No Shame in Pushing: Bikepacking Puerto Rico
The Crust Bikes crew pedals around Puerto Rico in search of good waves and white sand beaches, but ultimately finds much more. Read about the highs and lows of their week spent riding (and pushing) around a tropical wonderland…
Words by Angelica Casaverde, photos by Matt Whitehead
I am the tiniest diva on two wheels. When I say I’m a diva, I’m not trying to be cute. I am all capitals, in bold, DIVA. I’m the one who gets someone to carry the heavy stuff and do all the physical work because I can’t be bothered. I love my lavender candle, my bed, and my Netflix chill time. I prioritize looking good and feeling 100. With all that being said, you can see how bikes and bike touring don’t exactly fit into my idea of a good time. But I didn’t chose a life of bikes. I fell in love with Matt and consequently married into this crazy shit. On the morning we exchanged vows I inherited Crust Bikes as the loosest, most flamboyant adopted child I never anticipated having. Matt and bikes until I die.
Before I met Matt, I had never been on a bike as an adult. I was drinking mezcal and salsa dancing my way around Latin America. On those first dates I would sit on his bike’s front rack, ride around town, and heckle people while we simultaneously made out. It was cute. Eventually, I decided to independently search for a bike of my own, so I hit up my local Walmart. What a mistake. It was screwed, straight out of the box. I returned it and learned Matt’s favorite lesson, “Buy cheap, buy twice.” Finding a bike for my petite 4’10” frame was difficult. It’s a reason I stayed away from bikes for so long. I didn’t want to be an adult woman on a kids bike, and anything bigger was just too uncomfortable. Since that Walmart bike, I’ve had a secondhand Trek, a custom mini Crust Evasion step through, and now my very own Crust namesake, the “Cheecho.” I am a lucky lady.
In talks, Matt suggested we do my favorite thing and just “chill” in paradise. Chill meant him surfing and me baking my skin with a drink in my hand. Surprisingly, though, I insisted on taking the bikes and riding. Trust me, this was a huge internal battle. I normally looked for ways to get out of bike riding. Despite these custom bikes, a fun little four-day bike ride in Australia, and short commutes to and from work, I still didn’t like being on my bike. But, bikes give my partner so much happiness and I wanted to share that with him. I knew I needed to get out of my comfort zone and give riding a fair chance.
I created the perfect formula for an enjoyable bike tour: tropical climate, small island, supportive partner, world class bikes, and Melissa. Like me, Melissa is not a bike rider. She simply thought riding a bike around Puerto Rico sounded like a good time. I felt ease in knowing that my misery would have company, though I’ll openly admit I don’t like riding with anyone other than Matt. And I don’t like riding in groups because I’m slow. Very slow. Riding in groups exposes how truly unfit I am and no one likes to feel like they’re the slob holding the group back. It’s nothing personal toward others, it’s simply an insecurity on my part and I’m okay with that.
We made a plan to head east from San Juan, riding toward Rincon. We weren’t sure what to expect. Nothing about bike touring in Puerto Rico had come up on my internet research and we definitely had no idea what the situation was like post hurricane Maria. When we landed in San Juan, all it took was a bit of pushing my bike box through the airport for me to immediately start regretting my decision to do this. So much sweating. Matt packed, unpacked, and built three bikes. Did I mention how lucky I am? He was on his Nor’easter, I was on the only bike in the world that fits me, the Cheecho, and Melissa was on a secondhand Bridgestone with a Clydesdale Cargo fork. Throw in a nice little unicorn vomit surfboard for good measure and we were ready to partay.
We found a van to take us and our bikes to Rincon for the start of our ride. Eighty-three miles via automobile. We were dropped off in front of a gate on someone’s private property, not far from the center of town. The driver left and the three of us situated ourselves in front of the gate, taking turns using a bathroom nearby. An older woman came out to the gate and started speaking Spanish to Melissa. Melissa doesn’t speak Spanish. I interjected. “Estan bien, necistan ayuda? Are you guys okay, do you need help?” she asked. I told her our plan to ride to San Juan and her face dropped “QUE? Ten cuidado!” Be careful. People cannot fathom riding a bicycle for such a long distance just for kicks. She seemed genuinely worried and gave us her blessing. These conversations became common. Locals would stop us to ask about our bikes, where we came from, and to offer advice.
The bike ride began and within five minutes we made our first beach stop. Puerto Rican beaches are places straight out of desktop screensavers. Fine white sand, lush palm trees, and lucent blue water. You get it. We wanted to move slow and enjoy the unexpected. Relish that we weren’t in the clutches of New Jersey’s horrid winter. Bask in the emptiness of the shores, tan my boobs and butt cheeks without getting arrested or harassed.
