We arrived in San Juan on Sunday night and took a cab to our hotel in Old San Juan, the colonial part of the city. We were quite glad we took a cab, too, because we were not ready to try to find our way through the crazy-aggressive traffic of Old San Juan at night. We stayed at the Sheraton Old San Juan, which we would definitely recommend to anyone staying in San Juan. The staff was very friendly, it was well-located for exploring Old San Juan, our room was nice, and we had a great view of the bay from our balcony. That first night we decided to explore a little, and went down to a square not far from our hotel, where we had a tasty dinner of a pizza empanada, an alcapurria (seasoned meat surrounded by mashed plantains and fried), a bacalaito (cod fritter), and delicious parcha, a sort of passionfruit slushie. Most of the food in Puerto Rico is made with pork and/or plantains and fried, and it is usually quite good!
We began the first day, and most of our subsequent days, with breakfast at Cafeteria Mallorca. There we had the eponymous pastry, which is sweet and light and quite tasty, whether filled with butter, cheese, bacon, or ham and Swiss cheese. Ryan also really enjoyed the coffee there, and it was one of the few restaurants in Old San Juan that served a reasonably-priced, authentic breakfast and opened before 10am, so we frequented it often.
After desayuno, we meandered our way over to Castillo San Cristobal, enjoying the wonderful colonial architecture along the way.
Passing through San Juan Gate led us onto the Paseo de la Princesa, and also gave us a better idea of the actual thickness of the city wall around Old San Juan, as you walk through it at the gate. The Paseo is a very pleasant walkway that runs between the city wall and the bay. There were lots of other people out walking, and on weekends there are vendors and street performers and lots of dancing. There also some nice art installments along the way, including Los Raices (the Roots) Fountain, which celebrates the blend of cultures that make up Puerto Rico. It was a nice way to finish up our first day in Old San Juan, and we capped it off with a cup of mavi, which is a Caribbean almost tea-like drink made from tree bark.
The second day was probably the busiest of our time in Puerto Rico. We picked up our rental car and drove to El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest system. It is only about 45 minutes outside of San Juan, and the landscape slowly changes into a more mountainous, forested region on the way. I was quite excited to finally fulfill my lifelong dream and childhood obsession of visiting a rainforest.
First, we stopped at the visitor center, to get our bearings and learn a little about El Yunque. This costed I think $2/person, and the rest of the visit to the forest was free, so this was another great budget attraction of Puerto Rico. The visitor center was interesting, and it explained the wildlife and different types of vegetation of the forest, as well as why rainforests are useful. We also got directions to the trail we wanted to take, which was the one down to La Mina Falls.
After leaving the visitor center, we drove down the windy roads beneath the forest canopy until we arrived at La Coca Falls, which is a waterfall right along the roadside a ways before the trailhead for La Mina Falls. La Coca Falls is not terribly impressive, being a wide, shallow flow of water over rock face, but we stopped and looked around, and even managed to snap a picture of one of the darting lizards we glimpsed frequently (but weren't able to photograph) on our later hike.
We continued on and parked near the trailhead for the La Mina Falls trail. It takes you downhill on a narrow concrete-and-stone path that was built during the Great Depression. The size of the plants was impressive--palm branches taller than people, large bromeliads clinging to trees, and lots of ferns and trees. Everything was very green and alive. There aren't very many large animals in El Yunque, but we saw more of the lizards and enjoyed the plants and flowers. The path more or less follows the river as it goes down to the falls, and it is quite pretty. At the bottom was the gushing La Mina Falls and a lot of tourists. There is a pool at the bottom of the falls where you can swim, which I think is what makes it so popular. We didn't swim, but we enjoyed watching the people and the waterfall before starting the humid, sweaty trudge back up the trail to our (thankfully air-conditioned) car.
Unfortunately the bioluminescence is hard to photograph--I would have needed a camera much better in low light situations than my cheap waterproof one, but the camera would also need to withstand being dripped on by water from the paddle, and I don't have the budget for one of those. I really don't think a photo can do it justice anyway, it was such a unique experience. Anyway, I don't have any good photos of it, but I do have a photo one of the guides took of us in our kayak, below. Afterwards we drove back to our hotel (it took about an hour) and decided that we should sleep in the next day, as hiking, swimming, and kayaking had quite exhausted us!
On the third day, we slept in as planned and then ate breakfast, noting that Old San Juan seemed to have come alive overnight--there were horse drawn carriage rides and stores that hadn't been open the past two days were open now. This was because a cruise ship had come in, and it was a little strange to see how different the city was, depending on whether there were cruise ships docked in the bay or not.
