Work and Play in Puerto Rico

At the end of the last post I promised you more detail about our sailing experiences around the mainland of Puerto Rico and a little bit about the rest of the island itself. So, here we go….

You will remember that having left the USVI’s we spent 18 nights on the offshore Puerto Rican islands of Culebra and Vieques and therefore our sail to the mainland was relatively short. We left Esperanza [Vieques] at about 8.45 on the morning of 4th January and immediately unfurled the genoa. The wind was again from the SE and varied between 13 and 21 knots throughout the sail, thus pushing us along at a nice average of 6.5 knots. Our original intention had been to make landfall at Puerto Patillas after around 30 miles. The Cruising Guide said that there wasn’t much there [by way of facilities] but that it was a reasonable anchorage in about 10 feet of water and that there were several spots to choose from. We have come to realise that most of the cruising guides assume a NE prevailing wind but both last year, and this, we have found that the wind is as likely to come from the SE as the NE and that anchorages which may be tenable in a wind north of east are less so when it blows from a more southerly direction.

The approach to Puerto Patillas passes between two reefs and into a reasonable sized bay. Looking at the anchorage from outside the reef we couldn’t see where the sheltered spots might be – and by that I mean that we didn’t think it looked like there could be any because the whole bay is open to the SE winds. However, we have been surprised on other occasions to find that even with a wind blowing directly into an anchorage, the reef provides so much protection that it really doesn’t matter and so we made our way towards the shore. Unfortunately, on this occasion, there was little protection and all we could see were quite sizeable waves hitting the rocks and coves around the edges of the bay. As it was only 1.45pm we decided that the best option was an about turn…and another twenty or so miles to Salinas.

Salinas is a fabulous anchorage which we highly recommend. It was so good we spent nearly a month there.

It is a lagoon behind a large reef system which has small islands dotted along it. It is possible to anchor off these islands and many locals do just that either at weekends – when they take picnics – or when there are hurricanes warnings when they jam their boats up into the mangroves. The entrance to the lagoon is quite interesting as it is narrow with much of it less than 3 feet deep. Fortunately there is an approximate 7 foot [2.1 – 2.4 metre] deep channel so we were able to edge our way through.

Salinas is a small town, originally dedicated to fishing – hence this statue in the old fishing quarter.

There are a couple of small shops nearby and, within 15 minutes walk, a decent sized supermarket. The local bakery [5 minutes from the lagoon] has free internet and some very good cakes and bread. We spent several happy hours there emailing and partaking of breakfast. The small marina has a dinghy dock, a laundrette [£1.50 per load] a bar – excellent Friday night BBQ with a “combo plate” for US$8 [£5.50] and, though we didn’t visit it, a restaurant. There are several other bar/restaurants in the town and, right at the water’s edge and therefore accessible directly by dinghy or a 10 yard walk from the marina entrance by foot,  is Sal Pa’ Dentro.

This bar is run by Janso and his wife and is very cruiser friendly. It only opens Thursday through Sunday but we enjoyed a full moon party there one evening and, on our last day, added to the cruisers flags which Janso is collecting.

Sunday is the day for “Mexican Train” when current cruisers, cruisers who have now settled in Puerto Rico and locals come together to play this domino game.

It is just like normal dominoes except that the set goes up to double twelve and , depending on the state of play, you have the choice of playing on your own train, the “public” train or one or more of the other player’s trains. It transpired that Mike was very good at it. He won on two Sundays and came second on the third. [We think he actually won on the third as well – but that’s another story]. I was less good. I came last once, was too poorly to go to the bar on the second and decided to do internet things instead on the third!

In case you are wondering – I caught flu. Well, it was more like a very bad cough and cold but we were told that influenza was going around because its winter. This is, of course, quite true even though it is hard to believe when the daytime temperature is somewhere around 80 degrees F [25C].

Now, there are two exports for which Puerto Rico is supposedly quite famous, these being coffee and cigars. So, what is it really difficult to buy in Puerto Rico? You guessed it. Coffee and cigars! We hired a car for a few days to tour the island and marked on the map were several “Coffee Hacienda”. On two occasions we set out to find one of these thinking that they would make a great mid morning coffee stop but we couldn’t find them. Whilst they are estates which produce coffee we had thought that they would have a small cafe or something – especially since they were all marked with a star along the tourist trail. They either weren’t what we thought or they were very well hidden but, not to be deterred, we stopped instead at a couple of local small snack bar/restaurants. We could have beer, rum, Coke, Fruit Juice, various snacks or meals – but none of them served coffee. In the supermarkets it is possible to buy coffee beans – though we don’t have the means to deal with such niceties [and we both drink decaf!] but in small shops there are no beans. Even allowing for the fact that good coffee is supposed to be bought as a bean we did not expect that nowhere was it possible to buy jars of ground coffee or granules.

