s definetely an expert break, and offers clean left- and right handers, that you don´t have to share with more than five other guys. Apart from the reef, the only trouble is the wind. Shacks is port tack like Punta Las Marías and needs strong winds to work, which occurred only a few times during my stay on the island. A good advice is to have a big waveboard and sails about 5-6 squaremeters, then you might have more chances to really rip it.

If there´s no wind, go snorkeling or scuba-diving. It´s amazing what you find even a few meters from the beach. Or simply relax! There´s only one beach resort, Villa Montaña, and a few vacational houses nearby, and even around Christmas it´s quiet and all about nature and you. If you need company, ask for Rita. She´ll offer you some home-made sparkling wine and will show you around in her wonderful garden…

Dani and me decided to stay in Shacks over the Christmas holidays after our first visit – so, no need for further explanation. From Shacks it´s only a five-minute-drive to Jobos Beach, where there´s always some waves to surf. Decide whether you´re a beginner and take the inner sandy break, or more of an expert and join the locals at the outer reef. But better be careful where you drop in, watch the guys before! After a fantastic surf session, there´s plenty of bars to relax and watch the sun go down. I usually let the day fade out at “Happy Belly´s”, where you get all kinds of burgers at a reasonable price and the surf dudes are a special attraction for us girls!

The same bar is the place to be on Wednesdays and Thursdays. If you´re lucky a live band performs and once you get the crowd started, it goes off! From the northwestern corner of Puerto Rico down the West Coast there´s Rincón. Rincón is surfer´s paradise… It would be too much to describe all the breaks, but let me say, you always find a good wave – even if it looks like the flattest day ever. For me and Dani coming there was like entering the typical European dream of the Caribbean: green mountains tumbling into the sea, endless sandy beaches just populated by palm trees and pelicans,  hardly any tourists. We found out that the best breakfast was at one of the Dulcerías, the local bakeries. Cheap and YUMMY!

Rincon El Yunque rainforest

When we were there, it was still low season. The Americans we met were all inhabitants of Rincón, “drop-outs” earning their living with Bed&Breakfast or dive shops. We stayed at one of the guesthouses, Rincón Surf&Board, where the American owners had the idea to name every dorm by a different surf spot. High season is December and January, and if you want to get to know a lot of people who share your love for the ocean, it´s best to stay in a guesthouse like that. It might be hard to follow the rules, like “Do the dishes right after you finish eating!”, or to pay 25$ for a broken leash if you rent a board, but who wants to be lonely?

We saw a lot in our four months on Puerto Rico, like La Parguera, where on a boat trip in the night to the Phosphorescent Bay you´ll have the unique experience of snorkeling or diving in sparkling water. Daniela didn´t only get in touch with the luminescent bacteria but also with some jellyfish when she took a swim – so beware! We went to Culebra, a small neighbouring island, where snorkeling and diving are best. El Yunque, the rain forest just a few miles east of San Juan, fascinated us not only because of ferns up to three meters tall.

Still, there´s a lot more waiting to be discovered, even a flat water windsurfing spot in the south that may be just perfect for freestyling… Unfortunately, Daniela and me agreed, there was university and the thesis we had to work on. On the other hand, would we ever have the chance again to do what we truly love with the financial support of our university? So, my message to all water women out there who have the opportunity to study abroad: take the chance, because studying is not only about taking exams and finish first but getting to know the world by all means!


Location: easternmost and smallest of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean.
Political status:
Commonwealth of USA since 1952, until 1898 Spanish colony, then American territory. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
Offial Languages: Spanish and English.
Language spoken: over 90% Spanish native speakers, but English certainly is widely understood and spoken, too.
Population: 3,7 million, half of it in Metropolitan Area around San Juan. Additionally, at least 1,5 million Puerto Ricanson the US mainland.
Climate: Tropical, 28°C average, 20 minutes of rain every afternoon (based on experience in the months of Oct.-Feb.)
Visa: necessary for travellers who need U.S. visa. EU-citizens allowed to stay up to 90 days as tourists without special visa. Students get B1 or B2 visa, which don´t include work permisson.
Time: Atlantic Standard Time
Guide: The Lonely Planet travel guide provides you with basic information in every field and even shares some secrets.
Accomodation: Up to date information is easily available through monthly published “Qué Pasa” and online www.placestoGoMagazine.com .

Car Rental: same as above. Big rentals at the airport. Drivers under 25 need an extra insurance and pay more. One of the cheapest rentals was www.charliecars.com.

For students: one public and several recognized private universities. Best web resource: www.universia.pr.
Universidad de Puerto Rico has its biggest campus in Río Piedras district, www.rrp.upr.edu . The guesthouse on the campus, Casa de Huéspedes, might seem expensive (21,80$ for a double room) but helps for a start.
You might wanna check out long term accomodation in the heart of San Juan. Michael Giessler, an American realtor, is a great help: www.thecaleta.com or 001 787 725 5347.

For windsurfers: bringing your gear to Puerto Rico might be difficult or at least expensive. Iberia takes 168$ one way from Vienna to San Juan. Punta Las Marías, Shacks and Guanica on the South coast are the best known spots. Accomodation options in Punta: www.trespalmasinn.com ; in Shacks: www.villamontana.net (exclusive beach resort), www.soulboarder.de (Anke, German pro-kitesurfer, rents beach front appartements); in Guanica: www.caribbeanvacationvilla.com (Sportspeople Paul and Lynn rent appartements and rooms).

Only one specialized shop on the island, which is situated at Punta Las Marías. Rental gear is ok, sometimes tours to Parguera are organized, beginners instruction available. For further information: www.velauno.com . Phone: 001 787 728 8716. Fernando, Jaime or Pablo help wherever they can, they speak Spanish and English.

For everyone interested in Puerto Rico and its characteristics: slang terms, Spanglish, history, wildlife… www.angelfire.com


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   text & photos: Claudia Vogt  © windgirls 2004