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Diving In: An Outdoorsman's Trip to Beautiful Puerto Rico

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Nicole Olmeda

It turns out, you can pack a lot into one weekend in Puerto Rico.

"Is this your first trip to the island?" the guy next to me asked. I was crammed into the middle seat of a packed American Airlines flight on a Thursday morning. We had just taken off from Chicago and were flying somewhere above the cornfields of central Illinois with a destination of old San Juan, Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.

I had not expected to be visiting the United States territory in 2021, yet here I was, heading south for a press trip with Discover Puerto Rico on a three day "aquatic adventure" that promised to be vastly different than any other traveling for work I've done in the past. In fact, it felt more like I was jetting off on a weekend getaway than going to work.

"Yes," I told my fellow passenger with the thick Spanish accent. The plane seemed to be filled with a mix of locals returning home and tourists heading for the beach resorts. "You're going to love it," the man told me.

Puerto Rico is back.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

Going into this trip, I knew very little about Puerto Rico other than it was a U.S. Territory. Like many other Americans, I watched in horror four years ago as category five hurricane Maria made a direct hit on the island. After the devastating 155-mile per hour winds had finally subsided, the storm surges came in. Maria left an estimated $90 million in damages, and the residents of the island were faced with ruined homes, lost loved ones, and a devastated power grid.

Couple that with the Covid-19 pandemic which shut down a lot of travel to and from the island in 2020, and it is safe to say that Puerto Rico has had some hard times recently. I had no idea what to expect after I stepped off the plane in SJU Airport after a five-hour flight. It was there that I met Nicole Olmeda and our driver for the weekend, Herbert. I also met Lina Zeldovich, a freelance journalist who was also invited on this trip as part of the #DiscoverPuertoRico campaign.

As we drove through the capital city in an SUV, bound for Rincon on the west side of the island, I mentioned I work for Wide Open Spaces to Lina.

"Do you know Eric?" she responded. I did something of a double take. She was referring to Eric Pickhartz, our Editor in Chief. "I just went tarpon fishing with him a few months ago."

Unbelievable. It really is a small world after all. This fact underscored even more because Puerto Rico is such a small island. As we drove, Herbert and Nicole answered our numerous questions about the sights we were seeing as we left the old city and got out on one of the few highways running through the interior. It is not all old cobblestone streets and old buildings down there. After all, this is part of the U.S., and it feels like it. Right down to the McDonald's, Burger King, and Wal-Marts we zipped past on the highway. Despite the modern bits of pop culture present on businesses and billboards throughout the island, it still manages to maintain an old world feel and natural beauty that is distinctly its own.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

As we drove, we were treated to some awesome ocean views here and there as the palm trees would give way occasionally to views of some beautiful beaches. Nicole noted that the island is seeing a substantial comeback in 2021. The crowds that normally crowd the white sand beaches and sip pina coladas with local mofongo dishes in the many small resort towns that dot the island's oceanfront communities are finally coming back in force after the pandemic.

And if there was still hurricane damage, it was hard to pick out. Nicole noted most of the damage happened on the island's east side, which took the most direct hit from Maria's winds and storm surge. You get the feeling these people have been through a lot, but they have been made stronger because of it. There is a distinct and friendly spirit to the locals you cannot get on the mainland. For all the hardships they have endured, the people of Puerto Rico are refreshingly happy.

After a couple hours of driving, we finally arrived at the beautiful Rincon of the Seas Grand Caribbean Hotel & Villas well after dark. Too tired to do much else, I grabbed a quick meal to go from the resort's outdoor poolside bar before promptly falling asleep watching TV. Which was easy to do after nearly eight hours of travel from Michigan.

Surf's up.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

The next morning, we woke bright and early and drove to The Beach House, a quaint restaurant and guest house perched on a high hill overlooking the Puerto Rican coast several hundred feet above the beach. A beautiful place to grab breakfast to say the least. It was here our group met up with Ramses Morales, the owner of Surf Lessons Puerto Rico Adventure Company. He has been teaching people how to catch waves for years. When we were done eating, we followed his pickup down to Domes Beach, one of the most popular local spots to catch a wave.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

The beach was already packed with surfers by the time we arrived. People who seemed to run the gamut of ages from six to 60 or more. Ramses then told us he had just given a man in his early 70s his first surfing lesson ever a week earlier. Morales has a great reputation in Rincon as being one of the best instructors around and it is easy to see why given his patience and warm demeanor. He explained plainly and simply to Lina, Nicole, and I how to position yourself on the board, how to tread water, and the movements required to get yourself to your feet once you do catch that wave.

