Given that I own a bike tour company, my summers are spent guiding cyclists – novices and the more seasoned – through my scenic hometown. I’m proud of the company I’ve created, and the ability to build memories of which visitors will reminisce for years to come. However, this means my personal cycling is more limited in the summer, and I tackle my biking adventures in the winter. I box my bike, fly someplace new for varying amounts of time, and attempt to cover vast distances and landscapes.
This past year, I decided to conquer Puerto Rico. Besides desiring to pedal the island for some time, as a Spanish-speaker, visiting all of the Latin American countries/territories is on my lifetime bucket list. Usually, I travel alone because I’m a rare gem who enjoys torture that most do not. Convincing someone to join is akin to persuading most to put their hand on a hot plate. This time though, I had another masochistic soul to accompany – my very first bike touring partner-in-crime, my friend, Paul. (I warned him about my joy in suffer-fests beforehand.)
Paul was finishing graduate school and had limited vacation time. While I enjoy solo-touring (and could have kept going on my own), having a friend along seemed more appealing than making a more extended trip. We thought it best to tackle a period of riding, and after, a few days for touristy pursuits. Without a doubt, go on a bioluminescence tour and hike El Yunque National Forest– so amazing!
Puerto Rico is not known for camping. It’s a densely populated island, arguably not “bike-friendly,” and nature areas are impenetrable tropical jungles. We opted for a Couchsurfing/Warm Showers adventure bringing our hammocks/sleeping bags as back-up (which we did need a couple of times).
I found “La Ruta Panorámica” (Panoramic Route) on MapMyRide. It’s a route that cuts through the middle of the island, through the mountainous region. I was overly-optimistic about my actual climbing ability, so we only accomplished part of this route, which totals some 30,000 feet of climbing. We did not achieve that nor the distance I thought we would. But the route we took, with all of it’s climbing, was still enough to satisfy my aching-for-punishment desire.
We cycled most of a loop around the island, as well as a climb into the mountains in 6 days. It was both beautiful and brutal – I loved it. I’ve attached a Ride With GPS route of roughly what we cycled. Neither Paul nor I have bike computers. I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that this is all correct, but I did my best to retrace our route via pictures and memory. For now, a list of recommendations if you plan on bikepacking Puerto Rico.
- Bring sunblock — lots of it. Be sure to have SPF chapstick. I learned this the hard way by waking up to a swollen sunburnt lip. Being right on the Equator, Puerto Rican sun is unforgiving. I would suggest cycling here in the winter. I couldn’t imagine biking in summer temps. Oh, and a hat – bring one of those.
- There are lots of stray dogs in Puerto Rico. Upon swinging through our second big city, Paul and I picked up some of those popper fireworks that you throw on the ground. We made sure they were accessible at all times. Puerto Rican dogs pop out from the jungle with little warning. The poppers worked to scare most dogs away, but Paul had to be more aggressive with one. We did not enjoy this, but we also wanted to avoid rabies shots and stitches.
- Puerto Rican roads (at least for Paul and I) make little rhyme or reason. You’ll think you are on one street and suddenly you are on a different one with little warning. We probably did at least 30 more miles than what is marked based on the number of times we got lost. If you have a bike computer and a route – use it.
- While I wouldn’t say Puerto Rico is “bike-friendly,” it’s also not the worst. Puerto Rico has lots of speed bumps, and sometimes, dips. The roads are unpredictable, for cyclists as well as motorists. As such, I found Puerto Ricans to be cautious drivers, the same way one should bike. You may encounter a dip that could launch you on a descent. We were also told by a motorist/cyclist who stopped to offer assistance when we were changing a flat that there were a couple of fatalities last year. The government had launched a TV campaign about cyclist rights and being cautious. We found most people to be pretty nice, but as with any place, there are always the select impatient few.
- Puerto Ricans are fantastic people. Many folks asked me if they had a lot of devastation still from the hurricane. We saw a few roads out, some abandoned/destroyed homes, but in reality, I have no idea what it was like before the storm. Thus, I’m not a good judge. What I can say is that given what they’ve been through, and the history of the US mainland’s treatment towards the territory, they have every reason not to be welcoming to mainlanders. That was the opposite of our experience. We were offered shelter in homes that were just repaired, with the family still moving in. We had wonderful discussions about Puerto Ricans who desire independence or to remain a territory. And of course, some of the injustices they deal with as a territory. Nonetheless, these folks bent over backward to give us a place to rest our heads, and we hope to return the favor one day.
Alas, our detailed Puerto Rico in 6 Days route:
Day 1: San Juan to Arecibo (approx. 75-80 miles)
Leaving San Juan was harry. City streets are difficult to navigate in San Juan, and there is lots of traffic. At one point, Paul and I were on what appeared to be a highway-ish road with entrance and exit ramps. We tried to ride the sidewalk, but it ended. We went to the opposite side where it also ended. I was trying to figure out how to accomplish riding this stretch. Suddenly, a cyclist flies by on the highway (see in video), and we all wave at one another. After, I said, “Welp, apparently that’s what we do.” So we hopped on. It may be intimidating for some, but motorists waited for us as we cruised in front of them at the end of entrance ramps. We realized this is the norm. However, quieter streets ahead were calling our names. As soon as you get to coastal roads, everything gets much less hectic. There are beautiful ocean views and a wide shoulder.
