My contract job at Frontier Airlines ended. I didn’t have a new job lined up. I had time on my hands – a precious commodity often scarce in a regular 9 to 5. I had a summer break for the first time in three years. I had nothing to lose but a missed opportunity. So I booked my flight to Puerto Rico, and off Cam and I set for the Caribbean. Home for the next three weeks.
Looking back, I am SO glad I did it.
We basked in the sun and got funky tan lines. We breathed the salty ocean breeze. We wrestled with vivid turquoise waves. We dipped our toes in fine, white sand. We drove windy and narrow roads in the jungle. We got lost. We climbed mountains. We explored caves. We gambled at casinos. We won. We lost. We explored historic forts and colorful, cobblestone streets by foot. We salsa danced. We had our share of beer, rum and cokes, mojitos, and piña coladas. We hiked jungles full of snails and lizards barefoot in the mud. We saw bamboo and fern trees as tall as the sky. We stumbled upon waterfalls in the rainforest. We watched an explosive sunset gradually dim on the ocean coast. We ate suckling pig, plantains, and star fruit. We got countless mosquito bites. We rode the wrong bus – a couple times. We enjoyed art. We grew fond of AC. We wandered. We laughed. We struggled. We learned. We grew. We lived. We walked out richer than when we came. And that is the beauty of travel.
Our first Airbnb was in Santurce on Calle Bolivar. Located in a quiet residential neighborhood and surrounded by tropical plants, we had a quite spacious Airbnb with a well-sized kitchen, dining area, large bedroom, AC (thank God), bathroom, hallway, private patio, and shared plunge pool to cool off (where you can hear chirping coqui frogs at night). Having a full kitchen and stove made it easy to cook so we didn’t have to eat out all the time.
We decided to book different Airbnbs for each week to experience different neighborhoods throughout the city, but our first Airbnb was definitely the most comfortable and accommodating. For three weeks total, we each paid about $400 in rent. Not bad compared to normal rent back in Colorado.
Located in Santurce, a neighborhood once known to be broken, corrupt, and dangerous, now showcases a variety of colorful street art, coffee shops, and well, hipster things.
In the first week and a half, we had seen and done all the main sights and activities San Juan has to offer. Since we didn’t have a car most of the time (we opted to only rent a car for two days to save money), we rode local buses that run back and forth from Old San Juan to Isla Verde for 75 cents each way and occasionally took an Uber for convenience.
The Modern Museum of Art, Museum of Puerto Rico, and Contemporary Art Museum all had impressive and unique art displays. All three are easily a must for anyone who has a liking for modern and contemporary art.
OLD SAN JUAN
You haven’t really seen San Juan if you don’t visit Old San Juan. The old town enwraps you with stunning, bright colors and narrow cobblestone streets. Unlike Cuba, the paint is generally crisp and new, the buildings complete and whole.
We also made sure to visit the Nuyorican Cafe at night where we had a few mojitos too many, watched a live salsa band, and where I salsa danced with the instructor. This place is open till 4 am! So if it takes you a while to warm up to getting on the dance floor, no worries, you have time. There were some stellar dancers…it amazes me that so many locals acquire such natural salsa skills.
We also visited El Castillo del Cristobal and El Morro – old forts bordering the city that defended Puerto Rico from the Spaniards and Americans. Walking amongst the fort tops, you get excellent views of the ocean, city, and island landscape.
It’s also worth visiting La Factoria for some artisan-crafted cocktails. This place made the top 50 best bars in the world for its series of hidden rooms and cocktail creations.
Besides the forts and museums, you mainly go to a Caribbean Island for the beach. We managed to visit the beach maybe 8 to 9 days in a row, which explains this impressive tan I’ve gotten. Beachin’ everyday (literally).
First we visited Condado, then Ocean Park, and then trekked to Isla Verde. So we covered all the primary beaches of San Juan. My favorite – beach wise – was probably Isla Verde. While Isla Verde was more touristy and hosted several resorts, the sand was so fine and white, the ocean so clear and vivid blue, and the shore so vast.
But this was probably my favorite beach for the memories made there. Cam climbing coconut trees and cracking them open with the sheer power of his throw, drinking fresh coconut water dripping from the crack, being a lil’ tipsy from a piña colada, running straight into the ocean with Cam, dunking each other, being massacred by massive waves.
Ocean Park, on the other hand, has a more local feel. Bright turquoise waters, as well. It was incredibly close to our third Airbnb off of Calle Las Flores and Calle Loiza, a popular main street. Just a five-minute walk from our place made our daily beach routine that much easier.
