A September 2005 trip
to Luquillo by Jose Kevo
Quote: Popular Luquillo Beach dominates Puerto Rico's northeastern rim, but having a rental car makes three other nearby gems of shoreline just as accessible.
Travelers flock to Puerto Rico in search of tropical paradise, usually characterized by boundless strips of beach intersecting the surging tides and deluxe accommodation towers lining San Juan's tourist strips. Chances are, if there's been exposure to any of the island's other 750-miles of shoreline, it came from the sector which calibrates such a high standard, other beach destinations, anywhere, will be rendered second best.
Luquillo is a slice of heaven on earth; a place where seductive daydreams of needed escape can permenantly reside. This picture-perfect, crescent-shaped beach is Puerto Rico's most widely acclaimed Hot Spot beyond San Juan, and van loads of tourists pour-in daily as second stop on the island's most popular organized excursion. But if you're like me, the brief two-hour experience here will only heighten desires for repeat gratification.
For less than a day, about half the excursion fee cost, rental cars are available for probing this northeastearn section the way Mother Nature intended. After mornings of hiking through the Caribbean National Forest, there's nothing more natural than heading to Luquillo for a cool down that heats-up like none other; where embellished groves of swaying palms overshadow the golden sands trailing-off into mesmerizing waters. Immenseness conceives solitude even when the masses are frolicking.
Luquillo Beach offers a full-line of services including food, but don't hesitate to follow the crowds further west along the strip to Restaurant Row; a cluster of open-air eateries serving up the best of local food, drink and atmosphere. Package tourists sample the hurried edition of rainforest and beach, but there's still more that waits if setting your own pace and schedule.
The actual town of Luquillo is a coupleof miles further along Highway 3 with a trio of lesser known beaches just as enthralling. La Pared attracts the surfing crowd thanks to pounding tides, while Playa Azul, around the bend, is the placid counterpart tucked away along another sweeping, crescent-shaped bay. Continuing west, where civilization appears to cease, is perhaps the most enrapturing encounter along a two-mile strip of remote sands. Hemmed between bath-tub like conditions and dense wilderness, this unnamed domain is the tropical paradise fantasies are made of.
Already plotting my next visit, it's possible to start at Restaurant Row, and amble continuously to the distant end of La Pared; a 7-mile one-way jaunt, at the very least, guaranteed to redefine any conepts of Beach Bum.
Luquillo's beaches are easily found off Highway 3; less than an hour's drive from anywhere in the San Juan metropolitan area. Heading east for the day, the first turn-off to look for is Highway 191 if planning to see The Caribbean National Forest. From there:
Highway 3 is lined with an insignificant parade of roadside businesses peddling endless goods and services that can prove almost confounding. Knowing where to stop and eat is suspect at best until nearing Luquillo Beach. When approaching the turn-off from the west, you can't miss the elongated row of clapboard shacks and stands lining the beach. Once turning under the highway overpass, take another left, before the beach entrance, to find some of the best eats on the island!
This unnamed Restaurant Row is like a beachside food court with no less than 25 dining options to choose from. Local government has organized and licensed these renegade vendors which have long-earned meager livings preparing and serving food roadside. Where pulling-in, the first five or so eateries obviously draw the most amount of traffic, and are where I recommend simply because volume guarantees food hasn't set there all day. Otherwise, selections and prices were basically the same when stuffing myself three different times and places.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on January 10, 2006
Luquillo's Restaurant Row
West along Luquillo Beach
Luquillo, Puerto Rico
Anyone that has ever been to Puerto Rico, and taken a random spin through a rack of postcards, has undoubtedly been captivated by the picture-perfect shots of Luquillo Beach with its crescent-shaped arc lined with an endless grove of coconut palms reigning over golden sands that trail off into vivid-colored waters. Trouble is, those aerial shots always from the brightest of days, set an expectation that could never be matched from ground-level experiences, or Mother Nature's cooperation. Yet bypassing a lazy afternoon at Luquillo would be missing out on one of the consistantly ranked Top 10 Beaches in all the Caribbean.
