The Epic Puerto Rico Vacation Post - San Juan

Posted on 12/24/2015 in misc

We decided to do the "experience" Christmas this year. Puerto Rico was probably the 4th or 5th island I looked at, and the combination of not needing a passport, direct flights from DC, and relatively low prices for the high season made it the clear winner. Why it wasn't the first place I thought of is something that Puerto Rico tourism officials should be asking themselves. "For Christmas" in our case meant Dec 15-23, as it turned out flying back on the 23rd versus any day after that this year saved me about $1200 on airfare. I am nothing if not practical.

This post is mostly an exercise in me documenting the fun we had, and maybe an opportunity to provide some useful info for somebody that may eventually end up here via Google while researching a trip to Puerto Rico.

The tl;dr version is that I absolutely recommend visiting Puerto Rico.

We spent 8 days on the island, 4 days in the capital city of San Juan and 4 days in the surfer town of Rincon. This post covers our time in San Juan.

We acquired lodging via AirBnB. I hate resorts. The idea of flying to an exotic foreign land just to hole up in a Hilton with 1000 other tourists kind of makes my skin crawl. I want to experience the culture, even if that means dealing with free range roosters. (More on the roosters later.)

In San Juan we stayed in a cute 3 BDR / 2 bath house in Ocean Park, which is a neighborhood sandwiched between the two main resort areas in San Juan. We were 2 blocks from a picture postcard perfect beach, and there were at least 50 restaurants and bars within 4 blocks of the house. In short, an ideal location. The beach is primary a locals beach, and the one day we spent at the beach in San Juan (a weekday) we had to share with only a handful of others.

Rental House in San Juan.

AirBnB in San Juan

We arrived in San Juan on Tuesday, about an hour late, and by the time we got our luggage and a rental car we made it to the house to meet our host about 4 PM. The week got off to a great start when the first bag out of the chute onto the luggage carousal was mine. That has never happened before, and will probably never happen again. The home owners are wonderful people, which is always a bonus when renting direct from the owner. After a tour of the house and a review of important local info (where to eat!) we were on our own.

So of course the first thing we did was check out the beach, and it didn't disappoint. It looked like a postcard photo.

Beach near the house

Ocean Park Beach

Then we stopped by a local pharmacy 1/2 block from the house to stock up on provisions (junk food, beer, breakfast cereal, etc.) Dinner that first night was at Mango's at Ocean Park, a place that is popular with the locals. We were there on a Tuesday evening and it was packed. I had been warned that Puerto Rico dining culture doesn't really value a speedy meal, so I was not surprised by the slow service (when compared to to US standards.) I was on vacation, I was happy to have another drink and wait for my food! The food was worth the wait, and we got our first lesson on Puerto Rico dining. There is no such thing as too much food on your plate. My daughter is famous for consuming her body weight in food at a meal, and Puerto Rico kicked her ass. They give you a lot of food for dinner in Puerto Rico. Also, this was the first time in my 21 year old son's life that he was not carded when ordering a beer. That made him very happy.

Dining out in Puerto Rico involves basically three options.

  1. Street food - very cheap, and often very good.
  2. Counter service - less than I expected, very good.
  3. Waiter service - it'll cost you.

We batted 1000 on eating. We didn't have a bad meal the entire week, and we used all three options.

Wednesday we had reservations for a bioluminescence bay tour in the evening, and the day we decided would be a kick back and relax at the beach day. In between a morning and afternoon session at the beach we had lunch at Kasalta, which is famous as the place President Obama ate when he visited San Juan a few years ago. It's a little pricier than the average counter service bakery because of that, but my Frita Cubana (Cuban Hamburger) was very tasty and I need to learn how to make them. It's basically a burger made from ham, sausage, onions, and ketchup; where the ketchup is a mixture of ketchup, mayo, and some garlic.

There are 3 places in Puerto Rico where plankton that create light when disturbed exist in enough density that you can actually stir the water with a paddle and see the light. Kayaking is the usual way most tourists do this tour, we chose an electric boat because my wife is recovering from shoulder surgery. It turned out the electric boat is really the way to do the tour. While the kayakers were struggling to paddle in a straight line and not fall into the water, we had a knowledgeable guide teaching us the science of why these bays exist in PR, and pointing out large iguanas in the trees as we worked our way through the mangroves to the bay. It was really cool.

