Puerto Rico | Backpacking & Proposing

This is going to be a big post. I tried my best to narrow it down, but it just wasn't happening. There's just too much to cover: from my grand scheme of proposing, to the whole planning process behind backpacking and traveling the entire island of Puerto Rico over a two week vacation. To get started, I began planning this trip months and months in advance. It was so hard to find information on actually backpacking in Puerto Rico, then of course there was way too many options on what to do and where to go. Then I had to figure out the general time frame and location of where I wanted to propose. But - I couldn't forget to take into account that this is above all a vacation, not my usual trip where I beat the hell out of myself on some grueling trail for a few weeks.

Everything just fell into place once I realized I should split the trip in half, 50% hiking, backpacking, and camping then 50% laying around and enjoying the beach. So I didn't kill myself trying to grab the perfect photos of everywhere and everything we did. I truly tried to relax and have my first vacation where I don't wake up everyday at 5:00am to grab sunrise photos and the usual craziness that comes with being a photographer.

One of my favorite shots of the trip to start things off.

Day 1:

Leaving Chicago - The first step to any trip is to find the best airfare and of course the best prices on hotels. The biggest trick I have for this is to not care where you're going. Check out fly.com's "fare calendar" all you do is put in where you are and it tells you every flight deal nationally and internationally. I went to Colombia just last year because it was a great price. Of course I booked Julia and I a trip to Puerto Rico because, well why not! It sounded warm and very entertaining.

The next step is doing the research and deciding where and how to spend your time. I love Trip Advisor for figuring out the touristy stuff and deciding which car rental company is a complete scam. For the record Charlie's Car Rental in San Juan is great, but don't listen to them about the toll roads you do not need their IPASS thing, just pay cash.

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Our first night in Old San Juan, Julia and I stayed at The Gallery Inn. It was fantastic! Here are a few from inside the hotel.

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One of the most interesting features of Old San Juan has to be the blue brick that makes up their cobblestone streets.

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Day 2:

We left San Juan and headed straight for El Yunque Rain Forest. I won't lie, I made a huge mistake before coming here. It turns out you need to apply 10 days in advance for a backcountry site. I had no idea! Luckily Julia worked some magic and was able to get us a site for the two nights like we had planned. The first thing we did after the debacle was stop at one of the roadside stands to grab a quick bite to eat before heading on the trail. Although the food was overpriced and not very good, the view was great!

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The first night in El Yunque we stayed at campsite C. It's a few miles down an old road that is only used by the park service due to a mudslide. It's well marked and an extremely easy hike. The campsite itself is a bit of a mess. It's in a rain forest so I really should have seen this coming, but wow the actual spot to put your tent down is absolutely nothing but mud. We ended up putting our tent on the side of the road and it worked out just fine.

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The best part about campsite C is that it has a great river right down the trail.

I actually had the engagement ring in my pocket and I was going to propose right here. The only problem is that I couldn't find the right angle to photograph it, so I ended up scrapping that plan.

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Day 3:

The one thing to always be prepared for: trail conditions. No one is going to mention fording any rivers, but after a few hours of constant rain the road had enough water to completely cover our boots.

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After finding our way back to our car we went on our next hike to La Mina Falls.

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One of my favorite parts of Puerto Rico is that bamboo is everywhere.

Our next hike and the worst idea we had on our entire trip to El Yunque was grabbing campsite A on the La Coca Trail. This trail is awful! It's filled with sharp rocks, lots of thick mud, and above all it's really slippery. The trail isn't supposed to be too long, but when you combine it with the terrain it's a huge pain. The trail was so bad that we actually turned around and completely abandoned staying at the campsite. The only upside is that it has some great waterfalls. I would strongly recommend the hike as a day trip but not an overnight stay.

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Day: 4

Needless to say we left El Yunque in a hurry. Mainly because next on our list was the island of Culebra just to the east of Puerto Rico where we were going to stay on Flamenco Beach. We ended up leaving the rental car in Fajardo, in a nice gated parking lot for only $4 or $5 a day. Flamenco Beach is supposed to be one the top ten beaches in the world and for $20 a night you can camp right there. It's the best deal I've ever heard of. There are plenty of campsites there, but head all the way down to E if you're looking for a quiet stay.

