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Friday, December 31, 2021

Searching for junkyards, old cars in Puerto Rico

Jody Potter wearing a Junkyard Life tshirt stands overlooking La Perla area of Puerto Rico. 

Island finds. Junkyard Life heads to Puerto Rico in search of vintage cars and junkyards. Rust never sleeps, especially around salt water. Would we find any old cars? I expected to see many small cars and trucks pockmarked with holes of decay and blistered paint. But would we find any classic cars on the roads or junking up yards? Our hopes were high that the salt air spared a few. What did we find?  


Ford Transit 250 rental van on beach at sunset in Puerto Rico.
Sunset on the beach in pricey Puerto Rican rental van.


Getting around not cheap

Getting around without a car isn’t impossible but was deemed too expensive when having to rely on a taxi or Uber to cross the entire island more than once. Puerto Rico is only 100 miles wide and about 35 miles from north to south and our crew wanted to explore as much as possible. An insider tip said the online prices to rent a vehicle for a week were inflated and that we could find a better deal when we arrived. Sadly, that was not the case. Our vehicle rental costs totaled $1,440, including $279 for insurance for six days. We tried Uber for a few days but could readily see it would be impossible to find an inexpensive return ride from our remote excursions across the island. 


Load them up!

There were a total of five on our junkyard/vacation adventure, so we settled on a Ford 250 Transit van because it was the cheapest large vehicle. A traditional mini van rented for $400 per day. Wow! That is a lot of money. Our 2-seater Transit van, not our choice but all that was available, had a windowless cargo floor for three unlucky souls in our travel party. My son, Joe, and his friends, Seth and Ian, spent more than a dozen hours of travel in the dark cargo area. Their access to the cab area was limited by a metal screen. The trio spent hours sleeping or sliding atop the black plywood. Good times. Junkyard Life brother, Anthony Powell, and I filled the front seats. Let's hunt cars!


A total of five went to Puerto Rico. Group shot of Anthony, Seth, Ian, Joe, and Jody in front of El Yunque Rainforest.
Junkyard Life travel crew in front of El Yunque rainforest.



Three teens had to sit on the floor of the Ford Transit van because there were no seats.
Three teenagers locked in a cage in back of the rental van? Yes!

What we found

Foreign makes rule this land. Besides the ridiculous number of Burger King restaurants, one thing stood out to us through the windshield of the van. 20-year-old Mitsubishis were everywhere. We kept our eyeballs peeled in desperation searching out dozens of classic cars along the winding roads of this land in paradise. Our rental piled up over 1,000 miles during our 9-day stay. We saw lots of 1978-1987 Oldsmobile Cutlasses (G-Body), a pristine 1955 Chevy 2-door Bel Air, and a throng of VWs. The Volkswagens were mostly bay window buses (1968-1979 models), but also a good assortment of Beetles. 

We asked around for leads on old cars in yards. Rambierto Cobian, a charismatic, vocal, off-the-grid supporter of all things that make small beach towns great told us this. “Nobody has a car collection. One car, man. That’s what you find in Puerto Rico.”

We chewed on that bit of info as the evening melted away. We were standing outside the Nacho Libre restaurant/bar in Rincon as we bid farewell to Cobian as he sailed off into the night on his motorcycle. We hoped to discover some automotive island gems as we continued our journey.


A yard full of junk Olds Cutlasses, 1978-1987 models.
We found a yard full of Oldsmobile Cutlasses from the 1978-1987 era.


Undeterred we pushed on.

Anyone who has driven in Puerto Rico will tell you it’s a different experience. I found it a test of my driving skills. Encountering a horse galloping down a country road, gruesome iguana roadkill (those things are huge!), traffic lanes that seemed too small for two small cars, let alone a full-size cargo van and a dump truck meeting head on in a turn.


A 1964 Ford Galaxie in white sits in a yard full of junky modern cars at an abandoned house in San Juan.
A 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 was tucked away in a yard near San Juan.


Domes                                                           

No matter how far we traveled a beach was nearby. One of the more interesting was Domes Beach, located on the northwest shore of Puerto Rico. Domes is a haven for surfers, between October to February, when the waves are at peak height. The name comes from the giant blue dome, a decommissioned nuclear reactor site, that sits on a hillside adjacent to the beach. 

I pulled down into the sandy pseudo parking lot into a shady spot with the Ford Transit's sliding door opening facing the beach. Seemed perfect. After a quick swim the crew was ready to leave the desolate beach. A late model Chrysler 300 with a surfboard strapped to the roof was the only interesting thing we saw besides a couple of cheeky bikinis. It was July, not peak surfing season, time to move on.


