Puerto Rico is a perfect island destination for culture, history and lots of rhythm. As hard as it may be to believe, there are people who do not know Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, which means you can travel as if you were going anywhere within the United States.
The reason for this trip was to celebrate my birthday and a girlfriend’s getaway. We had no fear of booking this trip during the height of hurricane season; I just felt the vacation gods would smile down upon us, and that they did. This was everyone’s first time visiting Puerto Rico, Spanish for Rich Port. The island isn't home to many all-inclusive resorts. We stayed in the capital city, San Juan at the Ciqala Hotel, which was minutes from many of the major tourist destinations, including the historical part of the city, Old San Juan.
We arrived on a Saturday morning and after check-in, immediately went about exploring the city and our first stop was La Placita, a farmer’s market, historical landmark and culinary neighborhood. The vibe is very laid back with bars, restaurants, and benches to have drinks, listen to music and chat with the locals. La Placita is also a great place to people watch.
On Sunday, we took a ride share service to Old San Juan, which was about 10 minutes from the hotel and cost about $7. When you reach Old San Juan, you immediately see the cobble-stoned streets, colorful buildings, forts, churches and the people taking it all in. We took in lots of sights and were literally stopped in our tracks by a humungous protest by workers demanding their pensions from the government. After more sightseeing we went to Café Berlin restaurant for a late lunch. Café Berlin specializes in Puerto Rican, international, vegetarian and vegan dishes. It offers plenty of variety, the food is wonderful, though it can lean more on the pricey end.
Can’t go to Puerto Rico without visiting its beaches, right? On Monday, we went to Condado, a public beach that sits in the middle of the city, surrounded by high-rise hotels, restaurants, and bars. You do have vendors who approach you to buy their treats, but they are harmless.
A day at the beach works up an appetite, and we went to Raices Restaurant. The staff is dressed in traditional 1940s Puerto Rican attire, and the décor of the restaurant is designed to look like you are at a home, with lots of art work and crafts. For an appetizer, we ordered the Sorullitos Alcapurritas (deep fried cornmeal sticks). For my entree I ordered a traditional Puerto Rican dish, Mofongo Relleo de Camaron (fried, mashed green plantains stuffed with shrimp).
With Tuesday being our last full day and night in San Juan, we wanted to make the most of it. We started off the day having breakfast on the hotel’s rooftop patio and chatting with one of the hotel staff, which is something I always recommend doing to learn about the area you are visiting. We were told about Calle Cerra, which is an area with murals and dope street art. Calle Cerra was literally a few blocks walk from our hotel, so we spent about two hours doing a walking tour, taking pics and admiring the work of the artists. Later that day we had a rum tasting tour at Casa Bacardi, which is a fun one-of-a-kind experience. You’re not only drinking rum, but you learn about the history of Puerto Rico, and this family-owned company. The tour costs $50, and lasts about 75 minutes.
You get a welcome cocktail upon your arrival, (you get to keep your signature Puerto Rico Bacardi cup), tour the grounds (with an exceptional tour guide), which are filled with the sweet smell of molasses, and go to a tasting room where you taste six different varieties of rum. By the sixth tasting, everyone’s spirits are very high (pun intended). For 50 cents you get to ride the Castano ferry and experience different views of the city. The ride is less than 10 minutes and, as the ferry approaches the pier in Old San Juan, you are right alongside the giant cruise ships. It’s a sight to see. It’s not called the Isla del Encanto (Island of Enchantment) for nothing.
Tips for San Juan, Puerto Rico:
• June through November is hurricane season, so be mindful of the weather during this time, especially October, sometimes there is light rainfall. Pack accordingly.
• Visit La Placita, for local vibes. The daytime is laid back; nighttime is a party atmosphere.
• Old San Juan is a must-see, for history and culture.
• Go to Calle Cerra if you are into street art. The murals change with local and visiting artists decorating the sides of building and walls, so you never know whose work will be showcased at any given time.
• Visit Casa Bacardi, even if you don’t like rum. The story behind the brand is worth knowing. Besides the rum tasting tour, it offers a historical tour and a mixology class. You also get the chance to meet people visiting from all over the world.
• Try Mofongo, an authentic Puerto Rican dish you can have stuffed with shrimp, fish, chicken, or beef.
• Take the Castano Ferry. It only costs 50 cents and runs seven days a week.
• This is the home of the piña colada. Have one while there and toast to la isla bonita of Puerto Rico.