After about 20 minutes of instruction on the beach and some practice of these moves while the boards were still sitting on the sand, it was time to head into the water. I should mention at this point I have an intense fear of the ocean. As a kid I watched the "Jaws" movies and never really recovered from it. I've been terrified of sharks ever since and I always told myself I would never go surfing because of it. However, on this trip, I decided to face my fears once and for all. Before I knew it, I was paddling out. The taste of sea salt hitting my face reminded me I was not in the familiar waters of Lake Michigan on this trip.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

Fortunately, on this day the waves were small. Most were not more than four feet high. One thing I discovered was that balancing on a surfboard is slightly harder than it looks, even when you are just sitting there or paddling out. Fortunately, Ramses gave us good tips that kept us above the water. After watching Nicole catch one of the first waves on her knees, it was my turn. That was the only goal, try to get to my knees on the board. I paddled up to Ramses, who held the front of the board and told me to get ready.

"Paddle, paddle, paddle!" he shouted. Unfortunately, I couldn't hear him over the roaring of the wave and by the time I tried to get up on my knees using the moves we practiced on the beach, I ended up wiping out in the shallows. After recovering and getting slapped in the face by a few more waves heading back out, I finally reached Ramses again. He got me ready to go again and remarked:

"Don't worry Travis, I'm gonna make you the Kelly Slater of Michigan!"

My second run went much better than the first. This time I could hear Ramses and I managed to get to my knees and ride the wave almost all the way back into the beach. I think snowboarding classes nearly a decade ago helped a little there. I ended up making about four or five runs back out with Ramses' help. On my last try, I managed to get up on one knee. I probably could have gotten on my feet with more time in the water, but I was tired by this point and our time was up for this activity. It ended up being a lot more fun than I had anticipated.

Back on shore, Ramses said he has some clients who only last a few minutes in the water, and I had been out there over an hour. So, I was pleased with myself knowing I had done well for something I had never tried before.

Snorkeling on the reefs.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

After we left the surfing grounds, our group drove a few miles away to Black Eagle Beach where we stopped by Taino Divers for some swim fins and snorkeling gear. Because just under a hundred yards from that business are some extensive reefs that make for the perfect place to spot a variety of sea life in their natural habitat. The crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean are home to a plethora of tropical fish species and after diving in, GoPro in hand, the wonders of Puerto Rico's undersea life revealed themselves to me almost immediately with a school of bright blue fish swimming tightly in formation above the sharp coral.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

Nicole, Lina, and I made our way down the reef, following the fish. All the while being careful not to put our feet down on the sharp, and alive coral reef. There are also tons of sea urchins you do not want to step on littering the bottom. Everywhere I saw, colorful fish darted in and out of the reef. At one point a beautiful blue fish swam up and ate something only a few feet away from me. This was like watching a nature documentary come to life before my eyes as brilliant blue, yellow, and purple fish darted in and out of the colorful coral as I swam past.

Before I went on this trip, I had numerous people tell me there are no sharks in Puerto Rico. I tried to block the whole thought out of my mind as I was swimming around. Although, when I realized I was about 70 yards offshore, I moved back in closer under the ridiculous reasoning of: "there are no sharks in the shallows."

As I made my way towards shore, I rounded a larger-than-normal stack of coral on the sea floor. That was when I saw it. The unmistakable shape of a shark's tail fin only about 15 feet ahead of me swishing back and forth in the abyss. It looked like it was eating something near the bottom as it was not facing me. The second I saw it I turned and began swimming away as fast as possible. It was a moment I captured on GoPro in the video above.

Looking back, the shark was maybe three to four feet long at most. I suspect it may have been a nurse shark or other small, harmless species. It probably would have been more frightened of me than I was of it of course. In hindsight, part of me wishes I had taken a better look. The other half thinks I'm crazy for even typing that sentence. In any case, Puerto Rico is one of the quietest places on Earth for shark attacks. And I know I have better odds of being in an auto accident or getting struck by lightning. At the very least I'm proud of myself for having not left the water completely at that point. 

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

Either way, in just a few hours I had faced my fear of sharks not once, but twice. In fact, I was surprised when I was slightly saddened when it was time for us to leave the beach and head back to the hotel for the afternoon. Snorkeling in the waters of Puerto Rico was truly an incredible experience, one I will cherish for a lifetime.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

That afternoon, I took a stroll into the heart of Rincon's beautiful town square. It may not be very large, but this is an excellent place to experience the culture and nightlife of the island. You can pick up some Bacardi rum or simply enjoy the local farmer's market and crafts fair when it is open. The area obviously caters to the tourist industry, but it does it in a way that feels more restrained and natural to Puerto Rico's culture than these types of places usually do. It feels like a place you can go to mingle with both other tourists and locals alike. Check out the Taste Gastrobar just off the square while you are there for some traditional Puerto Rican meals.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

