Truancy for Slackers

With a cadre of natural specialists monitoring solitary confinements, the Wilderness Coast is Puerto Rico's sane asylum; where the best thing about checking-in is "checking-out".

Truancy for Slackers

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on April 23, 2006

Sometimes even as an adult, the path of least resistance still involves following the straight and narrow, buckled-down with the impatience of adolescence. Soaring temperatures well into September had culminated 2005's gestation of daily grind into desperate need for a change of scenery. Counteractive measures have always involved irresponsibility camouflaged with adventure, but carefree days of cutting class and fleeing in a '76 Camaro were passé. This called for escapade; some place where a cool breeze could pacify the fever, and playing hooky was the perpetual standard of life...

Piñones is the San Juan metro-area's most exotic encounter you've probably never heard of, yet every out-bound, window-set passenger from the island has marveled the aerial view. The motley cluster of roadside shacks and businesses cater to the whimsical in search of ways to laze away the hours; an introductory indulgence for all that doesn't wait beyond. Situated in northwest corner of the Piñones State Forest, the village ushers in more than 16-miles of pristine wilderness coast that can pacify the frazzled.

Threaded by Highway 187, which also passes through the ancestral town of Loíza Aldea before intersecting Highway 3 at the village of Río Grande, this off the beaten path refuge seized fascination years ago. As faithful request when having time to rendezvous with local friends, this neighborly escape from San Juan had always obliged a timeless island frontier, embellished with natural refinement. After numerous brief visits, the timing was right for finally engrossing an extended pause.

Devoting mornings to hikes through the nearby Tropical Rainforest, and with afternoon meltdowns on Luquillo beaches; the Wilderness Coast entertained my alpha and omega for daily fruitions using Highway 187 as the scenic alternative for reaching these favorites. With windows rolled down and Salsa-music blasting, impulse pilots this island highlight designed for quests, faithfully reportrayed through diversities in time of day and weather. Thick ocean breezes, massaging fertile forests and farmlands, are further seasoned with salt-of-the-earth peasants dwelling in paradise, where mañana is the prescribed remedy for today.

Like an indisposed boozer placing one foot on the floor to stop a room from spinning, establishing both feet on these enchanted grounds is the dutifuls' equivalent for when life whirls one queasy. In-patient therapy highly persuaded. The Wilderness Coast; where getting lost is the only way to find yourself.
${QuickSuggestions} Hurricane Off-Season
For September, 6:00am is too late for catching coastal sunrises, but early mornings are perfect for seclusion. Sunsets cervezas are mandatory before it's dark by 6:00pm. Humid conditions rarely exceed 90-degrees. Afternoon showers are typical unless tropical storms are brewing. American gave an off-season, 5K-mile discount on the award flight.

IGo Ghetto
With no admission fees to the Rainforest, Beaches, and Coast, $325 covered everything else for 5 days, including rental car, but costs have nothing to do with season. My faithful hermitage, Guesthouse Old San, is only a 30-minute drive from Piñones. A 5-night stay was $100 in 09/05. Perhaps the island's cheapest sleep, historical grittiness doesn't matter for global mixes found here these days. Reservations recommended; 787/722-5436.

Best Eats come from countless roadside stands where loaded plates, with meat or fish, rice and beans, and salad cost $5. Other specialties include pastelitos, usually $1. Coco frios and soft drinks are $1, beer $2. Places get quite busy; be aware traffic stops suddenly, at some point you should, too. For mornings, eat before heading out. Nothing stirs until around 11:00am, but they're open late.

  • Don't expect English spoken in these parts.

  • ${BestWay} Even if only for a day, an inexpensive rental car is the only way to fully appreciate the Wildnerness Coast. Closer than anyone realizes near the airport, the short drive to Isla Verde intersects where Highway 187 begins to the right. Once passing three public beaches and crossing over the Boca de Congrejos Bridge, you're there in 10-minutes.

    Highway 187 is the scenic alternative of Highway 3 for reaching El Yunque, Luquillo and Fajardo. Returning towards San Juan, the 187 turn-off is easily missed in the roadside community of Río Grande. Branches were hiding the sign where a side-exit feeds into town. If you miss it, take a right at the intersection ahead.

