Despite a less than stellar first impression, Puerto Rico– specifically Rincon– worked its magic on me. We arrived into San Juan on a red eye from Boston, and instead of watching the sunrise over the ocean as I’d anticipated, we watched it rise over a Burger King on Highway 22. Somehow, I guess I’d glossed over the fact that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and had imagined some place different– some place more exotic, more pristine, more tropical.
Any initial misgivings, however, evaporated as we neared the western coast of the island en route to Rincon. All of a sudden, the fast food restaurants gave way to thick rainforest, and the signs on the road pointed toward surf breaks and coastal towns instead of gas stations and malls. The outlook continued to improve as we drove into Rincon, a little surf town with a decidedly laid back vibe. Here was the paradise I had envisioned. By the time we had dropped our bags and walked over to Carta Buena for an organic papaya smoothie, my initial skepticism had turned to complete optimism.
Snorkeling at Steps Beach, Rincon
Our first day in Rincon, we walked down to Steps Beach, known locally as the best spot for snorkeling. Lined with palm trees, the beach offered lots of shade, crystal clear water, and numerous reefs and tidal pools for the boys to explore. Part of the Tres Palmas Marine Preserve, there are no motor boats or fishermen at Steps Beach, making an exceptionally peaceful spot to view the underwater wildlife. My brilliant husband picked up two locally made hammocks and strung them up under the palm trees so we could recover from the red eye. Bliss! Steps beach is beautiful in a rugged, uncrowded way– my favorite– and there is a food truck nearby that sells “coco frio,” fresh young coconuts chilled and served with a straw.
Surfing in Rincon
As any guide book will tell you, Rincon is a surfing town and, since the conditions looked just about perfect, we didn’t waste any time hooking up with Rincon Surf School the next morning and getting in the water. The boys were more inclined to hang out with their uncle back at the house and sleep in, so my husband and I booked a guide for dawn patrol. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of paddling out into the warm water as the sun is rising after a long, freezing cold winter in Vermont. It was at that moment, about 24 hours after we had arrived, that I began to fall in love.
It helped that the waves were glassy, 4 foot peelers and that our phenomenal guide, Ollie, brought me a nice big board. If I was happy to be out there, my husband was delirious with unbridled joy. Seriously, you’ve never seen anyone so happy. Wave after beautiful wave, we spent the morning shedding off the Vermont winter and soaking up some tropical Vitamin D. The icing on the cake at Antonio’s is Casa Islena, which has a beach front restaurant that serves a killer breakfast burrito. Early risers in a house full of family that rolled out of bed for coffee at 10, we booked Ollie for the next two mornings before our bathing suits were dry.
Our routine at Antonio’s was interrupted by a big swell that arrived mid-way through our vacation, bringing with it 12 to 14 foot waves that were awesome to watch, but way to big for our skill level. As the swell died down, however, we were able to get a surf session in at Dogman’s, where the reward for a much longer paddle out was a much longer ride back in. The waves were still pretty big the day we were at Dogman’s, but Ollie was fantastic helping us find the right spot and avoid the bigger sets. I’m not going to lie, I was pretty scared out there and I took a nice beating trying to paddle back out as a set came in. But catching a couple of those long rights was worth every butterfly.
Surfing with kids in Rincon
Toward the end of our week in Rincon, the boys finally caught on that they were missing the fun, so we booked a lesson for them with Ollie back at Antonio’s. The conditions were perfect for getting them out into their first green waves. Kids make surfing look so effortless! Within minutes, they were catching waves left and right, so Ollie introduced a few “tricks.” He had their number dialed in.
One word of caution about surfing in Rincon– there are very specific entry and exit points at the breaks and the rip current is pretty strong in some areas. Unless you are an experienced surfer, I highly recommend a guide who can help you safely navigate the breaks, especially with kids! Rincon Surf School is the place to start, and if Ollie is available, he was awesome. My 9 year old wrote an essay for school this week about meeting Ollie– “the best part of his vacation.” So, there you have it.