On one of our trips we visited Caguas, a town in the centre of the island surrounded by mountains. There we took the tourist walking trail and tried to visit some museums but only found two open – the music museum in an old church and the Cigar museum. We studied various machines for cutting cigars and read about the tobacco plantations and watched two ladies making the cigars [the elder of whom has been doing the job for almost all of her eighty years].


But, there were no cigars for sale. Apparently they did sell them but they didn’t have any on the day we went even though we watched several being made? We saw a small street stall in San Juan late one afternoon, but when we went back in the evening it had gone. We finally found two tobacconists which sold a few cigars, but no tobacco.

You can guess how desperate Mike is now getting. He is onto his second packet of Marlboro. The good thing is that he is smoking less!

Anyway, onto things we have found.

El Yunque National Forest lies at the north east corner of Puerto Rico and is a very beautiful area. There are several walking trails through the forest and up to both of the highest peaks. We arrived too late in the day to complete a peak walk [phew!] but did three of the smaller trails which, conveniently, led from one to another. The longest of the three took us past the most visited waterfall in the forest, “La Mina Falls”.

It is possible to swim in these falls but we hadn’t got our swimming stuff [another phew – the water is very cold]. We also went up the Yokahu tower [from where the photograph of the peaks was taken] and saw the Coca falls as we drove past.

Driving down the narrow roads of Puerto Rico is quite an experience. Apart from the fact that you are quite often under canopies of bamboo…..

or come across an iguana crossing [nothing like a zebra crossing!]…….

there is also the challenge of navigation. The tourist map measures 15” x 5” [38cm x 13cm] and this “details” – or rather doesn’t – an area of 3,500 square miles i.e. approx 100 miles x 35 miles. Needless to say more than half the roads which exist aren’t marked and those that are marked often have numbers different to the ones on the map. We got lost! We always knew approximately where we were but had no idea whether a road we were on was going to meet another road or just fizzle out. Despite the fact that some of these roads were one car width, had gravel rather than tarmac in parts and went up and up and up [often at seemingly impossibly steep angles] until there was no more up they didn’t, as we had feared, fizzle out – they just came down and down and down again. After one of our up and down journeys we chanced upon the Rio Camuy Cave Park and ventured underground once more.

Dotted along the coast are numerous small fishing villages. These too are sometimes quite hard to find because there is very little actual coast road, and the beach village is just a part of the actual town which is situated on a main road about 5 miles inland so, it’s a case of detour off and hope for the best. But, finding them is very worthwhile.

We think that it would have been possible to anchor here [Naguabo Playa] but it was on the east coast and we didn’t sail past. It was certainly calm enough on the day we visited and the numerous small [and cheap] fish restaurants would have made for an excellent overnight stay.

As with the other Caribbean islands, indigenous peoples are thought to have arrived in Puerto Rico around the 1st century AD. Quite how people who arrived by raft, from what is now Florida, can be indigenous escapes me – but I suppose it means the first inhabitants! Anyway, the “Tainos” are believed to have created a sophisticated trading system and became the reigning culture, fighting off the “Caribs” who invaded the other islands. There are a few archaeological sites dotted around the island and we chose to visit “Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Park”, reputedly the most outstanding Taino culture site in the Antilles.

We have a nice little pamphlet which tells us that the size of its ritual plazas and the quality and quantity of its petroglyphs make Caguana a centre of utmost archaeological value. The park contains a wide variety of native trees which serve as a habitat for native and migratory birds. Great – or it would have been if the site hadn’t been closed because it was too muddy. This is as close to the ritual sites, the petroglyphs and the native trees as we got…

Once again, it hasn’t been all play and no work. We are now the proud owners of a watermaker which Mike and I spent a few happy days fitting. It still needs some final touches to the wiring but at least it all fits.

It has taken up some of our “wine cellar” space but it makes for handy access which is a good thing and currently wine is too expensive to buy by the bulk load so we don’t need the space anyway. I am also sure that if we find cheaper wine we will manage to fit it in somewhere on the boat!

Mike has also fitted the solenoid for the new gas bottles. One of our reasons for buying the new bottles [apart from the fact that they have a greater gas capacity] is that being plastic they shouldn’t rust and cause the nasty stain down the side of the boat. However, we noticed that our friend’s solenoid had really rusted and, as well as it causing failure to the solenoid and then no gas, we wanted to try to eliminate the stain. So, we have invented the handy plastic container. Well, obviously we haven’t invented the container – but we have invented a new use for it. Don’t know how well it will work but it should keep the worst of the water off the solenoid and at least extend its life.