On my way back to the hotel, I spotted two large green iguanas. These reptiles are not native to the island and are increasingly becoming a big problem. Not only do they threaten the natural, delicate ecosystems of the island, they also cause headaches for farmers when raiding fields of crops and when digging burrows that can undermine the structural integrity of buildings. The first iguana I saw was a juvenile that quickly scurried away when I approached. The second, which was pointed out to me by the security guard at the hotel, was much larger, nearly three and a half feet long. The big lizard was not afraid. It hissed and stood its ground when I came close. The security guard just laughed and shrugged his shoulders. While iguana is said to taste like chicken, and some locals do eat them, the population is probably past the point of control. Chalk that up as just another challenge Puerto Rico's people have taken in stride.

Scuba Diving.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

The following morning Hector drove us up a narrow and winding road to a beautiful breakfast place called the English Rose, which is also perched high above a bluff. I'm not normally a big breakfast guy, but they had some of the best pancakes I've ever had. Try the buffalo head bacon while you are it too. Delicious.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

After that, we drove for another hour and a half or so over to the La Parguera area on the south side of the island. It was here that we visited the Paradise Scuba & Snorkeling Center. I'd be lying if I said I was not nervous for this next part of the trip. I had been fine exploring some of the best beaches I had ever seen, and even with the surfing. Scuba diving is a whole other matter. We soon hopped onto a boat called the "Teaser" with about a dozen other eager tourists. Our Captain Jorge Hilerio, who goes by the nickname "Cachi," motored us to a reef about a mile offshore that is situated in a series of islands.

The snorkelers hopped off the boat first and then Jorge and his deckhands began explaining how the diving equipment worked. As a first time scuba diver, this part had my mind racing. There is more to going diving than simply hopping off the boat with a tank full of air. There was a lengthy explanation of how to equalize your pressure as you go deeper, how to deal with water in your mask, and what to do if the air hose gets knocked out of your mouth. If you are not careful, something as simple as a smile can cause water to rush around the breather and give you a mouth full of saltwater.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

It was all a little overwhelming and I had to stop him and have him go through slowly it a second time. Kudos to him for his incredible patience. Because I didn't quite understand it all the first time. Cachi has clearly done this a thousand times before. He calmed me by ensuring me we would go over everything in the shallow, four-foot waters just off the stern before we did anything else. Still, my mind was racing a bit as I got ready to jump in. Rather than have us drop off the back of the boat like you see in the movies, they had us jump in without the vest and tank and put that on while still in the water.

Jorge then went through everything we had just learned on the boat individually in the water. We had to put everything he described to actual practice. This included removing and replacing the breathing apparatus underwater, which was easily the most terrifying aspect for me. I thought for sure I was going to breathe in a lung full of ocean water. Fortunately, the folks at Paradise Scuba are excellent instructors and the two exercises for this procedure they taught me worked exactly the way they said it would.

It is hard to put into words the feeling of going scuba diving. My brain processed the whole experience in a weird way. It was simultaneously one of the coolest things I've ever done, and the most terrifying. Keep in mind some of that was that fear of the ocean I have starting to seep back in. I also think my mind was just racing from remembering all the safety tips. However, looking back I now realize I was never in any real danger. These guys knew what they were doing, and they made sure I was not doing anything stupid the whole time. After roughly ten minutes underwater close to the boat, it was time to take things to a different level.

Jorge started heading towards deeper water, keeping one arm on Nicole the whole time. One of the other deckhands then led Lina and I close behind as we headed deeper and further away from the boat. I ended up leaving my GoPro on the boat because I was so concerned about simply staying safe on this dive. However, looking back, I was in great hands the whole time. They never let me wander away on my own and their expert guidance ensured I was safe and would not get lost.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

At one point Jorge swam down to the bottom and brought up an odd-looking, round sea creature roughly the same size as a softball. He placed it on my hand, and I could feel the spiny underside of it. I later learned it was a form of starfish. We spotted several schools of small fish as we worked our way deeper over a ledge. There is something surreal about spending that much time underwater. My mind processed everything as being familiar, yet alien at the same time. It is an experience that was hard to put into words because my brain was constantly racing from "that's amazing," to remembering the equalizing and safety procedures we had gone over earlier.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Nicole Olmeda

Eventually, our group circled all the way back to the boat. I'm glad they were leading us by arm because I got completely disoriented by the experience and had no idea where I was in relation to the boat. You are in good hands with the folks at Paradise Scuba.

Back at the boat, Nicole asked what I thought. "It was okay," I said. "What?!?" she exclaimed. Looking back, I realize now how stupid that response was. It really was an awesome experience. I just had not completely processed what I had just done mentally. In my paranoid mind, I think I was just relieved I had survived the experience. Now that I've had time to think about it, I realize just how incredible it was, and how fortunate I was to participate in it. Before I left, I had to ask Cachi just how far under the surface we had gone.

