Thursday, 29 November 2012

Vieques Puerto Rico Part 2 - Bikes, Beaches and Blow Outs

So, are you nice and settled in your accommodation of choice? You have scoped out the local bars and taken a quick dip in the sea to wash off some of that airplane fug? Surely no one comes all the way to Vieques just to mooch about a tiny fishing village right? Damn straight, they come to explore.

And here starts the eternal debate in Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet forums about how best to navigate a country with no discernible public transport system . Puerto Rico in general has very poor public transport following as it does the US model where the car is king. Unlike the rest of Latin America which has a fantastic bus and coach network servicing pretty much all the big cities and rural back waters if you don't have a car you are basically seen as a wierdo or a bum and are left to the whims of others.

Vieques is no different from the rest of Puerto Rico in so much as there is no proper bus service but an ad-hoc system of private publico mini-buses that circumnavigate the island and drive along popular highways hoping to pick up a fare. You can't be in a hurry as there are no timetables and no guarantee when and if a van will show up. As it happens when we got off the plane there was a chap sitting there waiting to take our 15$ p/p fare to Esperanza, which is just as well as I made the controversial decision not to hire a car.

Understandably many visitors insist that the only way to get around the island is by rental car booked as far in advance as planning will allow (apparently there is a "shortage" of rentals) in order to guarantee your freedom. Whilst it is undoubtedly more convenient and a must for the elderly or families with kids I felt cycling would give me a better feel of the island ultimately and be less hassle. It was the best decision I made.

I hired a bike from rambunctious outdoorsman Garry from Vieques Adventure Company . He has no premises so like many things on Vieques everything has to be done over the phone. The 3 day rental was $75, non negotiable, but decent value as you are supplied with a good quality Trek mountain bike with disc brakes, helmet, rucksack, pump and a couple of inner tubes (you will need them). After I handed my money over and told him about my plans he gave me this pearl of wisdom

"Speed up when you see dogs, they aren't too friendly round these parts"

First day I thought I'd take it easy and check out a number of the nearer beaches on the south side. First up is Playa Media Luna a very easy 3 mile ride past the palms of Sun Bay on a dirt road and into the bush. It is a secluded, calm crescent shaped beach which is good for kids as the water remains shallow for a distance. Scenes from classic film Lord of The Flies were filmed here but despite its history it is a little tame for my tastes.

If you continue another mile or so along the bumpy road you will get to Playa Navio which is a fun little beach with aqua marine water a few more waves. Contrary to popular internet opinion the waves weren't really good enough for body surfing (lugging the body board there was a waste of time) and the Sunday afternoon game of beach volleyball failed to materialise. One of the nicer beaches none the less.

To complete my south side sweep I headed West from Esperanza along the PR997 and PR201 which are decent tarmac road (funding from Washington in full effect) and with less traffic as it heads away from the "action". Down this way I experienced the dog problem Garry warned me about. There is nothing that gets you pumping the pedals quicker than a mangy mutt snarling at your heels. Perhaps Lance Armstrong should have tried that trick instead of juicing on steroids.

Things get interesting the further down this road you go. There are funky little shacks with people wiling away the afternoon on their porches. In places bizarre pick up truck sized boulders litter the verdant landscape and the countryside takes on the air of the Wild West. About 5 miles down this road you get to Playa Grande, a truly untamed beach which feels like it could be off the set of Jurassic Park. There are imposing views of Mount Pirata and the untouched palm lined coast. Not a soul or a man made structure to bet seen for as far as the eye can see.

On the way back to Esperanza about 3 miles on the right is the turn off for Playa Negra. You can have your own little Indiana Jones adventure as the beach is accessed through a jungle path down a semi dry river bed. I wheeled my bike through the foliage and over tree trunks to get to this seldom visited beach and to be honest it was a little underwhelming. I have seen better black sand beaches as the volcanic sand seemed to have be diluted lessening its dramatic effect.

On my way back the detour was made worthwhile by a herd of wild horses which appeared out the jungle and blocked my way out. I don't know who was more surprised, them or me. After a brief stand off they slinked past eyeing me with suspicion to a drinking hole created amongst the bows of some old logs.

