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Somewhere Chris Farley is sad he’s not the one who made living in a van cool.
Between the pandemic-era rebirth of the great American road trip and Frances McDormand depicting van life as a sort of second act liberation, #vanlife is certainly having a moment. And while Nomadland may have made traversing the Dakotas seem like an ideal itinerary, no place in North America lends itself better to exploring by van than Puerto Rico.
There are plenty of reasons to explore Puerto Rico by van. First of all, nobody’s spending a freezing cold night in the Caribbean. But beyond its warm weather, Puerto Rico has beaches, mountains, jungles, and deserts — all within an hour’s drive of each other. It has friendly locals who’ll welcome you in, plenty of terrain you wouldn’t easily find without using a van as both transportation and shelter, and a permissive vibe that makes it easy to park and stay with minimal hassle.
These are all things I saw first-hand during an action-packed weekend of living the #vanlife in Puerto Rico. If you do the same, it’s guaranteed to be one of the coolest vacations you ever take. You don’t even have to be all-in on van living to enjoy it.
For people, like myself, who enjoy things like regular showers and air-conditioning, the IslaVan is an ideal choice for your trip. Not quite a van, and definitely not an RV, the IslaVan is a retrofitted Mercedes Sprinter with a lockable rain shower, a two-burner kitchen stove, a toilet under said stove, a refrigerator, and an air-conditioner that runs on solar energy. So if you’re smart enough to park in the sun during the day so the air-conditioner can charge, you’ll be able to stay cool all night without running the engine.
This piece of rolling luxury goes for about $275 a night on Airbnb. That’s less than the price of a four-star hotel on a busy weekend, though pricier than your average bungalow. It’s not exactly rustic, to say the least, but it makes the experience about as comfortable as it can be.
Living the van life on a Caribbean beach
After picking up the IslaVan at the San Juan airport, I drove west about an hour and a half to the town of Arecibo, best known for its observatory and 19th century lighthouse. Just off the city’s main harbor I found a white sand beach, where I rolled out my van’s canopy and set up some chairs. I’d just cracked my first Medalla when a deeply-tanned older couple from somewhere in the northeast came poking their heads inside.
“This thing yours?” the man asked me. I told him it was a rental and then he asked how much it cost me.
He then proceeded to tell me about how this beach was usually popular with people in campervans who spent the night there. Today, however, it was just me.
“So I can just set up and sleep here?” I asked, expecting the same rules of no one on the sand after sunset that one finds in California and Florida.
“You kidding?” he laughed heartily as he stuck his tanned head in the van. “This is Puerto Rico, pal. Ain’t no rules here.”
There are, of course, rules to traveling Puerto Rico by van that every visitor should follow, regardless of what the man said. Still, the island’s permissive spirit made it easier to make the most of my newfound mobility. And so I opened up all the doors and windows, let the breeze fly through, and spent the night sleeping just a few feet from turquoise water.
Though sleeping in a big, white sprinter van alone on the sand was basically a beacon saying “tourist sleeping here, likely by themself,” nobody bothered me at night.
Exploring Puerto Rico’s mountains, winding roads, caves, and rushing rivers
Though Puerto Rico’s beaches are what people know best, what truly makes the place so magical are its mountains. The mountains were central to the indigenous Taíno people who lived on what is now Puerto Rico and other nearby Caribbean islands hundreds of years ago. As soon as I began ascending the deep green canyon about half an hour south of Arecibo, I could feel the energy that has drawn people for centuries.
After an hour of some white knuckle driving, I pulled into Batey Adventures, just outside the mountain town of Utuado. There I embarked on a half-day odyssey along the Tanama River, which began with a hike through lush jungle and continued on with a kayak trip through ancient caves.
The hike continued through more caves, thicker jungle, and even included a little bit of river swimming, making for a completely immersive mountain experience where you pretty much have to leave your phone behind.
After the trek, my guide suggested stopping at a restaurant called La Familia along the road back to Utuado. The house of mofongo and fresh seafood sits on a hillside with views over a lush mountain valley. It was temporarily takeout only, which when you’re in a van doesn’t even phase you. It just means you can open up your side doors and enjoy the view without anyone at the next table.
A roadside shower and an impromptu night on a farm
The day’s second hike was to Cueva Ventana, an uphill trek to a cave that looks out on the river and valley below. The two-hour trip passes through petroglyphs, artifacts, and a couple of other windowless caves, and is both an education in pre-Columbian Puerto Rico and the beauty of its mountains.
The hike departed from a gas station parking lot, and after a full day of hiking a shower seemed in order. I just popped into the van (equipped with curtains and blackout windows) showered, and drove into town for dinner.
