Not yet have I ventured into the realm of travel blogging, but today I am going to try. I’m back from a four-and-a-half-day trip to Puerto Rico, and along the way, I realized there were a bunch of things I wish I’d known while planning my trip. It’s hard to know exactly what’s worth packing in and what isn’t. So for what it’s worth, here’s a rehash and my notes for next time:
Arrival in San Juan – Monday, 5:30pm.
The San Juan airport is ridiculously close to the resorts. Our cab ride lasted about 6 minutes, and cost a $14.50 flat rate.
We wanted to make the most out of a short first night in Puerto Rico, so after all checking in was complete, we took a cab into Old San Juan. Travel by cab in San Juan is not exactly cheap. Every ride we took to or from Old San Juan (a fifteen minute ride) cost a flat rate of $20. $40 a day for cabs makes it almost worth renting a car for the day if you can get a good rate.
Dinner in Old San Juan: Toro Salao. Super cool restaurant with lots of lovely outdoor seating, although on the night we went, there were no more outdoor tables with umbrellas, and rain was in the forecast, so we sat inside. We ordered a range of tapas for the table –– three-cheese flatbread, croquetas bacalao, tortilla de yuca, and chicken empanadas. Plus sangria, always delicious and refreshing. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal here and would recommend the restaurant, although by the end of the week once we’d tasted more authentic Puerto Rican food, this to us seemed more like run-of-the-mill-yet-delicious bar food. Next time we’d go for the paella and steak.
Day Two: Old San Juan – Tuesday
You have to do Old San Juan. There’s tons to see. We spent a full day there, but made the minor mistake of taking the bus. There was a stop right outside the Intercontinental where we stayed, but we never did quite figure out the schedule. We waited for about fifteen minutes and then spent another 45 on the bus. While 75 cent fare is much more reasonable than the $20 cab ride, we hated to have an hour of our day eaten up by transportation.
Since it was lunchtime when we arrived, our first stop was La Bombonera for mallorcas! They weren’t on the menu; we had to ask for them, but we were glad we did. Who doesn’t love a cheesy sandwich doused in powdered sugar?
If you visit Old San Juan, you have to see the old forts. The whole thing is walkable, but it’s a lot of walking. We started at the San Juan Gate (and note to all: if you step outside the gate and take the outer trail, it does NOT lead up into El Morro. We learned that the hard way.) But we did make it to El Morro on foot, and then hopped on the free tram that takes you to designated points of interest in Old San Juan. That brought us to San Cristobal, which we explored in the rain. The night we went, there was a traditional Puerto Rican dance performance near closing time, and we were quite glad that we stayed. Fun times.
Dinner in Old San Juan, night two: El Jibarito. I read about this place on multiple travel websites and it is fantastic. The inside decor is reminiscent of the streets outside; brightly colored doors line one of the walls. The menu is handwritten. And everything we ordered was spectacular. This was where my love of mofongo began, even though it only came as a side dish. The sangria at this place was a little stronger, a little fruitier (making it our pick over Toro Salao). At the end of our filling meal (during which time this Sometimes Vegetarian all but polished off her grilled chicken in garlic sauce), the waiter tempted us with house-made desserts. We had a cheese flan (texture of ricotta) and tres leches cake, and both were divine. El Jibarito was probably our favorite dinner of the whole trip.
Day Three: Ponce – Wednesday
We all had our doubts about being tourist drivers in Puerto Rico, but we knew we had to go to Ponce. So it was that we bravely stepped into the Avis rental line and set out around 10am on a two hour trek to Ponce. The Main Objective of our Ponce voyage was to visit family – so we didn’t quite achieve as much in the way of Tourism as we otherwise might have wanted – but we saw a couple of the main sights. Popping into the Museo de Arte de Ponce was a definite highlight. I could have spent hours in the modern art section alone, but we breezed through the galleries in our need to make lunch with the cousins. Ponce’s art museum has Flaming June. The painting has a fascinating story behind it, related to us by an extremely helpful and knowledgable museum employee. That was part of what impressed us about the museum overall; at most other museums I’ve been to, the employees standing in the galleries are pretty much there to scream at you if you try to snap a photograph. Here, they would probably take you on a private guided tour of each and every piece if you asked them.
Our cousin later took us on a speed run through the Ponce Town Square, which has some great photo ops at the Cathedral and nearby fountains. There is a museum (Parque de Bombas) dedicated to firefighters that’s free and nifty both inside and out. We stopped into a couple gift shops across from the firehouse, and made the mistake of not buying ALL our souvenirs there. These places were significantly cheaper than any gift shop we found in San Juan, so if you make it to Ponce, do your buying before you leave!!
And finally, because this is first and foremost an Ice Cream Adventures blog, I must mention that we tried King’s Ice Cream. They had a bunch of tropical flavors, but after asking “What’s ‘almendra’?” and having a sample spoon immediately shoved into my hand, I quickly selected my scoop. Almendra means almond, and I’ve never had almond ice cream like this. It’s almost more like gelato, not as thick as ice cream I’m used to, and a bit icier. But extremely refreshing (especially when it’s 85 degrees out), and flecked with slivers of real almond. I am a fan.
