Vieques, Puerto Rico: 5 Lessons for a Worry Free, Fun Vacation

by Brian on April 24, 2011 in Location Independence,Travel

The Caribbean holds undeniable appeal for dreams of living on a tropical island paradise. One of my goals in the next 3 to 5 years is to relocate to the tropics. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but as part of the process of figuring out where I might want to live I just took a week long trip to Vieques.

Vieques is an amazingly beautiful island of Puerto Rico known for its white sandy beaches and bio-luminescent bay. Also known as “Isla Nena” (“Little Girl Island”) and “Crab Island,” it’s popularity as a vacation destination has skyrocketed since the pullout of the US Navy in 2003. If you’re a US citizen you don’t even need a passport to go, all you need is your US driver’s license since Puerto Rico is a territory of the US.

Though I haven’t traveled abroad for a while, international travel is a passion of mine. I lived in Japan for two years, Korea for two years, and I’ve also been to China, Mexico, Germany, England, and Ireland.

Going overseas always brings up a number of anxieties. While I be able to speak the language? Will I be able to eat the food? Will I be ripped off and/or subjected to violence as an (obvious) foreigner?

5 Travel Lessons to Have a Worry Free and Fun Vacation:

1. English is all you need.

Whether Puerto Rico or any tourist destination of any significance you might go to, the taxi drivers, hotel service staff, restaurant operators, or random passerby on the street will known enough English to help you. Learning the language is not required.

Trying to learn the language might be fun, but even as a language lover who’s spent considerable time conquering Japanese and Korean I’ll just say straight out that trying to learn a foreign language for a short trip is a waste of time.

You can’t even hope to command a basic usage of the language from listening to a few tapes. Even if you try to speak the language, the frustrated locals will likely give up trying to understand you and speak broken English (which is much better than your version of their language) to you.

Though if you still feel compelled to learn some of the language you’ll generally get the most mileage out of the words for hello, bathroom, thank you, sorry, and how much.

2. Ask locals for the best places to go.

If you’re like me you plan your vacation at the last minute and don’t really figure out what you’re going to do until you get there. Even if you meticulously research and plan your vacation in advance, you often arrive to find out that the coolest places to visit weren’t listed or that some attractions weren’t all that they were cracked up to be.

I’ve often found some of the best suggestions I’ve gotten for restaurants or places to visit come from locals or hotel staff. Hotel staff in particular spend a lot of time speaking to their guests and have their finger on the pulse of where people enjoyed going the most and what restaurants are the best.

Even before you go on vacation, mention to people where you are going. Often you will randomly connect with someone who has been there and can tell you a lot about the destination. There’s no substitute for talking to someone who has actually been there.

I failed to heed my own advice until it was too late on this trip. After leaving Vieques and staying in San Juan I was talking about the trip with the hotel manager and he asked if I’d been to the bio-luminescent bay. While I still thoroughly enjoyed my time on Vieques and manage to cover most of the island (including many hours swimming at Red Beach), I kicked myself a little for missing the glow in the dark sea.

3. Be an early riser.

Yes, I groaned along with you after reading this. I hate getting up early. I’m a night owl and if I had it my way I’d sleep in until noon everyday.

That said, vacation is a different story. When the warm blue glow of the laptop/TV isn’t there to keep you awake and glued to the screen after dark you find yourself bored and with little to do since most if not all of the sights to see have closed by then.

You might think, “not a problem, I’ll just find the bar and drink myself silly until 3am.” That might have been fun on spring break trips in college, but it loses its appeal the older you get. I don’t particularly enjoy drinking, and I especially don’t want to waste valuable vacation time at a bar virtually indistinguishable from the ones back home.

Going to sleep early, and getting up early gives you hours of extra daylight time to see sights and explore your new surroundings.

One thing I loved about being in Puerto Rico was that it was warm outside even early in the morning. I started getting up uncharacteristically early at 7am to head to the beach. It was also a bit cooler than mid-day so I could spend a few hours frolicking in the ocean without getting fried (too badly) in the sun. Around 11am I’d leave the beach for lunch and some siesta time indoors to avoid the high heat of the middle of the day. I headed back out around 3pm to explore more of Vieques before the sun went down. After dark I started going to bed uncharacteristically early around 10pm.

4. Ask the price before going anywhere in a taxi.

Nothing is worse than getting to your destination and having a surprise bill for the cab fare that is more than the cash you have in your pocket and can’t be paid by credit card because the machine is “broken” (ie, turned off because the cabby wants to evade taxes and credit card charges by taking cash only).

