Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Driving in Puerto Rico

A good old Caribbean traffic jam.  Vieques, Puerto Rico
Another way to experience a new culture is to jump in a car & hit the road (or in the Dominican Republic, a motorbike).  Some places are more hazardous than others but the first rule of thumb is YOU ARE NOT IN THE STATES ANYMORE.  I am always amazed at the preconceived notions that come with a task we used to take for granted in our old day-to-day life.  Yes, it's stressful but we've also had some good laughs when they let the gringos let loose in their homeland with minimal instruction or warning.  "They should make us take a test or something..."

Turks & Caicos rental car with a yellow license plate--"Beware, TOURIST!"
(See blog "valentine-day-in-turks-caicos")
The rules & etiquette will be different.  If you are fortunate enough to be in the Turks & Caicos, they put yellow license plates on the rental cars.  Locals are taught on their driver's test to yield to the tourists (yellow license plates!) especially in their infamous roundabouts ("What if there is more than one tourist in the roundabout?"  "Don't do that.").  Personally, I think this should be adopted worldwide.

4 gringos in Papo's SUV head into the city.
See blog "life-in-luperon"
In the Dominican Republic, we rented a car from our "boat boy" and a well-respected local, Papo.  It took us a few minutes to figure out why all the locals were waving & yielding to us "Are we driving the wrong way down a one-way street?"--because we were in Papo's car of course, but that only lasted until we were out of town.  Then our traffic was motorbikes, horses, dogs, chickens and the occasional truck, driving right down the centerline (they move over when another vehicle is coming) and NO STREET SIGNS!  Again, no Espanol required...I can't even put into words what happened when we got into the city.  Basically, just hold your lane and let everyone pass you on both sides.  Clearly, they had no intention of "yielding to the tourists".  (We also experienced a lot of locals walking past us to the head of a line--any line.  Grocery, restaurant...Apparently, not because we are tourists, just another Dominicanism.)

I read a travel blog by a Puerto Rican that basically said, "We are nice people, except when we're driving...". (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brenda-mejia/puerto-rico-6-things-you-_b_9646680.html)

It's a different culture.  At first, they seem like crazy drivers but in our limited experience, we've never seen an accident (although the road rash on local vehicles seems to disprove this).  In fact, after riding in a car with a local, I'd say they are very good drivers, because they drive fast, switch lanes a lot and again--and we've never seen any accidents (see "Local drivers" below).

We experienced amnesia, and had to relearn the rules of the road all over again after being away for 5 months.  It's a culture shock.  There seems to be an unspoken code we haven't quite cracked yet. So for my own future reference, here is what we've learned so far:

Potholes:  After renting cars from three separate agencies in three different parts of the country, we learned you DEFINITELY want the additional "tire & rim" coverage.  It's usually $2--they pretty much won't let you out of the office without it.  It's not a scam.  You really need it because...

Let's talk pot holes:  You wouldn't think they would have the potholes in Puerto Rico, like we have back in Missouri.  After all, it never snows here!  HOWEVER, sadly, their government has allowed the infrastructure to deteriorate and there are potholes that could swallow a small car.  

It's perfectly normal for a local to swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid a pothole (It took us a few days to get used to the epic pot hole obstacle course between our rental & the marina--and also a crest of a hill!  After a few provisioning runs, I was also swerving all over my lane like a local--well not really.  I tried to keep it in my lane (but don't assume that shoulder over there is yours--check your mirror!  See "More tips" below)  Remember, part of the locals erratic driving may be because they know where all the potholes are!

