Puerto Rico’s gems are littered throughout the island; seek them out beyond San Juan, and you won’t be disappointed.
We rented a car on our third day and drove west, shaking off the disorganised traffic of the capitol for the idyllic tranquility of the Caribbean Sea. It is an easy two-ish hour drive to Guanica, just past Ponce, which is Puerto Rico’s second largest city. It’s a scenic route: city gives way to jungle-covered mountains, lush and green in the morning sun. On the other side of these rolling hills, however, expect a completely different landscape, one of dry, desert-like conditions with cacti and similarly hardy plants. In this case, the grass (or forest?) truly is greener on the other side. This part of the west is less humid, but noticeably hotter, making air conditioning a necessity for sweaty humans like me.
Guanica’s dry forest is an all-encompassing region rich with vegetation and animal life unique to the area, as well as trails you can hike if you feel like braving the heat (I did not). Instead, our GPS was set to Mary Lee’s By the Sea, a bed-and-breakfast/outfitter we planned to rent kayaks from for an excursion on the water. The road to get there followed the coast along the Caribbean Sea, vivid turquoise blue under the sun, with plenty of pull-off points for photo opportunities. This area bore notable damage from Hurricane Maria; a once-popular beach area close to the Copamarina Resort was buried under detritus, and even some of the palm trees were shrunken or disfigured. Nonetheless, the roadside was flanked with flowering bushes bearing blooms in electric hues of pink and orange, and businesses were doing the best they could given the circumstances.
We stopped along the roadside at San Jacinto Restaurante, a cafetin situated on a calm lagoon within sight of Gilligan’s Island. It was not so much a restaurant as it was an outdoor snack bar, with picnic tables and umbrellas alongside a dock for small boats. As some of the reviews attest to, mosquito repellent is an absolute necessity unless you want to be eaten alive. While it seems some people had an issue with bad service, I didn’t feel we had a particularly negative experience. (The reviews about the washrooms are right, though; bring hand sanitiser and touch only what you need to. I find this is good advice generally.) Their carne guisado, a beef stew, is wholesome and hearty, whilst their seafood “salad”, more like a ceviche, is full of meaty octopus, conch, and tender fish. If you order one thing, let it be their pina colada. To use the lingo the kids these days use, it is the most extra beverage you will ever encounter, topped with whipped cream, sprinkles, an umbrella, a maraschino cherry, and a paper pineapple. And it is delicious.
There is a ferry from the restaurant that will take you to Gilligan’s Island, but my favourite way to get there is by kayak. It is a short, brisk paddle over to the island, and it affords you the luxury of exploring the place on your own time, without being constrained by the ferry schedule. As mentioned, Mary Lee’s By the Sea is as good a place as any to find the kayaks. For $40, we rented a two person kayak for the whole day. After a brief review of safety and the best approach to the island, we were off.
The distance looks shorter than it is, but all told the journey only takes about twenty minutes. We went on a particularly windy day, we had a full workout with our arms. I also had the unfortunate luck of being seated in the front, so I faced the full brunt of the waves (also: don’t bring anything you don’t want to get wet). Dramatic though this may sound, Gilligan’s Island is protected from the open sea by a large sandbar, meaning we were never truly at risk. All the same, we were happy to pull in at the island and take off our wet clothes, leaving only our bathing suits on, and take in the scene.
Gilligan’s Island is not so much an island as it is a collection of densely-packed mangrove forests punctuating stretches of sandy beach. It is so much fun to kayak through these clusters of trees, paddling through the channels that snake their way between groves with leafy branches interlacing overhead. It is just as pleasant to tuck in with your kayak along the sandy shore and disembark for some swimming or sunbathing. We did just that, finding a quiet part of the island where we felt safe leaving our bags to explore. On a nice day, the beaches are dotted with groups of people, and there are picnic tables and rubbish bins, as well as grills, for those who have the foresight to bring food. There is also a long dock for the ferry pick up, which doubles as a nice place to put your beach chairs if sand isn’t your thing.
The most wonderful thing about Gilligan’s Island must be its water. Sheltered from the ocean, it is so translucent that even at a depth of four or five feet, you can see all the way to the very bottom. I loved watching the schools of vibrant fish milling about, as well as keeping an eye out for live conch and starfish. I imagine it must be a snorkelers dream, and I would love to do that next time.
I would definitely recommend bringing water shoes if you’re planning on doing any wading or swimming. We discovered the hard way that the white sandy floor was covered in broken-off pieces of coral and seashells, some of which were quite sharp. They are tolerable but unpleasant to walk on, at best.
Gilligan’s Island feels like your own little piece of paradise, secluded and peaceful, and should be a stop for anyone passing through Guanica!
*Disclaimer: I know these pictures are a little rough. I had my phone in a waterproof case that got progressively slimier with sun cream as the day went on. Editing can only salvage so much.