Going Tropical: Driving In Puerto Rico

1y ago

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Earlier this year I wrote about driving in Montreal, Quebec. This time, we went south. Way south. All the way to Puerto Rico, which is much closer to South America than to the US mainland. The Spanish-American War ended over 400 years of Spanish rule over the island. The United States, founded by thirteen British colonies claiming independence, ironically swiped some colonies of its own from Spain, including the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. As a result, the unincorporated organized territory (the island's official legal status in the US) retains an extremely strong Spanish heritage. In the same way that Montreal's street signs are in French and only French, Puerto Rico's signs are exclusively in Spanish. Fortunately, the leftovers of my high school Spanish classes left me able to understand all road signs and even ask for $5 of gas on pump 11. But unlike Montreal, we didn't need our passports or any currency exchange. That was much of the reason why we chose Puerto Rico as our honeymoon destination instead of other nearby Caribbean destinations.

2017 Kia Rio

Our island transportation for this adventure was a rented 2017 Kia Rio. It was a car. It fit our luggage. It got us around. It kept us dry when it rained, though the air conditioning did drip water on my wife’s foot. And it did almost nothing besides that. It wasn’t as much torture to drive as a Jeep Compass, but we also didn’t torture the Rio as much as we tortured the Jeep. I saw no point in writing a review of this car, because there’s really nothing to write about. The eloquent automotive journalist Steve Martin would’ve described it as “just four fucking wheels and a fucking seat.” Our first full day in Puerto Rico, we took a pilgrimage trip to the Arecibo Observatory, home of the largest single dish radio telescope in the world. If you’re a nerd like me, you might have seen it in Contact. If you’re not a nerd like me, you still might have seen it in Goldeneye. Fun factoid from our tour: Pierce Brosnan is afraid of heights. But he didn’t tell anyone on the set. He tried his hardest to run across the catwalk above the dish for a shot himself, but his phobia got the better of him halfway through. A stunt double ended up doing the scene for him. Being averse to high altitudes myself, I rest assured that I’m in good company with 007 himself.

Arecibo radio telescope. There are some great roads around here.

Back to the driving. Most of the major roads in Puerto Rico are four lane divided highways. Sometimes they have exits (look for the salida signs), other times they have traffic lights. I’ve complained about left lane hogs before – those idiots who do 55.001 MPH in the left lane next to someone doing 55.000 MPH in the right lane and refuse to move over when they eventually get ahead of the ever so slightly slower car. Multiply my previous complaints by 100 for Puerto Rico. There’s no such thing as lane discipline there. At times I found myself feeling like I was playing Burnout 3: Takedown just to get up to the speed limit around all the left lane hogs.

For legal reasons, this scenery is shit.

Once you get off the highway, the roads are narrow and twisty, especially outside of major cities or towns. The area around the Arecibo Observatory presented me with some of the most challenging street driving I’ve done in a while, and most certainly not in a bad way. The karst geography means there are many steep hills, dips, and valleys very close to each other. I found myself manually shifting the Kia to keep the revs up, both for power to climb the hills as well as for better speed control going down the other side. I didn’t attack these roads at any kind of excessive speed, but they were still challenging and fun to drive. The roads around Arecibo would make excellent tarmac rally stages for this reason. I’d say they’re even more technical than most of the actual rally stages I’ve ever driven. Before this trip, I looked into possibly renting a motorcycle for a day. I enjoyed riding a Harley-Davidson Street Glide in Florida one January, and as riding season winds down in my native New England for the year, I figured one last romp down here might be fun. My research into how to rent a bike in Puerto Rico boils down to just one piece of advice: DON’T. The roads are so narrow and the drivers so crazy that it simply isn’t safe to be on a bike, the internet told me. My experience validates this advice. I don’t know how many times I had to swerve toward or even off the shoulder because of an oncoming driver in the middle of the road. I generally stuck to the speed limit when left lane hogs would let me, but there were many who would go much faster, weaving wildly and leaving no room for error when they did it. At 4AM on our way to catch a plane out of San Juan I learned that red lights are merely suggestions at that time of day. Everybody ran them rather than wait for green. On another day, a Porsche passed me on the right shoulder when he wasn’t happy that I was stuck in traffic. But such behavior wasn’t limited to sports cars. I watched a modified Toyota Echo tear up the road like a madman as well.

Old Toyotas at a local car show.

Speaking of such cars, after driving Puerto Rican roads for a week I now understand their enthusiasts’ taste in cars better. When I attended the OEM Performance Meet in Worcester, MA earlier this year I was both surprised and intrigued at the popularity of older Japanese economy cars, including many I hadn’t seen examples of in a good 20 years or so. I saw many, many similar cars in Puerto Rico, in both stock and modified form.

"Modified" Toyota Tercel. Simplify and add lightness?

Sometimes, such as with this Toyota Tercel, I need to put the word “modified” in quotes. But as beat up as this old econobubble is, it’s clear from the alloy wheels and exhaust that the guy’s an enthusiast. One other nice perk of Puerto Rico: no front license plates. Although I certainly saw some more expensive cars there, like a Porsche 911 GT3 identical to one I got a ride in at the track shortly before my trip, most newer cars were on the cheap end of the spectrum. I’ve never seen so many Kias in one place before, and I’m not just talking about the airport rental car parking garage where ours came from. I suspect that in 10-20 years, these will be among the preferred choices of Puerto Rican tuners, as well as those who move to the mainland US.

So what is this car, anyway? I asked Jalopnik‘s resident weird car expert, Jason Torchinsky. As I’d hoped, he identified it for me.

How did a Brazilian car get into Puerto Rico? I’m not sure, but I do know that Puerto Rico is much closer to Brazil and other South American countries than to the US mainland. That rather sums up Puerto Rico in general, actually.

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