The first time I found myself in Puerto Rico was quite a few years back, it was on a sandy city street that ended at the beach in the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan. It was wintertime on the east coast where I flew in from, but I was now in a sunny island paradise.
Through a friend of a friend, I had met Vicio, who would let my travel partners and I stay at his place, a painted concrete apartment house, behind a locked iron gate, a few houses from the beach. He, and an ex-patriot named – ‘the Clutch” occupied the modest dwelling, and one apartment was filled with illicit substances. The iron gate stayed locked at all times as a result.
Vicio was sort of a local celebrity, a pleasant mixture of host, tour guide, street trader and maniac. He spoke two languages at the same time with high energy and laughed audibly when I described him as being irreverent. It was a compliment.
Our first evening was spent drinking 10-ounce local beers in a can on the roof as the sunset, as it got darker we could hear gunshots a few neighborhoods over. Looking down over the edge of the building I noticed all the walls, planters and ledges, were decorated with broken bottles and sharp objects plastered to the tops. It was one part ornamental, one part security. I know this because I asked after I saw slow-walking silhouettes heading towards the oceanfront at dusk, I thought maybe they were up to no good, hence the homemade broken glass razor wire everywhere, but they were up to something else.
The Clutch got his name because he walked with a hitch in his giddy-up. When I pressed for further explanation- Vicio exclaimed- (in a thick PR accent)- ‘ WHEN HE WALK, IT’S LIKE HE STEP ON A CLUTCH EVERY TIME!’- some kind of mariner related injury made his right leg partially paralyzed and caused him to swagger a little funny. He was retirement age, surly, caucasian and sat in his sweaty one-room living quarters, stomping his foot, clapping and shouting along to the television, it seemed to be a marathon of ‘Dancing with the Stars’. He would put a towel over his own gated door when he would catch me staring at him from the common area in-between his and Vicio’s apartment.
Every day was a manic commencement of shaking off the previous evening and watching Vicio on his daily morning hustles, and if it was almost Friday, as he bounced back and forth, in an out of the complex, the Clutch would yell for his attention, put two fingers up in the air and Yell- ‘VICIO- TWO BAGS!”
I soon figured out, he was putting an order for cocaine. It blew my mind how casual drug use was in San Juan, but I was stunned to hear that the Clutch partied that hard too. Actually, He didn’t, well not how I figured anyhow. At dusk, he would stomp his way toward the pile-ons at the end of the block where the asphalt ended and the sand from the beach wandered past the obstructions, into the roadway. There were a few palm trees, some jagged planters and random collective of slow walking silhouettes who he would trade favors with. Young men making transactions for pleasure.
I soon put two and two together.
… and That was my introduction to Puerto Rico…
The week leading up to this most recent trip, there were a series of major earthquakes, that destroyed homes and even a natural landmark, an iconic stone arch window along the south coast called Punta Ventana. While Puerto Rico does sit on a fault and often experience smaller earthquakes, this was a pretty big deal, especially considering the island is still recovering from Hurricane Maria, a deadly category 5 that devastated Puerto Rico resulting in lives lost and tens of billions of dollars in damage. Some say fracking had increased the frequency and intensity of the earthquakes, and in talking to some salt and peppered local surfers, they also suggested the seasons were shifting in weather patterns didn’t hold to the traditional time frame. Like the earth’s axis had moved a tiny bit.
When I arrived, I myself felt a little shaky, as I had been going through some challenging personal and professional changes, I had gotten a flight on some cashed in sky miles and hoped this trip would serve as some kind of escapism and rediscovery. Money was tight, and right off the bat, a good chunk of my budget was eaten up by overweight luggage fees, an extra hundred bucks (each way) I didn’t have, along with the kid next to me on the plane who had without question, shit his pants. this trip was starting off just right. Here we go…
That night I woke up to the familiar rumbling of the train passing my home in Richmond when I realized and remembered I was somewhere else. Four something on the Richter scale, I had just felt an earthquake.
