What did you do with your summer break? As we gear up to start our fall quarter, we look back on a summer journey with Julie North, a 2011 University College alumna who received her MAS in Environmental Policy and Sustainable Development, which she says shaped the road she found herself on this summer: walking around the whole 308 mile island of her current home of Puerto Rico. Read on for her incredible story in her words – our alumni never cease to amaze us!
Hi, my name is Julie. I am originally from Colorado (CU alumna 2004-2007; University College alumna 2009-2011). I grew up in a small mountain town where everyone knew everyone and people would always stop and say hello or good morning because that is what you do (Go Golddiggers!). If I make eye contact with someone, I will always say hi.
That is exactly the reason why I fell in love with Puerto Rico.
There is not a time where you don’t acknowledge others or wish those eating in a restaurant a boastful “Buen Provecho,” whether you know them or not.
“How can I see this island the way locals do?” I thought to myself. Professionally, I am a sustainability consultant turned travel agent. I used to be the director of sustainability for Aurora Public Schools (in Colorado) before a massive budget shortfall in 2017 cut my career short and I was laid off. I have since relocated to the island of Puerto Rico and have fused my personal interests of travel with responsible and ethical practices to provide my clients with immersive and authentic experiences that center on the local entrepreneurial spirit and keep dollars in the communities creating meaningful partnerships.
Ironically, I was just returning from Ethiopia in February from a small group trip when the whole world shut down due to the pandemic. Puerto Rico, as well as Ethiopia, fly under the radar for many travelers and my hope has always been to elevate the lived experiences of locals, their hospitality, unique flavors, and general goodwill towards visitors through small group travel.
The closure of Puerto Rico to travelers was devastating for businesses, restaurant owners, local hotels, and guest houses. Not only did the island face cancellations and uncertainty a month prior in January due to a series of massive earthquakes that rocked the island but with February bringing a pandemic rife with restrictions and curfews not just on the island but throughout the world, it made the upcoming months for travel, let alone daily activities seem really bleak.
Out of this cluster of a mess, I would walk early in the mornings to clear my mind, daydream, or think about opportunities for future small group trips. All of my personal travel from a trip to Nepal to a family visit back to Colorado had been cancelled.
Not having any work myself, I realized that I didn’t actually have to fly anywhere to enjoy traveling or to be a better traveler. I could practice right in my town. I knew that many people were going to be faced with this similar challenge: not many funds and not many travel options. I hoped to inspire people to explore their own backyards and these daily walks encouraged those sentiments. I would go down different streets in my town, places that I had never been even though I had moved here over two years ago. One day I ended up walking to the next town over—more than 10 miles and that was when I had the hair-brained idea to keep going and walk around the whole island, or at least attempt it!
What was it like?
Exhilarating and enabling in the best senses of those words.
I never passed anything up. If my route went along the ocean, I would go for a swim. My goal was to circumnavigate the whole island so I stayed as close to the shore as the roads and trails allowed, which in many places were miles and miles of coastline (so I went for a swim quite a bit!). If there were kioskos selling empanadillas (moon-shaped pastry filled with all sorts of flavors; crab, local fish, meat), I would savor one with a refresco, local fruits like passion fruit or watermelon blended with water at any time of the day, multiple times.
I listened to a myriad of podcasts reflecting on the Black Lives Matter protests and had a solo dance party in Loiza at 6:30 a.m. I also just listened to nature. Birds don’t start singing until 4:30 a.m., and I got accustomed to the shuffling of iguanas on leaves and didn’t jump every time it occurred.
Traveling solo is liberating, especially when you get to decide what you want to do and see for the day, which was every day. I didn’t have to entertain anyone, and I was only responsible for myself, which was good because semi-trucks on blind corners going 40 mph can be a rush and will almost always blow your hat off your head.
I did have a handful of caveats:
To give back to the island with my stimulus check by staying in locally owned hotels and Airbnbs and to support local businesses for everything I might need, from bandaids to breakfast.
I packed really, really light. I took one change of clothes, one pair of shoes/socks, toothbrush, refillable water bottle, a pair of flip flops, baseball hat, sunscreen, long sleeve shirt, head-lamp, and a swimming suit. I didn’t even pack a hair brush (and I didn’t buy one either). I was dirty and smelled pretty gnarly for the majority of my time walking, but I can’t even begin to tell you how refreshing a cold shower was at then end of the day (it became a highlight and motivator for sure!)
I woke up every day at 4 a.m. and began my trek by 4:30 a.m. for a few reasons. The weather is coolest in the mornings and less traffic on the roads. I also didn’t share my route on social media, as I didn’t need someone who had ill intentions to stalk my route and anticipate my arrival. I guessed correctly that robbers are late sleepers and it paid off.
What did I learn?
The island of Puerto Rico is dubbed as the “Island of Enchantment,” and it certainly lives up to its nickname in every sense. The local knowledge of the land was some of the best storytelling I’ve ever heard, especially in regards to natural disasters and how the land and marine forms helped certain areas to avoid flooding during tropical storms.
The natural ecosystems overlap with one another to create microclimates within the island’s predominately tropical rainforest temperatures. Interestingly, El Yunque (pronounced Yoon-kay) is the only rainforest in the United States, and it happens to be right here in Puerto Rico (Rio Grande, to be exact). The island is vastly diverse and I always knew it was, but being able to walk and experience it first-hand, even many different climate zones in just one day was fascinating.
A good example of the island’s diversity occurred on my third day, which ended up being the longest day of the trek. I walked just under 24 miles from Boqueron to La Parguera in the southwest corner of the island. I swam a channel at Playa Los Pozos, hiked a 1,000-foot tall series of hills and bike trails in El Combate, walked on dusty rural roads outside of Betances, and arrived in La Parguera to swim in the bioluminescent water.
In all honesty, it makes me sad that many “big islanders” up north have no idea about Puerto Rico, nor do they realize that all Puerto Ricans are American citizens and as such, don’t need a passport to travel to the island, you can drink the water, and dollars spend just as well, if not better here.
The island is closer to Venezuela than the mainland US, and has played a huge role in many world events throughout its annexation in 1898 with the Treaty of Paris. Having visited 42 of the 78 municipalities, each one is unique and has its own flavor, slang, famous person, public art, and natural environment. From the coffee farms in Yauco, to the bike paths in Loiza, the surfing in Isabela, the bioluminescent waters in La Parguera, there are adventures around every corner, and it’s hard to not feel like a kid again.
Shoes are definitely optional.
You can see more pictures from Julie’s full journey, as well as vlogs, on her Instagram page: @JustNorthofTravel.All photos courtesy of Julie North.