We aimed to stay beachside, but when those routes dead ended we followed steep, twisted roads up into the cliffs, made the first left, bombed down a fun hill into a colorful beach town, and pedaled back onto a coastal course. My legs are far from the powerful horse thighs of experienced riders, so off the saddle it was. Melissa was right there with me, pushing and cursing up those hills. I would stop halfway up, have a swig of water, and listen to the little screams coming from my tiny body. “What the hell you doing out there, girl? Help! I’m tired!” I couldn’t get frustrated. I was in paradise, feeling the burn from my gluteus maximus while singeing my skin to a perfect, crispy brown. “No shame in pushing!” quickly became my mantra for this trip.
One day, the map showed us a five-mile stretch of road along the beach, but when we reached it, it had been washed away by the hurricane. Roadblocks, road maintenance, (attempted) electrical work, and abandoned hotels and restaurants were constant reminders. Reminders that Puerto Rico, in all its natural beauty, had been devastated only a few months prior. This small island full of culture, history, and charisma is caught in an internal identity limbo between country and state, leaving its citizens living under a flawed system that has neglected their needs.
Since our bikes and surfboard attracted constant attention, it was common to get into conversations with just about anyone. These conversations gave me some loose perspective on the situation. We rode into a town one morning, looking for a shop with breakfast and water. When we got there, the shop had no power and the water coming out of the faucet was discolored, but the store owner didn’t hesitate to gift us his own personal gallon of filtered water. Another woman we met along the way told us that her town hadn’t had electrical power since the hurricane, but was hoping to get it back that day. That’s five months. Five months without the most basic needs for the children, elderly, handicapped, and others who live on U.S. territory. In the aftermath of such turmoil, Puerto Ricans proved to be kind, generous, and patient.
Our fifth day of riding, an unfortunate combination of road work and misinformation meant hours spent backtracking. It was a long day, and the sun was already setting by the time we started searching for a place to set camp for the night, which wasn’t easy on the coast. Matt led us past a fence, through a field of high grass, and to a rocky, secluded beach that was hidden among palms and out of sight. It was perfect. And then Melissa found a snake in the rocks. Goddamn Melissa. A thick, brown, nasty ass snake. I was out. Divas and snakes don’t mix. Especially when sleeping in an open-bottom tent. We packed up and rode into the creeping night. No hidden camp spots for our two-story-mansion sized tent in sight. No open motels. We even offered money to camp in someone’s yard, but nothing. The advice and warnings of violence and robberies from the people we conversed with along our ride replayed in my head and added panic to my exhaustion.
The dark of the night had set in when we finally reached the small town of Vega Baja. I was the only one of us who could speak Spanish, so with Matt’s help, I had to suck in all my feelings, attempt to act normal, and get help from someone at the bar in town. Help in the form of a lift to the nearest motel or a yard to camp on in exchange for cash, something. I approached an older woman sitting at the bar who was enjoying a rum pouch. It’s like a Capri Sun but with alcohol. I told her our story, how we biked from Rincon, and how tired I was. The bartender joined in the conversation and as I was talking, I felt my eyes start to burn and the tears roll down my face. I just let go and started full-on crying in front of these two strangers. I was so tired. My Capri Sun rum angel, Maria, pulled me into her full bosom and gave me a big mami hug. She didn’t live in the area and was waiting for a lift from her niece, but assured me she would find someone to help.
And so, the three of us dirtbags with fully loaded bikes hung around outside the bar, waiting waiting for Maria’s lead from the bartender’s cousin who would maybe let us camp on his patio. I chased down a guy with long dreads who seemed like he would be of some help. He wasn’t. We were sure we’d have to camp on the beach, in plain sight, along a busy road.
I don’t know if it’s working as a waitress, the current administration, racism, sexism, or the USA in general but, I’ve found myself losing my faith in humanity recently. Self-serving, impatient humans fixated on machines that create fake worlds through posed images on a screen. Living in the comfort of your box, whether it be your house, apartment, or car. I am guilty of all this. I am not without fault. The way I see it is we have two choices in life 1) to live in ignorance and follow the mundane, comfortable routine that society has created, or 2) get out there and get uncomfortable. Have moments of fear, dig yourself out, feel vulnerable, cry in front of strangers, make new friends, and cherish those moments, because that is living. When you’re faced with two options, take the one that makes you cringe in discomfort. I promise it will be the most rewarding.
About Angelica Casaverde
Angelica Casaverde is a Peruvian-American who was raised in New Jersey. After spending time working as a corporate apparel designer, she’s now making active/bike-friendly lady goodies by the sea shore. Pretty bikes are her favorite. You can follow Angelica and Crust Bikes on Instagram @crustbikes.