It was on my very first day at my new dream job in a Microbiology laboratory that my husband of almost ten years dropped a bombshell on me: he was not in love with me anymore and wanted to be alone.
My worst nightmare came true. I lost the love of my life and could not come to terms with how everything changed practically overnight. New job, new town, new home. I was having a hard time coping. It seemed all I was doing was working and surviving from day to day, and after many months I noticed I still wasn’t healing emotionally. In fact, it only felt like things were getting worse. I realized I had to do something about this; I needed a paradigm shift.
So, I did something crazy that I thought I’d never do; I rented a little Kia Rio and hit the road.
Traveling has always been my greatest passion, so I forced myself to take a vacation. But moving out and starting all over had put a huge dent in my budget, so I needed some place affordable to go. Thankfully I had been using my rewards Visa to pay bills and had accumulated hotel funds. After checking airfare prices I decided on Puerto Rico. The initial plan was to park myself at a resort and read a book on the beach. After some research I realized I’d be missing out on too much at a resort.
After checking airfare prices I decided on Puerto Rico.
So, I did something crazy that I thought I’d never do; I rented a little Kia Rio and hit the road. I had always relied on my husband to “take the wheel” and be my protector. Now all I had was myself and I wanted to prove I was enough.
Well, I will admit that the first day of driving in Puerto Rico was frightening. There is a critical shortage of blinker fluid on the island. It took me some time to figure out the signage. There are a million roads called Calle Marginal (a frontage/access road), which is incidentally the road I was looking for. I pulled over a couple times to have a panic attack—I was utterly lost. Suddenly I regretted forgoing the comfort of a resort; what the heck was I thinking taking a solo road trip?! With horror I began to imagine I’d be spending the night in this rental car in some obscure neighborhood in San Juan. In desperation I opened up my tablet hoping I could get my bearings with Google Maps but thought it’d be hopeless without WiFi—lo and behold, a miracle!—I had no idea that my tablet had GPS functionality. Thank goodness for technology!
After some twists and turns I was finally able to locate my hotel. I picked up some garlic shrimp with tostones (flattened, fried plantains) for dinner and slept for a good 14 hours.
The next day, the plan was to explore Old San Juan, but after my driving experience the day before, I thought it best to get out of the city where I might have hope for a leisurely drive. I planned on doing a clockwise loop around the entire island. I first visited El Yunque National Forest, where I drove up a narrow, winding, bumpy road, bathed in the cool green shadow of the trees and bamboo. I stopped to observe La Coca waterfalls, then climbed Yocahu Tower, taking in the breadth of the landscape from the sea to the mountains. I then had a traditional lunch of rice and beans with fried chicken.
After some leisurely strolling around Luquillo Beach and Playa Costa Azul, it was off to my bed and breakfast for the night at Ceiba Country Inn. Now this was my kind of place! It was in Eastern Puerto Rico up in the hills in the rain forest, removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, with nothing but the sounds of birds and coquí around me. I was delighted to meet the pets of the property who graced me with their company!
I settled in, then drove to a little town called Las Croabas and walked around the waterfront park for a while before having asopao de camarones (shrimp soup) with tostones and the quintessential piña colada at an open-air restaurant.
That night, back in my room, I had a very difficult time emotionally. I thought of how I usually had my husband to share these trips with. Seeing all the happy couples at the restaurant while I ate alone made me feel self-conscious. It frightened me that travel, my greatest passion, no longer filled me with joy the way it used to. If I no longer had that, what hope did I have? I began to cry—strange, because I had barely cried since my separation. As the tears died down, I listened to the sounds of the rain forest. I noticed that the song of the rain forest was not the same throughout the night. A particular frog that was chirruping would go silent—perhaps he found a mate and had no need to sing anymore. Perhaps he was eaten by a predator. Then a new frog would begin to sing. He would have a different song. This went on and on until I fell asleep contemplating how the song of the forest as a whole always seemed the same yet the individual components were constantly changing.