As January drew to a close it was time to leave Salinas – though one thing I must not forgot to tell you is that there are Manatees in the lagoon. Unfortunately it is a bit too murky for swimming – which is why the manatees like it – and they are a bit shy so I haven’t got any photos but we did see them. We hope to see more as we travel towards Central America.

So, the decision to be taken at this stage was where to clear out. There aren’t many customs offices on Puerto Rico – basically one on each coast and, given that we were sailing west, we had to decide whether to go to Ponce – about 25 miles west of Salinas on the south coast, or Mayaguez, about half way up the west coast which we didn’t actually want to sail to as we were going directly west in line with the south coast. Initially, therefore, we had thought that Ponce was our best option because we had to pass there but we heard two things which put us off. Firstly, other cruisers have reported that the anchorage is not good [and it would have been an overnight stay] and that the only dinghy dock is at the yacht club which is reputedly not friendly and that it is a taxi ride to town.  Secondly, we were told by a Puerto Rican friend [who is incidentally a member of said yacht club and reports it as being friendly] was that to clear out in Ponce and then anchor in Boqueron [south west corner] would be frowned on. Apparently each of the four customs offices operate separately. We had cleared in within the eastern region on Culebra so that was OK, we had made ourselves known to the southern office because the Ponce staff sometimes come to Salinas to see who is anchored there, so that was OK. But, what we were told is that if we wanted to anchor in Boqueron which is covered by the West office we couldn’t clear out of the south office and then stay in the west.

In the end we opted for Clearance from Mayaguez and left Salinas on 30 January to sail to Boqueron. It was once again excellent sailing weather and we made good headway but rather than arrive in Boqueron in the dark we decided to make an overnight stop halfway at a place called Punta Jocinta. Boats travelling east use this anchorage quite a lot because it allows shorter hops to windward and, although we didn’t leave the boat, it looked to be very pleasant ashore, the holding was good and once the wind dropped in the evening it was very calm.

Choosing Mayaguez over Ponce might have meant missing out on a pretty town, had we not visited in the car earlier in the month. Probably the most photographed place, outside of San Juan is the Ponce “Parque de Bombas”. It really is quite dramatic with its red and black colouring…

and its cute old engine.

Boqueron is also very picturesque. A beautiful place to drop the hook within a large sheltered bay….

with some rather ramshackle buildings lining the shore.

We also loved the way each bird had his own little perch.

Boqueron is a great place though it only really comes alive at weekends. Fortunately we were there on Thursday and Friday evenings and made the most of our last evening in Puerto Rico by joining the locals in some promenading with a little eating and drinking thrown in. The only way to get to Mayaguez was by taxi but we were recommended to use Raul – who proved well worth the recommendation and the US$30 [£20] we were charged for the round trip. Clearance is normally at the ferry port – but it seems that if ferries aren’t in then it can be from the custom house itself. These are about 1 mile apart and about 3 miles from the centre of Mayaguez. If Publico’s [buses] do exist – and there are two schools of thought on this even by the locals – then it would have meant at least two buses each way and a lot of messing around. Raul knew where he was going, knew the customs staff and made our clearance out a piece of cake.

And so it was goodbye to Puerto Rico as we set sail once again on the 2nd February. The first part of the passage was rather frustrating. There was no wind and the currents coming down through the Mona Passage were hitting us side on. Mixed in with some tide and we were rolling well. Fortunately not long after lunch we moved into calmer waters, a decent wind got up, this time from the NE, and with both genoa and main full out we sailed happily through the afternoon and into the sunset on our way to new adventures in the Dominican Republic.


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    • Steve on February 10, 2013 at 4:44 pm
    • Reply

    Another great post. Let us know how you get on with the water has been miserable here for the last few weeks. Hope flu cleared up. Steve

    • Malc & Nik on February 11, 2013 at 4:01 am
    • Reply

    Hi guys,
    You sneaked in the bit about the watermaker didn’t you 🙂 so what make is it, how many litres, why that one etc.? Is that the membrane at the bottom of the locker? Btw, we say the fibreglass gas bottles which we were in West Marine in Seattle. They really do seem great, and a lot lighter to be carting around for refills!

    Cheers, malc and Nik

    • Jack feckin McCarthy on February 25, 2013 at 8:05 pm
    • Reply

    How the fook are you? Sounds like you’re having a great trip. Looking forward to hearing about IT and Cuba. With less room for wine you’ll have to switch to Gin…takes up less room per drink. I’m back in sxm. Had a great trip back to the states with my kids but it feels sooooooo good to be back. Spent last 2 weeks with my friend Christine and friends Marc and Natalie. Visited all the little anchorages between sxm and st barts. Now back for racing in the Heinekin.
    Miss you guys,

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