I had five days to take in Puerto Rico. That was more than enough to have a good time, have some chill time, be amazed, be thrilled, be inspired.
Day 1: Nightlife Just Right
Our home base was the Caribe Hilton Hotel, situated at the far eastern tip of the wide but narrow Isleta de San Juan. Wanting to experience the nightlife and excitement of the City of San Juan, we asked every person we could find that wasn’t a tourist: where to go, what to see. This mostly consisted of us haranguing available hotel staff and taxi drivers. Without too many outliers, the consensus was La Plaza del Mercado de Santurce. Many of the people we asked simply referred to it as la placita, or the little plaza.
The scene is a square of bars and restaurants situated around a grocery. At night the grocer is closed, but the streets are packed with night revelers. Cars are not allowed to enter on the weekends – wouldn’t be able to anyway. It felt like party central as soon as the sun set and with no open container laws, it felt like the unabashed vacation getaway you just can’t quite find in the great 48. Pop in to one place, grab your elixir, stay, go, do what you like. While Bacardi’s headquarters are located in the San Juan area, the island’s original and choice drink is Don Q – best bottle of rum I’ve ever had for less than 20 USD. Mix it with seltzer or juice and just enjoy the night.
Day 2: Rainforest Majesty
Wanting to see the beauty of the island outside of San Juan, we went on a day excursion into the rainforest. The center of Puerto Rico is mountainous and jungle. Its splendor tremendous. As we made our way outside the city on the open highway, we eventually turned off; the foliage almost swallowed the path and the road became steep. Dropping down a gear a good idea.
The flora was intense and excessive; the fauna subtler. We passed waterfalls, climbed rock faces, and saw rising mist and approaching clouds. While green dominated, other more sporadic but vibrant colors revealed the existence of birds, lizards, and insects – some of which cannot be found anywhere else. Ascending up a lookout tower, constructed under a public works project during the New Deal era, we were able to see the ocean and beaches, and the surrounding area east and west. No better way to see Puerto Rico.
Day 3: One Beach to Rule Them All
Not all beaches of Puerto Rico are equal. There is more than just coastline, salt water, and sand. Having scoped a few different spots, my pick for San Juan was Condado Beach. A short walk from the Caribe Hilton, traversing the Dos Hermanos Bridge overlooking Condado Lagoon, we arrive on the Condado peninsula. No much further and sweet serene paradise awaits.
The sand is fine and pure. The breeze is soothing and warm. The waves pacify the soul. I could spend hours upon hours here. Alas, I only had a few. Save for the unexpected shark siting, nothing was exciting and I was very pleased with that. (Later on, we looked up Puerto Rico shark attacks and the last deadly occurrence took place around 90 years ago. While we didn’t want to press our luck, the shark looked neither very big nor very aggressive.)
Day 4: Culebra, the Getaway from the Getaway
Culebra is the third largest island of Puerto Rico and with a permanent population of about two thousand. However, we came not to see the island as much as to see its surrounding waters. The hotel had a package deal where you will be picked up and dropped off from the hotel and in between you take a boat ride to Culebra, snorkel, swim, and sunbathe.
After picking up the multitude of fellow voyagers and a good hour on the bus, we arrive at the harbor and our boat. Checking in, grabbing our gear, we’re ready to go. The yacht, with a second level above, fits the 20 or so of us comfortable and we head due northeast for Culebra and its many islets. Going out from the main island, the surf is rough and we have a casualty. She survived but she did not know that seasickness we take her out. (Poor young woman was lying on the floor, puking in a trash bag, and tears streaming down her face. She thought she was going to enjoy a day of fun and instead misery was waiting for her on the boat.)
Save the seasick comrade, the ride was amazing. Waves crashing, the boat plows through the waters with reckless abandon and in less than an hour we have coral reefs to explore. The waters clear as crystal, we see an abundance of life equivalent to the rainforest we witnessed a couple days before. With a humble lunch and simple rum cocktails, the afternoon was as pleasant as you could imagine it would be on a boat in the tropics.
Day 5: The Original City
For our final day we had decided to delve into the island’s history. Old San Juan was waiting. We first explored the notable Castillo de San Cristobal. Walking through its tunnels and between its turrets, you felt a palpable reality that time was not always peaceful on the island that long ago. San Juan’s origins were much darker than its sunny showcase today. From above the fortress we could view miles out into the northern horizon and turning around we could see the streetscapes below, which make up Old San Juan.
Exiting the castle of yesteryear, we strolled through Plaza Colon and onto Calle Fortaleza. There we see the myriad shops, restaurants, and galleries. We stop to take in a few, which the art galleries were well worth the minutes, and reached the other side. There we walk along the edge of the islet overlooking the bay and then wind back into the city’s embrace. We explored a few streets more, seeing some of the more residential areas, and make our final stop – Marmalade. The restaurant is not the type you go to on a typical night; but to cap off a trip like ours it was defensible. With a full stomach we left for the night; with a full soul we headed home.
Interested in getting to know Puerto Rico more? Be inspired by Old San Juan!