Luquillo's inland positioning, where the irregular northern coast starts breaking to the east, shields this immense bay from rough Atlantic waters making for placid, soothing conditions like soaking in a warm bath. Portions of the beach are sectioned-off with designated swimming areas watched over by lifeguards, but splashing around beyond the crowds is just as advantageous thanks to the gentle underwater slope. A person could walk forever in waist-high waters along the sandy bottoms; snorkeling not worth the extra effort with limited marine life, though visibilities are unhindered. At Luquillo, what happens on-land is the prime attraction.
Rains had subsided into overcaste skies during this last visit on a Sunday, and sure enough, the local contingency began turning out in full-force hauling coolers, grills and enough beach accessories to look like they were moving in for the day. Luquillo is a perfect family outing, and what travelers can't bring from home is readily available at a small store.
There's an official bathhouse, where entry with locker fee is $1, but a series of new restrooms and outdoor shower stations, make even that expendable. Everything has been redesigned as handicap accessible, and there were even some rather large flotation devices available as rentals for those with special needs. Other new additions included beach-side picnic shelters, recreational areas, and snack shack though Restaurant Row is at the far end of the beach within easy walking distance.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 10, 2006
Off Highway 3
Luquillo, Puerto Rico
The small fishing village of Luquillo received little attention until this last decade when condominum towers and sprawling apartment complexes began popping up along the waterfront. Most still won't have cause to plan stopping here, but all that progress overshadows a trio of beaches which easily rival nearby Luquillo Beach. What these continuous sandy strips lack in facilities and services, they excel in with the natural, and attract far less crowds.
The town's main entrance is at Highway 193 which quickly tee's into a main road that parrallels the hidden waterfront. Taking a right, go six blocks, around Luquillo's town square and at the far end, head towards the newly reconstructed malecón seawall to find la Playa Pared. Bookended by a rock wall jutting from the most eastern portion, this strip attracts local boarders thanks to a pounding surf, but waters are calmer west along the malecón. Street-side parking is available until it dead-ends at the point ushering in the next beach strip.
Playa Azul commands center stage with its sweeping arc denting the coast. Dense palm growth fringes the crown before a 20-yard depth of sand trails off into tranquil blue waters. This beach shows more sign of usage, but crowds were sparse even on a sunny weekend. Tides are minimal making this a great place for children and non-swimmers; especially without lifeguards on duty. Abundance of sea grass and ocean floor vegetation potentially conceals sea urchins; proceed with caution.
Development projects have blocked direct access to the beach but have yet to privatize bordering strips. To find Playa Azul, take a left at Highway 193's tee, go at least five blocks, and turn right. Beyond apartments is western section of Azul with street-side parking. From here, the entire beach is accessible on-foot.
Narrow street, bordering the waterfront, continues west along a smaller seawall. What would be my favorite strip of beach was still hidden along the coast. Where road heads inland to the left across from numerous fishing vessels, park and proceed west on=foot along the waterfront. Construction is rapidly encroaching, but paces beyond is one of the most pristine, untainted beach experiences on the island.
Just as Azul and Luquillo beaches are perfected with concavity, this 2-mile stretch of unnamed beach is the outward arc linking the pair together. A lapping sound from gentle ripples proved as soothing as gazing across the multi-colored, shallow waters shimmering in the afternoon sun. Actual beach is rather narrow in stretches; seclusion further engulfed by the dense coconut forest skirting shores.
Years ago, a Spanish Harlem vendor sold me a mounted photo said to be from Luquillo. I'd later find the same shot advertised as The Seychelles. Oh well, the mesmerizing image had faithfully enraptured regardless of locale. After finding this hidden section of seashore, proximity was no longer a question. I'd stepped into the real thing, and quickly disappeared around the next corner.
Numerous years had passed since bothering with a rental car, and apprehensions were mounting while listening to others in the pick-up van sharing horror stories regarding mishaps on the road. This, coupled with rental agencies seeming to require all but signing your life away, was enough to question my entire travel plan, but fear not! Having access to a rental car in Puerto Rico is an inexpensive splurge, and the best way for leisurely exploring the 100 by 35-mile island beyond San Juan's growing public transportation system, expensive taxis, and organized group excursions. Here's a Road Warrior's Guide to maximizing driving experiences while minimizing costs and risks.