    Rush-hour traffic is often bumper-to-bumper before 9:00 am and after 5:00pm, heading opposite of most travelers. Traffic doesn't stall on weekends, but is prevalent including numerous cyclists.

    The road is narrow with plenty of curves and blind spots, and even falls into disrepair in sections between Loíza and Río Grande. However, the greatest potential hazards are the natural distractions! With plenty of places for pulling over, I highly recommend doing so to clear any traffic from behind. Highway 187 is a joyride to savor.

    Loíza Aldea - the Island's Africa

    Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on April 23, 2006

    With crude measures of civilization sparsely scattered around the State Forest, identity of this coastal region doesn't reveal itself until Highway 187 begins to cut inland, and cultivation illustrates second portion of the scenic outing. This entire lowland province, including the Wilderness Coast and Piñones, is called Loíza Aldea thanks to Luisa; a powerful, Taino matriarch cacique that ruled this area when Spaniards arrived. Her legacy is only in name thanks to another breed of authorized immigrants.

    When slavery was abolished in 1873, free negroes and mulattoes already accounted for 41% of the population compared to 5% still indentured. Today, no where is Puerto Rico's African heritage more celebrated and visible than through these parts; especially in the town of Loíza. If around during the final week of July into early August, the Fiesta de Santiago; Festival of St. James, has developed into one of the island's largest celebrations; cue to either embrace or avoid this entire area.

    The 9-day jubilation observes age-old traditions of Yoruba slaves that are still very much alive generations later. Earliest descendants identified numerous comparisons through forced Christianity and motherland beliefs. To appease Spanish masters, slaves adapted an exuberant form of worship called Santería which exalts tribal spirits under the guise of Catholic saints. Tireless feasting, drinking and dancing string-together a series of parades driven by ancestral rhythms.

    Participants wear multicolored, carnival-type costumes with vejigantes; distorted masks depicting devils and evil spirits that were first used during the Spanish Inquisition for scaring sinners back into the church. Africans readily embraced these tactics into disguised worship believing their Gods were less than perfect. Masks have since became celebrated symbols in the Spanish Caribbean. I've yet to make one of these notorious observances, but African roots are blatant regardless of time frame.

    Heading east along the highway, a wide 4-lane bridge crosses the island's largest river, El Río Grande de Loíza, and feeds into town before making a left-right jog through a pair of intersections, and then heading on towards the town of Río Grande and the Highway 3 intersection. Aside from numerous icons and murals depicting the area's rich heritage, it's the people which oblige living history.

    Poor but proud, inhabitants maintain an inviting, outdoor lifestyle that is Highway 187's other highlight beyond the Wilderness Coast. Population increase has spurred growth that is slowly depreciating farmlands between towns of Loíza and Río Grande. Driving at a snail's pace not only conforms to speed limits, but affords taking in full perspectives spiced with Latin infusion. Road conditions are at their worst through these parts, and traffic can get congested. Be on the look-out for hordes of roaming children as well as pedestrians, cyclists and people riding horses and burros.

  • A McDonald's in Loíza is the only recognizable place to stop. Otherwise, there's numerous gas stations and eateries most will find crude, if not intimidating.

  • Hand-crafted Vejigante masks have became popular purchases, and can be found in upscale shops around San Juan's metro-area.

  • The Wilderness Coast Trail

    Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on April 23, 2006

    Thanks to local government conscious of preserving the island's natural environment, a 16-mile biking and hiking trail was completed in the late '90s for exploring western section of the wilderness coast. Beginning just beyond the Highway 187 bridge, spanning Boca de Congrejos, the trail begins by following the Piñones beachfront, and then weaves its way through portions of the Bosque Estatal de Piñones, the Piñones State Forest, and endless stretches of unrefined beach.

    Paths along the waterfront are well-maintained asphalt. As they cross back-and-forth along the highway for entering the forest, trails become elevated boardwalks which allows passing through the heart of dense mangrove forests without disturbing delicate ecosystems. The differences are like night and day; beach frolickers fully exposed to sun on the coastal side, while inland stretches are darkened with shadows of solitude until a random biker goes whizzing passed.

