I spent my last summer in Puerto Rico. It is truly the enchanted island. However, to really enjoy its beauty and charm and have a relaxing vacation, you need to prepare yourself for the idiosyncrasies of life in Puerto Rico. Although a U.S.territory, it is a completely different country with its own local rules and ways of living. Here are a few tips to prepare you for a trip to Puerto Rico.
Where to stay: Hotels can be very costly in Puerto Rico. If you stay for a week or more, it is better to book a holiday apartment. But beware of scams. Check the neighborhood safety. Call the owner and talk with them. Ask about what the rent includes. Electricity is often not included and billed many months later. Clarify all options and ask to send more photos of the rooms to your e-mail. Ask about parking space, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi and modes of payment. Most of them will want you to pay in full before you go. Book from a secure site and pay securely. With a little caution and common sense, you can get a beautiful holiday home in a perfect location and at a bargain price and a warm welcome from a local Puerto Rican family who are ready to share tips and help you out during your stay. We booked an apartment in Isla Verde from Homeaway.com and it was a real good experience.
To rent or not to rent: If you stay inside San Juan, it is best not to rent a car. It is a small city, good for walking; they have free bus service within the old city. Driving and parking in those narrow, crowded,steep cobblestone streets can be an unnecessary challenge to take. But if you want to see the whole island or even a part of it, you have to rent a car. Check your insurance plan. Our car was hit by a neighbor’s car while parked in front of the house and then they tried to shake off all responsibility. Try to rent a small car, as roads can be narrow at places.
Driving in Puerto Rico: Puerto Ricans drive crazily. That was my first impression when we got there. People will go on driving in red light at crossings and you have to honk hard to stop them and go. People don’t seem to remember the right of way. They all seem to be in a great hurry while driving. But sometimes you will also find people suddenly slowing down to 30 miles on a highway just because they have a to make a phone call or put on lipstick. Do not believe their turn signals. They have a way of joking with them. If you see the car in front giving right turn signal, be on your guards as they often change their mind and take a left turn. The turn-only lanes also do not mean much. They will take the next lane rather than waiting in the turn-only lane, come to the front of the crossing and get inside the lane just in front of you. There will be very narrow lanes with hairpin turns going uphill or down and people will drive at 60 miles and above on those roads. Speed limits are just suggestions for them.
Directions are confusing: If you want to go to some place, buy a map from the petrol pump, car rental or kiosks. Puerto Ricans have a strange way of giving directions. They do not care for road names or numbers. They will ask you to turn when you see a red building or a lamppost, etc. Even Google goes crazy and shows wrong directions for Puerto Rico addresses. But we found a better way to reach places. We would use our Garmin GPS. It was no good at addresses either. But it knows routes to the places of attractions. We would search a place of attraction or the name of a big Hotel nearby the place we wanted to go. When we reached almost near that, we would use the paper map to find the exact location.
Confusing units of measurement: They measure petrol in liters. So don’t get excited to see low prices. Multiply it with 3.78. Speed limits are in miles per hour. Yet distances on road signs are in kilometers. So have a converter handy.
Toll roads: There are many toll roads and they will often not accept coins or give no changes. So be sure to take the Autoexpreso toll pass from the car rental or you will end up waiting in long queues. They will charge your card that you used to rent the car. But the bill may come too late, months after you left Puerto Rico. If you take the Autoexpresso route by mistake without a toll pass, you will be fined a crazy amount.
Police Cars: Do not be scared if you see a police car with lights on. Do not pull over. They are just showing off. It was difficult to get used to this. Police cars and other emergency vehicles always keep their lights on in Puerto Rico. If it is a real emergency, they’ll put on the sirens. I was really surprised when I saw no one giving way to a ambulance with its lights on.
Parking at shopping malls or places of attractions: There are too many people and too many cars in Puerto Rico and getting a parking space can be exciting like winning a game. On the day we first went to the Plaza Las Americas, the renowned and biggest shopping mall in PR, we didn’t know that we will have to spend a whole hour playing this tricky parking game before we could enter the mall. Finally, we parked on the roof of the five-storied free parking tower. My husband was frustrated, but we learnt a good lesson. If you want to do some shopping or go to a specific place of attraction, go as early as possible. We also learnt that when you are in front of a parking space, signaling is not enough to let other drivers know you are going to park there. Whoever is the fastest can occupy the space. Although you have started backing into a parking space, another car can just crazily get into it!
Medication cannot be transferred: Even if you plan to stay a month or two in Puerto Rico, bring your prescription medicines with you. They often cannot transfer medicine from US chains. You will, however, find Walgreens everywhere for emergency medicines. Walmarts or Sam’s club is not as dependable here as in USA. I searched four Sam’s clubs in different areas and yet could not get my prescription medicine from any one of them and Walgreen refused to transfer prescription from Sam’s Club.
Bugs, Lizards etc.: In Puerto Rico, I had a strange feeling that the island belongs to the lizards, geckos and iguanas and we humans are just intruding. It is true and yet a very discomforting feeling. Bugs and lizards swarm the place. If like me, lizards give you the creep, better be mentally prepared. You will meet them when out in the garden for a walk, sometimes very tiny lizards will come into your bedroom, even bed. I had to check my daughter’s bed every night for lizards and then chase them away. This happened even after keeping the windows in her room closed. You can even meet a big Iguana on your driveway and will have to wait until it moves. I had to fight with them day and night so that they do not enter my house and sit on my sofa before I do. Buy enough bug spray, as there are all sorts of bugs entering the rooms. As for the lizards, I have to admit that the colorful ones are really attractive but sure from a distance.
Phone call frustrations: Puerto Rico is included in nationwide coverage plans of most of the main US provides. Therefore, you can carry your cell phone plan with you. However, there is some other frustration associated with phone calls in Puerto Rico. I tried to call all the nearby Doctor’s offices without anyone picking up. I also called many Places of Interest to get some extra information. Eventually, I realized that in Puerto Rico people pick up phones at their own leisure and if they are in the mood. So, don’t get frustrated. Keep trying, or find some other way out.
Travel Time: Finally, never calculate your travel time based on Google. Traffic is extremely slow during peak hours and you will often need twice the time to reach your destination. So whenever you go out, be prepared for this extra time.
Puerto Rico is a small and very crowded island. Therefore, the problems associated with it. But if you accept these and find a way to deal with these troubles, you will be able to enjoy a memorable vacation in a magical palce where even the frogs (Coqui) sing like birds. Bon Voyage.
CDC.Gov Health advice for travellers to Puerto Rico