Driving in Puerto Rico and the Various Alternatives
Transportation in Puerto Rico and Tips for Getting Around the Island
I recently spent 8 months living in Puerto Rico. I know that a lot of Americans, and other foreigners, would ask lots of questions about getting around Puerto Rico via public transportation and/or driving around the island, riding a bike, hitchhiking, et cetera. With most of them, I always posed the question, well, it depends, what do you want to do?
I think that the decision to drive in Puerto Rico depends entirely on two things: 1.) your budget 2.) what you want to see in Puerto Rico. Being that I interacted with the full spectrum of travelers in Puerto Rico both those without a budget to those with a strict ramen noodle-backpacker budget, I thought that I would write an article about getting around Puerto Rico, driving and even some alternatives.
Before I get too into the article, I should say that getting around Puerto Rico without a car can be a difficult task. It is even more complicated if you cannot speak Spanish. However, that doesn’t mean it cannot be done.
Let’s get started with what you want to do while in Puerto Rico. Although Puerto Rico is a small island, it is one with lots of variety. Well, within reason at least. You can go from city to countryside in a matter of just a few minutes and there are tons of natural beauties hidden around the island. Many of them, unknown to even some Puerto Ricans.
Perhaps start with making a list. Do you want to do the really touristy trail, such as the bio-bay, rainforest, and San Juan? If that is the case, you won’t necessarily need a car. Public transportation won’t get you there easily, but you could take all-inclusive tours for around $100 which would take you from San Juan to the rainforest and bio-bay in one day returning you to San Juan in the evening. If you seek to get a little more off of the beaten path, such as the Camuy Caves, Rincón, Mayageüz, Cabo Rojo, Ponce, or any of the other cities/places in between, then you will need to think a bit more as there are no easy ways to get there. So, first before you move on to the rest of the article, ask yourself what you want to do in Puerto Rico?
Should you rent a car?
After traveling around Puerto Rico pretty extensively via car, I have to admit that having a car in Puerto Rico is really nice. You can stop off in little known places and explore deeper into the island’s nature. If you have a few extra days and want to see some of the other things listed above while in Puerto Rico, I’d recommend considering renting a car. Renting a car is pretty easy in Puerto Rico, there are tons of car rental places in the island, more specifically, in San Juan. You can rent a car from the airport or from the beach areas of Isla Verde and Condado. The price of a car rental will vary somewhat significantly depending on the company that you choose, type of car, and how busy they market is at the time when you choose to rent. I’ve heard of people paying as low as $10-15/day for a car rental where for others the price can go up to $60-70 for a single day’s rental.
Some good things to know and tips for renting a car in Puerto Rico:
- I would personally recommend choosing one of the more reputable car rental companies even if it means paying a few extra dollars. They are more professional and less likely to try to rip you off. Also, they offer you better customer service. I’ve heard of some of the cheaper and budget companies not responding to car failures, flat tires, or what have you even charging people extra. I’ve rented from several companies and found the more expensive ones to be the most trustworthy.
- In the US, if the driver is not over 25 you will generally have to pay extra. So if you or no one in your group is over the age of 25 then for each additional underage driver you will likely have to pay and extra $10-15/day on top of the rental price.
- I noticed some extra charges after renting a car once for 5 days. They did not include any taxes until the check-out, which ended up being an additional 17% per day or something ridiculous like that. That wasn’t mentioned in the beginning. You’ll also receive a small charge about 2 weeks later for the tolls that you incurred while driving around the island. Be sure to clarify the actual TOTAL price of your rental. And don’t forget that you will need to fill the gas tank before you return it.
- I’ve heard some people say that it can be cheaper to rent a car from the airport versus one of the beach areas, but don’t forget that you actually have to get to the airport as well. By taxi, a trip to the airport will run you about $20 flat rate. By bus, the trip won’t cost you more than a dollar or two to places in San Juan, but you will have to wait at least an hour to an hour and a half typically especially if you plan to go from Old San Juan or Condado, which are further away from the airport than say Isla Verde. So, unless you have a ride, the airport might not be the most convenient place for you to rent from. Unless, you plan to pick up when you arrive and drop off when you leave, in which case it could be extremely convenient and save you money on a taxi going between your accommodation and the airport.
What is it like to drive around Puerto Rico?
