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...
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!
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.
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.
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.