Lady, Relocated has achieved guest blogging status, folks. My gorgeous sister Laura and her adorable boyfriend Mark (whom I lovingly refer to as “my future brother-in-law”) have been kind enough to share some travel inspiration today. They recently ventured to the tropical paradise of Puerto Rico; and in my own desperation for another sun-filled vacation I begged them to share their trip with us. Without further ado, take it away Laura and Mark!
Due to the nature of both our jobs, vacation time is something we have to plan out very far in advance. This time around we decided to get away from the dreary Northwest winter and cast off for San Juan, Puerto Rico for a Caribbean adventure.
Neither of us knew much about Puerto Rico aside from what we read about in the guide book. So the trip certainly provided a chance to gain some insight into a very interesting and unique culture while working on our tans alongside various cruise ships patrons and East Coast retirees.
We decided to roll the dice on picking out our lodging through airbnb.com, which ended up being a great choice. We settled on a studio apartment in the Punta Las Marias area away from the touristy portions of the city and one block away from Ocean Park beach (and a 1/2 mile from Isla Verde beach). The studio cost less than a hotel and provided bikes, beach chairs, beach towels, snorkel equipment, a barbecue and a pretty nice DVD collection for those lazy nights after long days of sightseeing.
Before settling in, we had to swing by SuperMax to buy a week’s worth of provisions of rum, coffee, water and salad (let’s not kid ourselves, we only went for the rum) after quickly grabbing lunch at Kasalta because we were forced to go straight up camel on our flight from Newark (really, United Airlines? You can’t even give out free peanuts?). We were in luck because Kasalta, a bakery whose claim to fame is that President Obama ate there, was only a few blocks from our place and we would go back a handful of times to sample their seriously delicious sandwiches and pastries. The quesito was a revelation — essentially a puff pastry coated in caramelized syrup, baked and filled with a heavenly creme cheesy concoction.
After spending some time at the beach, we read in the newspaper about a nativity celebration in Old San Juan that night and decided to check it out and go out to dinner at a restaurant close by the plaza.
The Encendido Navideño en Plaza de La Barandilla featured a concert with Christmas tunes and what I can only assume was traditional Puerto Rican Christmas music. There was a pretty good crowd at the plaza and just a couple blocks away at Plaza Colón were several large nativity scenes and a cool Christmas tree which helped remind you that, despite it being 80 degrees, it’s still the Christmas season (Feliz Navidad!).
Dinner was at Restaurante Airenumo (literally up the plaza steps and behind the concert stage). Laura went straight for a Cuba Libre (rum and coke, for the uninitiated), while I went with the most popular local beer, Medalla Light, while internally mocking the other tourists purchasing craft beers from the U.S. (drink what the locals drink, I say!). We had an insanely good mofongo (fried plantains mashed into a ball) with crab, an artichoke and feta cheese paella (Puerto Rico was a Spanish possession until 1898, after all), and chicken gumbo with the restaurant’s homemade hot sauce.
Working off our feast from the previous night, we decided to give our brains and bodies a workout while wandering around Old San Juan and searching through the monstrous fortresses of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal.
Built between 1539 and 1790, Castillo San Felipe del Morro — more commonly known as “El Morro” — served as Spain’s main defense at the entry of San Juan harbor. The two forts helped form the city walls of Old San Juan and defended the city from multiple incursions by the English and the Dutch. Possessing one of the only deep water ports in the Caribbean (the reason gigantic cruise ships can putz right up to the edge of the city), Puerto Rico was the key to controlling the Caribbean during the age of exploration. Enough history, here’s pictures!
The U.S. Army took control of the fort after the United States gained control of Puerto Rico following the Spanish-American War. The U.S. Army retired the fort in 1961 and handed it over to the National Park Service.
Deciding to get out of the city and into the country, we trekked to El Yunque National Forest, which is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System. Accustomed to being surrounded by nature in the Northwest, this was both familiar and foreign. Hiking through the trees reminded us of the countless times we’ve taken to trails around Portland, but the humidity and flora was something wholly new to us.
Back to Old San Juan and if there’s one thing you notice right away about this 504-year-old city it’s the colors. Pick any color and there’s a good chance one of the buildings is painted that color. With the combination of the Spanish Colonial style architecture and diversity of pastel colors, Old San Juan is a seriously beautiful place. Add in the blue cobblestone streets (and massive population of stray cats) and it’s hard to beat a day spent wandering around here taking it all in (and chasing cats).
Walking along the Paseo del Morro, a path created along the old city walls formed by El Morro, we counted no fewer than 67 feral cats hanging out by the water. The cats are managed by a nonprofit called “Save A Gato” which traps, neuters, vaccinates and releases the cats back along Paseo del Morro.
After a couple days of frugality, we splurged on dinner at Carli’s Fine Dining & Piano in Old San Juan. The restaurant’s owner Carli Munoz, who toured with The Beach Boys for several years, comes in every night and plays whatever he feels like on the piano. Obviously, he’s a very good musician — which makes it all that much more enjoyable.
Our last full day on the island was deemed “Laura’s Beach Day” in which we spent much of the morning/early afternoon soaking up the sun at Isla Verde.
In the afternoon, we decided to get some culture and visited the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, which was opened in 2000 and features a mix of modern art as well as Puerto Rican artwork from the 16th-19th centuries and an outdoor garden.
Know Before You Go:
- Realize that despite being an unincorporated territory of the United States, that doesn’t mean everyone speaks English. In fact, the farther outside of Old San Juan you go, the less likely people will speak English.
- Be a defensive driver. Seriously, they must give a driver’s license to anyone here without passing a test of any kind. Turn signals are only decorations and never get used. Eight out of 10 cars here has body damage to some extent and after 10 minutes of driving, it’s clear why. Watch out for the “Puerto Rican sweep” … which is changing two or more lanes of traffic in a single swoop as fast as possible without signaling.
- Plan your Puerto Rican meals with care. Puerto Rico has some awesome traditional food and drink options, including “coquito” which is a much tastier version of egg nog made with rum, coconut milk, and cinnamon spices. They also specialize in amazing seafood, plantains, mofongo, and paella.
- And while Puerto Rico is easily accessible to Americans with only a drivers license or other form of valid ID, you’ll feel a world away in this unique and tropical travel destination.