An Inconveniently Long Story of Travel by Ferry from Vieques to San Juan (COVID Edition — November 2020)
The journey is the destination
The soft, lilting chatter of Spanish floats across the aisle from two young ladies, one of whom is gently rocking a baby stroller back and forth. This, along with the fresh, light breeze, turquoise waters, and occasional caw of a faraway seabird paint the picture of the ferry’s dock on which I find myself this morning.
There’s a familiar excitement and anticipation for the trip ahead. The old adage — “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” — comes to mind. The very act of travel itself is exciting to me; it’s the thrill of transit, of motion, that many travelers can relate to.
The destination barely registers before my feet begin to itch again. With this in mind, perhaps the complement could also be considered — “It’s not just the journey, but also the destination” — a reminder to savor and appreciate where I am when I’m there, lest I be in paradise and ask — “What’s next?”
A Geography Lesson
This morning, I am traveling from the island of Vieques to the main island of Puerto Rico.
The “main island” is eponymously named Puerto Rico but there are many islands that are a part of the “commonwealth of Puerto Rico”. Only three are inhabited — the main island, Vieques, and Culebra — and the rest, according to Wikipedia, number “over 143 islands, cays, islets, and atolls”.
At about 15 minutes to departure, people begin to stir and gather at one end of the dock shaded by a tent. I join them. We all congregate democratically in a self-forming line and watch as workers herd cars onto the boat.
These passengers have purchased car tickets for an additional fee and they reverse their cars onto the boat as directed, while the rest of us watch, about 40 in total, and collectively murmur reactions. It is similar to parallel parking in front of a bored crowd on a city sidewalk.
The ferry’s main cabin is air-conditioned to a blissful icebox and every other straight-backed seat has been removed.
What an unexpected boon social distancing guidelines have presented to public transportation: deleting the potential for undesirable proximity with strangers of a dubious constitution. One can always find a silver lining. And sometimes, it’s a double edged sword. As some of the best encounters unfold on trains and in line at the airport.
Today is Election Day, an interesting time to travel because there’s this palpable energy to the whole thing.
It’s a special day, but not quite a holiday. A day of anticipation, a build-up, a crescendo, the penultimate second before the plateau and the descent of energies back into equanimity.
The boat rocks gently, producing a twinge in my body of being strewn haphazardly within space. The jingling sounds of phone games pop up here and there around me. Everything is slightly muffled by the white noise of this groaning boat.
To Fly or Not to Fly
With little prior knowledge, I envision Old San Juan as a bustling port city with cobblestoned streets and European-style architecture brightly painted in the preferred canary yellows, aquamarines, salmon pinks and lime greens I’ve seen favored in Vieques and, which I presume, extend to other tropical places near the equator.
This is an image I’ve cobbled together from pictures and movies of old school Havana and Miami, and I remind myself to keep any expectations in perspective. It’s advisable to allow a place to speak for itself.
On the way to Vieques, my experience of San Juan was of an empty airport terminal. I could have taken the same journey back on a puddle jumper to San Juan International Airport, breezily ordering an Uber from my phone, spending narry but a second in un-conditioned air.
Most people take this option because it is easy, fast, and a plane ticket is always about $100.
Curious for alternatives, I searched for how to travel from the ferry in Ceiba to San Juan, and vice versa.
The advice on TripAdvisor and the like was that you could:
- Hire a cab or rent a car. The cost would be about $2 for the ferry, $75 for the car ride, and a few hours of your time. Oh, and the ferry is unreliable. I kept seeing that everywhere.
- Fly. The cost is about $100, a 30 minute plane ride, and reliable.
Therefore, many advise flying.
But nobody had much details about the third alternative. Public transportation. I figured there must be a way locals do this without a $100 cab ride and being who I am, I was game for something much more adventurous, cost-effective, and that would give me something to write about.
Having traveled through Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar in much the same way, I was no stranger to intrepid travel.
My Mission: Travel from the ferry to San Juan without hiring a cab.
Ceiba -> San Juan
On Monday, I took my chance at the ferry’s box window and requested a round trip ticket. Having arrived an hour before the window opened at 2 PM (strange hours), I spent the extra time chatting with some workers, getting the scoop.
“Wawa publica,” the Super Cool Ferry Employee said, referring to the vans that serve as public transportation.
In other places, they are called “colectivo” — Basically a van that’s like Uber carpool meets gypsy cab meets bus. There are specific places these colectivos go, operating as an informal bus line.
For my purposes, my journey outline is as follows:
- Ferry docks in Ceiba
- From there, hop onto a colectivo that goes to Fajardo
- Hop onto a colectivo that goes to Rio Piedras
- Walk or Uber or bus to final destination within San Juan
Super Cool Ferry Employee explained that the cost of the colectivo varies on how many people join the bus. If alone, it can cost $60+ to go to San Juan; if full, then the cost would be divided among the passengers.
And where would these vans be? — “When you get off the ferry, follow the crowd and there will be a group of men standing around. These are the drivers. Go up to them and ask if they go to Fajardo.”