After the tour, we asked the guide to recommend as local restaurant, as we were about 30 miles from San Juan in Farjado. The tours leave from a park with about 6 restaurants within walking distance. The one he recommended was El Pescador, a family owned place where the owner is a commercial fisherman and the restaurant serves what he catches. It's pricey, but damn it was a good meal. (I had grilled grouper and mofongo.) One thing to get over in PR is the American bias about good food and the facilities they are served in. El Pescador has no indoor dining, it's a deck with wooden picnic tables. It doesn't matter. The food was fabulous, and they gave us free shots of Coquito after dinner. Coquito is basically eggnog made with coconut milk and rum, but no eggs. When I say they gave us shots I mean all 4 of us. The drinking age is 18 in PR, but as I think is typical in many non-uptight (US) cultures, they don't really care if your parents are with you. My 18 and 21 year old kids were offered drinks several times, and never asked about their age, even though they both look young.

On Thursday we spent the day in Old San Juan, and then met an imaginary internet friend for dinner at a place that no tourist would ever find on their own. We took a taxi to the cruise ship piers to start our day in Old San Juan, and I couldn't get off that street quick enough. Between the hordes of tourists coming off the cruise ships to the dozens of tour providers trying to sell then 1 or 4 hour tours of Old San Juan it was tourism hell. I was following a 1-day walking tour itinerary I found online, so we set off for the San Cristobal Fort. Much of the fort is still standing. It was never really defeated in battle, it was more technology advanced and made 7 foot thick fortifications around town obsolete. It is an amazing site and a must see when in San Juan. From there the walking tour took us around to other interesting historical sites such as Casa La Blanca (Ponce De Leon family home, although he never lived there), and the Catholic Church where Ponce De Leon's remain are interred. Old San Juan is about 7 square blocks, with very narrow cobblestone streets, and no parking at all. You couldn't pay me to drive in Old San Juan. (More on driving in Puerto Rico later.) In between the major historical sites are all kinds of shops, bars, and restaurants, wedged into 200+ year old buildings. My wife wanted to visit a shop owned by somebody she saw on a TedX presentation, so we tracked that purse and bag shop down, where my wife did her part to support the local artisan community. We lunched at El Jibarito, another joint that was recommended via an online community, and another home run in the meals department.

San Cristobal Fort osj1

San Cristobal Fort osj3

Exterior City Wall osj3

Cathedral of San Juan Bautista osj4

Street in Old San Juan osj5

That evening we drove out to the suburbs of San Juan (for lack of a better term) to a locals only place where we were meeting somebody I knew only via an online community. Yes - we meet a stranger for dinner. No, they weren't ax murders. Anyway El Nuevo Acuario is the kind of place that no tourist would ever find on their own, and if they did stumble into it, they probably wouldn't stop. It's another restaurant on an outdoor deck, with cheap plastic tables and chairs. But don't let that fool you, as I had one of the great meals of my life there. The fried whole red snapper is simply the best fish I've ever eaten, and the mojitos were up there too. We got complimentary passion fruit moonshine too, benefit of dining with a regular! The meal was fabulous, the "internet strangers" are very nice couple, and this was easily my favorite meal of the week.

On Friday we spent the day at El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest under US control. It's about a 40 minute drive from San Juan, and if you are going to do it right (get out in the rain forest) it's an all day adventure. We started by running into the stereotypical US tourist that makes me cringe. We stopped at the main map board for the forest at the same time as a family from Alabama. They immediately asked if they could borrow our insect repellent, as they had ventured into a tropical rain forest (on an island prone to Dengue Fever outbreaks) without any. Then the dad started asking me about what was in the rain forest, as he apparently hadn't even bothered to look at the web site, and couldn't read the map since it was in Spanish. So I gave him the overview. We had two trails picked out for the day. The first one was only a mile each way, but led to the classic swimming under a waterfall experience. I have to say I'm questioning the truthiness of the Tom Cruise - Elizabeth Shue sexytime scene in the waterfall in Cocktail, as the water at this waterfall was way too cold to allow anything like that to happen!

On the trail to the waterfall we ran into the women's basketball team from the University of Mary Washington, which is where my son goes to school. 2500 miles from home in a rain forest, and my son runs into 15 kids from his school. What are the odds? Later on that day we ran into a couple from Bethesda MD. DC was representing in the rain forest.

Yep. it's a rain forest ey1

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Our second trail was a little more strenuous, as we were going to the top of El Yunque (about 5 miles RT). It's not the most exciting hike as it's mostly forest service road, but the changing conditions 3000+ feet up in a rain forest on an island definitely kept it interesting. The first picture below was taken at observation tower about 400 feet below the summit. The second picture is on the summit.

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Since we were averaging about $135 a dinner at this point, we decided to be more budget conscious for dinner this night and went out for pizza. The internet friend from above had mentioned that his favorite pizza place had just opened a new location a couple of blocks from where we were staying. So we went there and it was damn good pizza, it would hold its own anywhere in the US.

That pretty much wraps up our time in San Juan. The next morning we drove 2.5 hours to Rincon, which is on the West Coast of the island. I'm going to save that for a separate blog post. Driving in Puerto Rico may also get its own post.

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