I’m at the point in my life that when I travel, I would prefer to not have to worry about driving and navigating foreign roads. To be real, I don’t even enjoy driving at home, so doing it on vacation takes away the relaxation factor. However, the real reason why I am weary of driving is because of one memorable, yet slightly traumatic, experience I had in Puerto Rico. Let me preface this by saying that I had a more positive experience renting a car in Costa Rica, which I will detail at another time. However, what happened in Puerto Rico woke me up to the reality that adventure often comes with the price tag of danger and the older I get, the less risks I’m able to take.
My best friend and I decided to go to Puerto Rico for a long weekend in July of 2016. We stayed in the most fantastic bed and breakfast, toured the city forts, devoured mofongo, and took a cocktail making class at the Bacardi museum. It was the perfect girl’s trip, but we couldn’t leave without visiting the famous El Yunque Rainforest. What was supposed to be a smooth one hour drive outside of the city of San Juan turned into an all day fiasco that resulted in never stepping foot into the rainforest.
The day started off well and hopeful. We consumed the most delicious eggs benedict at our accomodations, then headed off to the rent a car center. Since they drive on the right side of the road and the wheel is on the left side of the car, I didn’t have to worry about it being much different than driving at home. We also rented a GPS to ensure that we had accurate directions and would avoid getting lost. It was a straight shot, just jump on the highway, then get off on the right exit. Easy right?
Unfortunately, we did not choose this easy route and decided to listen to the advice of numerous people who told us to take the “scenic” route through the streets. Now that I look back 4 years later, I wonder if this was some cruel joke to play on tourists lol. However, they also encouraged us that the scenic route was very easy and would have us there in no time.
Once we passed the hour mark and we realized that we were starting to drive through neighborhoods, we knew something was wrong. The GPS kept recalculating, which is never a good sign, and we were far into a rural area of a place where we didn’t speak the language. The nerves set in and as the hours rolled by, we were starving and couldn’t think straight.
Finally, we started to come to an area that was full of lush greenery and small waterfalls. We became excited as we knew this had to be it! We even got out to take pictures because we were so sure we had made it to our destination. After traveling along that road for another additional hour, we made it to a dead end with a gate. The GPS stated we had arrived, and it was at this moment, we realized we were at the back of the rainforest.
With no other choice, we turned around and made it to a town that we passed when we first started seeing the waterfalls. With me saying the words I knew “El Yunque” and lots of pointing, we finally made it to a huge line of vehicles going up a mountain. Apparently, this was the line to enter the rainforest, but we were confused why so many cars were turning around and coming back down.
As fate would have it, the rainforest was filled to capacity and not allowing anyone else in. It was a holiday, after all, which is why we left so early in the morning to begin with. Feeling defeated, we turned around and followed the cars who were going down the mountain. We realized many people were pulling off to the side.
Much to our surprise, there were families and friends relaxing in the river underneath a bridge, blasting music, grilling food, swimming, and lounging in camp chairs. We never made it to El Yunque, but we did stumble upon this authentic, local experience and were able to make the best out of our journey.
I guess if we took the highway as planned, we would have missed out on this experience that you would never read about in a guidebook. It was memorable. However, I’m not quite sure if I want to relive the frustration and fear that I had getting lost on the way. We definitely took the highway back to San Juan!
Puerto Rico is a US territory, but it still feels like going out of the country. Have you rented a car in a foreign place before? How was your experience and would you do it again?
xoxo, Global Midwife