Driving in Puerto Rico

My husband and I knew from the start that we didn’t want our trip to Puerto Rico to be a passive one. We are adventurers at heart, and decided early on to not only extend the original trip he had won from work, but to rent a car and use the extra time to explore every inch of the island.

We happened to land in San Juan on Monday at just about 4pm. We took our little rental car out onto the freeway and promptly got stuck in a mass of rush hour traffic. We knew to expect it, though, and were only slightly daunted by it. Until we started watching cars cut this way and that, drivers use hand gestures more than signals, take right exits from the far left lane, and cars pass up on the shoulders like they were taking the outside corner at the Indy 500. OH MY.

At one point, my husband even watched in his rear-view mirror as a truck and car collided directly behind us. It was so close!

It took us 45 minutes to go about 7 miles, and even once on surface streets we kept wondering out loud if there were two lanes or one and had to watch carefully as cars and pedestrians proceeded with little rhyme or reason.

san juan freeway traffic

San Juan Freeway

police directing traffic in san juan

Police directing traffic in the very congested Old San Juan, near the capital building.

As we set out from San Juan on our second day towards the western town of Aguadilla, we hoped to leave the madness behind. But as soon as we got onto Puerto Rico Highway 2 (the longest highway on the island, it connects San Juan on the north to Ponce on the south), we realized that certain behaviors were the same no matter where we went. People driving fairly willy-nilly, cutting us off, exiting right from the far left lane – it was just consistently mind-boggling, and consistently frustrating.

Also frustrating were the three toll booths in a short span of time, and the fact that the freeway ends and becomes more of a coastal road with red lights every few miles. And at every red light were men selling bottled water, cookies, or other food items. The road itself became incredibly congested, so we decided at the town of Camuy to exit and explore some side roads into mountain villages.

This is where the white-knuckle driving really began. I have no pictures of these sidetrips (we took several between Tuesday and Wednesday) because I was usually holding on for dear life.

The smaller village roads are narrow, with no guardrails, poorly maintained, and tend to be frequented (as we discovered early on) by drivers with no fear as to their speed or placement on the road. It’s just the littlest bit crazy if you ask me.

puerto rico village road

(*not my photo - see credit below) Although this road is nicely-paved and most of ours were not, this is still fairly typical of what we found on the mountain roads - narrow, windy, and we did find a lot of people, dogs, and other cars alongside the already skinny roads.

(photo credit)

These roads also have very few indicators of where you are or where you are going, so when we were purposefully trying to find destinations (as opposed to just thrill-seeking, which we did too), it’s incredibly difficult. We spent nearly the entire day on Wednesday trying to find different points of interest, only to become too frustrated by the windy, unmarked roads to finally get there.

Which reminds me of an essential tip if you are going to drive in Puerto Rico: I *highly* recommend bringing a GPS or renting a car with one. We had a GPS with us, and even though we ultimately couldn’t find some locations, we would have been dead lost without it.

In some of the larger towns, streets were marked a bit better, but the traffic and congestion were the same. Here we are inching along near downtown Mayaguez:

mayaguez traffic

I have to admit, the frustration with the roads and drivers has taken some enjoyment out of our exploring here in Puerto Rico. We had planned to take today to drive along the southern coast and back up through the center of the island to San Juan, but have decided to simply retrace our steps and take the shorter, more direct route back. Tonight we’ll be at a resort in Fajardo – where we’ll stay for the rest of our trip – and I’m guessing our driving days here are done.

I wanted to write this post not only to update friends, family, and followers as to our trip, but to give a head’s up to others who may be planning a trip to Puerto Rico. I wish we had looked into driving conditions a little more, as I think it would have prepared us for what we were about to discover. And there are plenty of resources about driving in Puerto Rico – I’ll finish up this post by linking to them below:

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  • Jessica Morgan

    Sounds a lot like the driving in Thailand – drivers signaling and communicating through honks and flashing their lights; a big scary game of “chicken”. Hope you can relax and enjoy the rest of your trip!

  • Anonymous

    I am excited at the prospect of one day traveling to other countries, and never really thought about the driving conditions. What you described would’ve made me a nervous wreck which is not a good thing to be when on vacation, lol!
    Hope you have some “more relaxed” times before you have to leave!
    Bernice
    WAHM Interview with Emily Vanek

  • Ah, yes…the driving! I think I actually wrote a post from our trip in 2009 titled the same as this! The driving is cuh-razy! Had I known you were renting a car, I would have warned you! Sorry it took away from you enjoying the trip.

  • Anonymous

    Oh yes. I have driven in Puerto Rico. In fact, when I rented a car, I saw another car in the lot that had been rear-ended. Part of a carjacking. The driving is so random and I, too, explored the island. Every mountain road involved a honk and a prayer that the driver decided to stick to his side of the road as you rounded the corner. Glad you made it back alive 🙂

  • D’oh I wish I’d read this before we’d gone.  We wondered off on a few rural roads around Camuy on the way from the caves to Rincon & it was very nerve racking! Although I have driven on some roads like that in rural TN too!

    • We never did find those caves! 🙂 It was just an awful lot of driving (and praying ourselves around every corner).