Suckers for traveling as we are, a long vacation is just the thing that gets us hunting for travel destinations. Perhaps a similar description is fitting for our friends; Radhika & Anshuman. Christmas was such a time and we all decided to head out somewhere. As winters hit midwest, getting out somewhere sunny is the best option. Search began with Florida but quickly got finalized to Puerto Rico.
Tickets and hotels booked, the interest moved to intensive Online search, travel books and to every place where we could find information. Armed with this arsenal, we hit Puerto Rico. The fact that the temperature was around 25C was enough to get our spirits high as our flight landed at San Juan airport. The minute the airplane door opened, the familiar humid, tangy sea breeze hit us and felt like back home in Mumbai. As we collected the luggage, and walked out of the airport towards our rental car, the similarity in the general climate, infrastructure and smell in the air made us nostalgic of India. Some memorable snippets from our journey are as follows:
Day 1 – Old San Juan, Forts
We landed at San Juan around midnight and decided to take care of hunger pangs first. We walked into a Burger King and found that it was full of people even as the clock itself was going to sleep. First observation; San Juan had night life. Even though it was hanging out in Burger King! Second observation: Men had their eyebrows done, women were all really well dressed. People are quite fashion conscious. Again, even though it was at Burger King! After dinner we proceeded to our hotel and dozed off. We stayed at Hampton Inn which was pretty good. It seemed better than any I have stayed in other US cities.
Next morning, we woke up to hundreds of people having breakfast and readying to hit the tourist spots. Our first stop was Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, the old fort area that lies on the tip of San Juan. This fort was built by the Spaniards in 1540 and re-fortified constantly, this 6 level structure was built to protect the city from attacks from the Caribbean sea. Just outside the fort is a cemetery that looked nice next to the raging ocean waves (Perhaps that’s not the right thing to say about a cemetery but then I will be sober about it when I am in one). Ocean was raging like a maniac but the cemetery itself was peaceful. It was like time was on a slow pace here.
Thanks to reconstruction going on in some levels of the fort (which btw is almost continuous), only some levels are open to visitors. The Del Morro is the smaller of the two forts that flank this coast of San Juan. The other much larger fort of Fort San Cristobal can be viewed from the sentry boxes of the Del Morro. To get there , you can either take a 20 minute walk or just hop into the free trolley buses that traverse the old city. The two forts are connected by an ancient tunnel which is now closed to the public. San Cristobal has multiple levels and we only walked a few as the heat was beginning to get us. It offers stunning view of both the new and old San Juan. Things to check out are the Devil’s Sentry box, the Old Barracks, the dungeons and the iguanas in the castle grounds.
The entrance ticked to either of the fort covers visits to both for seven days. Unless you are a historian or a researcher, a couple of hours in each place should be good. We decided to do both the places in one day. But in retrospect, I would recommend, if your itinerary allows, to split it on two days.
A world heritage site, Old San Juan is a bit of a dream world. Storybook perfect cobbled streets lined with brilliantly colored buildings bursting with designer shops, boutique stores, restaurants and art galleries, this old city best enjoyed by walking. As we hunted for a place to eat our eyes wandered from one beautiful building to the other, multiple souvenir shops and a Santa in an electric car !
For lunch we had stopped at La Bombonera in old San Juan. It definitely had the best asapao we ate on our entire trip.
Tired and exhausted we took a stroll on the Isla Verde beach and settled for a restaurant Don Jose outside our hotel. With the local beer we also got to experience a 5.4 magnitude earthquake. Not ready for anymore adventures, we decided to call it a day.
Day 2 El Yunque Rainforest, Fajardo Bio Bay
We started the day with a long and winding drive to El Yunque Rain forest. Located in central Puerto Rico , this is the only rain forest on US Territory. True to its name, it was raining when we entered the area. With the visitor center was closed, we somehow found La Mina trail that leads to La Mina Waterfall. La Mina trail is well made and seemed quite safe. Although we kept hearing thuds alongwith rain falling but no life threatening creatures decided to show up.Finally we reached the La Mina waterfall – a nice water fall with a little pool.
From El Yunque we drove towards Luquillo Beach, one of the best beaches in Puerto Rico. Well , apparently , since we never got there. Our GPS led us to the surfer’s beach where sea was really rough and looked nice from a distance. Next destination was Fajardo bio luminiscent bay. These guys take you to a lagoon where the water has micro-organisms which glow in night. They take you in kayak’s, through pitch dark mangroves hitting you all the time, against the current and you are supposed to love the experience. The combination did not quite work out for us and we were more happy to be back on land than seeing the glowing water. Nevertheless it was an experience and I am sure some people would definitely enjoy it.