Additional advice included arriving one hour prior to departure to make sure I am able to get on the ferry. Due to COVID, the boat might fill up and I’ll be left behind.
Also, if I wanted to ride in a full van, I should book my ticket for a morning departure because that’s the busiest time. Immediately forgetting this information, I bought my ticket for 11 AM the next morning.
The ferry ride felt quick but was about an hour or more. I spent my time writing on my laptop, enjoying the pleasant ride, and exploring the ferry.
As for amenities, there were none other than a few outlets for people to charge electronic devices. There was also a bathroom that was an unmemorable visit so most likely it was relatively clean as far as public transportation restrooms go; if you’ve been to one in any city metro, you know what I mean — *Gags*.
When we arrived at Ceiba, I followed the crowd through a simple tent where a man dressed in military fatigues was waiting to take our temperature. The checkpoint was quick, taking just seconds to be ushered through, but visually intimidating.
It only took a minute or so longer as we continued to navigate what felt like a giant parking lot with nondescript structures and buildings. I passed a man standing quite purposefully by the porta-potties looking out onto the stream of ferry-goers as we passed.
“Fajardo?” I asked.
“Si! Si!” He asked if I wanted to go alone.
I shook my head no, “I’ll wait for more people.”
Another man my age joined our entourage and the three of us waited another 5 minutes before taking off. I guess the driver didn’t feel there would be any other folks going our way.
Change in Plans
The ride immediately was eventful. The driver wanted to know where we were going. My fellow passenger requested drop-off in Fajardo. I requested the Fajardo publica stop so I could hop on the next one to Rio Piedras but the driver declared there would be no publicas in Fajardo.
“It is election day,” he said. “Nobody there. Only me!”
Well, that throws a wrench in my travel plans. He offered to take me to San Juan for $80. I could have flown to SJU for the price but he just shrugged, offering no condolences or compromise.
I silently chided myself for not negotiating before getting in the car. We were already rolling on the highway, passing strip malls that appeared very much like the domestic USA.
We continued to banter back and forth. He wanted no less than $75 to take me to Rio Piedras.
I wrinkled my nose. I was stuck.
I agreed that we continue on, meanwhile I Google-mapped how to get from “Current Location” to San Juan by public transportation.
About 15 minutes from where we were cruising on the highway was the Doctors’ Center Hospital in a town called Carolina. From the bus stop in front of the hospital, I could take the T7 bus on the red line to Terminal de Cupey and hop on the T9 to the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan and walk the rest of the way to Condado where I was staying. And for a ride to Carolina, we negotiated to $65.
Once we had an agreeable plan, the ride was amiable and we laughed and chatted like two chummy pals.
He lives on the other side of El Yunque and recommended I visit the Baños de Coamo, local hot springs on the island — I looked it up on Google and screenshotted it so I would remember. I’ve never been to a natural hot spring and have been dying to go.
Turns out, he spent many decades driving a cab in New York City. Then, he drove big rigs for many years. The man knows how to drive. He knows the in’s and out’s of transport.
Fishing a wrinkled copy of a magazine from between his seat and the center console, he passed it to me, proudly announcing that he’s part of the union, his eyes flicking in the rearview mirror to meet mine. It was a recent issue of the Public Transportation Union. I smiled and flipped through it before handing it back.
When I stepped onto the street out of the cab with my conspicuous backpack, I felt alone. The area was pretty desolate so I was happy to see some cops across the street and sat down to wait in the shade of the little bus stop shelter.
I looked through the photos and videos I had taken of my trip so far. I double-checked the navigation to make sure I was at the right stop. I watched people drive up to the adjacent curb and hurry into the post office next door. I hoped somebody would approach and wait for the bus as well.
After 30 minutes, a kind passersby pulled up and let me know that because of Election Day, the bus wasn’t running.
Oh. Election Day is actually a holiday?
I called an Uber.
Original mission was unsuccessful. I had no choice but to take a taxi from the ferry to San Juan, which was what I specifically did not want to do.
Uber from Carolina to Condado — $13
Cab fare — $65
Ferry ticket — $2
Total — $80
Cost on time: I arrived at the ferry at 10:30 AM and arrived at my destination at 3:00 PM. It took 4.5 hours. A half-day excursion.
Based on the trip made, I recommend flying. It’s way more convenient and there are less unknowns.
Done successfully, however, the save on cost could be worth the extra effort depending on your purpose for travel.
A few hours ago, I found the following article where two men successfully got to Vieques for $23 a head using public transportation, albeit in January 2020 (pre-COVID era) and wrote a very thorough, easy to read guide: https://thertwguys.com/san-juan-vieques-ferry-cheap/.
So I guess I had to experience all that to learn a couple of lessons:
- If you can, pick a run-of-the-mill kind of day to travel. Although I am just now learning this glaringly obvious travel pro-tip, it’s better now than never!
- For this particular situation, leave early, as advised. Morning departures from Vieques are 5:30 AM and 6:30 AM.