I woke up the next morning feeling a lot better. The B&B served banana bread—made with bananas grown right on the property!—and coffee. Today, my plan was to head out across the southern edge of the island to the western side.
I had heard many good things about the coffee in Puerto Rico, and being the coffee snob that I am, decided to seek out the best locally-grown coffee in all the land. My research led me to Torrefacción Mayor in Ponce, on the corner of Calles Mayor and Aurora. When I arrived, the door was locked. As I was about to leave, disheartened, the door unlatched and the most delightful woman welcomed me in. She introduced herself as Magda and enthusiastically told me about the coffee her family has grown for generations in Puerto Rico. She showed me the unroasted beans and even put me to work for a while separating them! It brought me back to my childhood when my mother would make me separate the frijoles. After she told me about all the different brands and roasts, I selected a few bags to purchase. I cannot think of a better experience or souvenir!
Find the world’s best coffee. Have a slice of homemade banana bread. Test your bravery by doing something you thought you couldn’t do.
I continued along my way but stopped first for lunch at a seaside restaurant. The view of the Caribbean was breathtaking. I feasted on fresh red snapper and (gasp!) tostones. Once again, I felt self-conscious eating by myself amongst all the happy couples. I felt downright pathetic. But wouldn’t it be even more pathetic to hide away and not do the things I want just because I had no one to do them with?
Next, along the way, I drove through the wilderness of Bosque Estatal de Guánica. Did you know Puerto Rico had cactuses? I didn’t. To go from rainforest to cactus on the same island in a couple hours just blew my mind.
I then made my way through farmland, with pineapple plantations on either side, nearly running over a huge iguana—the deer of Puerto Rico?—and checked into my room in Boquerón. I made a quick excursion to Cabo Rojo at the very southwest corner of the island, hiked up to Los Morrillos Lighthouse and savored the awe-inspiring views of the red cliffs jutting out to sea, and feasted my eyes on the clear turquoise waters of La Playuela, a sort of hidden beach in an inlet.
The next day, I did what I was afraid to do before and drove into Old San Juan. Despite spending the morning in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the drive was well worth it. The narrow roads and colonial style buildings with their wrought iron balconies was reminiscent of the French Quarter of New Orleans. You could really tell that the two places had been colonized by the same folks at the same time. The wind-swept Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th-century Spanish fortress than once guarded the city, was more awe-inspiring than I imagined it would be. Dozens of children frolicked in the expansive lawn in front of it, flying their kites while the waves of the sea crashed loudly on the promontory.
Then, the highlight of my day: I stopped in for lunch at a café called Cuatro Sombras. There, I tasted the most wonderful coffee—possibly the best coffee I have had in my life. I had to know what it was. As it turns out, they, too, were a producer of locally-grown single-origin Puerto Rican coffee. An 8-oz bag of their beans set me back a whopping $16, so I didn’t really get to stock up, but as with everything in life, something must be rare and precious to remain a treat!
My overall thoughts: Barring any navigational shortcomings you may have, Puerto Rico is a wonderful place to get your feet wet if you are wanting to do some solo female road tripping. The people of Puerto Rico are kind, helpful, and professional. Most everyone I met spoke English but it was nice to practice my Spanish a bit.
Fill your life with little moments that bring out a kernel of joy or awe.
And for people like myself who are struggling, I would have this advice to give. I know it sounds cliché, but it is all about the little moments. Fill your life with little moments that bring out a kernel of joy or awe. Find the world’s best coffee. Have a slice of homemade banana bread. Test your bravery by doing something you thought you couldn’t do. Here is the catch: You need to make these moments happen, because no one else will hand them to you. Forcing myself to do these things will be a constant battle for me, and I am nowhere near being healed; some days it is a battle to even get out of bed. But bed accomplishes nothing and life passes by in the blink of an eye. Even the big moments come and go before you know it. So promise me, and I promise myself, to live and not merely survive.