Day 2: Arecibo to La Parguera (Approx 110 miles)
According to Paul and myself, we did about 140 miles this day. I could very well be missing something on the route. We stopped to see the Túnel de Guajataca (in video), which was stunning. The descent into the picturesque town of Isabela makes me wonton to return to exlore it more. The scenery was killer, as was the riding. We covered a lot of ground but had seven punctures combined. Most of my flats were due to patches not holding. I don’t recommend pre-glued patches. Because of this, we got further behind and didn’t make it to our Couchsurfing host’s place before they went to bed. It was too late for hotels, and we wanted to crash. We scavenged the city for an adequate place to hang our hammocks, and there weren’t any concealed spots. Finally, Paul spotted some soccer field huts; kind of like dugouts for baseball teams. A roof would be over our head, and we could lay our bikes down out-of-sight while we snoozed. We slept on cement benches and had a few hours of shut-eye. It was a good thing we picked this hut because there was an early morning rainstorm, and we stayed dry. We grabbed breakfast in town and planned our next destination and route.
Day 3: La Parguera to Ponce (Approx. 40 miles)
With limited sleep, we decided to take it easy. It was a blistering hot day, and we were on roads with little shade. I felt like I was crawling. When we got to the next big city, we planned to get some better patches and tubes. On the way, we stopped to get some shade and drink water outside of Edgar’s home. He came out to greet us and chat about our trip. We talked for some time, and he gave us patches and vulcanizing glue, which alleviated worry about other flats. We made it to Ponce early and stopped at a cafe to grab dinner and find a place to lay our heads for the night. The next morning, I awoke to a swollen lip from sunburn. Again, make sure to bring SPF chapstick with you.
Day 4: Ponce to Aibonito (Approx. 40 miles)
We started our ascent into the mountains. I was excited about this stretch, passing through Juana Diaz and Coamo. Coamo has some fantastic graffiti art. We continued our never-ending ascent into Aibonito. As we started climbing, picturesque mountainside landscapes rewarded us for our efforts. Ahead of schedule, we stopped for at least an hour taking pictures. You couldn’t beat the views with random houses appearing at some high peaks. We imagined who lived in them and how much they might cost. Getting to Aibonito had never-ending climbing on twisting, narrow mountain roads. We were ready to finish our ascent but also enjoyed the scenery. Arriving before sunset, we dined at a pizza joint. We couldn’t find hosts in the area and were attempting to avoid paying for hotels until we had to. Sleuthing the city for a discrete spot, Paul discovered a little yard area behind a destroyed home. It had two trees the perfect distance to stretch a hammock and was secluded enough that folks wouldn’t see us. We had a not-so-good sleep, but we at least found a place to lay our heads.
Day 5: Aibonito to Lamboglia (Approx. 45 miles)
If I said that the road to Aibonito had a lot of climbing, I underestimated this part of the Ruta Panorámica. This was some climbing. As sleep-deprived as I was, my will to continue on that route was strong. I was convinced that this climb was going to provide epic scenery and mind-blowing descents. I’m happy the course didn’t disappoint. “I think we are almost near the top,” was a phrase I uttered about 100 times that day. I’m certain Paul wanted to kill me every time I said it. I was always wrong. *shrug* At one point, we arrived at a peak where you could see the ocean on one side of the island, turn around and also see it on the other. Yes, we had views! At the same time as our tour, an annual event in Puerto Rico, the Caminata Panorámica (Panoramic Walk), was taking place. It’s a yearly event were folks walk the entirety of the route from west to east, 284 kilometers. They tackle a section each weekend over February and March.
Passing by a mountain lake, we arrived at Patillas (where we hoped to stay) before dark. After eating, we searched for places to stay with no luck. Dark was closing in. We hopped back on our bikes, heading to the beach, hoping we would either find accommodations or could set up on the beach itself. Fortunately, owners of a restaurant had a friend down the road who was renting a room. We were able to sleep comfortably and enjoy a shower.
Day 6: Lamboglia to Juncos (Approx. 40 miles)
At long last, we had to come to a close on our journey. We only had a few days left, and other touristy pursuits remained. We were back to flatter ground along the coast, although there was some climbing out of Lamboglia. Indeed, over the last 100 miles, we had climbed about 16,000 ft. Although taxing, I found those mountain climbs were my favorite part. We experienced authentic Puerto Rican life you won’t find in a tourist area and had genuine interactions with Puerto Ricans who were amazing hosts. I’d still love to go back and climb all 30,000 ft of the Ruta Panorámica.
Below, enjoy the video that Paul put together of our trip. Thanks for being a great riding partner and friend, Paul. It made my experience much more rich.