1. Book must-see activities months in advance. Michal and I agree that our favorite part of our Puerto Rican adventure was kayaking through Laguna Grande Bio Bay. We booked our December trip with Puerto Rico Kayaking in October, and this preparation might have been our saving grace. The day after our adventure, we told a taxi driver about it, and he said, “That’s amazing that you could go. I heard they are booked solid through January.”
2. Ask taxi drivers for travel advice. Taxi drivers have a unique perspective. They transport visitors to popular tourist attractions, but they are also local men and women who have insider knowledge. One driver told us that most tourists go to a particular rainforest path, but that all the locals use Angelito Trail, a much smaller and more private trail that leads to a beautiful waterfall. Unfortunately, we were out of time to see something new, but the lesson was learned. Taxi drivers know more than most travel books.
3. Create Plan Bs for rainy days (and Plan Cs). When our rainforest tour was cancelled, Michal and I wandered the same streets of Old San Juan that we had explored (in much better moods) just the day before. We wound up back at our hotel room watching Buzzfeed videos. If we had prepared more fully, we might not have wasted an entire morning. This is especially valuable advice for short trips. Half a day isn’t much for a week or more trip, but with only three days in Puerto Rico, the blow was significant.
4. Don’t accept one person’s opinion. When Michal and I planned to rent a car to see another part of the island, we were first told that the Rio Camuy Caves would definitely be closed. Dismayed, we asked someone else, who assured us that of course they would be open. We asked around, found that more people believed they would be open than closed, and risked a trip west. This turned out to be the right choice–one we might not have made if we had listened to the first person we asked.
5. Ask locals where they eat. Some restaurants demand your attention and are worth the flamboyant signage out front. But if you want to experience dining on a local level, you have to ask a local where to eat. The deskman at Da House recommended two breakfast places to us: one that did fancy coffees like the United States, and one diner that served Puerto Rican breakfasts to men and women on their way to work. We tried both places–the first was delicious and full of tourists. The second was delicious and full of Puerto Ricans. Both great experiences, but we would have found only one of them on our own.
6. Check daily tourist influxes. We lucked out by exploring Old San Juan on Monday. We were among only a small group of tourists wandering the streets with cameras and giddy smiles. It felt like an intimate exploration of the city. On Tuesday, we found the streets gluted with stereotypical American tourists. Sidewalks were crowded, restaurants were full, and people were complaining at every corner. It was much less magical. We later found out that cruise ships dock in Old San Juan on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, at which point 3,000 people (per ship!) swarm into the city. If possible, when you visit a cruise ship destination, try to find out when the ships arrive–and plan to explore on a different day!
7. Don’t assume attractions are open every day. Perhaps because I am American, perhaps because I’m selfish, I tend to assume that the world ought to run on my schedule. This means that I am constantly shocked that tourist attractions are not always open when I want them to be. Barrachina, the restaurant where pina coladas were invented, was open late on Mondays and Tuesdays but closed early on Wednesdays. Luckily, I discovered this before our trip and changed our original plan to visit there on our last night. Always check the dates and times of places you want to visit.
8. Make friends with your hotel managers and deskmen. I cannot overstate how important this is. Aside from the bio bay tour, nearly everything Michal and I did was at the recommendation of our hotel workers. They encouraged us to rent cars and go exploring. They recommended new places to eat and secluded beaches to visit. They also were extremely helpful, booking us rental cars and calling taxis to pick us up. We would have been just slightly more than useless without the men who helped us at Da House and Casa Blanca.
9. If you cannot reach an attraction, call a tour company. When we were trying to decide whether or not to risk seeing the caves, we called the company five times with no success. Our hotel deskman shook his head and assured us they tend to not answer the phone. Instead, he called a tour company that takes people on crazy adventures through the caves. They would know whether or not the caves were open, and sure enough, their confirmation is what convinced us to make the trip.
10. Rent a car. We were warned by friends who had visited Puerto Rico that the traffic was crazy. From our previous traveling experiences, we were terrified of driving on foreign soil. But the confidence of our Puerto Rican advisers (and the fact that it was a slower tourist season) convinced us to give it a try. Our day in a rental car was amazing! We had the freedom to explore at our leisure, to change plans, to try random roads. It also gave us a deeper feeling of belonging when we claimed the roads as our own instead of relying on someone else to cart us around. If you can handle driving in a US city, there is a good chance you can handle driving in another country. Or at least in Puerto Rico.