What I Know Now About Living in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is one of the biggest islands in the Caribbean and features a lush landscape with beaches, waterfalls, tropical rainforests, and mountains. PR is well-known for its Spanish heritage, rich history, reggaeton music, and buena gente (“good people”).

Island With an American Twist

Puerto Rico — also known as la Isla de Encanto (“the Island of Charm”) — is a primarily Spanish-speaking island. It’s a U.S. territory, and you can see American influence everywhere on the island.

Puerto Ricans hold U.S. passports, shop at American chains, and pay with American dollars. They don’t have the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections, but they have their own governor and flag, but a large percentage of the population doesn’t speak English. Even though many people on the island identify solely as Puerto Rican,  and some Americans may not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the island and the mainland still benefit from each other. One benefit is the ease of travel between the two destinations; mainlanders make up a large percentage of tourism to the island.

Former Spanish Colony Without Many Europeans

For many Europeans, Puerto Rico remains an undiscovered gem. A lack of direct flights between PR and Europe limits the number of visitors. If it weren’t for cruise ships that call on PR’s ports, European tourism would be rarer. Holiday offers from travel agents in Europe are still largely dominated by hassle-free “all-inclusive” resort holidays to other Caribbean destinations, including the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Jamaica.

Prior to arriving here, I also had very limited knowledge of Puerto Rico and I was surprised to discover that Puerto Rico is very different from the rest of the Caribbean. I quickly realized that the typical European vacation consisting of a week at an all-inclusive resort is just not a thing here. Instead, a vibrant, diverse, and unique culture is waiting to be discovered.

Living the Caribbean Dream

The home of the hit song “Despacito” became my home in late 2019. After living in rainy England for 13 years, I jumped at the opportunity to live on a sun-kissed island. My only exposure to the island before moving there was the song “Puerto Rico” by Vaya Con Dios. But the promise of sunny weather, a Latin atmosphere, and the inviting ocean were enough for me to leave Europe.

I arrived at the San Juan airport with a backpack and a strong desire to live the Caribbean dream.

A Friendly, Lively Local Culture

The people of Puerto Rico are one of its greatest treasures. They’re always smiling, friendly, and helpful. Don’t be surprised if strangers greet you while you’re walking down the street (buena!) or eating at a restaurant (buen provecho!). They make you feel like family, not just a visitor, and I felt very welcomed by the island’s residents from my first day. I found it very easy to integrate socially into PR. I’ve always considered myself an extrovert, but I’ve met my match with many locals here. We Europeans could learn a thing or two about Puerto Ricans! Their positive approach to life is an inspiration, and around every corner, you will find celebrations like family picnics and chinchorreo (“party buses”). It’s what makes this island such a special place!

Puerto Rico has a very rich and unique culture that is illustrated by its cuisine (local favorites include mofongo and pasteles), music (Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny), and street art. Even after two and a half years of living here, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. There is so much more to the island than palm-lined beaches (but if that’s your thing, try Luquillo beach for chilling and Mar Chiquita beach for cool drone shots), including El Morro of Old San Juan (pro tip: park in Doña Fela and walk everywhere in Old San Juan).

A Slower Pace of Life

In Poland and the United Kingdom, I was accustomed to prioritizing speed and efficiency when dealing with daily errands. But here, those things are less important. Locals are much more focused on building relationships and connecting with people. Lines at medical clinics, banks, and government offices can be long and might irritate new arrivals who are used to living their life a bit faster. Even though it can be frustrating, those who are overworked, overscheduled, and overstimulated may find that the laid-back life in Puerto Rico is just what they need. World events over the last couple of years have caused many of us to reexamine our lives and slow down a bit, but Puerto Ricans were already way ahead of the rest of us.

The Caribbean From the Postcards

The Caribbean Sea, palm trees, and pristine beaches are a huge part of Puerto Rico’s landscape. But the natural beauty of the island can also be found inland. PR is packed with majestic waterfalls, beautiful rainforests, scenic mountains, and refreshing rivers. La Isla de Encanto has fascinating flora and fauna, and it’s a true paradise for nature lovers. I have explored some great hiking trails, seen very unique flowers, and tasted exotic fruits I had never heard of. Living here has taught me that there’s so much more to Puerto Rico than what you typically see on postcards. (Though I must admit it took this city girl some time to get used to seeing chickens at gas stations, random pigs sunbathing on the beach, and iguanas casually crossing the road.)