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We set up camp and thats when I realized the sun was going down. That engagement ring had been burning a hole in my pocket ever since I picked it up. I told Julia we should walk down the beach to catch the sunset. As soon as I came to this ridge I knew it was the spot. I told her to run to the top for a test shot, as I pulled the ring out of my bag. I turned my camera to video and I hit record.

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The ring was a collaborative design between myself and an amazing jeweler, Chris Engelken out of Milwaukee, WI. If you're looking for a ring definitely give him a call (414) 803 - 8608 or send him an email cengelken @ wi.rr.com

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Then we went out for a celebratory dinner! Of course we also needed some cell service to call and text everyone the news.

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Day 5:

I woke up early to get some star photos on the beach. Flamenco was used by the military back in the day and in true american fashion we left our trash behind.

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Flamenco happens to be gorgeous but it's not the best for snorkeling. If you're wondering where to go on Culebra to see some coral reefs, go to the parking lot for Flamenco and take the path in far corner towards Tamarindo beach. It's about a 20-30 minute walk, but it's worth it! It was the perfect place to spend the day.

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Even though I'm a professional I'm not above using underwater disposable cameras!

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Day 6:

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Back when we arrived on Culebra there was a guy trying to get the tourists to rent golf carts to travel around the island. I wish we would have done it right away, because damn was it entertaining! Getting around the island itself is really easy there are plenty of cabs that come by the beach to take you around. But wandering through the island on a golf was fantastic!

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Day 7:

We woke up just before dawn to take the ferry back to the main island.

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After an hour long ferry and a 4 hour drive we arrived at Copamarina Beach Resort in Guanica!

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Day 8:

First on our list of stuff to do was head to Gilligan's Island, a mangrove island with a nice little lazy river and enough sand to spend the day drinking, swimming, and grilling.

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The biggest reason I wanted to stay at Copamarina, the dry forest. There's only 1% of all orignal dry forests left in the world and one of them happens to be about 2 minutes down the road from the beach resort.

The Maseta Trail has a particularly good sunset view, and it gives you a great overview of the dry forest near the coast. But if you want to see a massive amount of butterflies head on the Cueva Trail. Be sure to watch out for all the caterpillars on the ground. You could honestly squish one with every step if you're not paying attention.

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Day 9:

I basically slept in a cabana on the beach all day...

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Day 10:

We left Guanica and Copamarina to head to Rincon. It's known as the surfing capital of Puerto Rico. It definitely has that relaxed atmosphere everywhere you go. The best place we stayed on our entire trip was here, and I wish I knew just how great Rincon is so we could have stayed a few more days.

The best place in all of Rincon is The Tropical Treehouse! Check out this place we stayed in the Buddah Hooch.

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Day 11:

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Corn and coconut ice cream with cinnamon on top. To me it initially sounded awful, but I'm always open to try something knew and I'm glad I did! It's delicious I really hope I'm able to find this in Chicago.

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Our next destination was a small house in Utuado. We found this spot on AirBnB.com. For those who don't know about it go take a look! It's a website where people put up their house, spare room, or apartments for rent on a daily basis. You can travel like a couch surfer or grab a lavish beach front villa. Either way I've used it in New York, Seattle, and Puerto Rico each time it's been great!

In Utuado we stayed in a cozy little mountain house maintained by the nicest husband and wife team. They have plenty of land and are surrounded by a whole lot of animals and tons of fruit trees.

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Day: 12

Our first stop on Day 12 was the Window Cave or Cueva Ventana in Arecibo. The Window Cave has an amazing view, it's another easy hike, and it's only $10 per person.

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Then we headed over to Rio Camuy Cave Park. The major thing to keep in mind here is that it's very touristy. It's a giant cave but I would have loved to do it without the group.

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Day 13:

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La Cueva Del Indio has to be filled with the best caves of the trip. There's several old stone drawings from the native Taino tribes and more gorgeous oceanfront views.

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This ladder may look rickety but I'm a big guy and even with my photo backpack it held up just fine. So if you make it all they way to Cueva Del Indio you need to mosey on down!

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Day 14:

We left Utuado early in the morning to get back to San Juan for our last full day before our flight home. We of course stayed at the lovely Gallery Inn, and spent the day going through the old fortresses.

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Day 15:

Before we knew it, it was time to head back home.

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