My friend John flew in From Watsonville to meet me, in the morning we got coffee, assembled our bikes, took some personal inventory and made a half a plan. We had devised a loose itinerary to start out the trip by pedaling 45 or 50 miles to Ceibra, catch a ferry to Culebra, ride to the campsite at Flamenco beach for a couple of nights, and head back to San Juan, then see what happens. Here we were, both balling on a budget, maybe even just balling, we didn’t even have a budget, just our bikes, and some light gear. John had a hammock and I had a sleeping bag with a broken zipper.
Livin la Vida Lo-Cash.
The Next morning we left from the nearby cafe, and headed east, looking to get the 3 (a local highway) all the way past Fajardo to the sea. Although it’s a United States Territory, the infrastructure after Maria had prioritized things in a way that made casual cycle-friendly travel pretty low on the list. The shoulder was sketchy, bumpy and littered with potholes that were full of rainwater from an early morning passing storm. The automobile traffic wasn’t as sketchy as the road but did little to make for a relaxing time none the less. East Coast winter and a life spent BMX riding did nothing to prepare me for today’s ride in the tropical heat. The 3 changed shapes, speed and sizes many times, but was a pretty mellow cruise even in the high temperatures and serious humidity. I went through my water quicker than planned, and every so often looked back to see John stopped, appearing to be picking something up off the ground.
Before long we passed through areas called Carolina, Caovanos and the Rio Grande when the landscape changed pretty drastically as we looked right, due south as the El Yunque Rainforest started to make itself known. It was beautiful. I stopped and took a photo and kept on. The sand and rainwater filth in my drive train started to make my crackling half worn-out knees sound quiet. When the sun came back out, my chain was void of any moisture of any kind and I was almost out of water.
We stopped to eat local fruit and scope the scene in Luquillo, saw people shopping at the kiosks, sunbathing, swimming and met two random and friendly wild pigs along the Balneario La Monserrate. They seemed to co-exist with no problems with the few stray dogs, all of the same demeanor, just enjoying a day at the beach. The island wildlife seemed like something out of a children’s book, chickens, roosters, cats, horses, all just wandering, the only animals that seemed exotic were the giant striped iguanas, tiny lightning speed lizards, and the Clutch who I had seen crossing the street at the coffee shop when we left San Juan.
On the last, and more rural stretch to Ceibra, was where I first caught that familiar sense, the roadside smell of a dead animal, that was also when I noticed a dog just sitting quietly nearby to an iguana the size of a cat, that had been hit by a car. I don’t know if it was happenstance or dinner, but the dog never blinked as we pedaled past. Soon after was the most pungent roadkill stench I had ever experienced, when we passed one of the wild pigs laid out on the shoulder, arms and legs to its side as if on display at a festive pig roast, covered in flies and rainwater debris. I dry heaved and picked up the pace. We pedaled between the airport and the coast on a tiny road in the peak afternoon heat, passing dry-docked boats, military personnel, barbed wire fence, and painted cinderblock dwellings. Anywhere you looked you could see some kind of remnant of Maria.
We Made it to the ferry in time to meet up with two more friends, John and Russ who were visiting the Island separately and decided to join us in Culebra to camp and sight-see. While we waited, John ate some Chef Boyardee out of a can, barefoot next to his bicycle. It made perfect sense to me and totally freaked out a tourist, headed the same place we were. The Ferry was even bumpier than the road leaving San Juan, as the choppy seas made the ride just as relaxing as the pedal out the city. Not at all. People started getting sick and I closed my eyes to avoid the same while concentrating on breathing. After an hour-long journey, We were greeted by a giant sculpture of ‘Hector El Protector’, made of scrap wood, holding a lantern, welcoming us.
On arrival, John and I pedaled toward the campsite, through the tiny town, past the airport on a slow mellow climb, which thankfully was in-between the two peaks on the horizon and not over them, I was tired by now and cooked by the heat. We coasted down the backside into Flamenco Beach, when I realized the salty humid ocean air had caused my brakes to sound like trumpets and the sounding of the armageddon.
