Beaches and the Old Town of San Juan, Puerto Rico

When I left you last, we were headed back to San Juan.

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…..when I left you last, we were headed back to San Juan from La Parguera.

I think I mentioned before that when you travel for work you should pick your airline, pick your hotel chain and stick to them as best as you can to maximize points earning. Why? So that you can stay for free at gorgeous hotels like the Caribe Hilton, that’s why. I mean, look at this view.

View from the Caribe Hilton

With hotel points to burn, we checked into the Caribe for our last two nights in Puerto Rico. The Greek-a-Rican had to get back to work, so we thought this would be a great chance for us to do a little more beach bumming and check out the more touristy sites of San Juan.

Early Monday morning, we called Uber for a ride up to Castillo San Felipe del Morro, an historic fort built on orders from King Charles V of Spain.  I don’t know if you know, but people have been fighting over the island of Puerto Rico for a long time.  This citadel lies on the northwestern most point of San Juan and is part of series of walls and fortifications built in the 16th Century to control entry into the harbor.  Construction on this World Heritage Site began in 1539 and the fort has been modified several times since to account for changing military technologies.

El Morro

During the Spanish rule of Puerto Rico, 1539-1898, the Castillo was attacked several times but it managed to withstand attacks from the English, the Dutch, an earthquake, and the (ahem) Americans. From 1898-1961, the fort was part of an American military installment.  There is a beautiful esplanade in front of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and what did the Americans do?  Turned it into a golf course.  You can still see remnants of the putting greens today.

A walk around the fort was a lovely way to spend a morning.  It was sunny and steamy (of course) in San Juan, but if you wear your sunscreen and stay hydrated, you won’t have any issues.  Since the fort is a National Park (as of 1961), you can also find restrooms – the ladies’ room has an amazing ocean view, – a book store, and a place to buy bottled water or other refreshments.

One of San Juan’s many stray cats in El Morro

Adjacent to El Morro, is the gorgeous little cemetery of Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis. Some people might think visiting a cemetery is creepy and weird, but not me.  In addition to the incredible artwork on the tombs here, I find that cemeteries are often one of the best places to uncover local history.  (I just cross myself, ask the dead people to forgive me for walking on them, and get to exploring).

Tombstone at Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery

This little cemetery really had an old world charm and the artwork on some of the tombstones rivals anything you’d see in a museum.  The cemetery is fairly old; construction began in 1863 and some prominent Puerto Ricans have been laid to rest here over the years.  If you find yourself an El Morro, take the quick walk down the service road to take a look around.

Cemetery of Maria Magdalena del Pazzis

Now if cemeteries aren’t your thing, you can walk (or hop the free trolley) down the road a bit to San Cristóbal.  This fortress was built by the Spanish and was completed in 1783.  It was the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World.  It too was attacked by the English, the Dutch, and an earthquake. It was also an active military base during World War II.  You’ll notices some of the “upgrades” made to the edification during that time.

In addition to interesting history and architecture at San Cristobal, you’ll find this sign. What on earth happened that the Park Service had to explicitly tell us NOT to drink from toilets?! Someone must have tried — there’s a sign.

Sign – San Cristobal

I quite enjoyed walking both El Morro and San Cristóbal as I found the history to be very interesting.  You can also play “guess how many selfie sticks we’ll see” or “if that were my kid I’d throw him off the side of the fort.” Fellow Americans, you can use your National Parks Pass to get into both of these amazing sites.  (Your pass is good for three people here.  If your group isn’t that large, do like we did and invite some folks in the group behind you to enjoy a walk around on you.)

There is some walking involved at both places including some incline and few sets of narrow winding stairs.  I wouldn’t recommend flip flops.  Do yourself a favor and

Cannonballs at San Cristobal

put on some real shoes for this outing.  Those real shoes will also prove handy as you wander into Old San Juan where you’ll be walking the blue cobblestone streets.

We had a sneak peak at Old San Juan, but I was thrilled to have an afternoon to walk it.  I felt like we were part of an old Hollywood movie set. The buildings are so charming and the blue cobblestones (historians tell us that the cobblestones were made with iron furnace slag that had been part of the ballast sugar-carrying-ships from Spain) add to that feeling.  My friend and I felt very comfortable walking in the historic district here.  It can get busy, particularly as cruise ships pull into port.

