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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Finding a way back to ‘Perfect Beach’

La Poza del Obispo, or the Bishop’s Pool, in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in August 2023. The pool is a semicircular area protected by a rock formation, creating a calm, clear inlet that is perfect for floating. (Sebastian Castrodad/The New York Times)

By Mya Guarnieri

On the northern coast of Puerto Rico — about an hour’s drive west of San Juan, off a wisp of a road threaded through dense green foliage — there exists a long, empty beach that has haunted my dreams for years. On Google Maps, it appears as Punta Caracoles Beach, but I have always thought of it as Perfect Beach.

Hidden from Route 681 by an impenetrable wall of palm trees, sea grapes and snake plants, the half-mile stretch of golden sand near the tiny outpost of Islote is tucked between a graceful bend in the shore and a rocky outcropping. A few houses anchor its far eastern end. The ocean is a visceral blue.

I used to spend hours there, immersing myself in the water, emerging to plop down in the coarse, shelly sand, exhausted, satisfied, letting the sun warm my bare skin.

At least, this is the beach as I remember it. Two decades ago, I had easy access to the place via the summer home of my first husband’s Puerto Rican family. Then we divorced, and later the family sold the land to a fellow from the U.S. mainland. Now, the beach beckons from the other side of a stranger’s private property.

I traveled to Puerto Rico in late May with the singular goal of finding a way back onto that beach (not to be confused with the popular Caracoles Beach, a few miles down the road). I recruited my ex-husband’s cousin Joaquín, a native Puerto Rican who had spent much of his youth on that beach. Together, we set out from San Juan on a sunny Friday afternoon with Perfect Beach — or another stretch of sand that could compare — in our sights.

A gap in the fence

Route 681 winds along some of the island’s most spectacular shoreline and, for that reason, is popular with bicyclists and motorcyclists. The road is also lined with restaurants and bars. On the weekends, it’s not uncommon to see party buses making their way along the road.

When we arrived in Islote, dense foliage along the highway complicated our effort to pick out the family’s old lot. But eventually, Joaquín slowed and nosed the car into a dirt driveway that was barricaded by orange netting. A sign in Spanish warned us not to trespass. In Puerto Rico, legally speaking, there are no such thing as private beaches — but you can’t cross private property to reach the sand.

We got back in the car and Joaquín drove slowly, waving a tailgater past. And then I spied a break — a 3-foot-wide path running between two fences. “There!” I shouted. “Stop!” and he pulled over on the narrow, grassy shoulder. I jumped out and barreled through the gap, Joaquín trailing me, a soft cooler full of beer dangling from his shoulder.

We emerged on the wrong side of the point locals call La Vaca, or the Cow — a 30-foot-high rocky outcropping that juts into the ocean, at the western end of Perfect Beach. From the east, the slope is gentle, and with proper shoes, you can cross its black spikes, which locals say were formed as the ocean lapped at cooling lava. But from this side, it’s too steep to get a foothold.

We spent a moment enjoying this beach, which was studded with otherworldly round boulders of dead coral, bleached white by the sun. But it was no match for Perfect Beach.

Floating and feasting

Stymied for now, we decided to explore some other local beaches, like La Poza del Obispo (the Bishop’s Pool), reportedly named in honor of a Puerto Rican cleric who had survived a shipwreck.

Because the island’s north shore faces the open Atlantic, the water along it is usually rough. But, at La Poza, a natural rock formation serves as a barrier, creating a small and almost perfectly round inlet with a crystal clear pool that is perfect for floating. The ocean crashing on the rocks lends the water a gentle sway, like being rocked to sleep, and puts on a show, too: When large waves burst on the barrier, sending 20- and 30-foot plumes of spray into the air, bathers ooh, aah and laugh together.

After La Poza, we headed back east, passing the popular Caza y Pesca (Hunting and Fishing) Beach — so named for the fishermen who once gathered there. As we drove with the windows down, the irresistible smell of a small

shore-front restaurant persuaded us to pull over for dinner.

The eatery, called Arrecife 681, was one of the many that had opened up along Route 681 and in the surrounding communities after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Islote is a microcosm of Puerto Rico, whose food scene has blossomed since the devastation of the storm, perhaps as an outgrowth of islanders’ efforts to achieve greater food sovereignty from the mainland.

We sat on the patio, the beach just a short drop down the dunes, and ordered two appetizers: octopus ceviche, served with taro chips, and egg rolls stuffed with beef, cheese and ripe plantain. The drink menu offered a variety of delicious mojitos — including passion fruit and tamarind.

By the time we got our main dish — green pigeon pea risotto with chicken sausage and sweet plantains topped with pork chunks — we were too full to eat. We leaned back on the bench and picked at the delicious food, groaning with each bite. From the patio, to the east of La Vaca, everything looked exactly as it did from the old beach house: the sunset with that familiar hump protruding into the ocean. The wind was blowing just as it did there, too. We’re so close, I thought.