Bilingual agents help wade through all the paperwork and fine print. They accept no cash; major credit cards only. I probably should've checked about hidden fees when making reservations. Insurance coverage from using my credit card does not include Thrifty's liability insurance of $5.95 per day. This raised the base-rate from $20.19 to $26.14, not including taxes and fees, and ended up costing more than other listings which may, or may not have had other hidden costs. Total daily rate was $29.11.
Toyotas are built for punishment and endurance, and the Echo handled well bouncing along off-road, or heading up steep mountain inclines. Compact size was a real bonus with fuel effeciency and for squeezing into tight parking spaces. The basic stereo came with a cd-player, and a sound system that proved to be as Puerto Rican as the license plate! Most won't likely care for the musty smell which permeates everything in the tropical humidity; cars especially stale from air-conditioning moisture. Scents disappeared within a couple of minutes; especially if opting to drive with windows down to maximize island breezes while conserving fuel. Otherwise, consider bringing an auto air freshener.
There was plenty of leg room in front, but backseat passengers will be cramped; especially if riding long distances. For such a small car, the trunk space was huge for accommodating luggage. When stopping anywhere, make sure to put all items in the trunk to prevent auto break-ins said to be common.
Fortunately, the Toyota Echo didn't even use a tank of gas after driving around for five days. Gulf stations were the cheapest before and after price hikes. A full tank of gas, at .78 a liter/$2.95 a gallon, cost $27.75. Make sure to refuel before returning the rental. The car was issued with an additional $100.95 refundable charge on the bill for fuel valued at $4.35 a gallon.
Lesser roads often deteriorate with pot-holes, and entire low-level sections flood during significant rains in rural or city settings. Off major highways, San Juan's suburbs beyond the Condado-Isla Verde tourist strip are a maze of unmarked streets, older highways, and new transportation construction projects. At one point it took over an hour driving from Río Piedras back to the nearby airport, and while never considering myself lost, I certainly had no idea where I was.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with appropriate Spanish-related driving terms that appear on highway signs/markers which will help make finding your way around much easier. Traffic waiting for exits, especially in the San Juan metro area, often backs-up in multiple lanes, and locals consider it nothing to try and race ahead in outside lanes before cutting over at the last minute. Puerto Ricans drive more agressively than recklessly, and definitely expect others to share the road!
Take note that law enforcement vehicles drive with their visabar lights on. There was quite the panic when a squad car appeared on my tail with lights flashing. Fumbling with seat-belt (law requires you wear them) and drivers license while pulling over, the officer went racing by to my relief. Should you receive any type of driving citation or parking ticket, make sure to track down how to pay them before returning the rental car. Any unpaid fine that resurfaces to your license plate will be automatically billed to your credit card, with a hefty processing fee.
Street-side parking, along the narrow, congested passageways, saved the minimum $4.50 per hour that parking garages charge. At no point was I ever forced to park more than two blocks from the Guesthouse, but it's more luck than anything. Locals seem to park everywhere regardless of yellow/blue paints on curbs, or numerous No Parking signs designated for loading areas or government dignitaries. Best I could surmise, most parking rules applied only from 8:00am-5:00pm on weekdays, but it never hurt to ask the merchant about regulations in front of their business.
Leaving before 8:00, and not returning until after 5:00, made for quick exits/re-entries, and parking. Yet the one weekday I returned around 2:00pm, a needed bathroom break interrupted the hopeless search for parking, and I headed back towards the suburbs. Streetside parking was readily available later that afternoon, but here's another tip for major consideration. Especially Friday-Sunday, have a spot and be prepared to stay for the night! By 7:00pm, police began blocking off streets preparing to receive what appear's to be the entire island which invades Old San Juan on weekends.
If you're staying in the area and can't find parking, there's a pair of garages on Calle San Francisco that offer a $4.50 overnight rate given to local residents; again provided you're gone by 8:00am the following morning. Otherwise, the largest cluster of parking garages are across from the cruiseship port along Calle la Marina.
When heading towards Old San Juan, an endless construction project on the Condado Lagoon Bridges only adds to congestion and confusion. Once coming through the jumbled intersection, an immediate left along Highway 1 leads to the cruiseship port and parking garages. Highway 25 heads toward the cluster of hotels before clipping left to run along the northern rim, feeding into Old San Juan's Calle San Francisco along the northern border of Plaza de Colón.