Day 3: Ponce, Beach, Cabo Rajos and body ache
If you do not enjoy the kayaking experience, you will also not enjoy the body aches it will leave you with. Though we were completely exhausted, we managed to wake up to see the sunrise. I wouldn’t say it was exceptionally gorgeous but it was nice to see the sunlight early in the morning creeping over the green mountains.
Ceiba country inn is a small bed and breakfast which is was actually pretty nice. Except the shower! Another thing about staying at Ceiba Inn was that it felt very close to nature. Entire night we kept hearing calls of various creatures and the morning breeze was wonderful too. Helped us forget our body ache for a tiny while. After a quick bite, we headed towards our next destination – historic town of Ponce. The drive was along the coast and was pretty in most parts. We reached Ponce downtown around noon and just walked around the plaza. Honestly, there isn’t really much to do here and it’s really a drive through town. Perhaps the only thing here is a very old fire station and a plaza fountain beside it.
While driving to our next stop, we stopped at a local shack to eat some snacks. Shopkeeper was very polite and was surprised at our bravery for going for really hot sauce. While we were eating, a few local people walked in and sat down for drinks. Within a few minutes the shopkeeper and locals started dancing and playing instruments. It happened all of a sudden and it was awesome to see the real side of Puerto Ricans. Always enjoyng life!
After lunch, we headed towards Cabo Rajos lighthouse. We had read that it was a pretty dramatic view here and while walking towards the lighthouse nothing seemed to suggest so. A while later, we were looking at waves hitting cliffs that drop straight several hundred feets. It was indeed pretty dramatic. We had reached pretty late and missed the sunset. I am pretty sure that would have been awesome too. Nevertheless, it was an amazing view and a must visit spot.
Day 4 – Arecibo Observatory, Arecibo Lighthouse
Next day was reserved for Arecibo observatory which is the world’s largest radio-telescope. No, you don’t get to experience the universe through this radio-telescope unless you are a researcher. Lower mortals like us can only ogle at the huge observatory dish antenna and walk through the exhibits displayed here. Oh and of course, hollywood has been here too. Here’s the clip from James Bond’s GoldenEye (Link – http://youtu.be/MH2qnn4D0kY) .
Next stop was Arecibo lighthouse. It is an interesting place to visit. They have created a small theme park on Pirates so there are many pirate ship models you will see here. Lighthouse itself is pretty nice and worth going to. Of course, there is a $8 per person charge.
We finally drove to San Juan and spent the evening roaming around in old San Juan. It was very different from day time. Parties were going on, pubs were lively, it was a very nice walk in the streets. And then we made a wrong decision for dinner. We decided to eat at Tantra, an indian cuisine. It was really bad. If you are from India, do not go here. If you are not from India and looking for Indian Cuisine- do not go here. Decor was nice, music was very loud and our requests to turn it down were ignored, food was costly which did not make it any tastier, serving quantities were very small to not even make a child feel full. So if you are reading this entry and going to Puerto Rico, save your money by not visiting Tantra.
Our final day was next day when we were taking flights back home. We had seen enough in San Juan so we just went out for lunch. We chose Bebo’s Cafe which was pretty good. After a nice meal, we all said our goodbyes and boarded our flights. You can view our trip photographs at the end of this post.
Adiós Puerto Rico. Hemos tenido un montón de diversión y gracias por todo.
Important things to remember
- Check beforehand the timings of all the tourist spots that you planned to attend. Oddly most of them are closed on Mondays & Tuesdays. The information on the relevant websites is not always correct and its recommended to call the Visitor Centers directly
- Most places are open only till 4 PM in the evening – so plan on being on the road or on the beach on the later half of the day
- Old San Juan is a small network of really old narrow cobbled streets and driving a car can be tough. Finding a parking , even worse. It is recommended to park your car in the outskirts of the area. The green and white trolleys provide free transport within the old city so you won’t have that much trouble getting around
- Puerto Rico has daily seismic activity but nothing major. It is possible to feel a few light tremors but nothing to be worried about. But just to be safe, now the basic “what to do in an earthquake” protocol before you get on that flight
· Frommer’s Puerto Rico
· Fodor’s Puerto Rico
Things to carry while on the road
|Day 1 Old San Juan|
|Day 2 Rainforest Bio Bay|
|Day 3 Ponce, Beach and Cabo Rojo|
|Day 4 and 5 Arecibo, Old San Juan|