Hatillo, Puerto Rico
The most frightening trip that I have ever experienced was when we drove through Hatillo, Puerto Rico, on December 28. Unbeknownst to us, this day marked the Hatillo Mask Festival or Mascaras de Hatillo. Though this is merely an annual event, it got out of control.
Car Rental Scam
Our day started out poorly. First of all, we weren’t the only ones that had to wait over two hours for our confirmed car rental. Also, after finally securing our car, no one mentioned that we were on a toll road and that we should have bought a pass to avoid significantly inflated charges. Most importantly, we felt like the entire process was a scam.
After eventually loading our luggage in our SUV, we had planned on the typical two and one-half hour drive to Rincón. Instead, the trip took us four and a half hours, and one of those hours was the most frightening in my life. To make matters worse, we had our twelve-year-old son, seventeen-year-old daughter, and eighteen-year-old niece in our truck.
It all began after we were cruising west along Puerto Rico’s northern coast. As we caught glimpses of the ink blue Atlantic Ocean through the windows of our green Ford Explorer, our excitement for our vacation grew. Little did we know that our happiness would be short-lived.
When we approached the seaside town of Hatillo, we hit traffic congestion and a confusion of color, and cacophony pierced our eyes and ears. We heard sirens incessantly scream, and horns blare. Plus, we saw most everyone wearing garish, fluorescent clothing in hot pink, hot orange, lime green, red, blue, yellow, and more. Some donned capes and colorful sombrero hats made out of shiny floral sheeting. Initially, though somewhat annoyed with the slow traffic, we enjoyed the sights.
In addition to their brightly colored clothing, some donned grotesque masks, including devil masks, that added to their anonymity. Furthermore, many of them rode in the back of colorfully painted trucks and parade floats decorated with synthetic material. Most importantly, we watched them guzzle, what we assumed, was liquor and beer. Furthermore, we later learned that our assumption was correct.
Hatillo Mask Festival Chaos
As we entered Hatillo, we sat in gridlock. Bedlam raged. With rigid faces, we watched groups of men stagger in the streets near our car. Most tilted their cups and bottles straight up and swilled the contents.
I worried that the drunken gangs would notice our teenage girls in the backseat. In light of the chaos, we closed our windows, locked our doors, and peered out the windows. With wide eyes, all three children in the backseat slumped down. We sweated because we were foreigners with nowhere to go. Unfortunately, we became their target.
We feared for our safety
About ten men swarmed our SUV, shook it, and shot it with Silly String. I felt anxious that they would overturn the truck. Metal boomed, as they pounded their fists on the hood, roof, and windows. Suppose they shattered the glass?
Police, who were outnumbered probably one hundred to one, ignored the pandemonium. Though we could see them hold conversations on the next street, they didn’t see or want to see us. We felt that if the crowd became violent, that they would probably ignore that too. Also, with so few of them, we believed that they wouldn’t be able to help much.
For at least an hour, our jeep crept along at about two miles per hour. During that time, we scoured the streets looking for an escape route. We cringed and gaped as we watched the crowd become louder and drunker. We saw some of the men fall in the street.
Eventually, we spotted a cross street about four blocks ahead. Without coaxing, my husband drove over the curb, and on the sidewalk, and we passed the gridlocked cars. When we turned on the open road and accelerated, we opened the windows, high-fived, and laughed from relief.
Mascaras de Hatillo or Hatillo Mask Festival
We learned that the locals were celebrating the Hatillo Mask Festival or Mascaras de Hatillo. Though the festival is legitimate, it appeared to me, that for some, it was an excuse to get drunk and terrorize people, especially those that look like foreigners.
Hatillo Mask Festival commemorates the time when King Herod ordered his soldiers to kill all the little children after the birth of Jesus. Herod had hoped that his plan would prevent Jesus from becoming king. Apparently, the gaudily clad men represented these soldiers searching for the children.
Though we ultimately enjoyed our trip to Rincón, I suspect that our experience in Hatillo was out of the ordinary. With that said, I believe that if we had visited the lovely seaside town Hatillo on another day, we would have found it charming instead of alarming.
Unless you plan to attend the Hatillo Mask Festival on December 28, avoid the area.
Car Rental Scam
All things considered, since several people waited for confirmed cars for hours, I believe that the car rental employees scammed us. Plus, I think that the Puerto Rican officials may bank on naïve tourists cruising through the toll lanes without a pass so that they can levy heavy fines on rental cars.
Therefore, if you rent a car ask about a toll pass.