Puerto Rico Dreaming—and Driving

Driving on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico

The idea of an island vacation easily captures the imagination of anyone shoveling snow or dodging rain on a cold North American morning. Many travelers bolt to Florida or Southern California to dry out and warm their bones. Another attractive option glitters in the Caribbean, ringed by miles of turquoise beaches, just waiting to be explored. In recent years the beautiful island of Puerto Rico has become the destination of choice for many snowbirds. Although there are hundreds of quiet remote beaches, many accessible only by Jeep, this small territory of the United States still has the trappings of civilization, including Costco, Marshalls and Starbucks. A visit to Puerto Rico requires no visa and the island uses the US dollar. The roadway laws are basically the same as in the United States, albeit with Spanish signage. But what about driving in Puerto Rico? Here are several tips to help you navigate the “Island of Enchantment.”

Bumpy Roads: You may wish to consider renting a vehicle that sits high off the roadway, such as an SUV. There are many potholes and unmarked speed bumps. Puerto Ricans wryly refer to these as “muertos” (dead persons) whereas Dominicans describe them as “policia acostado” (sleeping policemen). A four-wheel-drive vehicle will also help you to reach certain hidden beaches, such as the Jungle Beach (Playa La Jungla), near the town of Guanica.

Hit the Beach: Throw on your shorts and flip-flops. Grab a towel. Toss a beach chair in the trunk and a cold drink, and head out for an adventurous day of beach “sampling.” Don’t limit yourself to one spot, since you can easily visit a half dozen or more secluded paradises in a single day. Keep in mind that most beaches in Puerto Rico do not have paved parking, restroom facilities, showers or lifeguards, so plan to do a little “roughing it.” Theft can be a bit of a problem, so try to park where you can see your car and do not leave valuables visible in your vehicle.

Fun with Numbers: Like most Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico shifted between colonial powers. The result can either be called an identity crisis or cultural diversity, depending on your perspective. This is evident in the road signage, where the speed limit signs are in miles-per-hour (mph) but the little mileage markers on the shoulders show the distance in kilometers. Gasoline is sold by the liter.

Life in the Fast Lane—Not: The “fast lane” does not exist, so lower your expectations when it comes to hurrying anywhere. It is very common for drivers to drive slowly in the left lane or to speed in the right lane. Be prepared to shift lanes often and to have other drivers slide into your lane—usually at close quarters and without signaling.

Red Light Racers: It is extremely dangerous in Puerto Rico to lurch forward as soon as the traffic light turns green. The locals generally consider it acceptable for two or three drivers to travel through an intersection after the light has turned red. Drive defensively—pause and scan carefully for speeding cross-traffic. Also, be prepared for drivers to turn left from the right lane or right from the left lane, jumping the light just ahead of other vehicles.

Up All Night for Good Fun: Between midnight and 5 a.m., red traffic lights can be treated as you would a stop sign. You still need to stop, but you can proceed if there is no cross traffic. Of course, late-night drivers tend to be tired and in a hurry, so expect to see a lot of "rolling" stops.

Blue Light Specials: Don’t panic! The police routinely drive around with blue lights flashing. You can ignore them unless they actually turn on a siren to pull you over.



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