Feeling pleased with myself as I traipsed back along the riverbed I heard the noise that every cyclist dreads.


At this point I kind of was hoping it for a Fer-de-Lance or Black Mamba wrapped around my to my leg, anything would be better than a puncture. As I wheeled my way back up the path and onto the road I tried to pump the tyre back up hoping it was a slow one that I could fix in the relative comfort of the Inn. No such luck. As I turned a corner the tyre blow out and I nearly went headlong into the ditch. I was a good 90min walk from Esperanza it was getting dark and I would have to negotiate those dogs on foot unless I did a roadside repair.

After a few aborted fittings where my mind entertained thoughts of falling foul of machete wielding Puerto Rican gangbangers (Eh Gringo! you are a long way from home my frieeeend!) I got the tube changed and cycled back joyfully, my body coursing with endorphins of relief. Those dogs would have to find dinner elsewhere tonight.

Next Week: Part 3 Piers, Bunkers and Isabel II

Friday, 23 November 2012

Trip Report : Vieques, Puerto Rico Part 1- Mozzies, Mares and Malecons

There are very few parts of the world not tainted by the avaricious tentacles of corporate America.  In the depths of the Guatemalan Highlands I distinctly remember sitting in a Burger King complete with 16th century colonial courtyard offering  majestic views of a live volcano whilst I chowed down on a Whopper.

You can buy yourself an iPhone from the Apple store in the Vientiane and rent a car with Avis in Nairobi. The battles between tradition, progress and convienence are fought the world over.

So, its refreshing to know that right in America's back yard there is a place you can go with no chain restaurants, no big hotels and no traffic lights. Your biggest worry is which beach you should visit and whether you have packed enough sunscreen. The place is Vieques and I predict it won't remain untouched for that much longer.

Part of the Spanish Virgin Islands, Vieques is a sliver of jungle covered rock 8 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico boasting wild landscapes and an attitude so laid back you will have to hold a mirror under its nose to check its still breathing. Its pristine nature is due in part to a 60 year period of enforced isolation when the island was under the control of the US military that used the east of the island for munitions testing.  

Following the tragic death of a civilian guard in 1999 at the hands of an errant bomb the islanders pushed ahead with a protractracted campaign to boot them out.  The Navy left in 2003 with its tail between its legs dragging behind it a trail of lawsuits.

From San Juan its a 30 min buzz in a twin prop (Vieques Airlink and Cape Air do returns for between $150 to $210 depending on departure airport) over lush countryside and aquamarine ocean to the island's compact airport. From here it's a choice of the island's only two towns Isabella Segunda or Esperanza.

I stayed in Esperanza as this is closer to the prettier south side beaches.  Prior to arriving I was warned that hiring a car in advance is a necessity.  This is baloney. I didn't bother with a car for the duration of my stay and got everywhere I needed to go using a combination of publico buses, walking and pedal power with no problem at all. 

In my opinion cars are needed on Vieques only by the elderly, families with young children and the lazy.  You can do without one providing you are reasonably fit and have a sense of adventure.

Esperanza itself is a strange and beguiling backwater. Historically a fishing village whose practioners can still be seen bobbing about on boats in the bay or slinging their nets off the broken down pier it now exists as a tourist gateway to the newly opened beaches and unique bio-bay. 

With its tiny strip of bars and restuarants located on the pretty ocean front malecon I would say it is the typical, tropical one horse town. Only you are likely to see more than just the one horse.  Wild Paso Fino horses run wild throughout the island (a relic of Spanish colonialism) and once in a while you will see a young local gallop up and done the high street to a clatter of hooves and dust. It is the Vieques equivalent of the boy racer and his XR3i trying to impress passersby with his alloy wheels and body kit.

I stayed at the charming Esperanza Inn looked after by genial hosts Lisa and J, transplantees from Key West, Florida who bought the place 6 years and renovated the grounds and added additional apartments to create their corner of paradise amongst the mangoes and chickens. J admits it was a bit of a struggle adapting to island ways at first where appointments with contractors weren't kept and red tape hindered progress. It seems Vieques is a place where its not what you know but who you know but slowly civilisation is creeping in.