Blue Cobblestoned Streets in Old San Juan

The streets are lined with restaurants (get your frituras!), shops, hotels, and residences. Give yourself some time to just wander and enjoy the

El Convento

view.  A couple of places I’ll point out to you here.  #1 Enjoy lunch at El Jibarito on Calle del Sol.  They served several traditional Puerto Rican dishes and some kind of fried cheese ball that was delectable.  #2 Get a popsicle at Señor Paleta (I highly recommend the Nutella popsicle). #3 Check out an amazingly quaint little bar at a boutique hotel that was converted from a convent, aptly named El Convento.

Old San Juan

There are lots of places to explore and several charming courtyards to sit in.  The main plaza, Plaza de Armas is centrally located and is a great place to watch the world go by. San Juan is full of stray kitties.  Now I love kitties, so I was happy to see that San Juan feeds their strays.  If you aren’t a fan of cats, just leave them be.  They won’t bother you. (If you don’t love 18557226_10213520334422467_5547991093904067578_nkitties, I think something might just be wrong with you.)

After our hot day in San Juan, we took a cab ride back to the hotel for our last opportunity to beach bum.  The Caribe Hilton has both a nice swim beach and a beautiful pool.  Pick your poison, as they say.  I prefer to swim in the ocean but we did give the pool a quick test run before leaving. My “tan” has all but peeled off as I’m back a week already from Puerto Rico.

Until next time, San Juan.  I can’t wait to get back.

Puerto Rico: The Land of Beautiful Beaches and Fried Food

Welcome to Puerto Rico: home of beautiful beaches, crazy drivers, and fried food! Seriously, all three of these things exist in abundance on this gorgeous island.

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Welcome to Puerto Rico: home of beautiful beaches, crazy drivers, and fried food! Seriously, all three of these things exist in abundance on this gorgeous island.

Let me tell you about my quick jaunt to Puerto Rico…

Even though Puerto Rico is part of the United States (a territory, in fact) it is still part of the Caribbean and a full day of travel from my home base here in New Mexico. So after a flight to Fort Lauderdale, my friend and I hopped an interesting flight to San Juan. By interesting I mean this:

  1. Approximately two-thirds of our plane was reading Fifty Shades of Grey including a woman whose husband was seated in our row. We did our best to ignore the “romantic interludes” happening as he read over her shoulder. (Insert eye roll here. Save it for the bedroom, people).

  2. After being pushed away from the gate, we had to go back to the gate for a “medical emergency.” By this I mean, four people seemingly changed their minds about flying to Puerto Rico, stood up and exited the plane. Everyone seemed to be able-bodied and not currently in the throes of a medical condition.

  3. I overhear this half of an exchange from a flight attendant: “Oh, he’s a service dog? Well, he still can’t sit on the tray.” (People make fun of me for carrying Clorox wipes on the plane. THIS is exactly why I carry them. A dog’s pooper was on the surface where you enjoy your peanuts and drink. Think on that a while.

  4. People sitting in the exit row refused to help but then didn’t understand why they were asked to move.

  5. Everyone applauds when they land the plane. Maybe I just fly too much to appreciate the spontaneous joy of touching down on a runway.

My friend, Jenn, and I hop off the plane, avoid the baggage claim as we carried on and set off to find her friend (and now mine!), the Greek-a-Rican. (Brilliant nickname for a Greek who fell in love with Puerto Rico and moved there!)

Our first stop is to get a bite to eat and we end up at this wonderful little place that I’ll describe as a series of “food trailers” (think food trucks that are permanently parked). It is here that we are introduced to the Puerto Rican institution of fried food. Our Greek-a-Rican tour guide orders up a selection

of alcapurrias – delectable little things: meat that’s been deep fried in a delicious covering – and some cold Medalla beer. The weather is beautiful, there’s music and deep fried deliciousness, everyone is dressed to impress and is enjoying the evening. It’s almost enough to make me forget that I’m wearing sneakers and a pair of capri pants with Oreo filling smushed on the thigh. I vow to do better tomorrow and we head home to catch up and get some sleep.

Our first full day includes breakfast in old San Juan and I’m immediately struck by how crazy the driving really is on the island. Secondly, I’m struck by the buildings. Everything looks straight out of a movie set. Buildings are done in the colonial style and are brightly colored.  I know we have time to see much more of the old city on Monday, so we head out to see the sights.  When I say sights, I mean beaches and Puerto Rico has some stunning ones.

