Last spring B, C and I were thinking about where we could go in the fall for a quick, affordable vacation. After looking through Google Flights and seeing where we could get from Boise on the cheap, we narrowed it down to two options: Aruba or Puerto Rico. None of us really cared about where we went because really, how can you go wrong with either? We decided to go with Puerto Rico because it was a little cheaper and the flight time was shorter. Here are the activities and costs associated with five night trip to Puerto Rico.
From Boise we would fly to Dallas and then onto San Juan. The legs of the flight were pretty long but because we only had one layover total, trip time was ten hours.
Tip: it’s a good idea to know what cities are a direct flight from your hometown. This knowledge will help with plotting the shortest flight time so you don’t have to backtrack. On short trips, the length of time it takes to get somewhere is just as important as the cost. Direct flights at airports don’t stay static; just this year Boise added the Dallas direct flight.
Our flights from Boise cost $452.
We knew that we wanted to see more of the island than just San Juan so we opted to rent a car. Puerto Rico is a foreign country but is also protected by the U.S. So after checking with my insurance company, I rented a car through Enterprise. My go-to for car rentals is usually Hotwire, but I wanted to make sure I rented through a company I recognized since we were out of the States.
We did some checking on wikitravel and learned that Puerto Ricans have a bad rep for being crazy drivers and so foreigners should opt for the insurance on their rental, just in case. However, my car insurance carrier covered me in U.S. protectorates so we were able to skip that expense. We knew that we wanted to explore San Juan for a few days and that driving around downtown would be a disaster so our game plan was to return the car a few days before we headed home and just walk around the capital city.
Our car rental for four days was $196.
I did some searching on the interwebs and found an article from a gal who visited Puerto Rico and went on an excursion to a deserted island, Caja des Muertos (Deadman’s Coffin), on the southern part of the island that mainly locals visit. This sounded most promising and we booked right after we bought our plane tickets. Unfortunately, a few days before we left Boise, I got a call from the company saying the excursion was canceled due to weather. (Did I mention our trip was during hurricane season? Hurricane Matthew passed by the island a few days before we arrived. Because we knew we would be traveling during hurricane season, we went ahead and purchased travel insurance for $32.)
Bioluminescing it up
The only other activity we knew we wanted to do was visit a bioluminescent bay. For some reason, we didn’t book this in advance and almost missed out on our chance since all but one outfit were sold out. A little context: Puerto Rico is one of the few places in the world that has bays with organisms that glow, or bioluminesce, when agitated. It looks a bit like fireflies in the water and is very cool.
Kayak tip: get a good kayak-mate
C, B, and I joined up with a group of teachers from the States and a little after dark, we climbed into two-man kayaks. The kayaks had little lights (like glow sticks) at the end of them and the idea was that even if you couldn’t see anything else, you could follow in the general direction of the kayak in front of you. This worked better in theory than practice as most of the group hadn’t kayaked before. People were fine crossing the broad bay but when we began going down a canal with mangroves, all hell broke loose. C and B were in a kayak at the front of the group so they didn’t experience what I was seeing. At one point two people tipped their kayak. I have no clue how this is even possible as there wasn’t a current or rapids or anything. But somehow they managed it. The guide had to come back and help them climb back in. Luckily, the water was only about three feet deep.
I think the only thing that made me not lose my cool was how awesome it was to see the water glow every time my partner put her oar in the water. Eventually we made it to the lagoon with the highest concentration of bioluminescent critters. We got to swirl our hands around in the water and see the tiny fireworks. It was a very unique experience and the highlight of the trip. The route back to the bay was better because the current did all the work and took the kayaks back. Somehow people in our group managed to turn themselves in circles (seriously……how?) but eventually we made it back.
Tip: this is the coolest thing to do in Puerto Rico. Even though there are lots of companies that offer these trips each night, they fill up with the cruise ship people. Book early to ensure a spot. We went on a good night for seeing the critters; some nights with a brighter moon or different meteorological events I don’t understand change how well the bio lights show up. It is worth the chance to do this activity no matter how well things are lit up. At the worst, you’ll kayak in the dark in a mangrove canal. That’s pretty cool on its own.
Our kayak through a bioluminescent bay was $55 each.
El Yunque Rain Forest
Our other planned adventure was a hike through the El Yunque Rain Forest. We stopped at the visitors center to the national forest and got some recommendations from the friendly guide. The main hike we did took us down to a lovely waterfall that was chock full of other hikers swimming, or sitting rather, in the water. We opted not to join them and hiked out through the lush jungle back to the road. On our way out of the rainforest, C purchased a delicious Piña Colada from a roadside stand.
Tip: the national forests and parks in Puerto Rico are part of the U.S.’ National Park system and as such I could use my annual parks pass to get us into places for free.
Our hike through the forest was free with the Annual Parks pass.
Since our Caja des Muertos excursion was cancelled, we had some free time and no real need to be anywhere. Instead of booking something new, we opted instead to take a better look at this island. Since we had our own car we had the freedom to explore and decided to follow the coastline and stop wherever our hearts desired–which were usually beautiful beaches. The highlight of our wandering was the Los Marillos lighthouse in the southwest corner of the island. The lighthouse was built in the 1800s and is quite pretty and well maintained. But the real star of the show was the dramatic cliff line and drop to the turquoise ocean. Quite stunning, really.
Tip: if you have the time, get off the main highway and take the back roads whilst driving around. You’ll find hidden gems and probably get stuck in a traffic jam or two but you’ll get a better taste of how the locals live.
The lighthouse and beaches were all free, with the biggest cost at the lighthouse being the delicious maracuya (passion fruit) ice cream I ate.
Old San Juan
Our final adventure was exploring downtown San Juan. Again, we used the annual parks pass and got into the cool San Juan National Historic Site, the fortresses that protected people here for hundreds of years. We did a walking tour using our Lonely Planet guidebook and then spent the rest of the time wandering and shopping and trying in vain not to be mistaken with the tourists filing off the huge cruise ships.
Our costs for this part of the trip were pretty expensive (mainly for me) because mama likes to shop. Eek!
We ran into some issues with lodging this trip as two of our previously booked Airbnbs canceled on us at the last minute. One due to the poor guy getting dengue fever and the other due to the guy being incompetent. B had her heart set on staying on a sail boat moored at the marina, so it was sad the guy turned out to be a flake. Our places ended up just fine though and who knows–could have been better than what we originally planned.
Our lodging cost for two nights in the beach town of Luquillo, one night at a resort that reminded me of the place Baby finds her man in Dirty Dancing, and two nights in Old Town in San Juan cost us $570.
Puerto Rico was a nice little excursion to help us ‘blow off the stink’ as C’s farmer father says. Since it was Columbus’ day weekend, we only had to take three days off work. There were some unexpected challenges–two canceled hotels and two canceled adventures–but overall we were able to just go with the the Caribbean flow and chill.
For lodging, flights, travel insurance, excursions and a car rental we each paid $815. I will say the extra costs (food, shopping, etc.) cost more than what I was expecting. I was thinking this would be like other Latin American countries I’ve been to, but it really was more like mainland U.S. prices. Oh well, it was totally worth it.