    With time to finally check things out, "said" bicycle rentals were no where to be found on my first weekday morning passing through the area. It wasn't until days later, on a rainy Sunday, that I happened upon Dos Loco's Aventure Rentals, and by then was too whipped from hiking the rainforest.

    Operated by a Miami-expat, Danny has numerous types of equipment rentals, including bicycles for $6 an hour or $25 for the day, that come equipped with small saddle bags for carrying belongings. From his agency, the Piñones trail stretches 14-miles to the east, and two-miles to the west. He can also arrange horseback rides for $35 an hour, kayak rentals for $10 an hour, and snorkel equipment by the hour or day. Snacks, beverages, and other outdoor-related necessities are also available.

    Finding his business is worth the extra effort, hidden along the beachfront just off the highway. Heading east from Isla Verde, once crossing the bridge and passing an initial cluster of restaurant shacks, a brief undeveloped stretch resumes. Where businesses reappear on coastal side of the road, take the first left which looks like a dirt driveway. Dos Locos faces the beach, across from the unpaved parking area. The sign at the turn-off is hard to spot amid all the clutter, but if passing the Restaurante Soleil, you've gone to far.

  • Dos Locos is usually closed on Mondays, but Danny says he'll make special arrangements if it's your only day available. Call 787/461-0160 for reservations.

  • It wasn't until Saturday/Sunday that a pair of random homes further down the highway suddenly had front yards full of bicycles for rent at $5 an hour. Eventually, I also came across some obscure signs for these places, with numbers to call during the week. Otherwise, Dos Locos is the most reliable option.

  • With numerous places to pull over along Highway 187, it's possible to access trail sections on-foot, with conditions which make this handicap-accessible for those in wheelchairs.

  • Wilderness Coast Beaches

    Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on April 23, 2006

    No where is Puerto Rico more exquisite than along the shoreline protected through the State Forest. Even in exposed areas closest to Piñones, which draw the largest crowds on weekends, sections still retain an unrefined approach that will have beach lovers giddy. Waters are at their calmest and most shallow through western portions thanks to bare karst which give-way to reef. Snorkeling is best along these areas, but there's nothing spectacular, and it takes some effort to keep from getting tossed around abrasively. A tenderfoot definitely should consider aquasox in these parts.

    These initial beaches trail along the highway, but real gems await further east concealed behind dense tropical vegetation. Random clearings give-way to brief enticements which require pulling over and exploring on-foot. Some stretches have sweeping arcs which calm the waters while other plumb strips unfurl the pounding Atlantic; a magnet for surfers flocking to immense swells at dawn and dusk. Rough tides make swimming a high-risk factor without any lifeguards on duty, but actually getting in the water is secondary to all else that waits.

    Reinvigorating qualities of the Wilderness Coast can tame the savage, and it's likely the place where Neptune, Aqua-Man, and other water-prone warriors chose to come-up for air when needing to recharge their batteries.

    Traipsing along the boundless sands, the soothing potency of nature is constantly resculpting the landscape thanks to ferocious tides which invade with generous redeposits, thwarting erosion. Coconut palms, sea grapes and Caribbean conifers conceal the most exotic stretches with a botanical curtain that forms a powerful wind-tunnel for gusts coming off the water. Ethereal mists caress in the tropical humidity, and help preserve the virgin mystique; especially on cloudy days when grass-covered dunes reflect Cape Cod images, and a jacket or hoodie are a welcomed accessory.

    Recommending where to begin is futile since every expanse of the irregular coast is peerless and worth indepthly combing over. More popular, obscure beaches are recognizable from wooden staircases that cross-over flourishing embankments which disconnect the highway. Some are across from bars with signs which say it's $2 to park, but they're closed on weekdays, and never requested payment when stopping on weekends.

