V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N! When you enter the real world, this, along with your ten federal holiday’s, is one of the biggest things to look forward to.
In August 2008, my dad was on the brink of losing thousands of frequent flier miles. So, like any good daughter, I offered to use them before all of his spending and traveling went to waste, and booked a flight for my sister Molly and I to Puerto Rico.
I’ve only visited Puerto Rico once, and it was before and after a Royal Caribbean cruise with my family. We only spend 2 total days on the island, and most of our time was spent in transit or at the hotel beach.
This time, I planned to spend a lot less time in transit and a lot more time on the beach.
There’s no question, I was very excited to go on a vacation for 10 days with my friends and lay on the beach. The group of included: me, my sister Molly, her coworker Christine, and our mutual friends Scott and Emily. Our first flight left Washington D.C. around 8am, we hung out in Miami for about an hour and finally landed in Puerto Rico at 2:30pm. Puerto Rico greeted us with warm breezes and sunshine- definitely welcomed after enduring cold rains in D.C. that morning.
After a very confusing taxi ride from the airport, we made it to our hotel- El Patio Guest House. I’d describe it as a mix between a hotel and a hostel- definitely budget/young adult friendly. I was skeptical at first, but pleasantly surprised. It was located in a neighborhood off the main strip in Isla Verde in San Juan. This was nice because it only took 5 minutes to walk to the beach, bars, etc., but it was in a quiet and safe location. The guest house had a pool, fully operational kitchen with pots, pans and utensils. Our rooms were about the size of a college dorm room, but not tiny. We had hot water, sinks, our own beds, a phone and cable TV. I believe the facility even had wireless internet. Best part of all? A woman about the age of 75 ran and managed the whole place. She treated us as guests in her house and was nothing but hospitable.
We settled into our rooms and geared up to explore our surroundings. We ventured out to Carolina beach in Isla Verde, San Juan. It was so nice to be on the beach, feel the fresh air and most importantly, relax.
After playing around in the sand for a bit, we went to a beach-side bar and restaurant we named “Karen’s Place” after our waitress who happened to be from Richmond, Virginia. I decided to do as the Puerto Ricans do and eat a traditional island meal of Mango Mojitos and Carne Frita. Molly tried the Mofongo– a traditional dish made up of meat and mashed plantains.
After dinner, we happened upon a dance performance sponsored by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. They featured traditional dances of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. My favorite dance- the bomba– a dance in which the dancers take turns challenging the drums, creating a dialog with their movements that the solo drummers answer.
Unanimously, everyone decided that today would be a full on beach day. I live life at a rate of 100 miles per hour, 7 days a week, and thankfully one cannot live like that on vacation! As I laid on the beach and let the sun drench my skin, Spending 8 hours in the surf and sand > 8 hours in the office (despite the fact that my job is indeed, rad).
For lunch, we walked further down the beach to the Intercontinental Hotel and ate an overpriced, but delicious lunch at their Ciao Mediterranean cafe.
After a few more hours on the beach, we headed back to our guest house, freshened up and headed out for our first time to explore San Juan. For dinner, we stopped at a cafe right down the street from the guest house, Panaderia Espana. We all ordered traditional “Cubano” Sanwiches and were not dissapointed! The cafe had an “Ikea” look and feel to it, and the patrons and employees were nothing but hospitable.
After dinner, we hopped in a Taxi and headed to Old San Juan to explore the town. Fifteen minutes and twenty dollars later, we were hitting the cobble stone and venturing into the night. When I was in Puerto Rico two years ago, Old San Juan is where I spent the majority of my time. The colors and architecture of the buildings are beautiful, vibrant, and unique.
All the going and doing made us very tired and we took the morning to sleep in! After waking up, Emily and I walked to the Panaderia Espana for breakfast. I love challanges and being in a Spanish speaking territory was no exception. Between middle school and high school, I took about 4 years of Spanish and switched to Italian in college– BAD IDEA. Most things that came out of my mouth on this trip was a mixture of Spanish and Italian, but I got by. The employees at Panaderia Espana appreciated the effort (I think) and were very eager to share new words with us (I got a 5 minute lesson on forks, spoons, and knives, aka: el tenedor, la cuchara el cuchillo).