You can snag a room for $95 or an apartment for $125. Apart from the uber-helpful hosts I particularly liked the communal kitchen where you can chat over the breakfast table or save a few bucks cooking (Vieques like the rest of Puerto Rico is expensive). Every rose has its thorn though. Vieques is very rural and I had my own personaI battles with its resident mass of hungry mosquitoes and noisy cockerels (earliest crow 2am!). DEET, frequent room checks, ear plugs and moving rooms put pay to those problems.

Fun can be had within walking distance of strip. There is some particularly enjoyable snorkelling to be had under the fishing pier where I saw a platoon of squid, huge barracuda and the largest school of fish I have ever seen (I literally could not see the ocean floor).

For those with more energy it is possible to swim out to Cayo Afuera either directly from the pier or walking out to Cayo de Tierra and swimming west with the current. Flippers are handy and watch for the motorboats. Alternatively Fun Brothers will take you out there by kayak for $35. There is some healthy coral by the boulders where you can spot rays, puffer fish and trigger fish.

If that all sounds too much like hard work you can stroll along to pretty Sun Bay balenario (public beach with facilities) a picturesque crescent of palm-backed tanned coastline with a great view of the keys .  We were there mid week and had the entire mile and a half to ourselves.

Visiting as I did at the end of hurricane season meant the pace was even more somnolent then usual. Night time options were limited. Best of the bunch was Duffy's, an open sided restuarant with a nice vibe and a varied menu where you can sit at the bar watch some sports and shoot the breeze with the predominantly American tourists. Lazy Jack's is a dive bar that had a bit of action mostly in the shape of ex-pats with faraway looks in their eyes  who perhaps have spent too much time glued to their bar stools. Worth a beer or two.

For brekky the only place serving was Belly Buttons which was nice and varied enough but I got tired of frittering away my money on tips so ended up finding a decent bakery, La Dulce Esperanza on Calle Almendro, (by the baseball field) that opens only in the morning and only when it feels like it.  It has much more of a local vibe some decent pastries (the guy behind the counter gets his share of freebies), fresh pan de agua (local sweet bread) and sandwiches for under $5.

Worth mentioning that the guidebooks are out of date regarding ATM's in Esperanza.  Before you had to travel to Isabella Segunda to get money. Now there are at least two portable machines (one in Duffy's and one in Colmado Lydia) where you can get out money for a small fee. Do make sure your card actually works though as my magnetic strip packed up and I had to budget my remaining cash and put everything else on credit.

Friday, 16 November 2012

San Juan, Puerto Rico - The Miami of the Caribbean

When the nights draw in and the temperature dips I always feel the urge to get out my credit card and artificially postpone winter for as long as my bank balance will allow.

My favourite part of the world is Latin America due its laid back people, beautiful landscapes and year round sun. Having been lucky enough to visit one or two countries a year for the last 10 years I am rapidly running out of new places to visit. Scouting about the atlas this year I came across Puerto Rico, an unusual hybrid of Latin charm and US infrastructure (being as it is de facto territory of the United States). I decided to take my chances.

Touching down in the capital San Juan the air is hot and heavy. From the taxi (you can get pre paid ride for $21 in front of the airport that stops any rip off merchants) I quickly notice the mix of high rise hotels, palm trees and Walgreens that reminded me of faded Miami. I hadn’t come all this way for El Walmarto so we head to Old San Juan a perfectly preserved colonial gem complete with the cobbled streets, pastel painted facades and largest Spanish built forts in the Americas.

Basing yourself in a well maintained, well policed (there were more police present then at an all you can eat Dunkin' Donuts giveaway) touristy part of the capital comes at a price. The Hotel Milano was reasonably appointed with friendly staff but had probably seen better days with a lift so slow it would have been quicker to abseil.down. However it was the best bargain I could find at about £75 a night and it was bang in the thick of the action.