Summer Weather All Year Round

Many dream of living where the weather is always sunny and warm — myself included. I liked experiencing four seasons, but swapping long Polish winters and English rain for year-round sunshine was an easy decision. Puerto Ricans enjoy warm, sunny, and humid days most of the year, with a rainy season between May and October. Rainfall is frequent (especially near El Yunque National Forest) but mercifully short. And as much as I hated rain in the U.K., living in a hot, humid climate has made me appreciate it more.

Perennial sunshine makes all types of outdoor activities more appealing, but the tropical climate also requires some adaptation. For example, I learned to arrive early to yoga class so that I could secure the coolest spot in the room. I never leave the house without sunglasses, a hat, and SPF protection. And I’ve gone from being ambivalent about AC to considering it a necessity.

Celebrating my first warm Christmas felt very strange. Artificial Christmas trees, no town square Christmas markets, and Santa wearing a tank top were all odd but delightful surprises. I loved immersing myself in the local Christmas culture — and enjoying the holidays while wearing flip flops wasn’t too bad either!

Hurricanes, Power Outages, and Earthquakes

My new life in Puerto Rico hasn’t been without unpleasantness. Within two months of living here, a major 6.4 earthquake woke me up in the middle of the night. While the earth was shaking, my husband slept without even stirring. I was petrified and shocked.

PR is also prone to seasonal hurricanes. Most hurricane seasons pass without incident, but Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. Locals take hurricane preparation very seriously and regularly stock emergency food, water, and medicine whenever a storm is approaching the island. I’ve learned to regularly follow all updates on earthquakes and hurricanes.

The island has also underinvested in its infrastructure. Its potholes are legendary and are just about everywhere, so drive cautiously. Public transportation is limited so prepare to drive or use a rideshare service. PR’s roads are also largely not pedestrian-friendly, and sidewalks are not well maintained if they are there at all. I am frequently the only pedestrian on the road (think suburbs of Los Angeles or Texas).

Lastly, power interruptions happen with some regularity. I didn’t know what generators were until I got to PR. But without one, your groceries may rot in the fridge, and you won’t be able to prepare meals, so it’s a necessity (and the bigger, the better).

“I like creating beauty out of scary things.” – Grimes

Moving to another country is challenging, and moving to another continent can be a shock to your system. Moving from an English-speaking country with a population of 66 million to a Spanish-speaking island with 3 million inhabitants is challenging, culture shocking, and scary. But I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

Moving to Tenerife: A Paradoxical Paradise

Amanda Whitten Moving Abroad

I was out on a tourist pirate ship dolphin-tour one midwinter afternoon in 2016, and the water was just the deepest sapphire blue. The waves crashed about like small avalanches of pearls. Although I didn’t see any dolphins that day, I still had the ultimate blast as I flew from the boat via rope and into the open sea, as carefree as I had ever been. That day I told my sister half-jokingly that I wanted to try moving to Tenerife. 

The day that I truly fell in love with Tenerife, though, I was standing on the black sandy beach, Playa Jardín, with the Atlantic water lapping at my calves and the weather warm and comforting when Mt. Teide caught my eye. It was capped in snow. My first year in Madrid was one of the most stressful of my life, but that memory stayed with me, helping to center me in times of strife. 

Moving to Tenerife and Discovering What Living in Paradise Really Means

“Imagine living here” is something that we all say when, or if, we find ourselves fortunate enough to holiday in an extraordinary place. We rarely get to make it a reality, however. Moving to Tenerife seems like a crazy, impulsive, reckless thing to do even to this day, and yet here I am. With the two suitcases I packed, one backpack, and a half-baked plan, I got on a plane. The original idea was to get assigned as a teaching assistant on the islands, but it didn’t work out. I wasn’t deterred. 

Living on the island is definitely a little different from vacationing here. During my initial nine-day stay, I traversed nearly the entire perimeter. I’ve been here now since September 2020, and I’ve barely left Puerto de la Cruz — the town I now call home. Part of it is due to the pandemic, yes, but it also comes down to my personality. I’m adventurous in short bursts, but otherwise, I’m a homebody. That said, I’d like to share with you a few things about living here in this paradoxical paradise.

The Cons and a Few Small Heads-Ups about Renting an Apartment Here

  1. If you do move here, and you don’t have a Spanish-based income, regardless of your savings, people will hesitate to rent to you. I make pretty stable money from VIPkid and Cambly, but that didn’t really matter to prospective landlords. 
  2. If you want to rent an apartment alone without a partner, you will have a hard time. They will fear losing money should something happen to your income. In this way, I was, and am, lucky to have my boyfriend. They also prefer to rent to older retired folk with a pension.
  3. The weather in Puerto is finicky. It’s definitely warmer than in Madrid, but it often changes from hour to hour, if not even faster. It’s best to dress in layers because it could be absolutely cloudy one minute, and a bright, clear, sunny day the next. 
  4. Everything is uphill and steep. Somehow, I conveniently forgot about this or didn’t realize it my first time around. Prepare to sweat.