    There's also parking around scattered food shacks with al fresco beachside dining always just beyond. Farther east turns even more remote, but it's never hard to find places for pulling over, and car paths trail-off through the forest for the most clandestine of regions. Here's a pair of things to keep in mind:

  • Pulling off-road for parking may involve driving on sands that are either hard-packed or shifting, and you won't know which until wheels start spinning. As when driving through snow or mud, gently accelerate while turning the steering-wheel to either side. Otherwise, rear wheels only dig themselves deeper. If conditions worsen, find palm branches and flat objects to jam under the tires. It could be a long-wait for help pushing.

  • Seclusion invites auto-theft. Lock valuables in the trunk.

  • Highway 187 - Conmigo!

    Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on April 23, 2006

    Sometimes, the best travel experiences reveal themselves in the most unlikely ways, and there's a nameless driver to potentially thank for this one. Back in '94, when first discovering Puerto Rico and booking the most popular tourist excursion, the brief encounters with El Yunque's rainforest, and Luquillo beach were supposedly highlights of the trip. Preparing to head back towards San Juan, the driver announced we were going to take a diversion from the main highway by which we'd arrived.

    Whether it was part of the tour package, or another means to a destination's end, brief explanations for the upcoming exposure were almost apologetic. As defined, Highway 187 passed through one of the island's most breathtaking and poorest areas which had taken a direct hit from Hurricane Hugo in '89. Originating from the Midwest and with 2 years in NYC, hurricanes had never spawned much thought beyond fading headlines until now, in this land where the word originated thanks to Jurakán; the Tainos' God of malice.

    Lush terrain periodically gave-way to open expanses filled with topless trunks where winds had snapped-off palm fronds like plucking sprigs of cilantro. Scattered around below were small gatherings of squatters, living in impoverished hovel appearing as if the storm had happened only the week before, not 5-years previously. Roaming goats, burros and chickens lazily disregarded the passing van, but gleaming smiles accompanied with vigorous waves from observant campesinos, were hard to miss and I filed the invitations to perhaps RSVP another time.

    Existence of impoverished underdogs has always held a peculiar amount of intrigue, justified in curiosity and admiration for their undoubted struggles charged with simplicity. As part of my first trip off the U.S. mainland, this initial segment of Highway 187 would unknowingly fashion eventual life as a New Yorker, living and working with underprivileged Puerto Ricans in Spanish Harlem, and as a traveler looking to avoid tourist circuits in favor of cultural encounters off the beaten path. Sheltered perceptions were still in the processing stages that day when another distraction immediately redirected focus.

    A jaw-dropping expanse of primitive beach trailed-off for as far as eyes could see towards the west, shimmering in earliest stages of sunset. By then, most of the other passengers had tuned-out or dozed-off; awaiting drop-offs at their Isla Verde resorts. But even I was disregarding driver's commentary to insure not a single glimpse was tainted beyond the visual strain. Never had I seen, little alone imagined, a palm forest that intermittently gave way to coastal panoramas, vividly stained in my psyche to this day. Since that time, the mental and photographic gallery of images have remained ongrowing!

    Over the last 12-years, there's been numerous occasions to reconvey those initial impressions, still just as verdant and convincing. The Piñones beachfront had commanded frequent encores in the company of friends as a voluntary alternative to San Juan gathering spots. Pithy explorations had taken place when having access to a rental car or by using public transportation, which now extends through this entire area. However, nothing will ever supplement for leisures afforded during these latest pursuits; calm in the midst of no storms during height of the most active hurricane season on-record.

    Highway 187 continually proves to be more than just a scenic alternative. It's revival of a state of mind which transports anyone ready, willing and able. The all-you-can-perceive buffet specializes in reckoning the most ordinary into the extraordinary. With unlimited trips recommended for the mental digestive system, I recently found myself frequently turning around; back-tracking short distances, or even heading back to the inception and beginning again which proved to be the only method for leaving no scope unappreciated.

    Thanks to flagrant refreshings induced by time of day and weather conditions, highlights of natural refinements waver through stages of sun-kissed brilliance to silhouetted shadows; guaranteed to transcend every venture into another maiden voyage. At times, ears were splitting -- not so much from pounding Salsa music on the car stereo, but from colossal smiles found when looking in the rear-view mirror. Windows rolled down are an absolute must for accentuating the fresh air and ocean breezes; periodic blasts on inevitable goose bumps assured to counter potential sweat.