We took another day trip that day, this time to Arecibo. We were going to see the nerdiest attraction on our list--the world's largest radio telescope, Arecibo Observatory. We had to drive through some quite winding, mountainous, rural roads to find it, which was an adventure in itself. Then we walked up a steep path to see the observatory. First we explored the visitor center, but I wasn't very interested in it. Having studied engineering in school, I would really have liked to see more of the technical aspects of how the telescope actually works, but the visitor center was small and had simple exhibits. The telescope itself is quite strange to see--it's a giant dish in the ground, with the telescope hanging over it, and it's surrounded by lush verdant jungle on all sides. This location has featured in several movies because of its strangeness, including Close Contact and one of the Bond films. It was for sure interesting to see, but not somewhere you want to spend hours and hours of your time, so we headed off for lunch in Arecibo, at a cafeteria-style place called Gustitos Criollos. There we tried quite a few new foods, and noticed that the condiment bottles were filled with (not mustard or ketchup but) mayo-ketchup, which is delicious on fried plantains. Ryan especially enjoyed his carne frita and arroz mamposteao there.
First we drove there, parked, and paid our admission. I believe it was about $2 to park and $1-2/person to explore the area without a guide. (So again, this was a really cheap and fun way to spend time in Puerto Rico). We climbed along the rough lava rocks and watched the azure waves crash relentlessly into the rocks below us before descending down the rock steps toward the cave. From the top you can see some carvings, but you really need to go down into it to get the full experience. Unfortunately, going down into the cave means climbing down a wooden ladder, about twice as tall as a person and tied with rope at the top and bottom. Ryan went down first and then had to coax me down, as rickety ladders that lead into caves are not my favorite things, but at the bottom it was so worth it. There are hundreds of carvings, layered on top of each other, all over the walls of the cave. We would have spent much longer down there, but it began to sprinkle, and we didn't want to be on the slippery rock steps at the mouth of the cave with rain coming down, so we went back up the ladder. We did go see one more of the rock arches (there are supposed to be seven, we saw two), but then it started to downpour so we ran back to the car and drove back to San Juan. Cueva del Indio was definitely a great experience though for anyone a little bit adventurous!
On the fourth day we took one last day trip, this time to the city of Ponce and the nearby Guanica Dry Forest. We started by taking a hike in the dry forest, which was in stark contrast to the lush El Yunque forest, only two hours away. We saw some limestone caves, lots of trees and desert-y plants, and, instead of hiking to see a waterfall, we hiked down to see the Guayacan Centenario, a 1000-year-old tree. The tree wasn't as large as I was expecting, but it was still strange to think that that tree has been there since 500 years before Christopher Columbus ever set foot on Puerto Rico. We also briefly visited an abandoned lighthouse and Tamarindo Beach before driving to Ponce.
For our last full day in Puerto Rico, we decided to just chill out around Old San Juan, revisit a few places that we liked and just have some fun. We ate at Cafeteria Mallorca again, then took the ferry across the bay to tour the Bacardi Factory. It was 50 cents per ride per person to ride the ferry across, and $3/person to take a van to the factory. The Bacardi Factory tour name is a little misleading, as you don't actually get to tour the factory or go inside the "Cathedral of Rum", but you do get two free drink tickets each, and you learn a lot about the history of the company and how the rum is made. They also have a really nice gift shop there, and an awning area that is supposed to look like a bat. (There seem to be quite a few abstract sculptures around, and they are all supposed to look like a bat in flight). It was a fun way to spend a morning, but it wasn't so much a "factory tour" as a 45 minute long commercial for Bacardi.
On the last day we left early, and we could see the sun rise from our balcony. We'd had a busy week in Puerto Rico but were ready to go home.
Puerto Rico is called the "Island of Enchantment", and I can definitely see why. Where else in the world can you visit forts, art museums, bio bays, beaches, a rain forest, a rum factory, see colonial architecture, and eat great food? The island is pretty small and compact too--only takes an hour or two to drive across it.
I've also heard Puerto Rico described as "Latin America for beginners", and I agree with that too. English is widely spoken, the US dollar is the currency, you can drink the water and flush the toilet paper--everything is up to American standards--but you still get to experience another culture, with great history, food, and traditions. You don't even need a passport! I think it's a great travel destination that more people should explore. I know we certainly enjoyed our time there on our honeymoon!