A Few Good Places to Eat

  1. Pizzas Magic Corner — You know those places that look slightly off the beaten path, a bit like a dive bar, but they always have the best, yet cheapest food? That’s how I would describe this place. Forget the fancy-schmancy pizzas from the Italian eateries. This joint’s pepperoni and mushroom pizzas are out of this world. And if you don’t like mushrooms, I only have one thing to say to you: How dare you?!?! (They have other options, of course).
  2. La Croquet Deli-Café — This place is in the center of it all. Believe the hype you’ll see in the reviews. Their gorgeous desserts and elegant coffees are 100x better than Starbucks. And this comes from a loyal Starbucks fan. If you aren’t an SB fan, and you’re maybe not all that impressed, consider this: The hot fudge brownie with a scoop of coconut ice cream will infuse your senses and skyrocket you to heaven. They have other crazier options, but that is now my go-to favorite. 
  3. Any place on Calle de la Verdad, translated to “Street of Truth.” This little side street is easily missed if you blink for too long. Should you find it, however, you will notice that it is generously decked out in all kinds of plants, giving it a really nice, quiet atmosphere. You’ll love sipping a glass of Vermouth here at any one of the little terrace restaurants while escaping the heat of the day in a veritable street garden. 

Some Historical Legends

Tenerife and the rest of the Canary Islands are so much more than popular holiday destinations. They are a place with their own rich history, culture, and even myths. For example:

  1. Legend has it that the islands originated from the mountain tops of the lost city of Atlantis
  2. Guayota was/is an evil entity said to have made his home in the bowels of Mt. Teide. It’s said that Achamán, all-powerful god of the Guanches, the pre-Spanish Berber-descending inhabitants of Tenerife, fought Guayota and this explains why Teide has been less active. 
  3. Guacimara, a Guanche Princess of Anaga and an amazing warrioress, fought off the Spanish invaders, and at the last moment, rather than being taken hostage, threw herself off a cliff, and became a mermaid who lives even until this day.
Mount Teide, Tenerife
Teide, Spain’s tallest mountain, does a mean impression of Mount Fuji

A Trio of Random Things

  1. There is a butterfly sanctuary and it’s delightful. It’s not in Puerto, so you’ll need to head towards Icod de Los Vinos. It’s a village a bit to the south and it’s super nice in its own right. You can also see the 1,000-year-old “Dragon” tree while you’re there. 
  2. Something you might not notice if you’re merely vacationing here is that there are a lot — and I mean a lot — of cats here. I think I’ve counted at least five black neighborhood cats in particular. The locals feed them and they are just the sweetest things. I already have two “friends” who sometimes wait for me on my evening walks, and they compete for my attention. Additionally, a lot of people not wanting to go through the hassle of moving with their pets abandon a lot of them on the islands. If we end up staying here permanently, I think adopting one would be a lovely thing to do. If you would like to know more about rehoming your pet on the island, check out the Canary Island Pet Re-homing Service group on Facebook. The group has dedicated itself to helping out strays from all over the Canary Islands. 
  3. Islands do Christmas right. Usually, by the end of the holiday, I’m so over it. I never wanted it to end after moving to Tenerife. There were lights up everywhere and they had lovely holiday music blasting in the streets. It was pretty cool, to say the least. 
Inspired by moving to Tenerife, Amanda painted some flowers on a trellis
The Canary Islands are as pretty as an Amanda Whitten picture

Only time will tell what happens after moving to Tenerife. This is one of the first occasions I’ve ever felt so safe and secure in my living situation. I find it so comforting to simply exist in a place filled with so much beauty. I find ample opportunities from which to draw my artistic inspiration. There are so many gorgeous flowers on the walls, in the ravines, and on the wooden trellises that populate the streets everywhere. The people are very friendly. It’s enough to make even the most unpoetic person (like myself) desire to compose something. Speaking of which….**Ahem**

Haha just kidding. I wouldn’t subject you to all that.

Thanks for reading…

Squirrel Girl

Bali, Indonesia: On an Island, Under the Sun

Taylor SimpsonWe set off traveling with a desire to share in the human experience. We wanted to discover new places, taste new cuisine, and connect with new people; purposefully making ourselves uncomfortable and pushing our limits. Ultimately, we traveled to meet ourselves in our truest form. The familiar adage ‘travel far enough you meet yourself’ will always remind me of my time on an island, under the sun in Bali, Indonesia

My husband owns an online business. This has allowed us to travel extensively over the years. This fits perfectly with my dreams of being a travel writer and photographer. We decided there was no time like the present to traipse through southeast Asia. It was then that we packed up our life in sunny California. Our goal was to cut our living expenses in half so that we might live a freer, more fulfilling life. 