Orange VW bus parked in shade near beach in Puerto Rico.
A bunch of VW vans were spotted all across the island. Most of them were orange.


Playing it loud

Ragaeton music blaring from dozens of cruisers who filled their doors with huge speakers or built exterior-facing speaker boxes that anyone within earshot, could feel in the busy city of San Juan. This music was loud, pumping the volume from Suzuki Sidekicks, Samurais, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Hyundai, and Jeep Wranglers. When a rolling parade of cars converged in La Parguerra (on the island's southwest shorewe were inches away from their music blasts. The sidewalk turned into a concert stage as the amped up cars flowed through the streets sharing their music with the crowds who strolled through the shopping district near Bio Bay.


Early Ford Bronco, maroon with black soft top parked at fancy home in San Juan.
An early (1973-1977) Ford Bronco on a carport in downtown San Juan.



Old San Juan

Most common sights on four wheels were modern Mini Coopers, and Toyota FJ Cruisers on many of the bricked streets. Closer to the modern side of town, regular San Juan, luxury marques such as, Porsche, Ferrari, were revving around the luxury establishments. 


Yellow Porsche 911 Carrera S in San Juan.
Expensive modern sports cars like this Porsche 911 Carrera S were all over San Juan. 


Black Nissan GT-R cruises near Luquillo Beach.
Nissan GT-R cruising the kiosks at Luquillo Beach.


Ponce? Lou Vega napping and his 1955 Chevy

Making a special effort to land on backroads and side streets was not necessary. The big white Ford Transit made plenty of wrong turns with me behind the wheel. My sense of direction has not failed to disappoint passengers in every state or island that I’ve traveled across. When those sidesteps happened, Anthony and I searched every driveway, carport, and yard for vintage automobiles. Our luckiest wrong turn involved catching a glimpse of a white and green 2-door 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air post.  Our crew unloaded in the street and approached the house to find and wake the car’s owner, Lou Vega, resting in his hammock on the porch. Vega was kind enough to show us his prized ‘55 Chevy. We struggled to overcome the language barriers but found out that Vega has spent many years as a mechanic. The ‘55 was in fantastic condition and a highlight of our journey. 


Pristine green and white 1955 Chevy Bel Air at Lou Vega's home.
Beautiful green and white 1955 Chevy Bel Air 2-door post.


Lou Vega stands beside his 1955 Chevy after we woke him from a nap.
Lou Vega has owned the ’55 Chevy for more than 20 years.


Anthony Powell, Lou Vega, and Jody Potter.
Even though we woke him from a nap, Mr. Vega was happy to show us his classic car.


The $520 t-shirt

Our final stop resulted in us staying in a vintage (seedy, if we’re being honest) motel in Rincòn. A tequila bar, The Nacho Libre, an Hispanic wrestling-themed local watering hole fronted the ground floor of the operation. Cool artwork, wrestling masks, and memorabilia littered the walls. The bartender was wearing a “Nacho Libre” t-shirt and I asked if they could be bought. He said they were out of shirts but would have more in stock the following night. That proved to be a problem. We would be away from the Nacho Libre during their “open” hours with little time to spare. By the time we ended our last stop, on our last day, we would be in a city 30 miles away with only 30 minutes available to travel the narrow Puerto Rican roads at 10:30 pm at night.

Anthony walks with bagged camera/phone in operable condition before kayak trip.
Anthony, left, holds his camera in a plastic bag as we embark on kayaking trip. The camera did not survive after taking a plunge.


Thrills and Skills

I earned driving duties for the entire trip. Some legal restrictions and an expired license precluded another driver (over 21), Anthony, from having the thrill of Puerto Rico roadway encounters. I’ve never experienced anything like this. Imagine a place where everyone drives crazy but they all seem okay with getting cut-off in traffic or facing near death from hazardous maneuvers their fellow drivers commit. I never saw a road rage incident, just people all trying to get where they were going, and others understanding that, “sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”


Back to the t-shirt.

Prepared to make a bullet run to the Nacho Libre for my t-shirt. We left the Bio Bay tour at LaParguera where we swam under the stars with microorganisms that sent sparkles and glowing light whenever the water was disrupted. An unreal surprise that should not be missed if you travel to Puerto Rico or one of the other places in the world where it occurs. I hot-footed it to the van with the crew, still wearing wet swim trunks. Things were going great until Mayaguez. The backroads turned into a four-lane highway with traffic lights. Not many cars on the road at nearly 11pm. After several days and logging more than 800 miles behind the wheel, I maneuvered the Transit van down a slight mountainous incline. A traffic light hung high across the road 500 feet ahead. It turned yellow. In a split-second I decided that my sleepy passengers on the floor in back of the van didn’t need a heavy braking experience on that slope of the road. The thoughts in my head sounded sensible. As I committed to not braking, the light jumped to red faster than I have ever seen. The light radiated red and I was 150 feet away. Both of my hands gripped tightly on the wheel, I turned to Anthony and said, “I had to do it.” The light was red as we sped through.

