I love Latin culture so when my travel buddy told me she had a work conference in Puerto Rico and I can tag along for the free hotel, I jumped at the opportunity and booked a JetBlue flight to San Juan. Puerto Rico has been another destination on my travel list and this was just another check off that list. I was a little sad when my boyfriend dropped me off at the airport as I was leaving for a beach vacation on a romantic island where I would be spending most of my days alone, while my friend worked, but that quickly subsided as I thought of all the adventure that was in store. What I enjoy most about traveling, whether with friends, boyfriends, or myself is the adventure of discovering new places, people and culture. Traveling is what feeds my soul.
Vibrant is one word to describe the Spanish culture in San Juan. Old San Juan, where I spent most of my time had a European flair with its narrow cobblestone streets and brightly colored houses. Many open air cafés, restaurants and shops line the streets of Old San Juan. Among the beauty of the colorful stone houses with its flat roofs are interspersed pockets of painted doors and street art. Museums and historical sights are plentiful in San Juan, as are casinos! Happy hour in many restaurants and bars in San Juan offer discounted cocktails and appetizers, which I enjoyed given Boston does not have this tradition. I’m a pescetarian so I can always find something to eat wherever I travel, but many of the traditional Puerto Rican restaurants cater to the carnivore. The cultural food I enjoyed was the vegetarian mofongo and cheese-filled frituras. The coffee was also delicious, not to mention the piña coladas!
My friend’s conference was held at the Caribe Hilton International hotel, a resort hotel in San Juan. The hotel had a beautiful outside courtyard with a swim-up pool bar and beach area for swimming and lounging. A popular resort for conventions, there are restaurants and fast food restaurants on site, including a Starbucks. This is a great hotel to stay in San Juan if you want to lounge on the beach and explore. The best part of this hotel was its proximity to Old San Juan, Condado, and the beautiful grounds to lounge by the beach or pool. Not to mention the onsite swans and iguanas that walk the grounds.
My goal for this trip was to try stand up paddleboard (SUP). I’ve always been interested in SUP, especially the trend of yoga SUP. However, the cold waters of New England always deterred my adventurous water sport spirit. I despise the ice cold ocean waters (I only dip my toe in the water at the very end of August) and falling into the dirty waters of the Charles River, is not where I wanted to begin my paddleboard adventure. My other goal during the day was to explore Old San Juan by bike. I did both and a little more exploring by foot to Condado.
I rented a paddleboard from Velanuno Paddleboarding Rentals in Condado. This was a perfect spot for a beginner because the boards are rented and used in the Condando Lagoon with tranquil water. Advanced paddleboarders have the option to move off the Lagoon and into the ocean for more of an adventure. Velauno staff members offer a brief instruction and then you are off on your own. You are charged by the hour so I paddled on the lagoon until I saw a suspicious big fish swimming in and out of the water at the end of the lagoon that looked a little like a shark. I started to panic and quickly paddled my way to shore. I don’t think my heart has raced that fast in a long time, and when I got to shore, I frantically told the attendants that I saw a shark, at which they looked at me amused and began to laugh. “They are manatees,” they said. “There no sharks in the lagoon.” Well there you have it, a large gentle fish, known as the sea cow scared the sh**t out of me. Even with my heart pounding and shaky legs, I still didn’t fall once while paddling. I went back to Velanuono once more during my stay and paddled along with the manatees and even a sea turtle.
One day I rented a bike from the hotel and biked to Old San Juan. I would not suggest this experience unless you enjoy biking up many hills and cobblestone streets in 90 degree weather with 90% humidity. However hot it was that day, I chose the right day for a bike ride because workers were on strike that day so trucks and cars where at a stand still on the street leading to Old San Juan. Cops were lining the streets and even an iguana looked on in dismay. I quickly biked through Old San Juan and found myself among an historical gem.
Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery
I happen to love cemeteries and visited some of the most beautiful ones in my travels, like La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.
Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in Old San Juan has to be one of the most beautiful cemeteries I have come across! The cemetery is located outside the walls of Fort San Felipe del Morro and is the burial place of some of the most prominent residents of Puerto Rico. I found my way to this cemetery by looking for Fort del Morro, which I didn’t tour inside. I did however, bike all around the outside of the fort along the water.
Before I left for Puerto Rico, I received recommendations from friends on places to eat that cater to a pesecetarian. This one restaurant in Old San Juan was truly a treasure of an experience on all levels. I went to Aquaviva restaurant alone and sat at the bar for dinner. The bartender was super friendly and made my dining alone experience a joy. He introduced me to many locals that come to enjoy the tropical cocktails at the bar so I didn’t feel lonely. My favorite cocktail was the watermelon sangria made with Rosé. Their cocktail list also includes many tropical rum drinks and mojitos. He even served me a few samples of some cocktails he created on the fly for free! The food was excellent. I had the ceviche for an appetizer and fried snapper, lobster mofongo for dinner. I ended up staying at the bar well after my dinner and enjoyed drinks with the locals until it was time to meet my friend after her work event for more exploring the city at night!
I found two enjoyable restaurants in Condado. The first was a healthy and inexpensive café I discovered after paddleboarding one day. It was called Bajuice Bar which served some vegetarian menu items and fresh juices. The second restaurant in Condado I discovered was Serafina because of the outside terrace. It was a little overpriced for the quality of the food, but I guess you are paying for the atmosphere. It’s a stone throw from La Concha Renaissance Hotel, a hip and popular hotel in Condado.
Finally, in Old San Juan, if you are coffee snob like myself, enjoy a latte or cappuccino at Café Cuatro Sombras.
La Concha Hotel has a casino and a lively lounge bar scene on the weekends. There are also many smaller bars around La Concha that offer inexpensive “happy hours” as in two dollar drinks! The area of Condado looks a little more gritty than the tourist attractive Old San Juan, but it was safe to walk around at night. However, we did take cabs from our hotel to be on the safe side.
Places I wish I explored…
If I go back, I would rent a car to explore outside the city of San Juan. You can drive and visit the El Yunque Rainforest and other beaches. Some of the best beaches in the world are in Puerto Rico, like Flamenco Beach in Culebra. A place I’d like to go back with my boyfriend. I missed the chance to explore these sights and highly recommend if you ever find yourself in Puerto Rico:
- Explore the Bioluminescent Bay with a glass bottom kayak. We would’ve done this tour, however, the timing of the moon did not work out. We were actually in Puerto Rico during the Blood Moon on September 27, 2015. A glow of a full moon doesn’t offer the best viewing of the sparkly plankton.
- Walk through the El Yunque Rainforest
- Dine at Hotel El Convento
- Pick up some sea glass at Playa Bajamar