I’d picked a rustic Airbnb ($100 a night) on the sole basis that it was as close as I could get to the old beach house. Early the next morning, I set out to run, alone, to Perfect Beach. I saw La Vaca on the horizon and, as I recognized Arrecife, the restaurant from the night before, ahead of me, I knew I was almost there. But the shoreline became impossibly rocky, and I had to turn back.

Just follow your nose

After my run, we headed to La Cueva del Indio, right next door to my Airbnb. The cave, famous for its pre-Columbian petroglyphs made by the Taíno, the island’s Indigenous people, is surrounded by soaring cliffs that offer a stunning view of the cobalt water below. We sat on the edge of a cliff, listening to the waves echo off the rocks, watching swallow-tailed birds soar, dive and swoop.

Back on the road, I spied a tiny, black food truck with a flat tire. The sign was simple: La Herencia. Again, my nose implored us to stop, and the results were piping-hot pastelillos, fried turnovers with a small ball of filling, the dough extending out so far and so flat that they reminded me of angel wings. We tried the shrimp and a garlicky tomato filling that was surprisingly but pleasantly sweet. Joaquín tried an unusual pairing: an octopus-filled pastelillo and banana peppers. Breaking off big chunks of the edges, we declared the crispy dough the best we’d ever had. (La Herencia is closed but its owners aim to reopen soon.)

From there, I could see La Vaca. And again, we were on the correct side to make it to Perfect Beach. After finishing our pastelillos, we tried to walk there, but again, it was too rocky, and we returned to the car, defeated.

Then it hit me: “Arrecife — the restaurant!” I said. “Let’s park there, grab drinks and then drop down off the patio onto the beach.”

When we arrived at Arrecife, I headed straight to the bar, where I ordered a drink to go. I chose the Lilin: vodka, Prosecco, St-Germain elderflower liqueur and passion fruit liqueur, topped off with passion fruit juice.

Plastic cup in hand, I made a beeline for the corner of the patio as Joaquín asked if it was OK to go down to the beach from the restaurant. “Of course,” an employee with the official air of a manager responded, and Joaquín followed.

After a short walk, we passed the last house anchoring the eastern tip of the beach. And then a familiar feeling came over me: The place was exactly as I remembered it. We were alone as far as the eye could see. I peeled off my clothes and raced to the water.

The ocean floor fell away steeply just a few steps in. I ducked under the huge waves rolling toward me and swam out beyond the breakers. I flipped onto my back, letting my body rise. Cradled by warm saltwater, I looked toward the shore and saw nothing but palm trees and sea grapes. The outside world no longer existed. There was only this beach, this moment, and it was perfect — exactly as it had remained, all these years, in my dreams.

If you go

Most of the accommodations in the area of Islote and along Route 681 mirror the beaches: rustic. Airbnbs are a good option.

Where to stay:

— Salitre Meson Costero, an upscale seafood restaurant on the water near Punta Caracoles, offers a beachside villa — great for groups — with a stunning view and a private pool ($1,395 a night for a 10-room, 7 1/2-bath villa that can accommodate 16 guests, on Airbnb).

— The high-end Nest Puerto Rico, also good for groups, has options near Caza y Pesca Beach ($500 a night for a four-bedroom villa that can accommodate 10) and oceanside in Arecibo (also $500 a night for a four-bedroom villa that can house up to 10).

— Greta Beach Box, in Islote, is a shipping container, just steps from the beach, that has been converted into a luxurious cabin with a private, heated pool ($151 a night for two rooms that can sleep four guests).

— DK Backyard, another converted shipping container on Airbnb, offers a simple space (with a hammock on the porch) and is just a short walk from the beach in Islote ($174 a night for one bedroom with a double bed).

Where to eat:

— David Sandwich, along Route 681 has been an Islote institution for decades, serving up tasty roasted-pork sandwiches and more ($4 to $9).

— El Nuevo Guayabo, another Islote mainstay along Route 681, offers empanadas stuffed with cetí, a tiny immature fish found in the Arecibo area ($5).

— Bocata Smokehouse, a delicious barbecue joint, features ocean breezes and views and occasional live music (entrees $9 to $28).

— La Distillera, one of the places that have sprung up since Hurricane Maria, offers small plates that meld traditional ingredients with whimsical touches — like pastry pockets stuffed with short rib and Manchego and served with mango chimichurri. The innovative drinks are phenomenal: For example, the Olivia is made of olive-oil-infused gin, Licor 43 (a sweet liqueur from Spain), lime and honey syrup. (The menu changes weekly. Food from about $12 to $20; cocktails $8 to $12.)

— DPicar681, a food truck, serves delightful cod fritters ($2) — thin and crisp but chewy, with a distinctive oregano flavor.

— El Kiosquito del Norte, a roadside stand, tempts travelers and locals with freshly made stuffed crab fritters and moist, flavorful plantain rolls filled with ground beef ($3.50).

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