In the United States we have the convenience of taxi’s being generally well regulated and metered. However, this is often not the case in other countries. Many independent cabs run unlicensed, and even the supposedly “regulated” and licensed cab companies may operate with outright dishonest practices.

It’s generally a good idea to ask locals (or airport help personnel, hotel service staff, etc.) how much cabs should cost to your various destinations.

Additionally, if the cab is not metered cab drivers tend to quote you a higher price at the end of a trip than if you ask at the beginning of a trip. For example, I also stayed a night in San Juan. My cab ride from the airport to the hotel was $12 and my cab ride from the hotel to the airport was $20. Traffic conditions and distance were the same and the only difference was whether I asked the price before or after I got in the cab.

This probably has less to do with a cabby being “out to get you” than the trip feels like it has been more effort and thus should cost more after they have already made the drive than before they have had to actually put in the work.

Despite your best efforts, you probably will get ripped off at some point. If not by a cab, then by a street vendor or someone trying to sell you something. Don’t worry about it too much. This tends to happen more often in third world areas where the extra $2-5 is no skin off your back, but has much larger perceived value to the locals.

5. Beware your inner cheapskate.

As the old saying goes, put all the clothes you plan on taking on vacation in one pile and all the money in another. Then pack half the clothes and twice the money. You will spend more money than you had originally intended.

No matter how many vacations you go on or how well you’ve estimated your budget, unexpected expenses will pop up and some things will cost more than you thought. Even when I am pretty close with my vacation budgeting I find that about half way through the trip my inner cheapskate comes out and I start to feel uneasy about how much money I am spending.

My inner cheapskate distinctly hit on the Wednesday of this Monday-Friday trip. I was eating dinner at the W Hotel in Vieques while enjoying a lovely view of the beach and I had the sudden rush of “oh my god I’m spending too much money.”

I think part of this stems from the fact that you are spending much more for basic things like food and transportation than you would be in normal everyday life. It’s almost as if your mind projects your spending out into the future and says “whoa, I can’t keep living like this or I’ll be broke and on the street in no time.”

Rest assured though that your elevated spending is only temporary and that you have planned for it. Continue to enjoy your vacation and spend the money to try that popular restaurant or see that extra attraction that you never realized that you always wanted to see. Odds are you wont be back again soon and if money really is a concern it’s worth just skipping a few nights out back home for the once in a lifetime memories on your vacation.

Though one general tip to cut down on vacation expenses is to cut out souvenirs. Souvenirs always seem great at the gift shop, but once you get them home they are just a pile of junk that takes up space. Spend money on experiences not on things.

You will find numerous other ways during your trip that you could have saved time or money. Don’t beat yourself up over them. Inefficiency use of time and money are an inevitable aspect of going somewhere you’ve never been before.

Bonus Lesson: Just Go

My trip to Vieques almost didn’t happen. It was going to cost a lot of money and it felt like it was going to be a headache to plan and do all the traveling necessary to get there. Fortunately, one of my friends kept encouraging me to go. Otherwise I might have just spent my week of vacation time sitting around doing nothing at my apartment in New York.

I feel much better for having taken the trip. Aside from being a total blast, it brings me one step closer to my goal of relocating to the tropics and it gave me a much needed change of pace from my life in New York City.

There will never be a “good” time to take off work, planning will always take effort, and the vacation will always be more than you want to spend. Find a way to make it happen anyway. Work will still be there when you get back, once you start planning enthusiasm will carry you forward, and if you aren’t spending your money on the experiences you want why are you making it in the first place.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

David April 25, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Nice post – sounds like a great time! Now all you need to do is visit Panama 😉

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Anne Marie December 31, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Thanks for the tips! We’re taking the plunge and have a trip planned to Vieques next month. We’ll be staying in Esperanza. We hope to manage without a car and do a lot of biking, hiking, kayaking. What do you think?

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Brian December 31, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Congrats, you will have a great time.

Hiking, biking, and kayaking your way around the south side of the island near Esperanza is certainly doable. If you plan to visit Isabel Segunda or some of the locations on the north side of the island you’re looking at 5-10 miles over very hilly terrain with cars coming around narrow blind curves to cross the middle of the island. I personally wouldn’t bike it for going across the middle of the island, but you might be more hardcore than me.

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