Gozlandia Waterfall Rope Swing
Our trip out to the waterfall in San Sebastion turned out to be a highlight of the week. We debated going at all– there is nothing worse in my book than wasting a half a day at a tourist trap, but Gozlandia really was special. There are two pools, an upper and a lower, both of which are pretty assessable. The trail to the lower pool is wet and a bit slippery, but short. To get to the upper pool, and the rope swing, there is actually a paved path through the jungle. The boys were up the path and swinging off the rope within minutes, and the rest of us thoroughly enjoyed swimming in the cool, clear water under the falls. One piece of advice, go early in the day to avoid crowds. As we were leaving, there were two separate parties of at least a dozen each arriving with coolers to settle in for the afternoon. Arriving to that kind of crowd would have been a totally different experience.
Boogie Boarding at Sandy Beach, Rincon
When we weren’t surfing at Antonio’s or snorkeling at Steps, we were at Sandy Beach. Aptly named, Sandy Beach is one of the only beaches with a (mostly) clear, sandy bottom (the others have reefs close to shore), so it’s great for playing in the waves and boogie boarding. Be aware of a pretty strong undertow at Sandy. In addition to a beautiful beach and fun waves, Sandy Beach has a fantastic restaurant called Tamboo that we frequented numerous times during the week. The food was excellent– fresh fish, excellent mojitos, and chicken fingers that met with the boys’ discriminating palates.
Boat Trip to Desecheo Island
Our highly anticipated boat trip to Desecheo Island was cancelled due to projected thunderstorms, so I don’t have a first hand report, but if you’re heading to Rincon and love to snorkel (or dive!), it’s worth looking into. The island itself is a wildlife refuge and because there is no surface water on the island, the surrounding ocean water is super clear. Desecheo is surrounded by a healthy reef that TripAdvisor reviewers raved about. Oh well, next time.
Where to eat in Rincon
- La Cambija – Located right in the town of Rincon, La Cambija was everyone’s favorite meal of the trip. It’s casual, picnic table atmosphere, but the food is fantastic. Best fish tacos I’ve had in a long time, and the kids loved the skewers. After dinner, we walked over to Tip Top Ice Cream (the only game in town) for a cone.
- Shipwreck Bar & Grill – The casual, family atmosphere, huge salads, fresh fish, and wide variety on the menu kept us coming back to Shipwreck. Plus, it was walking distance from our house in Tres Palmas, which is always a bonus.
- Carta Buena – There are a lot of food trucks around Rincon, and Carta Buena was my favorite. I think we went there every single day– for coffee and a muffin in the morning and smoothies in the afternoon. Their food truck is on a big lot, where the Carta Buena folks grow their own fruits and veggies, and there’s a lovely picnic table in the shade.
- Tamboo – As I mentioned earlier, Tamboo is right on Sandy Beach. The rooftop deck is a lovely place for a cold drink and appetizers at sunset, and we had lunch there on at least three occasions. The ceviche changed daily, but was always delicious, and the boys devoured their Tamboo wings.
- Casa Islena – The breakfast burrito at Casa Islena after a dawn patrol session is perfection. That is all I have to say.
- Francisco’s Caribbean Local Cuisine – We had an excellent celebratory birthday dinner at Francisco’s one evening. I had the catch of the day with avocado and papaya salsa (so good!). They also serve Mofongo, which is a local specialty that was met with rave reviews.
- The English Rose – Ollie kept raving to us about the breakfast at The English Rose, but reservations are suggested and we just couldn’t get that organized…until the last day in Rincon. We made a reservation to have a farewell breakfast en route back to San Juan and, no surprise, Ollie was spot on. Set high up on the hill, the cool breeze was heavenly and the food was among the best we had all week. Fresh squeezed juices, homemade papaya ice tea, heuvos rancheros, eggs benedict, fresh fruit…make your reservation and make it happen.
By the end of the week, Rincon had worked its magic on me. Near perfect temperatures (both air and water), gorgeous beaches, great food, a laid back yet lively local vibe, and excellent surfing is a winning combination in my book. Add to that, a short, direct flight from Boston and reasonable prices (we got a flat tire fixed for $3), and Rincon is on the short list for a return visit for sure.
One thing I’d do differently would be to fly into Aguadilla instead of San Juan. Unless you plan to spend time in Old San Juan, Aguadilla is much closer to Rincon and might offer a different (and more accurate) first impression.