“You definitely did it,” Anthony replied.

I took a deep breath. All good. No traffic around. Just darkness. Twenty seconds must have passed. Then I saw the blue lights flash. Time to pull over and face the music in Puerto Rico.


A $500 ticket for running red light in Puerto Rico.
Obey all traffic laws in Puerto Rico, even when no one else does.


Not from around here

"Quiet everyone! Here they come."
From the darkness beneath the blue lights, two female police officers approached on each side of the van. My first thought, "Please, don’t look in the back." Would I get a ticket for unbelted, unseated passengers? 

The officers stayed just behind the side glass of each door. My license in hand and stationed at top of steering wheel. The officer to my left shined her light onto my Alabama drivers license. She reached for it along with the rental agreement papers and walked away. It was a painful wait.  My son, Joe, thought I was going to be asked to step outta the van. She returned with my license and a ticket.

Failing to yield at stoplight, “rebasar luz roja sin detenerse” - penalidad: $500.


Mask hang on walls at Nacho Libre tequila bar in Rincon.
The Nacho Libre, a wrestling-themed watering hole, is quite a spectacle at night.


"Ouch!"

And I thought an Uber would have been too expensive. I guess I should have stopped at the light. A split-second decision can make a great trip, a great trip with a great story. I won’t say I am proud of my actions but I wanted the t-shirt. I hustled into The Nacho Libre with my ticket and my story. Two minutes after closing time. The friendly barkeep, not so friendly this time, heard my story, looked at my ticket and angrily said, “What do you want?”

“My $520 t-shirt,” I blurted with a bit of regret.

VW Beetle at sunset in Old San Juan.
Vintage VWs on an island at sunset are hard to beat.


Lesson for travelers to Puerto Rico 

If you live a budget-minded life like me you will need to make transportation arrangements early. Also, don’t assume you can squeeze one more guest into a room. These were costly lessons which made our “vacation on the cheap” mantra a joke.

The island has plenty of hidden automotive gems and we came nowhere close to finding them all. How about another trip around Puerto Rico? This time no tickets!


Jody Potter
– Junkyard Life 



Rusty 1955 Chevy in shad in Puerto RIco.
Another 1955 Chevrolet was spotted deep in a yard. This one was a bit rougher than Mr. Vega's.



Ambulance on pole outside florist shop in Puerto Rico.
Florist with an ambulance on a pole as their sign.



1985 BMW 323i looks wrecked and abandoned near LaParguera.
This early 1980s BMW 323i caught my attention. I guess nobody restores old BMWs here.



Damaged fender on white 1985 BMW shows.
Some blunt force trauma was likely cause of death.



A BMW El Camino? Looks like someone made a homemade truck out of a 4-door 1990s BMW 323.
This mid-1990s BMW sedan has been transformed into a truck.



Rough Buick Regal from the 1980s cruises toward beaches in Puerto Rico.
More G-Body action. This Buick Regal is still getting the job done in style.



The big-eyed Cadillac caught Anthony by surprise.



El Camino parked curbside in Mayaguez.



This island adventure was packed with fun food stops. Left to right, Jody, Anthony, Seth, Ian, and Joe.



Just to prove Junkyard Life was in Puerto Rico, I wore a JYL shirt everyday.




Four-wheeling fun in an XJ Jeep Cherokee.



Fox Body Mustangs representing in Puerto Rico.




Favorite big city stop - Old San Juan.



We toured the narrow, winding LaPerla neighborhood that borders El Morro Fort.



The far end of the street is where the tourists hop off the cruise ships to buy souvenirs made in China. Cool original P.R. souvenirs can be found if you look beyond the busy areas.




Favorite remote location – house just outside El Yunque National Rainforest.



The hungry ate at Popeye's when we were pressed for time. Live chickens walked around the parking lot.



Bay window VW bus that was not orange. Most were.




VW bus parked beside a Flamboyan tree.



A slick VW Westfalia bus with Porsche wheels at the beach.



Interior of the VW Westfalia bus. The friendly owner was camera shy.




Do you have a car story? Maybe you found one on a trip? Send us details!  Send emails to Jody Potter at junkyardbull@gmail.com & Ron Kidd at Kidd403@bellsouth.net


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