    Remembering what it was like to be 16, and the first time allowed to take the car out without any supervision, this immortal strip of roadway unfolds like a pilgrimage back to youth. Perhaps that's why Highway 187 ranks at the top of my travel list when it comes to favorite roadtrips and joyrides.

    So, with one hand on the wheel and with camera ready in the other, come along conmigo for the ride...

    Tunnel Vision
    Starting at the Río Grande turn-off and heading west towards San Juan, Highway 187 immediately meanders into fertile farmlands. In some stretches, roadside vegetation forms dense canopy tunnels which flaunt optical illusions based on stages of the sun and shadows. The Luquillo mountain range, which embodies El Yunque and the tropical rainforest, is usually only visible of an afternoon. On morning jaunts heading out, mountains vanish into humid haze.


    Along for the Ride
    Be prepared to share the road! Horseback riders, along with cyclists, pedestrians, and roaming animals, are all part of the side-show. The entire two-lane roadway is narrow, and often doesn't have shoulders. Expect plenty of blind curves as well as places for pulling over. Drive with caution stoked with eager awareness.


    Stages of Progress
    El Oasis is one of those Latin American dreams in the making, where patrons can stop in for just a bit of everything. Perhaps starting with a wooden roadside stand, local entrepreneurs save money until they can construct an inexpensive, cinder-block structure allowing them to expand business. Second phases usually involve building a home on the second floor. On weekends, this place was packed!


    Natural Regentrification
    Long-cleared for the wood, and to accommodate grazing for livestock, sections around the Piñones State Forest are now reverting to original environs; this field redestined to become a coconut forest within a couple of decades. Afternoon skies are often contrasted with sunlight accentuating dark storm clouds which brew in humidity over the nearby mountain range, and then pull-out towards the coast with strong showers.


    Home Sweet Home
    Regardless of how insignificant income levels may be, roadside inhabitants are abandoning clapboard shacks in favor of structures more durable against tropical storms and hurricanes. It's very common for islanders to still live off the land by gardening, raising livestock, and fishing across the street in the ocean.


    Some of my best memories and meals took place in these types of casual eateries, as pictured back in '97. For squatter vendors, mostly illegal Dominicans, start-up costs were low and risks minimal. When businesses blew away during passing storms, owners simply collected necessary pieces and started over. However, local government officials would periodically come through and raze all structures -- only to find them reappearing within in a matter of weeks. Once the Wilderness Trail was completed, clusters of food kiosks were also built on inland side of the road based on licensing and monitoring vendors. They don't have near the appeal or charm, but there's still plenty of rustic, renegade spots if that's what you're seeking.


    Island Accessories
    Other roadside accents include colorful arrays of beach gear, water sports equipment, and a wide-assortment of other nonessential merchandise. Prices are always cheap and negotiable.


    Stolen Moments
    Sands aren't the only things which heat-up on any given afternoon. Latin Lovers indefatigably exercise the myth, and often redefine concepts of wildlife viewing in their various stages of passion. It's all part of the package -- romance; shared and unaccompanied experiences that inflame the spirit, regardless of age.


    Following the Crowds
    On weekends, especially in heavily trafficked areas, take a cue from locals and grab the first parking spot you find. Always make sure to lock valuables in the trunk. It's easier to walk to everything nearby while fully taking-in surroundings.


    The Truancy for Slackers Trap
    To say Piñones has developed into quite the local Hot Spot would be a gross understatement! The assortment of roadside businesses is mind-boggling, and while options are unlimited, selections are not though there are upscale restaurants tucked-away amid the clutter. In addition to standard rations, fresh seafood is very popular.

    Even when traffic isn't backed-up, proceed slowly and with caution. The frivolous sundry of signs and advertisements is distracting -- like the train wreck you can't tear your eyes away from. Specific destinations and recommendations are untraceable even when asking for directions. Piñones specializes in irresponsible spontaneity. Oddly enough, that's part of the appeal.

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