Breaking Free from the Grind

With nothing but fifteen pounds on our backs and a sense of adventure, my husband and I set off to new horizons. We hoped to escape the rat race of America, pay off our student debt, and to embrace a quieting of the mind and soul. We flew to Hong Kong and spent a month in northern Vietnam. Additionally, we traveled south through Singapore before we finally made it to Bali, Indonesia. 

It is no secret that Bali is a beloved destination for travelers of all kinds. Adventure seekers, soul searchers, digital nomads, and even the rich and famous all have a place on this island in Indonesia. We were drawn to the island for the weather, the especially unrivaled natural beauty, and the whisper that magical things happen on the ‘island of the gods.’ We were hoping some of those magical things might include trekking through the jungles, spending all day at the beach, and making large payments on our student loans. 

Photo by Taylor Simpson of a beach in Bali, Indonesia
Photo by Taylor Simpson

We rented a small furnished apartment a few minutes’ walk from the beach for five hundred dollars a month. We ate one meal a day at the warung two houses down for three dollars a day. Not surprisingly, I have yet to find better chicken fried rice than what the locals whipped up. Days in Bali, Indonesia pass slowly, guided mostly by the rising and setting of the sun. Power outages are frequent, locals tend their rice paddies barefoot in the heat of the day, and stray dogs are taken in as neighborhood pets. 

Island Life in Bali, Indonesia

As the days turned into weeks, we found ourselves settling into the comfortable rhythm of island life. What was it that made this island so special? For starters, the spirit of the locals set the tone for a relaxed and unquestionably pleasant environment. They are kind, giving, slow to speak, and always smiling. They perform ceremonies for the phases of the moon and to celebrate life and loss. Children meditate on the beach during the school day — a stark contrast from the hustle and bustle of the average American city. The neighbors all know each other — Their children play together in the streets while parents share in the day’s adventures over a cup of coffee. I have yet to experience this in any place I’ve lived in the US. In fact, I have rarely known my next-door neighbor’s name. 

Photo by Taylor Simpson
Photo by Taylor Simpson

The tiny neighborhood we were part of, even if just for two months, made it clear how influential a sense of community and togetherness can be. We felt a sense of safety and ease I have yet to encounter anywhere else. And slowly, I began to feel happy and truly content. It turns out you don’t need a large home, multiple cars, a closet full of clothes, or a climb up the corporate ladder.

I wore the same thing every day, worked on what I am most passionate about, and got plenty of exercise and time outdoors. I was finally able to sit down and read some books (and a lot of them, at that)! Plus, I had time to connect with family and friends back home as well as make new friends over chicken satay and broken English. All of this while simultaneously paying off significant portions of our exorbitant university costs from years prior. 

Photo by Taylor Simpson
Photo by Taylor Simpson

Returning Stateside

I would spend a lifetime in Bali if I could. As a matter of fact, we talk frequently about moving to Bali full time. Since returning to the United States, I have experienced the reality of reverse culture shock. Often, I daydream about walking down to the beach to sit by the ocean to meditate on all the things I’m grateful for. I dream of stepping into a life of presence and true joy. I found what my truest self could be in Bali, Indonesia. When I reflect on my time there, I find I always long to return to that island, under the sun.

Taylor’s experience in Bali is truly inspiring. With absolutely stunning photography, her visit there came to life. Visit Taylor’s website to see more photos from Taylor!

by Taylor Simpson

Air Batang: A Tioman Tale Part Two

Michael CarterRead about Michael’s arrival to Pulau Tioman in his last article.

Air Batang, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia

After spending a couple of days in Salang, I caught a water taxi a short distance south along the coast to Air Batang, Pulau Toman, Malaysia. I stayed in a bungalow by the shore at Nazri’s. It had a fantastic sea view and sounds of the surf to lull me to sleep at night. I was a 10-minute walk from the Air Batang jetty and a 50-minute walk to the largest village on the island, Kampang Tekek. Like Salang, there were no roads, only pathways. After just a 3-minute walk from my bungalow, I found Ray’s Dive Adventure. Ray’s became my closest depot for beer, sunsets, and star-gazing at night.