If all else fails, try some handwritten directions...Ponce, PR
(see blog "Puerto Rico Part Dos)
  • You NEED north (norte), (south) sur, (east) este, (west) oeste!  Yeah, we could have had a viral YouTube video if we'd captured some of that.  Good times.
  • Stop signs are the same but smaller & say "Pare". (El Capitan ran a few before he got used to them.  No, he doesn't read the blog.)
  • There were a lot of "Lomo" signs along the road outside the marina.  El Capitan assumed it meant caution but that's "cuidado".  "We should probably look that up..."
  • Don't rely on phone apps, they will most likely get you lost.  (Google Maps is better than iMaps but only marginally.  The audio is largely unusable since "Bitching Betty" doesn't speak very good Espanol.)  The Ponce area was particularly bad (see link below pic).  San Juan & Fajardo were better.
  • "Which means you should ask for directions right?" but don't be surprised if you don't get any, since many people don't live near where they work (I asked at West Marine where a good grocery store was.  It took three employees to come up with Econo across the street, and by far the most popular of the three in Fajardo!)
  • We actually received written directions from a vet in Ponce (see pic & link above.  I was in tears).  We got even MORE lost, although a local said they made perfect sense.  SO, we asked the rental car agency if they could drive us to pic up Amelia's prescription before turning in the car--See "Local drivers" below!
Street Signs (What street signs?!):  
  • They are very stingy with their signage (see "Potholes" above).  There are a few street signs, but never for the street you are looking for and RARELY at intersections.
  • Speed limit in MPH, distance in KM (Google Maps automatically switched to KM so I switched it back to miles.  El Capitan wanted it back on KM.  I'm not sure which is worse.  Driving or being the navigator.  "What did it say?"  "I don't know!  I'm trying to switch back to km!").  Oh, and gas in Litres but the gauge is in gallons.  Stopping at a gas station is a whole other experience.
Local drivers:
  • El Capitan's observation is there are two speeds in Puerto Rico:  "Drive it like you stole it" and "Grandma (Abuela)".  It makes it hard to blend in.  (According to the articles below, there is no "passing lane".  You are supposed to hold your line & let people pass you.  See "Cutting" in "More Rules of Thumb").  And don't assume grandma isn't driving like she stole it and the loud hip hop car isn't driving like a grandma.  Breath.  "Was that our street?"  "I don't know.  It didn't have a sign".
  • In Ponce, the rental car agent graciously agreed to drove us back to pick Amelia the Kitty's prescription after a day of being hopelessly lost.  "No problem.  I just have to stop and pick up an employee on the way back."  It started out normally.  Then as we started chatting about their culture, particularly their love of music, his speed & lane changing increased.  When he picked up his employee and they began to speak Spanish, we reached terminal velocity.  Wow.
  • We see policia but never pulling anyone over.
More rules of thumb:
  • Red lights are optional.  Look both ways.  We've seen three cars pass through a red light!
  • Two lanes can become three lanes (shoulder) in a congested area which results in...
  • Cutting.  Getting passed (on the shoulder!) and having someone dive in front of you is par for the course especially in busy areas.  Don't bother with road rage.  You won't win the, "I'm-NOT-letting-this-guy-in" competition.  El Capitan tried. Get used to it.  No, they don't use turn signals either.
  • If you are in the right hand lane to turn right, don't be shocked if the person in the center lane decides to turn right also.  This applies to major intersections all the way down to the grocery store parking lot (Also applies to left-hand turns).
  • Note:  Rental agencies suggest the Toll Pass.  We definitely used it from San Juan to Fajardo but I thought I could get by without for the 2 mile trip from the ferry to the vet.  WRONG!
My previous rule of thumb was, I don't drive outside of the US.  However, I thought I could handle PR.  "We're in the States, right?  They drive on the right side of the road!"  I got behind the wheel in Fajardo after having not driven for 14 months.  It took me two days to get over 45 mph.  Some of the above are generalizations & our own experiences, so there are more resources below (apparently, I'm too kind...).

Whatever you do, don't think you can "swing through PetSmart on the way out of San Juan" and still beat rush hour, like we did last time.  We ended up in traffic hell, gridlock & one way streets.  (It turned out we would pass a PetSmart on the way into Fajardo--my bad).

Should you drive in Puerto Rico?  Absolutely!  Keep the days short.  Have a navigator if possible, and look at the map before you roll.  It's all a part of the experience.



  1. This is far better than Fodor's - very entertaining!

    1. Thanks, Duane! After the initial shock, you just have to laugh. Are we having fun yet? Heck yeah!