I met a lot of travelers who would come back and say things like “Puerto Rican drivers are crazy” or “the traffic is terrible everywhere” or similar things. I can’t say that I would wholeheartedly agree or disagree. I do not think that Puerto Rican drivers are any crazier than the next. I wouldn’t say that they are the best either. Some things that you will have to get used to are things like the absence of the use of turn signals (common practice), smaller roads than the United States (on average, true), Reggaeton parties in the street (true story), iguanas crossing the road (many of them in some places), cows or chickens crossing the road (a cow once, chickens are common), and other obstacles to keep you alert while driving. With the turn signals for example, many people don’t use them there on the major roads. They just go, so they may switch lanes without indicating, but this happens other places in the United States as well. Additionally, I found the smaller mountainous roads to be more frustrating. In the mountains, the roads can get very narrow and curvy. You have to be mindful around the curves as people will often zip around the corner and you will need to stop abruptly or swerve to avoid hitting one another. One of the difficult things for me when I was driving through the mountains is that I wanted to be a more cautious driver and people would come up close behind me as I was driving slow. The locals are used to the curvy and mountainous roads, so will often be much more comfortable driving on them.
As far as road quality, most highways are in decent shape. Though roads in the inter-cities can be quite be quite bad at times. Many of them have serious potholes and cracks that have been left for someone else to fix mañana. This depends of course on the level of tourism in the city or area. Some roads are fine, others need a good bit of work. It is really hit or miss, so be alert that you may be driving along smoothly then need to swerve to avoid a hole.
The street signs in Puerto Rico are what you would expect to see anywhere else really. The only different is that they are typically written in Spanish. So for example, instead of STOP it will be PARE. Instead of EXIT it will be SALIDA. Another important one would be VELOCIDAD MAXIMA instead of SPEED LIMIT.
Alternatives to driving in Puerto Rico
If you really don’t want to rent a car in Puerto Rico, or if you are still unsure, then you’ll likely be asking about the alternatives. Are there any? Well, sort of. Here is my take on your options:
Public Transportation in Puerto Rico
As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, Puerto Rico is not an easy place to navigate without a car. If you are accustomed to the public transportation offered by countries in Western Europe, major cities in New England or Canada, then you wouldn’t refer to the system that Puerto Rico has as public transportation. It would be more easily defined as a system of informal vans that are willing to give you a ride for a certain fee, than public transportation as there are no schedules and it can be extremely inefficient at times.
The public transportation system of Puerto Rico is run by individuals driving vans. In Puerto Rico, the vans are commonly referred to as guaguas (pronounced wa-wa). These can also be called publicós, and may be known as colectivas in other places in Latin America. Keep in mind though that the term guaguas, is often used to describe city buses as well as the vans that take you to different places around the island. There are a few famous routes for this system and a lot of unknown ones. Figuring out the guaguas system can be a feat in of itself. However, it can be done if you want. The two major routes from San Juan are one that goes to Fajardo on the East side of the island and another that passes all the way to Mayagüez in the West Coast. If I am not mistaken, the line going to the west side of the island is called La Linea Sultana. I think that there was a Linea Azul, or Blue Line as well, but I am not totally sure. Typically to get on any of these lines, one would have to travel from San Juan to a small suburb town called Rio Piedras where the university is located. Once you arrive there, you would switch lines to the appropriate van, or guaguas, to take you to the next city.
Tips for using the guaguas system:
- It will be really helpful if you, or someone you are traveling with speak(s) Spanish. Most of the guaguas drivers do not speak English or another language for that matter. Communicating with them in telling them where you need to go and communicating payments is necessary. It will also be more likely that you will be ripped off if you are too gringo.
- Most of the guaguas drivers that I met were quite nice and friendly. Most of them are just trying to make a living. There are some that rip people off as well once they know you are a tourist. My recommendation is to know the general price for the route that you are going to take and have the money ready to hand to them so you don’t have to ask. Once you ask they will hear your accent and prices could change.
- Bear in mind that if you decide to traverse the island with public transportation, you could be waiting for many hours. Most of the guaguas drivers will not leave for their destination until the van is filled sufficiently with people. This means that they could also not go. Also, many drivers do not operate on Sundays.
- A typical route, one-way, to Fajardo from San Juan should run you about $8.00, with the route. To the west coast, about $15-20. You could also charter a guaguas driver to drive you and others at a flat rate. Usually, still cheaper than the taxi.
- I am not going to put instructions on using the guaguas in this article, but I will on another so if you want them, either search the website or email me if I can help.
Using public transportation in the city, I would say that public transportation is decent in San Juan depending on where you want to go and which day of the week it is. As a good rule of thumb, the further you get from the touristy areas the less reliable public transportation is in San Juan. There are some prominent bus routes that can take you from Miramar to Old San Juan or the Condado beach area to Isla Verde and Old San Juan. There are even a few buses that take you from the airport to the new town. However, you will need to switch buses several times. Usually no more than twice if you are traveling to the new town of San Juan. You may have to change buses again to arrive in Old San Juan from the airport, but not always. The bus system of San Juan is well documented here by Puerto Rican Day Trips. Most bus tariffs within the city range from 50-75¢ for a single trip that is non-transferable. You need to have exact change and be ready to give it to the driver when boarding. They DO NOT accept bills, only coins.