My bungalow at Nazri's in Air Batang.I started suffering from a chronic condition known as IPI (Island Pace Inertia). No matter which island in the world one travels to, that traveler eventually succumbs to IPI. In my case, it took about five minutes for the condition to afflict me.

As I was still on the northwest side of the island, I had come to accept that I wouldn’t have time to see nearly as much of the island as I originally thought. Wanting to explore a bit more, I considered taking a day-trip out of Tekek. I thought about going on a 4-wheel drive tour for a day. As the largest city on the island, Tekek actually does have a road. There’s one leading to the east side of the island. Alas, the tour required a minimum of four passengers, and no one else had signed up. I decided to rent a bicycle instead, and pedal my butt around Air Batang and into Tekek. This turned out to be a great decision.

Mother NatureOther than by foot, my primary mode of transportation.

I cycled along the coast and made numerous stops to gaze into the crystal clear water below. I saw plenty of marine life species without donning a mask and snorkel, which thrilled me I managed to rip off a large toenail earlier in the trip and water activities would have only aggravated it. 

Tioman seemed to have more cats than people, but for lovers of slightly wilder life, there was a plethora of free-roaming creatures. Countless colourful birds, butterflies, and playful monkeys. Lovers of lizards and things that slither would be in heaven here. Monitor lizards ambled along the pathways everywhere. It seemed like every time I glanced up into the tree branches, I caught a glimpse of a python lazing away.

The Tiong,  a reddish-orange bird with a bright yellow beak and white trim on its wing, has become a symbol of Tioman. So much so, that a large statue of a Tiong is erected in a Tekek park.

The Tiong Statue in Tekek.

Last Hurrah in Tekek

Air Batang was my comfort zone, but I cycled in all directions daily. I happened upon a place near the end of the marine park jetty called Go Deeper. It had a modernistic, yet funky, decor. The food was crap but the beer was ice cold, and the cheapest I had come across on the island. I sort of liked the place and decided to move from my bungalow in Air Batang to Go Deeper for my last night. The lodgings were more expensive than Nazri’s, but they offered me a free bicycle to use and free transportation in a sidecar to the early-morning ferry at the jetty in Tekek, which was four kilometers away. 

The beach at Air Batang

The rooms were refurbished cylindrical-drainage-pipes-turned-hotel-rooms with air-conditioning, plus a private bathroom behind. It seemed ideal for a final night.

I had neglected to bring a travel alarm with me, so I was at the mercy of the Go Deeper staff to wake me up at 6:00am, so I could shower and leave by sidecar to the jetty in time to catch the 7:00am ferry. I had already purchased an open ticket, but still needed to arrive in time to exchange it for a boarding pass.

A picture of the refurbished cylindrical rooms at Go Deeper in Air Batang.

An Early Morning

Tioman is a duty-free zone. Notably, I still had one bottle of wine left from my purchase at the Tekek Duty-Free Centre. For my final Tioman night, I cocooned myself into my cozy drainage pipe and liberated the cork from my last bottle of wine. Fond memories of the island flashed back through my mind, but I was afraid to fall asleep. Past experience taught me never to rely on ‘wake-up’ calls or services.

The Go Deeper Hotel, at the foot of the Marine Park jetty.

Nonetheless, the wine gods insisted otherwise, and I was lights out before even finishing the bottle.

The call of nature woke me up at some unknown time. After peering outside and seeing black, I had no real idea of the time. It could have been 2:00am or 6:00am. I remembered that the bar/reception area had a large-faced clock, which was easily visible because three sides of the eating area were open-air. I figured it made sense to leave my room and make the 45-second walk to check the time. It was pitch black all around, with a tiny sliver of a moon barely illuminating my path. There was just enough natural starlight to make out the time. Although looking at the clock almost seemed like looking through a pair of eyeglasses made of bubble wrap, I hazily deciphered the time. It was 4:30am.

Nightfall in Air Batang

Trust the Wake-Up Call

With just an hour-and-a-half left, I felt too afraid to go back to sleep and risk not getting up in time. I still didn’t have faith in receiving the wake-up knock-knock. Besides, I had about a third of a bottle of wine to polish off before departure anyway. Ahhh — I had ninety minutes or so to relax and sip on some coffee. Elysium.

The view from the front of my bungalow at Air Batang

It seemed like only a few minutes — and it was — had gone by when I heard a tap-tap on my glass door. My 6:00am wake-up call had arrived, along with my sidecar driver waiting for me when I was ready. My clock-reading skills must have failed me. More than likely, I had woken up around 5:30 instead of the perceived 4:30.

I forfeited my morning shower in order to finish the wine at a respectable pace and made it to the jetty on time.

by Michael Carter