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
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
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
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.
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
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
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!
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
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!
BASIC INFORMATION ON PUERTO
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.
- Offial Languages:
Spanish and English.
- Language spoken:
over 90% Spanish native speakers, but English certainly is widely understood and spoken,
3,7 million, half of it in Metropolitan Area around San Juan. Additionally, at least 1,5
million Puerto Ricanson the US mainland.
Tropical, 28°C average, 20 minutes of rain every afternoon (based on experience in the
months of Oct.-Feb.)
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
Atlantic Standard Time
- Guide: The Lonely
Planet travel guide provides you with basic information in every field and even shares
- 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.
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
(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.
interested in Puerto Rico and its characteristics: slang terms, Spanglish, history,