Puerto Rico vacations travel cowgirl magazine
A couple enjoys horseback riding on the beach in Puerto Rico.

We felt the bump of the runway when the plane touched down, then reverse thrusters roared and we surrendered to gravity and redirected motion. American Airline’s flight 606 arrived late and taxied into Puerto Rico’s Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport. I looked out the window; it was already black outside. For the umpteenth time I shifted in my seat to avoid crushing my cowboy hat and planned my next move—grab my bag, grab a cab, get some sleep.   

The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, a U.S. Commonwealth, was the answer to a vacation wish list compiled by my friend Jessica and I: a safe locale for two cowgirls traveling alone, where we didn’t have to convert money or language, a variety of outdoor activities and great airline connections. At the apex of our list of all possible destinations: Puerto Rico.

Tucked deep inside the “Sheraton Convention Center Hotel,” via a meandering, peacefully landscaped hallway, the Zen Spa welcomes the weary to a haven of rejuvenation. I had most of the day to kill waiting for Jessica to arrive from Colorado, so I went for a massage, then extended my treatment with a Coco Body Polish. After the “tropical virgin coconut oil and raw sugar cane” buff, I felt positively renewed.

I left the cocooned refuge of Zen Spa and had lunch at Choices, Sheraton’s all-day restaurant. I dove into my shrimp with candied walnut salad, chasing it with fresh orange juice. It was late afternoon when I returned to a blinking message light in my room. Jessica had arrived! Would I meet her at the infinity pool for a swim and a cocktail? You bet!

Unlike many hotels that have changed hands during Puerto Rico’s turbulent search for focus over the decades, this oceanfront lady was always well cared for by her admirers and wears her age with unapologetic aplomb—all beehive hairdo, sheath dress, pearls, and stilettos. Each night, her retro spirit is bathed in blue and orange neon in the dazzling lobby.

After an hour-long primping session, we arrived, dressed to thrill. Easing out of our taxi, we paraded up the escalator, taking just long enough to create a stir. Dinner here is magnificent, but we opted for the hipster act and went for tapas. A few hours later, sated and still walking upright, we dallied at the hotel’s casino for a few games and then topped off our evening with some rooftop dancing at the Water & Beach Club Hotel.

We arrived early the next morning in front of the Ritz-Carlton at Pine Grove for surf lessons at Ah Quan’s WOW Surf School.

After a briefing on shore, we headed out into gentle two foot waves (think Waikiki). Most of our class fell repeatedly in the beginning, but the shore break was on soft sand and we were back on our boards quickly, ready to take off again.

Next, we arranged a private tour of Old San Juan, a wonder of cobbled streets, ironwork, and colonial buildings. The old city was completely enclosed by the Spanish to repel attacks by the French, English, and Dutch and the wall wraps to Fort San Felipe del Morro and back. It was hot, humid, and definitely more than a one-bottle-of-water walk. But our guide brought the buildings and streets to life through a colorful retelling of history. The city’s colorful balconies overlook an eclectic shopping district of Latin-Caribbean style cigar shops, boutique hotels, restaurants, and jewelry stores.

The next morning we boarded our Seaborne prop-plane for our 8-mile hop from the main “Big Island” to Vieques. The “W” Hotel has a welcome terminal at the diminutive Vieques airport and we were escorted into the cool glass interior and offered refreshments while our bags were loaded into a van for transit to the hotel.

The design of the “W” is a study in calculated whimsy, and it flirted with my concept of beach elegance. In the lobby, gilded rococo mirrors, round couchettes, and divans are grouped with woven wire tables painted Ferrari red. Liberal splashes of graphic prints adorn walls and reappear covering pillows and soft furnishings. Huge urns of turquoise, gold, and coral create islands of color anchored by the driftwood colored flooring. We wandered through to the patio and peered out past the grassy cliff; all at once we were drawn to the sea.

Our longing for the ocean brought us to Abe’s Snorkeling and Bio Bay tours, a short drive across the island. We signed up for a snorkel to explore a nearby marine refuge. Abe ran everyone through a safety class with the precision and velocity of an Army sergeant.

Out in the water the sun was hot but we paddled the two-man kayak easily. Once underwater, just outside the turtle grass, I spotted a lobster hiding. Jessica found starfish, a huge sea urchin, and multiple species of fish. Our guide, Abe Jr., shared the area’s ecology and his concern about bleached coral. He said they were dying due to warming water temperatures. We took his message of global cause and effect to heart and returned to shore.

Famished, we lunched at the “W” at the hotel’s Alan Ducasse restaurant “miX on the Beach,” then enjoyed an afternoon by the pool before our night swim in the Bioluminescent Bay.

The Bioluminescent Bay, one of very few in the world, glows at night with a phenomenon created by microscopic plankton fed on by tiny shrimp. Their chemical defense creates a quick glow while escaping. Any activity in the water, however slight, elicits a harmless (to the organism and you) light.

Just after sunset we were back at Bio Bay with Abe. Our kayak was aimed towards Abe’s head lamp as we followed him into the bay. Each splash of our paddles illuminated the water before shedding droplets of light. Looking up at the stars, I took a moment to appreciate nature’s magnificence, then dove in for a magical swim.

The beach at the “W” Hotel on Vieques Island at sunrise. Photo by Michelle M. Winner.

Ridiculously hungry again, we found El Patio, a local hole-in-the-wall, and grabbed the last table. We feasted on succulent shrimp, tender glazed beef, and lemony seafood ceviche while drinking in the cool Caribbean evening.

Just after dawn we walked the beach in front of the “W,” and indulged in a sunrise swim. After breakfast, I retreated to my dreamy room. Behind its billowy lanai curtains, I packed for the trip back to Isla Grande.

We flew to Ceiba, on Puerto Rico’s eastern end, to ride horses in the foothills of El Yunque Rain Forest. Hacienda Carabali is a 600 acre “adventure” ranch. I had never been on a Paso Fino. They were certainly smaller than my Quarter Horse at home. We all mounted and, in a heavy drizzle, took off.

Lush flora, huge trees, and fern forests grew along the jungle trail and our guides kindly answered any and all of our questions. We rode through grass and hard packed earth to a canyon flanked by a now-raging river. We were forced to double-back and came out a few miles later to a stunning view of El Yunque mountain. As if on cue, the sun peeked out.

We had almost completed our ride when the rain started again. The guides tapped the rumps of the lead horses, and all of the little Pasos picked up the canter and broke into their little gaited gallop. Too quickly, we reached the corral and dismounted. Jessica and I hugged each other in the rain, wearing the fern wreaths our guide had made for us. A perfect COWGIRL ending to our island adventure!

(Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).