Today we decided to investigate the “national” drink of Puerto Rico- Rum. We took the AquaExpreso ferry from Old San Juan to Catano. From there, we took a 5 minute publico ride (essentially, a taxi) to the Bacardi factory- Casa Bacardi.
This was by far the most obnoxious tourist event we participated in, but worth it. The tour provided historical information regarding the Bacardi family and the role Rum plays in the Caribbean culture (yes, it is definitely a part of the culture). After learning about the many types of Rum, we were were given two tokens for free drinks. I decided to try the most feminine rums available: coconut rum with pineapple juice and passion fruit rum with pineapple juice. Delicious.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon strolling the streets of Old San Juan (this time in daylight) and had a delicious dinner at Mojitos. Once back in Isla Verde, we spent the evening exploring, eating ice cream, and strolling the beach. I also tripped up on some spanish, which proved to be amusing. I walked into a Walgreens in search of a restroom. Instead of asking, “¿Dónde está el baño?” I exclaimed, “¿Tengo el baño?” which translates to: “I have bathroom?” Awesome.
Today was probably the day I was looking forward to the most: visiting El Yunque, the rain forest (which happens to be the only rain forest in the U.S. Parks system). We woke up early, rented a car from Charlie Car Rental ($217 total for five days), and hit the road. Driving in Puerto Rico wasn’t as bad as I had imagined (I do live in the D.C. Metro area, I can’t imagine it being much worse…) and my sister molly served as a GREAT navigtor. We didn’t have a GPS or Google Maps to help us, just a regular paper map. After about a 30 minute drive, we arrived to El Yunque. Literally the moment we parked, it started pouring. Not just raining, but POURING. We met up with Christine and some of her friends who live on the island and started to hike La Mina Falls. As we hiked through the forest, the rain continued and I felt like I was looking at my feet more than the beautiful nature surrounding me. Luckily, just as we approached the falls, the rain died down and we jumped in!
Swimming around in the falls was underscribable. The currents were a bit strong, the water was temperate, and I was completly humbled by the beautiy of the situation. After being in the water for about 15 minutes, I got out and attempted to dry off a bit. As I was rummaging around, two people approached me and asked if I went to JMU (I was wearing a JMU underarmor shirt). It turns out that they had graduated from JMU this year- small world!
We took a quick break for lunch and decided to hike the Mt. Britton trail next. The park map says that this hike is only supposed to take 40 minutes, but in actuality, it’s about an hour long hike. This hike was definitely a work out, but after days of laying on the beach, a little intense physical activity felt nice. At the top of the trail is a small castle-like structure with a marker that read the elevation: 3,051 ft. We were so high that one minute we’d have a clear view of the valley’s and beaches far off in the distance, and the next we’d be engulfed in clouds. At one point we looked down and saw a rainbow below us! Definitely a beautiful experience with wonderful people.
On the way back to Isla Verde, we took the scenic route home and made a pit stop to Luquillo beach to take in the sites.
We checked out of our guest house, dropped Scott off at the airport and started our journey to visit my friend Manuel (aka, Manny), who lives in Guanica. Manny lives in a penthouse beach apartment and it is a true bachelor pad. Once we got to his apartment around 5pm, we explored the beach infront of his apartment, cooked dinner, and settled in- this was our “hotel” for the next 3 days. Manny made delicious ribs, aka costillas and let me be his kitchen helper. He taught me to make BBQ sauce that consisted of ketchup, coca-cola, and spices.
The beach near Manny’s house is called Playa Santa, and unlike the water in Isla Verde, San Juan, this was the Caribbean ocean, not the Atlantic. The water was as warm as bathwater and it was very still without many waves. I worked on evening out my tan and we played a little bit of volleyball.
