19 Minutes to Paradise

Little did I know that upon moving to St. Thomas, USVI, my weekend getaway would be San Juan, Puerto Rico. I mean, when I lived in Seattle Washington, Vancouver, BC, Canada was an easy 4 hour drive and I didn’t think twice about taking that drive. Now here I am, living on a Caribbean island and a 19-minute flight is all that stands between me and my “weekend getaway”.

Seriously, 19-minutes from take-off to touch-down. The only downfall is that since it is a flight, I do have to get to the airport a few hours earlier. BUT, it’s still LESS THAN SEATTLE TO VANCOUVER.

Why San Juan? Puerto Rico, a weekend getaway? Really, Puerto Rico?

Have you ever researched Puerto Rico? I haven’t until my co-workers and I started planning our first official “Off the Rock” vacation. “Off the Rock” might seem like a funny way to describe this trip, however, “The Rock” is a local term for St. Thomas and when opportunities, well Mapless Adventures, come to light to get off the rock, it’s hard to say no.

The main motivation of this Mapless Adventure focused around one aspect, Nature. Working indoors with children ages 3-21, 8 hours a day 5 days a week, including collaboration with other disciplines, teachers, and supervisors, the day to day grind can become overwhelming and quite frankly exhausting, so allowing ourselves time to escape to nature is a high priority.

Now, I get the irony. I live on a tropical island in the Caribbean and am surrounded by beaches. Yes, I get it. Why not just go to the beach on the weekends? To be honest, I do. I don’t avoid the beach, but having lived in Washington for the last 4 years, it’s hard to be away from true mountains and forests filled wilderness. But Puerto Rico provides my rainforest-mountain void with El Yunque National Rain Forest!

El Yunque National Rain Forest, formerly known as Luquillo National Forest, is the only TROPICAL rain forest in the United States National Forest Systems and encompasses 29,000 acres, approximately 30-35 minutes east of San Juan. It became a National Forest in 1903 and home to over 200 species of trees and plants, 23 which are indigenous to this rainforest. Want to know something really unique to this rain forest, the temperature averages 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit and rains year round! Plus, it’s home to 13 of the 15 species of Coquis, which are members of the diverse neotropical frog family, found in Puerto Rico, and their sounds can be heard throughout the forest!  Have I hooked you yet…if not just wait, it gets better.o9o999

What hooked my friends and I, wasn’t the Coqui, wasn’t the temperature, or the rain, it was the fresh water ways, including waterfalls and water slides! Our goal…stand and swim under a waterfall. Here is where our adventure begins!

My friends ended up finding an unbelievable steal at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar in their Villas (privately owned condos), which is the hotel directly across the main road from the entrance of the rain forest, so of course we were going to stay, well for two of the four nights (I’ll talk about the Old San Juan nights at the end). We became spoiled at this hotel, because not only were there hardly any humans in our line of sight, we had TWO huge pools, plus the we had access to the resorts pool and hot tub, which was abused to its full extent, after the rainforest of course.

Our first day started a bit later in the afternoon but it didn’t really matter because the weather was still perfect. Once we arrived, the first thing we did was take a visit to the visitor’s center to gather more information regarding these waterfalls, we’d been reading about online. At the visitor’s center, the park ranger provided details about the most popular waterfalls and one more off the beaten path.

The two most popular waterfalls are La Coca and Cascada La Mina. La Coca Waterfall is the easiest to access waterfall as it’s right on the major road and has parking readily available. Cascade La Mina, which is further into the forest, is fairly easy to access and well marked. It is paved majority of the trail and is ~2 mile round trip, no more than 40-45 minutes depending on your walking speed.

Of course we stopped at La Coca Waterfall before heading to Cascada La Mina, and we knew that Cascada La Mina would be busy, but we didn’t know just how busy. When we arrived, there were quite a bit of people so we decided to not swim in the crowded packed waterfall, but that didn’t prevent us, well me, from climbing all over the rocks on the other side of the bridge. After 20-30 minutes, we decided it was time to head back up the trail and head home, to then swim in the pool.

What I didn’t mention was the Yokahu Observation Tower, which is located along the main road. For us, this was a must stop and see and climb, and the time at which we ventured up the tower, included an amazingly perfect rainbow over the rainforest. Seriously, it was breathtaking and beyond stunning. I mean, come on, a rainbow in a rainforest on our way to a waterfall?!? But, back to our adventure.

We arrived back to our villa and it didn’t take long for us to venture to the infinity pool for a early evening swim, followed by dinner, followed by bedtime. Myself, along with two of my three friends, may have stayed awake in Old San Juan until 2:30 AM Thursday-Friday (oops).

By day 2, my friends and I were already starting to feel the power of nature therapy, but we knew we weren’t done. We ventured back into the rainforest earlier than the day before because we had the swim-up bar and hot tub waiting for us back home. This time, however, we had one mission….WATERFALL (without people).

We were able to get information on our first day from the park ranger, and we took him up on his advise and located the trail  “fairly” easily, but there were tour buses parked near the trail and we weren’t getting too excited. Luckily, the tour buses were on the way out as we were on our way in to the falls. These “secret” falls are call Juan Diego Falls and is a series of multiple waterfalls and can take 5 minutes to 45 minutes depending on how far and how difficult you care to hike.

This is where are picture perfect waterfall experience begins. We skipped the first waterfall (as there were people) and when we arrived at #2, well lets just say, majestic. There were two people but they left shortly after our arrival and we had this powerful waterfall and pool completely to ourselves.

So for the next ~40 minutes, my friends and I stood under a waterfall, waded in the pool, and looked out over nature. It’s hard to believe sometimes that this is my life, living these Mapless Adventures in this beautiful, God created world! Nature therapy has worked its magic on myself and my friends.

We returned to the hotel, took a quick nap, and then headed directly to the hot tub and swim up bar, where we stayed the remainder of the evening, followed by dinner then bed. We have another early morning and would be leaving our Nature Therapy escape. El Yunque truly worked to rejuvenate our souls.

In the morning, we returned to Old San Juan, our stomping grounds on our first night in PR, which was mostly just the nightlife experience included salsa dancing at La Factoria, the most unique bar I’ve been to. Add it to your list when you visit San Juan. The night life in Old San Juan was night and day different than here in St. Thomas, and it was nice to have a change in pace and atmosphere.

The day time wandering of Old San Juan included a walk around the fort, moments in Cathedral de San Juan Bautista, some jewelry shopping, and drinking of local coffee. Each place I visit I alway look for unique jewelry, not the typical silver or gold, but things that have a story or made from something 1-of-a-kind type jewelry. My San Juan pieces included earrings made from Sea Fans and earrings/bracelets made from Coconut shells. Defiantly one of a kind and beautiful if I do say so myself.

Due to complete exhaustion from an adventure packed filled weekend, our night ended early just as our morning began early to catch our flight home. This is one of those weekend getaway trips that re-centered my love for traveling, exploring, and going on Mapless Adventures. I barely touched the surface of Puerto Rico and cannot wait to venture back the 19 minutes to see  what else PR has to offer. Stay tuned for some more Mapless Adventures coming to you in the near future!!!

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