We set up camp, unknowingly about a hundred yards from a couple of rusted decaying corpses of some WW2 Army tanks, one sinking and partially submerged on the beach, which was once used for bombing practice. Now it would serve as our own base, as I unfurled my sleeping bag under some low hanging palm trees and looked like the sun and the sea made the island colors so vivid it was almost bizarre. Oversaturated, the ocean looked electric, almost neon turquoise. It was Friday and all but a ghost town as we settled in, Russ gathering coconuts from the palm trees, at dusk when John asked, -‘Where are all the Flamingos?” to which I replied – “It’s called Flamenco beach, not Flamingo…” He shrugged and told me we’d probably see some, and that they were pink because they ate shrimp.
The first night in San Juan I had trouble sleeping, wandering power outages had the sounds of generators humming along with, dogs barking, loud fast talking Puerto Rican women, and other sounds of the city, including one Coqui Frog, which is way different than the sound of Coqui frogs plural. On the beach tonight I listened to the waves, island crickets in harmony with the Coqui, off time roosters, and the rustling of the palm leaves as the wind picked up, making almost the same sound like the start of a storm which would startle me awake. At some point a giant automobile sized asteroid had passed over and crashed into the ocean, I missed it, but the campsite nearby had people shouting something to the effect of a fireball in the sky, but in Spanish. It was a major headline the next day, including more earthquakes, and storms approaching.
We woke up, swam, drank coffee, loitered with authority, like we really meant to, and decided to pedal into town. Just before that met an eccentric retired 73-year-old doctor named ‘Bear” who was on acid and walking down the beach in a speedo playing the flute. He really liked Russ and invited him to go sailing with him back in the states after he returned from Uganda, where he was heading on Monday. Saturday would prove to be a big tourist day, tan people flooded the beach with thick Long Island and New Jersey accents.
Russ and john Who we’d met up with, rented bikes and joined The other John and I, the worst bikes I had seen in a while, but they would suffice. Together we decided to pedal over the hill and into town. Once again I would look back and see John leaned over like he had dropped something.
When we got to town it happened again, and he stood up grinning, – ‘Dude, 10 cents!”, he’d been picking up change the entire way, – “It’s like I’m getting paid to ride my bike…” Once he found one of each coin,, he called it a ‘cycle’ – it seemed fitting. a penny, a nickel, a dime, a quarter, a smile.
Then a crank arm fell off one of the rentals. We ended up back by the ferry to fix Russ’ bike, when we met a young local on a department store BMX, he was so excited, trying wheelies and endos. His bars kept moving and every nut and bolt on his bike was finger tight. We helped him get his bike running properly when He told me- ‘I just start to learn English at the beach, and now I have one friend who helped fix my bike, THANK YOU!”
He was so stoked, it was contagious. We got tacos and headed back to camp.
We got back to find out we had been sleeping in an off-limits area and relocated across the way to a new spot, which was probably for the best as the wind was picking up and storms loomed. I carved out a little nook with a palm switch and put some cardboard in it to make a cradle for my sleeping bag with a broken zipper, and took shelter beneath and behind a giant banyan tree and prepared for some much-needed sleep. Gale force winds pick up and howled like wild dogs on the beach, I couldn’t tell if it was ocean mist or rain getting me wet, but when it finally did rain, the banyan tree provided enough of a canopy to keep me mostly dry, John peeked of his hammock as he held it around himself like cocoon -“the beauty of this plan is its simplicity…” He smiled.
When I woke up before daybreak, the winds were upwards of thirty miles per hour and felt like I was camping with a sandblaster. It kinda sucked.
It was time to catch a ride back to the Main Island of Puerto Rico, so we pedaled back into town, only to find out the windy storm had caused big swells and canceled all the ferries for the day. We’d survived a long bumpy heat indexed ride, earthquakes, an asteroid, day-old coffee and were now stranded like true castaways on kook island.
Luckily we were able to book a room across from the ferry at the Kokomo Hotel and hatch a new plan. We spent the rest of the day scouting out local sites, stumbling across bootleg beachfront campsites, and inadvertently trespassing on private beaches, with DIY Boogie boards fashioned out of old plywood and a Rubbermaid bin lid. The nightlife was wild and sans tourists, most had left the night before, the locals were animated and some appeared to be juiced on some kind of controlled substance. Rowdy weekend rituals. One of them especially did NOT like Russ. The physical conflict was narrowly avoided.