Day Four: Intercontinental Hotel, San Juan – Thursday
You come all this way to a tropical paradise, one that’s 40 degrees warmer than the home you left, you have to spend some time lounging on the beach, do you not? We could have used two of these days, but were happy to at least have the one. The Intercontinental where we stayed dumps you right onto the beach from the pool/lounge area, and swimming and laying in the sun and frolicking on the beach is a very valid way to spend a day or five in Puerto Rico, thank you very much.
We ordered more mofongo at the poolside, and it was the stuffed kind. A little mountain of mashed plantains that you dig through to get to a delicious filling of chicken, what could be better? (Yes, I really, really, really fell in love with mofongo on this trip. I have no pictures of it because I ate it so fast.)
We also tried the hotel restaurant, Alfredo (Emperor of Fettuccine, according to their menu/tagline), for dinner, and were pleasantly surprised. Their pastas were amazing (pesto gnocchi!!!), the service excellent, the desserts plentiful. No complaints!
Day Five: Adventure Day (aka Rainforest + Kayaking) – Friday
Not that I have many opportunities to do so, but I can’t resist a rainforest. And Puerto Rico has El Yunque, about a 45-minute drive outside of San Juan. We were almost talked into booking a tour through the independent company at the hotel desk, but once we came to our senses (tour + transportation was going to cost $53 PER PERSON), we decided against it. If you rent a car, going into the rainforest visitors center costs $4 each, so your money spent = cost of car rental + $4 for each visitor.
We did lose some time driving into the rainforest because we drove past our exit, and so did not have as much time there as we might have liked. In hindsight, I’d pack a lunch and spend all day hiking the trails. But with the four-ish hours we did have, we stopped in at the visitors center, which has plenty to look at, and got a map of the area. You drive up to another parking lot to begin exploring the rainforest. Our first stop was La Coca falls, which does not require any hiking to see. Driving up a little further gets you to the La Mina falls trail. We moved fast, so it was about a 30-minute hike down to the waterfall and about the same going back up. A lot of people on the upward climb looked pretty winded though, so if you’re not used to that sort of thing it’s probably going to take more like 45 minutes.
With our tight schedule, we had time to just scoot across the way to Baño de Oro and make a loop around the pool before it was time to head out. The rainforest really is lovely and totally worth a full day of exploring. I would have loved to have been able to hike high enough to see the Puerto Rican parrots (is that even possible?), or find a coquí on one of the trails. But still, even without any wildlife spotting (ok, except for a bajillion geckos, which are cool.), the rainforest is definitely a highlight of the trip.
Part Two of Adventure Day saw us driving past the rainforest for another 30 minutes or so, to Fajardo for an evening kayak trip through a bioluminescent bay. We arrived to the oceanside town early, and stopped for a bite to eat at one of the only randomly chosen restaurants on the whole trip. (Because of this, I can’t quite remember the name. Ocean View Cafe?) It was here that I had my FAVORITE mofongo ever (so far.) It was the only one served in a mortar, and it was absolutely dripping with garlic butter. Whatever your name is, little beachside cafe in Fajardo, I am glad to have stumbled upon you.
Bioluminescent Bay Tour: MUST DO. Again, we almost booked this through the hotel (which would have cost $91 per person), but driving on our own and paying cash for the tour, it cost $40 each through the Pure Adventure kayak company. We went out on the earliest kayak voyage, which began at 5:45 pm. I don’t know how tours go on other parts of the island, but on this one, you paddle through a channel lined with mangrove trees and get dumped out into a huge lake. It’s nice to leave while there’s still some light in the sky so you can get a sense of the pathway you’re going to have to take to get back (in total darkness). But by the time you reach the bay, the sun has fully set. And that’s when the little bioluminescent organisms become visible in the water. The night we went, visibility was only 20%, but you could still see tons of the little diamond-like sparkles every time you put a paddle in the water. I would love to see what it looks like with full visibility of these little guys.
Either way, kayaking on a warm evening with a safely guided tour through the mangroves is spectacular. I wished I had a little more arm-strength to get through it all, but in a two-person kayak, the two hour journey really isn’t overly strenuous. Note there are no photos from this part of the journey because they advise you not to bring your cameras, but really, unless you are extremely inept (and I thought, never having kayaked before in my life, I was going to fall into this category. I didn’t. Most of us picked it right up), you are most likely not going to overturn and fall into the water. The bottom of your kayak will get water in it, but if you’re careful, I think you can swing bringing a little point-and-shoot camera if you have a good case to transport it in. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. A photo or two would have been cool.
Day Six: We Leave – Saturday
Just enough time for breakfast at the hotel and a six-minute ride to the airport. Don’t forget you have to put your luggage through USDA scanners before you can check in.
With only four whole days in San Juan, we couldn’t really have done anything differently (except get earlier starts every day, which, yes, we should have.) My MUSTS are: Old San Juan forts + El Jibarito for dinner, mofongo ANYWHERE you can get it, El Yunque Rainforest, Bioluminescent Bay Kayaking, and Museo de Arte de Ponce.
If I had longer to spend in Puerto Rico, I would have: allotted two FULL days to explore Old San Juan so I could shop and try another restaurant. Possibly just rented a car for the entire time (I’m just not sure about the Old San Juan parking situation.), spent one full day at the rainforest, tried the bioluminescent bay + overnight stay at Vieques.
But even if the planning isn’t exact, how can you really mess up a tropical vacation? Stay at a hotel on the beach, have a piña colada and some mofongo, and whatever else, you’ll probably be happy.