There is also a train in San Juan call the Tren Urbano. The Tren Urbano doesn’t really serve much good though for tourists as it doesn’t bring you to any places far from the city. There are a few interesting stops on the tren though, one is Rio Piedras where the University of Puerto Rico is located, a large marketplace and a botanical garden. Another stop would be the last in Bayamon where there is some hiking and outdoor sights. One might enjoy a ride on the train as well just to see different areas of the city. The route for the Tren Urbano in San Juan can be found here. The train is quite nice though, on par with what most major metropolitan cities offer. The routine is the same, you need to purchase a card with a set amount of value on it, then you can add accordingly.
Carpooling in Puerto Rico
A rising new alternative that hopefully takes off would be carpooling in Puerto Rico. There is a new website that was created by a young enterprising Puerto Rican hoping to inspire some of her fellow countrymen and women to be more green, help to reduce traffic on the major roads and inter-cities, and reduce the independence on individuals driving. The website is great and very similar to those I have used in Europe such as Covoiturage or compartir de coche. I recommend giving it a shot to support the cause if you are willing to share a car. The website is called Coopiloto. You can find it here (link removed – website no longer exists). You will need to create a login, then just add that you are looking for a ride from City A to City B.
Hitchhiking in Puerto Rico
I am not sure if hitchhiking would be recommended in Puerto Rico. I did hitchhike on both Vieques Island and Culebra, but I know it is not a popular thing to do on the mainland. Especially coming from a city like San Juan, there are a lot of homeless people and druggies in the streets so most people would not give you the time of day if you are walking around asking for rides. I have heard briefly of a few people doing it, but I can say that it is not common. Try at your own risk.
Flying around Puerto Rico
Flying around Puerto Rico is definitely the most posh was to travel. The farthest flights will take you less than 30 minutes airtime. There are a few companies that fly from San Juan to the Spanish Virgin Islands (Vieques and Culebra). They also fly from other airports like one near Fajardo called Ceiba. You can also get flights to Aguadilla and Ponce via services like JetBlue. I was fortunate enough to fly from San Juan to the Spanish Virgin Islands one time. I can say that it was definitely worth it, at least one-way, if you can afford it. The views were amazing. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much had the weather been different. It was a blue sunny sky. The flights one way are about $80, but you skip all the hassle below and transfers between different ferries and such. The flight that I took from San Juan to Vieques took only about 25 minutes. Round trips could get expensive though if you are on a budget. Some people I met did day trips from San Juan to the islands though, which is most easily possible with flying. It can be done via ferry, but the ferry system is not known for being reliable or timely, although it is functional.
Taxi would be the method that I would least recommend. I was not personally fond of many of the taxi drivers that I met, and they are very keen on ripping off visitors to the island. The taxi drivers have created convenient flat rates to everywhere in the city of San Juan, even though all the taxis have a metered rate painted into the side of the car; they do not abide by them in any way. At night the drivers will create their own prices and sometimes increase after a certain hour. I used many different taxis in San Juan and had consistently similar experiences. One driver charged a group that I was with $35 for a two-minute drive. Many other people would tell me the same things about their rides. The positive side of taking a taxi to different places on the island is that you can be directly brought somewhere. For example, if you go from San Juan to Fajardo it will cost you at least $80 one way, but you’ll arrive there within an hour. If you don’t care about spending the money, then they can serve a purpose for you. They are not budget friendly option in Puerto Rico.
Safety in Puerto Rico: If you decide to rent a car, while driving around the island you should be extremely mindful of where you park and what you leave in your car. Puerto Rico is infamous for car thefts and break-ins, although break-ins are the more common of the two now. I have spoken with several people who had issues with break-ins while driving around the island.
- Don’t leave anything of value in the car, unless it is in a well-guarded location. Not even the trunk. I know of someone who had their suitcases robbed from the trunk.
- Don’t park in unpopulated areas. People who leave cars on back roads or in areas that are not commonly patrolled have a higher chance of having issues.
- Be mindful of your car looking too ‘touristy’. One of the problems with the car rentals is the companies often place rental stickers all over the car. This tells everyone when you are traveling around the island that you are likely a tourist.
When carpooling, taxing, or giving the public transportation a chance, I recommend using the buddy system or at least telling people how you will be traveling and when to expect you.
Anyways I hope this article helped you in your thought process for getting around Puerto Rico. As always, if you enjoyed it I would appreciate you sharing it. It would also be great to hear back from you in the comments below. Please let us know of your experiences with getting around Puerto Rico, suggestions for others, and possibly any new things that you find out. Thank you so much for taking the time to read.
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