Pino’s Boats and Water Fun has a station at Playa Santa and we decided it would be fun to ride the banana boat. At 7 bucks per person, I figured, “why not?!” The boat ride lasted about 30 minutes and we acted like a bunch of hooligans on it- I even fell off! I was at the back of the boat and we were rocking from side to side. Well, due to physics, as everyone was shifting to the other side, I didn’t quite make it. Literally, I was hanging on by one as the boat speed along. Thanfully, I had a life jacked on and I thought the whole incident was hilarious.
After the boat ride, we headed back to Manny’s apartment just up the street and took a swim in the Mangroves.
Staying at Manny’s house was relaxing and sort of felt like camping. This evening, Manny cooked lasagna and tostones (fried plantains) for us ladies, his brother Andy and friend Franz. I baked a cake. The night continued with good friends, Don Q, and the quintessential college card game, Kings.
Day 7 was a LONG day. We drove into Ponce, about 30 minutes from the apartment and it’s where Manny’s parents live. I had envisiond us going around and seeing all the beautiful historic landmarks of the city, but things took a pleasant twist. We parked the car and headed into a busy lunchtime bakery, “Classic Delights.”
Like she does best, Molly started talking to a group of people who happened to be Americans from the states. Long story short, we all had lunch together, strolled around Ponce, grabbed some drinks at a rinky-dinky bar (I had tropical juice, ha) and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. Growing up in a military family, I’ve definitely honed the ability to meet new friends. After some awesome company and conversation, we said our goodbye’s, planned to meet up later that evening and headed back to the apartment.
Since this was our last night with Manny, we decided to go out for dinner and hit the town. We made a pit-stop at Manny’s parents house and for wine and hors d’oeuvres. His parents were absolutely wonderful and more than hospitable. I can’t wait to see them again.
We had dinner at a nice little spot and headed out to La Guancha. La Guancha is a beautiful boardwalk lined with bars and boats. Manny introduced us to his friend Jorge and Franz from the previous day and our American friends from earlier met up with us. The night progressed with great conversation, laughs, and authentic Puertorican rum- Don Q.
The festivities continued back at Manny’s apartment with dancing, relaxing, Kings, and good company. Around 5:30am we went for a swim among the mangroves to watch the sunrise. The sunrise was amazing, the events that followed weren’t. Both Molly and Manny ended up stepping on sea urchins! Molly’s didn’t end up bothering her, but Manny’s were quite severe. He managed to get about 20 prickles in his foot. Once we managed to get him up to the apartment, the long journey to remove them began. Oh, did I mention it was now 7:00am? I started the preliminary operations then Christine took over and I went to bed, since we’d be driving back to San Juan in less than 5 hours.
We left Manny’s apartment at noon and ventured back to San Juan, this time to stay at the Hampton Inn. We booked our hotel through Orbitz and got a great rate of $129 per night. The hotel had a hot tub, a pool (with pool bar!), continental breakfast, business suite and was located literally 1 minute away from the airport. Omar, one of the managers, was extremely helpful and offered to get us on the list to any party or club on the street. He was full of dining suggestions and was generally interested in making sure we had a good time.
We were all pretty beat from the night/morning before and the drive up. We took it easy, and ate at Chilis (ugh, SO “American,” though the menu did have a traditional Spanish twist to it).
Day 9 was a pretty depressing day. Christine flew back to Philly and the day was plagued by rain, therefore squashing two attempted trips to the beach to finish up our tans. We hung by the pool, hung out in the room and packed. It was a rainy, gloomy day.
Once we were all packed, we headed to Lupi’s Mexican Grill & Sports Cantina for our “last supper” and our last Medalla. After dinner and a quick outfit change, we headed to the El San Juan Hotel to check out the Casino. After spending too much money on slots and being surrounded by Puerto Rican grandma’s and grandpa’s, we decided gambling wasn’t really for us, heh.
Got up at 5:00am, hit up the continental breakfast, returned the rental car, flew home.
Overall, I had a great time in Puerto Rico. Next time (yes, next time) I want to visit Culebra, Ricon (a famed surf town), see more of historic Ponce, and visit the mountains in the middle of the island.
Any takers for Puerto Rico round two? 🙂