Dinner that night was at Bier Garden Utuado, a beer hall and patio in the little mountain town. It offered a variety of island-brewed beers, as well as a menu with both Puerto Rican classics and beer hall staples. As I enjoyed hearty steak frites, I started up a conversation with the owner, Rialdi, who owns a landscaping company and runs the place as a side venture. After the restaurant closed, he and his wife stayed there chatting with me as I enjoyed dessert and a few more beers.
“Where you parked?” he asked.
“I’m in the grocery store parking lot across the street,” I told him, resigned to spending the night in a slightly less glamorous location than the previous night’s beach.
“You can park on my farm if you want,” he offered. Yes, this sounds like it could be a tragic first scene of a horror movie, but Puerto Rico is an inherently welcoming place and Rialdi and his wife were genuine. I followed them back to their farm, cloaked in complete darkness.
“This place has a great view in the morning,” he told me. The glittering lights of Utuado below hinted he might not be exaggerating. When I woke up, I knew it was the real deal.
The “farm” was more of a hilltop estate, with views of the river and a valley in one direction and the town of Utuado in the other. I felt like the boss on a coffee plantation as I watched the fog creep through the canyons. It was yet another experience that never would have happened staying in hotels.
A desert hike to a stunning overlook and tacos on the water
Rialdi told me about the desert on the southern coast, a topography I would never have imagined on such a green island. Yet there I was, an hour and a half from the jungle mountains, in the Bosque Seco de Guanica, a desert forest not far from Ponce. An hour’s hike brought me to an old lookout tower on a cliff over the ocean. It’s one of the most dramatic and least-visited viewpoints on the island. You’ll need a ton of water and some serious sun protection, but it’s an unheralded experience few visitors get to have.
Being able to shower in your van after a two-hour desert hike is especially refreshing.
Just past the dry forest you’ll find the beaches of Cabo Rojo and one of the best beach parks on the island at Parque Nacional Balneario Boqueron. Determined to see what the IslaVan kitchen could do, I found a strip of sand near the park’s marina where I could set up and attempt to make the easiest meal I knew: tacos.
The van’s burners were a little slow to heat, and I had to warm my tortillas by throwing them straight on the propane flames. Ultimately, I was able to plate myself a few simple beef tacos and enjoy them with a cold Medalla and both feet in the water.
Tempting as it was to stay overnight, I wanted to see more of the island. I packed up and began driving out of the park when a park ranger motioned for me to pull over.
“You can’t park on that road,” he told me, motioning to the spot where I’d just enjoyed my beachside tacos. “We wanted to let you finish your dinner, but don’t do it again.”
Diving a reef and swimming in a bioluminescent bay
I spent the night on yet another farm that rented space to RV and van travelers. It was about half an hour outside the town of La Parguera, which is known as the spot for aquatic adventure on Puerto Rico’s southern coast.
In La Parguera, I set out on a morning scuba dive to the colorful reefs off the city’s coast. During the trip, my guide with Paradise Scuba told me the company ran a nightly trip to La Parguera’s bioluminescent bay.
“We let you get in and swim with them,” he grinned. “They don’t do that in Vieques.”
Of all Puerto Rico’s bio bays, the one in La Parguera is the least visited, and consequently also the most permissive. Inspired by the guide’s suggestion, I signed up for the evening tour, which left just before sunset and stopped at a mangrove island for sunset, where we enjoyed beers and chicken empanadas.
The boat then took us to the bioluminescent bay, where only a couple of other boats joined us. Armed with only a snorkel and a mask, the guides invited us to jump in the water. It was a little like being in your own personal Tron, where every move you made was followed by a trail of glittering dinoflagellates.
Covered in glittering algae, I realized yet another shower was in order. Which, conveniently, I had in the van. I also realized it was getting late, and the van farm I was set to camp at was half an hour away. So I set up shop on a street in La Parguera and called it a night there. After a day of diving and swimming, having the ability to sleep on the street in relative safety was a relief.
After an action-packed few days, it was time to drive the three hours back to San Juan and surrender the IslaVan to its rightful owners. It wasn’t the roughed-up experience some expect from van life, but it did provide the perfect way to explore parts of Puerto Rico I wouldn’t have otherwise. It offered freedom and flexibility, as well as opportunities I’d have never had the chance to do if I was hopping from hotel to hotel.
If the siren of #vanlife is calling, but you’re still not sold on nine-hour drives and public showers, Puerto Rico may be the answer. It’s all the fun of mobile travel with little aggravation. Plus, it’s a way to discover this magical island like few others ever have.
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