Spending a day at the beach seems to be the Puerto Rican way to live.  People come prepared to lounge, swim, eat and drink for the span of an entire day.  Our friend tells us that in Puerto Rico it’s not legal to have a “private beach” and

Beach just outside of San Juan
for that reason, you’ll see folks pulled over pretty much anywhere it looks safe to swim.  Carpe diem, I say!  We stopped at a secluded bit of beach to finally jump into the waters.

I cannot get enough ocean swimming even though I know a sunburn is inevitable. We stay in the water as long as possible, but as we have a destination in mind for today, we eventually haul our waterlogged bodies out of the surf. Since our friend and guide, Manos, promises to feed us more fried goodies and to make a stop along The Pork Highway (what?!) for some lechón (a whole pig slowly roasted on a spit), we pile into the car and head out.

We’re headed eventually to a little town on the southwestern coast called La Parguera, but we’ve got a few stops to make along the way. Stop number one is at a roadside stand where we meet some friends of our guide know simply as Juan y Cuba. Juan y Cuba are cooking up the tastiest frituras in all of Puerto Rico and we make a quick stop at the stand for some bacalaíitos – salt cod fritters or, as I like to call them, fried heaven on earth – and for some  pinonos – slices of plaintain filled with seasoned ground beef,

The roadside fritura stand of Juan y Cuba
fried of course. Las Frituras while not super diet friendly are amazingly tasty.

Don’t be afraid to stop at one of these little roadside stands. The cooking isn’t fancy, but it’s delicious. Ask around for a recommendation or stop at one with lots of locals on line.  If you’re headed along our same route, make sure you stop along The Pork Highway (really, it’s a thing) to have a taste of lechón. This slow roasted pork is delectable. We ate very well in Puerto Rico.

Along our drive to the other coast we pass through the beautiful mountains of Puerto Rico. Wait…what? Mountains? Yes! I didn’t know it either, but the island is quite mountainous.

Western beaches

Plenty of gorgeous beaches await us this side of the mountains as well and I’m thankful that we have a couple of days to swim, meet up with some friends,  to explore – oh, and eat more food: pinchos, corn drenched in butter, papas asadas….yummy!

There’s so much to do on this side of the island, but we’ve come to La Parguera for one specific reason…to swim in the Bioluminescent Bay.

La Parguera
View of the bay from La Parguera

Puerto Rico has a few of these bioluminescent bays. Both of my friends have been to the bay in La Parguera before. After some crossed wires and a cheap (and fairly disappointing) outing into the bay the first night, we all agreed that we’d postpone our drive back to San Juan to have another go at the bioluminescence. We signed up with Paradise Scuba and Snorkeling to go out on the 6:30 tour. There are lots of tour providers in town, but I would highly recommend springing for the experience you’ll get with Paradise.

We headed out into the balmy evening on a beautiful boat where we were fed chicken empanadas (yay! más frituras!) and more ice cold Medalla (yay! más cerveza!) while we made the slow cruise to a secluded bay of water about 12 feet deep.  Once anchored, Captain Kiko shares with us all a little bit about the bioluminescent bay and what makes it so special.  Conditions are just right in this area of water to attract and retain tiny plankton called dinoflagellates.  These little guys light up or luminesce when agitated. How do you agitate plankton, you ask?  Well, you swim with them.  Jenn and Manos jumped into the water before the captain had finished the last word of his speech.  I remained on board for a few moments to try to capture this phenomenon with my good camera – to no avail. After a few shots that didn’t render the desired outcome, I left the camera aboard in a dry bag, and jumped into the warm water myself.

There are really no words in English or in Spanish (or in any other language) to convey what a magical experience this is, but I’m going to try.  The water in this bay is warm, about 88 degrees F, and it’s calm.  With the boat lights out, you can see what seems like every star in the universe in the sky and in the water you see a magical glitter.  These little plankton begin to shine and twinkle as you swim.  It’s almost as if you’re covered in some kind of magical fairy dust or water stars.  The experience is enough to make grown men giggle in delight like little girls – and they did.  We all did.  Our 45 minutes in the water with these little dinoflagellates ended much too quickly.  I plan to go back – as many times as I can in my lifetime. There’s nothing like it.

Feeling giddy from swimming in such a magical environment, we hate to leave, but we’ve got reservations at the Hilton Caribe in San Juan for a couple of nights…..