Old San Juan is a cool if expensive place to hang out for a few days. It reminded me of days growing up on the Costa Blanca. The shadow of Spain understandably hangs heavy over OSJ's cobbled streets and ornate balconies. The Spanish empire used Puerto Rico as their plundering hub for best part of 400 years and their former presence is everywhere.

Whilst undeniably pretty OSJ, is a beguiling tourist trap. With high prices and plenty of souvenir shops selling mass produced maracas you have to look hard to find the real Puerto Rico. For instance I found it very difficult to find cheap local eats.  I walked all over trying find a decent bakery eventually locating one by the harbour after following a few locals munching surruptiously on pastelitos . In that respect OSF isn't a real working city as such and most of the locals come to OSJ to work and then drive back to the neighbouring suburbs of Santurce and Hato Rey.

I was staggered by the prices which we were more expensive than the States. Don't come to Puerto Rico expecting Guatemalan or even Dominican Republic bargains unless you get right into the sticks. In OSJ you will do well to get change out of $40 for lunch or dinner for two unless you decide to eat at Subway (there is nothing wrong with a Subway).

Food wise Blessed Cafe has a heavy Bob Marley vibe, slightly grubby interior but some tasty jerk chicken and goat curry for 15-20$ per main. The staff were glued to the TV watching the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that was tearing up the North Atlantic coast. Quite a few Puerto Ricans seem move to the mainland (New York/New Jersey is popular) get an education and return to start businesses.

We stopped off at Airenumo a bistro with delusions of grandeur and a spanish chef who offers a myriad of paella options. It is nice enough but for $80 for two pleasant if unspectacular mains I would have expected unicycling waiters or a view of hanging gardens of Babylon. Overpriced.

One of the nicest things about going for a stroll through the narrow streets is the unexpected archetectural treasures hidden around every corner. Sturdy lookout posts, baroque gates and imposing fortresses dot the city. To the north, protecting the bay, stands the greatest reminder of Spain's colonialism, El Morro and El Castillo. They combine to create the largest colonial fortress in the Americas. For $5 (a rare bargain) you can get access to both Unesco Heritage sites where you can scale ramparts, explore dungeons and enjoy imposing vistas of the Caribbean from its look out points. Do take water por que es muy caliente!

A decent half day trip is a visit to the old Casa de Bacardi located across the bay in down at heel Catano. You can jump on the ferry for 50c from Pier 2 and cruise out the 20 mins or so to the opposite side of the bay. When you get there you are quickly ushered to waiting minibuses (7$) who shuttle visitor to the free tour. Once there you get a couple of drink tokens to sample the wide variety of rums and cocktails on offer and then starts the hour long Bacardi advert.

I found it reasonably entertaining with info about the history of Bacardi and cocktail tips on how to make the perfect Mojito but it wasn't a patch of the Jack Daniels tour in Lynchburg as you are not allowed to go into the distillery due to security considerations. Of the millions of potential targets around the world why Bacardi think terrorists would pick a rum factory in the Caribbean to make their point remains a mystery to me.

Back in OSJ if you want to continue your rum buzz you can head to Parrot Club were drinks are pricey but you can luxuriate in a pleasant tropical ambience with its brightly painted interior, extensive cocktail list and a pianist in the corner plinking away jazz versions of pop hits (a jazz Roxanne anyone?).

For me the nightlife highlight was Cafe Nuyorican an unassuming salsa club off a side street that we walked by twice without clocking (tip: It's just round corner from Da House). An intimate venue with a mix of locals and wide eyed tourists its small dance floor allows the salsa maestros to strut their sultry stuff. If like me the only salsa you capable of producing is the sort that goes into a burrito don't worry. You can grab a seat and watch the pros dance it out to some phenomenal music courtesy of mega-talented house band El Comborican who absolutely kill it live. Salsa is an institution in PR and back in February one Sir Mick Jagger popped into the venue in the small hours to see what all the fuss was about.

So, take the plunge in Old San Juan: If its good enough for a Rolling Stone its good enough for you.

Trip Report : Vieques, Puerto Rico Part 1- Mozzies, Mares and Malecons