Condado has a somewhat hotel and resort feeling, but the water is mostly clear and blue consistently. Our second Airbnb, located near the Miramar Food Trucks, was closest to Condado. So we really got to enjoy both Ocean Park and Condado the most during our stays.
FOOD + DRINK
I was surprised to find that it actually proved difficult to find authentic and pure Puerto Rican food in San Juan. There are several chain restaurants and stores that are back in the States. Many restaurants in Santurce feature more “modern” cuisine, such as burgers, sandwiches, and salads (all things you would normally find in the U.S.), or feature various ethnic foods, such as Italian, Chinese, and Greek. If you do find Puerto Rican food in old town, it’s generally touristy or overpriced.
We wanted simple, homemade, traditional Puerto Rican food that could speak to the island’s true roots. We didn’t give up looking. Persistent, we managed to discover a local mom and popshop in a food court in Old San Juan. Unlike all the other restaurants, this place was tucked away in the back where the lights were dim. Only local, laboring men were found gathered around the table munching away. The ambiance – not so great. The food and price – excellent.
It was called Grandma’s Kitchen and served generous portions of rice, chicken and pork, and plantains. The flavors were bold, and it was just the authentic food experience we were looking for amidst all the touristy and overpriced restaurants.
We also passed a food truck on Calle Loiza, selling stuffed arepas that were absolutely delicious. Not to mention, they were only 2 for $5! It was probably the closest thing to street food we could find.
One evening we tried a traditional, Puerto Rican dish called Mofongo on a rooftop overlooking the city at sunset. The Mofongo was good, but it didn’t live up to what it was made to be. We also sipped piña coladas at Barrachina where the original piña colada was first invented.
Not only did we try the original piña colada, but we also toured the Bacardi Rum Factory, which is the largest premium rum distillery in the world. The tour also included a complimentary drink of choice!
I always love finding a country’s local marketplace where vendors sell a variety of produce. San Juan’s is called La Placita. It was much smaller than I anticipated (it had maybe five vendors total), but it fulfilled our star fruit needs. The marketplace is actually most popular and crowded at night with locals drinking, enjoying live music, and dancing the night away.
A better marketplace for a real and local Puerto Rican experience where there’s authentic food and several vendors, selling fruits, vegetables, and a variety of other goods, can be found at Mercado de Rio Piedras. In fact, Andrew Zimmerman from Bizarre Foods made a visit here.
Here you can choose from many different food stalls, serving everything from pork, chicken, stews, and fish to rice and beans, plantains, potatoes, avocadoes, and macaroni. This was the real deal. Food served on foam plates with plastic silverware, packed with flavor. It wasn’t a trendy, new age dining experience, but it was traditional and real.
One of my favorite nightlife experiences was probably our first time gambling at the Marriott casino in Condado. We tried the slot machines – fail. An easy and sure way to lose money quickly with the press of a couple buttons. We tried the roulette table – fail. Picking numbers is harder than it looks. We tried our first game of Blackjack at the table – success.
Cam went to the $10 minimum bet table and managed to walk away with $30 after betting $20! A $10 win! So we left the Casino $10 richer than when we came in despite the money lost at the slots.
We visited the casino again because we felt confident we could win again. Unfortunately, Cam walked out with the same $80 he came in with (at least not a loss), and I successfully made $32 on a $20 bet! Whoo! This time we played at a table with locals who taught us some tricks of the trade, which definitely helped me win.
I guess we didn’t learn our lesson because we made one last visit to the casino. We both walked out with a loss – $20 for me, $25 for Cam. Naturally, the only way to cope with a quick loss was to have a happy hour mojito.
Before our road trip, we decided to try something new and went to Bayamón instead of the beach. It really came down to seeking out new sights even when we felt we had seen and done almost everything. There we found a tropical jungle with trails – that is, Julio Enrique Monagas National Park.
Sometimes you spontaneously decide to hike the jungle even if you’re wearing a skirt and sandals, but you just roll with it. Mud all over, sweat running down limbs, and bug bites galore. We saw snails, trees with spikes, red flower petals, geckos, birds, and spiders. Eventually being dirty didn’t matter anymore because sometimes adventures are meant to be messy and unpredictable. There wasn’t another soul in sight. It was just the two of us, roaming the jungle.
TWO-DAY ROAD TRIP
The day we had been anxiously awaiting finally arrived! We rose early to pick up our rental car near the airport at 8:00 am. A compact, white Hyundai awaited us. Many of the main roads between cities require tolls, so it’s almost required, or at least highly suggested, that you purchase the Auto Express Toll Pass, which comes out to a reasonable $5 per day.