The following morning, our fourth day on Culebra, we found out again the ferries were canceled indefinitely. The power had gone out a few times, I had no cash, no phone signal, and was starting to feel a little uneasy. I spoke with a local, asking for some insight as to what I might expect. I had started this trip as sort of an escapism from my own anxieties and uncertainties when he told me- ‘Uncertainty is kind of our thing here…’ Maybe Culebra would be where I learned to embrace these things, rather than hide from them. Soon after I ate some of the best tasting pineapples I had ever had in my life, and drank out of another Russ harvested coconut. Stranded on kook island, don’t send help…
It started to rain, and One of the John’s had talked to the Coast Guard, who told him there was no telling when the waves would allow for ferry travel, 10 -15 foot white caps had us captive and getting antsy. The Hotels were all filled, and the ferries weren’t running so I decided to pedal out to the airport to see if we had any options. Half soaked, I learned that air Flamenco consisted primarily of 4 seaters and tickets were only 45 bucks, leaving every few hours, but everything was booked out, and the oversized luggage was at the pilot’s discretion- no bikes. The scene was both somber and panicked as tourists freaked out. Dozens of people hopeless and stranded in paradise, just 20 miles from a certainty- weirdly it was like a tropical version of a greyhound station in Memphis, I even met someone from Lubbock. I was still stoked on that pineapple I had eaten and decided to focus on that, as I pedaled back, to the Kokomo where we were lucky enough to keep our room another night. Four dirty dudes in a small room with a sandy tile floor, with only enough clothes for a night or two. I did laundry in the sink and hung it to dry in the sunny breeze in-between passing showers on the balcony near the stairs. Someone played the Beach Boys song…
We had exhausted much of the island’s resources, pedaled as much as the small landmass would allow, lurked and loitered to our heart’s content and became familiar sights to the locals as the weirdo castaway bike tourists. I had scoped most of the beaches and turned in early. I couldn’t fall asleep and recounted all the weird sights I had encountered throughout the day, abandoned boats, cars, vacation homes, and even typical realities. All the brightly painted structures, brilliant beaming flowers, personalities, and tropical island splendor. Although some of the islands was tourist-friendly and dreamlike, much of it was also battered from Maria, with exposed rebar, peeled back tin roofs, windows missing like teeth on the Hawaiin guy who wanted to scrap with Russ.
I woke up around 2 a.m. to another gnarly storm which made me uneasy. I wasn’t up for another unintended day here, as excited as I was to get here, I was just as excited to leave. By 4 a.m.I was out of bed and had learned that cargo ferry was in the water and soon a passenger ferry would be headed our way. Another hour or so, we were watching the sunrise over Vieques, as white water splashed the windows in untimed rhythm at about 27 knots per hour. Somehow, even in this climate, it was cold, the windy choppy ride put us back in Ceibra at daybreak, where the lazy clouds lingered from the storm just a few hours earlier, and hung low, draping themselves over the mountains of the El Yunque Rainforest to our west.
The unplanned time on Culebra drastically cut into the amount of mileage I had hoped to accumulate as some form of validation as a cyclist, which now seemed an even sillier notion than trying to escape my own problems on an island paradise with roaming power outages, no stoplights, no routine I was used to, with its unique blend of beauty and chaos. Totally Bilingual. Instead, I pedaled around aimlessly like I did as a kid, exploring and enjoying easygoing times on my bike, shifting gears while I shifted my perspective, placing value on things that seemed to matter more to me now, the sound of the cassette, as I coasted after a hill climb, the good people I had encountered, the sun on my face and the good fortune of remembering the transcendent power of a simple bicycle ride.
Although, still recovering from Maria, and dealing with the damage to infrastructure and homes in southwest Puerto Rico, much of the island is still an amazing and beautiful place to visit, which relies heavily on tourism to fuel its economy. Small and independent businesses are dependent on tourism dollars to help rebound and rebuild, to help the people of this island paradise, please visit, the hospitality of this amazing place is second to none.