The Island of Enchantment. That’s what they call Puerto Rico, and from what we saw that title couldn’t be more fitting. Beautiful beaches, a bustling nightlife, and gorgeous forests and wildlife. San Juan is a picturesque island in the Caribbean, and the best part is you don’t need a passport to get there, (from the United States.) Puerto Rico isn’t as big a tourist destination as some of the other Caribbean Islands and that makes it the budget travelers ideal destination to the area.
Our first night there we got in after sunset so we didn’t have too much time to explore a large part of the city. We got to the Dreamcatcher Guest house and checked in around 8:30 PM. After getting our things put away and a tour of our guest house we decided it was time to discover what the surrounding Ocean Park area had to offer.
Ocean Park is a gated community and one of the richest parts of town, so there were beautiful houses all lined on the beach. In the trees all around you could hear the call of the coqui frogs. Step outside of the gates though and things get, well, a little ghetto. The main street of Calle Loiza has plenty of little night clubs and restaurants, and most of them have bars on the windows and locked doors with buzzers to get in. I’ve walked around towns like N. Philadelphia, Newark, NJ, and Karachi Pakistan, so I’m pretty used to these types of precautions in cities. For Ashley though it was a little unnerving at first. After walking around for a bit though it became pretty clear that this was a pretty safe part of town and we had nothing to worry about.
After about 9 hours of traveling we were pretty tired and hungry, so we decided to get something to eat and then head back to the guest house. After looking around for a while we stopped at the Kasalta restaurant, which just so happened to be locally famous for hosting President Obama during his trip to Puerto Rico, and they were quite proud of this fact. There was a big sign on the wall and even a sandwich named the presidential sandwich (ham and cheese with butter on bread.) Using what broken (very broken,) Spanish I had remembered from high school I ordered us a turkey club (Ashley isn’t to adventurous when it comes to food, she knows what she like,) and I got a Puerto Rican chicken fajita. The Puerto Rican fajita differs from the Mexican fajita I am used to as it is simply chicken and peppers on bread, and it wasn’t at all spicy. We really liked this restaurant, the prices were a bit more than I was hoping to pay but the servings were pretty huge. After the restaurant we simply went back to the guest house and went to bed.
On our second day in San Juan we planned on doing nothing but relaxing on the beach. We got there right around 6am and the beach was empty. We had it all to ourselves and it was amazing. The beach is combed every morning to keep the sand well maintained and trash free and the water was a clear blue and so warm. We were a little upset though because there isn’t really much to do other than swim there. The ocean floor is very clear no coral, no sea shells, barely any fish. We did get a chance to see some small fish that were nearly clear though and very curious. They swam in between our legs and hovered around out feet. That was the only sea creatures we would see this entire trip, no brightly colored fish here, at least not at this part of the island. We spent nearly the entire day on the beach. It’s a great place to people watch and just lay out for the day.
Day three began with probably the worst mistake we could have made on the trip. We had planned to go to Old San Juan, the historic district, but after waiting nearly an hour for a bus, (that’s supposed to come every half hour) we decided to just walk it. What we didn’t know at the time was that it was a nearly two hour walk to the area. With the sun beating down on us during an 85 degree day we had a tiring time getting there. We weren’t sure exactly how to get to Old San Juan so we just kept following the street sign that said “Viejo San Juan,” and hoping that I had translated Viejo into Old properly (I did YAY!. it’s been so long since high school.) When we finally got into Old San Juan we were tired, sweaty, and ready to fall over but we pressed on to go to the first of the two sea forts we planned on seeing.
Fort San Cristobal is basically the first thing you see when you get into the district and the first sight on most peoples trip to Old San Juan. It is a sprawling and gorgeous old fort that had protected the island for hundreds of years. There are signs and placards all over the fort that show you the impressive history of it and the island. We opted to just tour ourselves and not take a guided tour, but they are available for free. From the top of the fort you can look out over the whole Old San Juan district and see why it was such an important fort. It gives you an amazing look out over the ocean.
We left after about an hour as the sky started to get dark with heavy rain clouds. As we made it to the center of the district the rain started, and after hours of walking in the sun and the heat it felt great, for about 5 minutes. Then we were stuck in a powerful downpour. Everyone in town was hiding under balconies and store front doors. We went to a little outdoor restaurant that had umbrellas and ordered the most popular dish in San Juan, mufongo. I had heard how amazing this food was supposed to be and was excited to finally try it. Sadly, I wasn’t impressed. The meal is mashed plantains with meat; pork, beef, chicken, or fish. I got the beef. Everything was good except the plantains which had the texture of mashed potatoes but had a strange aftertaste to them.
Once the skies cleared up we started exploring the district more. We walked among the old buildings of the historic district that lined the blue cobblestone streets. New shops and stores are built inside the old architecture that hasn’t changed in years. We followed the streets around all of the sites including the town gate that used to protect the city, the Museo Del Mar (The Maritime Museum,) the Old San Juan Cemetery, and finally the second fort; Del Marro.
Del Marrow is by far the nicer of the two forts. It looks out over the ocean and has a huge field in front of it. Families were all gathered on the field, overlooking the cemetery, flying kites and taking pictures. Inside the fort there are more signs and placards explaining the history of the fort like San Cristobal, and there is a lighthouse you can walk into. After the secon fort we caught a taxi back to the guest house to get some well deserved sleep after a full day of walking and exploring.
On our last full day on the island we got up early and headed out to the El Yunque Tropical Rainforest. The rainforest is a huge forest that has four different elevations all with their own unique plant types. It’s easy enough to get around there as their are paved roads as well as walking paths to all of the most popular parts of the forest. Don’t expect to see any wildlife in the forest if you go during the day though because most of the animal life is nocturnal. The only thing we really saw were some birds flying and a few large snails.
In fact we saw WAY more animals and critters at our guest house than the forest. The walking path is pretty gorgeous though. It takes you right down to a gorgeous waterfall that you can jump into the pool and swim, it was pretty crowded though so it was hard to actually get under the waterfall. We did but it took us a while of waiting.
After exiting the forest we went to the lower observation tower. It looks out over the forest as well as all the way out to the beach. Standing at the top you can see where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea.
Our last stop in the rainforest was at a little diner along the road. We got some traditional Puerto Rican food there and it was the best I had the entire time on the island. We tried some mashed sweet green bananas wrapped around beef and deep fried. It was my favorite meal in all of San Juan.
The next day we came back home. It was way to short, there is so much to do in the city of San Juan that we could have stayed for a month and still not got to everything. If you plan on going though prepare to brush up on your Spanish, while every guide I read said that just about everyone there speak English we found nothing to be farther from the truth. Luckily for us we got by pretty well by just pointing at what we wanted and two key phrases; “Gracias” and “Con queso” or “With cheese.”