Without a car, you don’t really get a bigger picture of Puerto Rico. You only get San Juan and its city attractions. So having rented a car for only two days, we managed to see and do so much within 48 hours that showed us more of what the island is all about.
Without wasting any time, we immediately set off for Parque Nacional de las Cavernas del Río Camuy to see one of the world’s largest cave systems. Camuy is located in the Northwestern region. You’re required to join a walking tour that costs about $18 per adult and lasts about an hour and half. The caves were massive with openings to the jungle that cast light amongst the wet darkness. Within we saw lizards, scorpions, and even bats. It was incredible and completely worth it. It was probably the best cave tour I’ve been on.
After our cave tour, we drove through the jungle towards the Hacienda San Pedro coffee farm in the mountain town of Jayuya that makes La Finca coffee sold in retail grocery stores (this is actually the coffee we bought at the grocery before we knew it was from this farm!).
Here we were able to drink fresh coffee at their coffee shop straight from the farm. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough visitors on the weekday for them to give us a tour of the farm and coffee roasting process. So if you want a full tour, visit on the weekend instead.
Driving through the jungle, we naturally got lost (I also may not be the world’s best navigator). The roads are incredibly narrow, and the bamboo and fern trees stretch so high that they shade you from the sun. Cam is without a doubt a highly skilled driver now. He passed the real-life test of Mario Kart (jungle edition).
This cost us some valuable time, so we skipped lunch to make sure we made our next destination – Cerro Punta, the highest peak in Puerto Rico at 4,390 feet.
We pulled off the highway into a gravel parking lot, took our pre-climb photo, and set foot up the very steep road towards the summit. The hike only took about 30 to 40 minutes, but the incline made it more challenging. But, of course, this was nothing compared to climbing a Colorado fourteener, which both of us have accomplished more than just once back home.
We made the summit before sunset and arrived to 360-degree views of the mountainous jungle faintly covered with a cascade of fog. The fog created varying shades of green in the distance. It was breathtaking. It was rewarding. It was beautiful.
Slowly becoming a tradition, we brought two beers for a summit cheers (good thing the elevation doesn’t even compare to Colorado’s so the alcohol doesn’t affect you as much). We were on top of the island!
After our climb, we started driving towards our Airbnb we booked in Guayama for the night. It grew late and dark. We were tired and sweaty. We arrived in Guayama, but couldn’t find the Airbnb for almost 40 minutes because there wasn’t an address and the host didn’t speak much English. Weary, we decided to drive to Ponce (the second largest city in Puerto Rico and our next stop) and found a Holiday Inn. It was so nice being able to enjoy hotel amenities for a night and rejuvenate.
The next morning we started the day exploring the European and Puerto Rican art at the Museo de Arte de Ponce, one of the most renowned art museums in Puerto Rico. It mainly hosted classical paintings, which wasn’t necessarily our favorite but, nonetheless, still enjoyable.
We then stopped by Parque de Bombas, a historic and iconic fire station. It wasn’t particularly that interesting in my opinion, but I kept reading it was popular, so I just took a picture.
After a visit to the art city of Ponce, we set off for El Yunque National Rainforest, all the way on the Northeast coast. On the way to the rainforest, we took Highway 184, also known as “Pork Highway”.
Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmerman have made their stop here to try the famous suckling pig at food stalls called “Lechoneras”. It’s a local, Puerto Rican specialty primarily found in only the mountains. A whole pig is roasted on a stick over a pit, which is then served with yellow rice and beans, and plantains.
We drove the pork highway for a good amount of time and still didn’t see any pig. It wasn’t until the very end of the highway that we stumbled upon several Lechoneras. It was completely worth it. The food was so flavorful, fresh, authentic, and just what we were searching for all this time.
We didn’t have time to sit down and eat, so we ate in the car on the way to El Yunque. We arrived to the rainforest at 4:00 pm, just two hours prior to close. There we viewed La CoCo falls, and then did a short hike to La Pina falls. The rainforest was lush, incredibly green, and just gorgeous.
After El Yunque, we drove further East to Laguna Grande in Fajardo. We read that the bioluminescent bay is visible at night from this area. So we stayed and watched a stunning sunset on the coast. The water never glowed blue like we expected, and we needed to start heading back to San Juan in order to check into our last Airbnb. Even though we didn’t get to see the bioluminescent bay, the sunset and views were very worthwhile.
Everything about my time – our time – in Puerto Rico for those three weeks was about getting away and living in a different atmosphere and culture. It was about having an adventure and escaping our routines.
I have no regrets and am so happy and grateful I got to explore the Caribbean!
So, I leave it with this – next stop: Israel.