"Oh, about 35 feet," he responded casually.

Prior to this trip, the idea of going that deep underwater would have terrified the hell out of me. I had not even realized how far down we were. I thought it was half that at most. As one of the instructors mentioned to me as we went back to shore: "You just need to get over that fear of the unknown. Once you get down there and see it for yourself, that fear is gone." He was right.

That evening, as Nicole, Lina, and I enjoyed a nice meal at Moons Bar & Tapas (they make an excellent steak by the way), I learned that our adventure counts as a credit towards scuba certification. We got the needed paperwork signed by our captain and I am now seriously considering possibly pursuing this further. Who knows what adventures I could have here in Michigan with scuba skills? I did not expect to take something like this away from this trip and it felt like a whole new world may have opened to me as a result of this one experience.

La Parguera's Bioluminescent Bay

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Discover Puerto Rico

Our evening concluded by heading back to Paradise Scuba where we hopped on board the Teaser again for a visit to one of Puerto Rico's bioluminescent bays, also known to the locals as "bio bay." There are only about five of these rare ecosystems on Earth and three of them are in Puerto Rico. Basically, it is an ecosystem of organisms known as dinoflagellates that glow in the dark if they are disturbed. In only those five bays do these organisms live in numbers large enough to be noticeable to the naked eye.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

Captain Jorge first took our tour group to a small island offshore to wait for darkness. We got to enjoy a gorgeous sunset in the west while watching small tarpon feed on baitfish in the shallow waters nearby. Once it got dark enough, he motored us over to the bioluminescent bay. To preserve the night vision of everyone on board, the boat runs red lights so you can see what you are doing. Masks and snorkels were handed out and the group jumped into the dark waters of the bay under the blanket of darkness.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Discover Puerto Rico

The dinoflagellates only show off their brilliant blue and green colors when disturbed. This means when you tread water, you can clearly see them activated underwater. The intensity of the glowing varies depending on weather and water conditions. On some nights, you can clearly seeing the glowing from the deck of the boat. For this night, our captain recommended jumping in with a mask for the best view.

The best description I can give of what I saw though my mask is that it looks like a swarm of fireflies or sparks underwater every time you move your hands. It was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had in the water watching these tiny organisms flicker from my fingertips as I moved them in the water.

Adding to the mysterious beauty of the moment, when you look up and remove your snorkeling mask, the sky was a clear and a rich tapestry of stars were blazing high in the sky, their beauty enhanced by the fact there are no artificial lights around the bay. There are two options to explore this bio bay. We went the swimming route, but you can also kayak it if you do not like the idea of swimming at night. However, the experience of treading water and watching it glow is something I'm going to remember for a very long time.

There is a lot to see, even in a weekend trip.

Weekend Trip to Puerto Rico
Travis Smola

We ended that day by going to our second Puerto Rico Hotel, the beautiful Combate Beach Resort in Cabo Rojo. It is situated on Playa El Combate, which is part of the Boqueron National State Forest. It is a hot spot for tourists without feeling too overcrowded. The hotel has excellent access to the long, peaceful beach. I headed out early the following morning and got to enjoy a nice sunrise. Dark clouds formed far off in the distance because Tropical Storm Grace was on her way towards Puerto Rico. The night before Jorge had told me "Tomorrow, because of this storm, the ocean will be dead calm." The locals know their island and the weather, there was hardly a wave as I walked the beach watching beautiful sea birds and seeing hermit crabs scuttling along to their dens.

After breakfast, our group made our way back to San Juan where I caught an afternoon flight back to Chicago from SJU on Isla Verde. My plane was pelted with raindrops as the plane left the runway just ahead of Grace's arrival on the beautiful island. I had seen a good chunk of the island in just a three-day trip but was left wanting more from the whole experience. I would love to return some day and see some more features on the east side of the island like Luquillo Beach, Condado Beach, and El Yunque National Forest.

Everything I saw and did on this trip just made me want to come back and get a rental car to see more of what this gorgeous island paradise has to offer. Because some locations like Ponce I only got a glimpse of from the car. One thing was proven to me though. Do not let a limited schedule scare you away from adventure. You can pack a lot into a weekend trip to Puerto Rico, and you will make some memories that will last a lifetime.

For more information on how you can have your own adventure, or on Puerto Rico vacation packages, check out the Discover Puerto Rico website.

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For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels

NEXT: THE AXIS DEER AND HOW THEY'RE IMPACTING PARTS OF THE UNITED STATES

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Diving In: An Outdoorsman's Trip to Beautiful Puerto Rico