An Adventurous Honeymoon in Puerto Rico

Honeymoon in Puerto Rico

Things have been crazy for me this year–I got married, bought a house, honeymooned in Puerto Rico, and traveled to Bolivia, all while going to school and working and that sort of stuff. As the year is drawing to a close, I’d like to share a little about my travels this year, starting with a little bit about our time in Puerto Rico.


First Night

We arrived in San Juan on Sunday night and took a cab to our hotel in Old San Juan, the colonial part of the city. We were quite glad we took a cab, too, because we were not ready to try to find our way through the crazy-aggressive traffic of Old San Juan at night. We stayed at the Sheraton Old San Juan, which we would definitely recommend to anyone staying in San Juan. The staff was very friendly, it was well-located for exploring Old San Juan, our room was nice, and we had a great view of the bay from our balcony. That first night we decided to explore a little, and went down to a square not far from our hotel, where we had a tasty dinner of a pizza empanada, an alcapurria (seasoned meat surrounded by mashed plantains and fried), a bacalaito (cod fritter), and delicious parcha, a sort of passionfruit slushie. Most of the food in Puerto Rico is made with pork and/or plantains and fried, and it is usually quite good!


Day One: Old San Juan

We began the first day, and most of our subsequent days, with breakfast at Cafeteria Mallorca. There we had the eponymous pastry, which is sweet and light and quite tasty, whether filled with butter, cheese, bacon, or ham and Swiss cheese. Ryan also really enjoyed the coffee there, and it was one of the few restaurants in Old San Juan that served a reasonably-priced, authentic breakfast and opened before 10am, so we frequented it often.

After desayuno, we meandered our way over to Castillo San Cristobal, enjoying the wonderful colonial architecture along the way.

Castillo San Cristobal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro (nicknamed “El Morro”) are two forts in Old San Juan which form part of the San Juan National Historic Site. We visited both, starting with Castillo San Cristobal and taking a lovely walk along the old city wall to El Morro. It was quite fun to hearken back to the Golden Age of Piracy and learn about these forts. There was a video at Castillo San Cristobal that explained the history of the forts, including El Morro’s role in the Battle of San Juan against Sir Francis Drake. Castillo San Cristobal also had tunnels through it, which were quite fun to explore, and fantastic views of San Juan and the Caribbean sea from its upper levels. The walk along the wall was beautiful, with colorful houses in the colonial style to our left and the garitas (look out boxes) of the old city wall standing guard over the sea to our right. It was a short walk, and there was a breeze from the sea along the way, so it was quite pleasant. When we first arrived at El Morro, we noticed the locals flying kites in the green in front, and the Mary Magdalene Cemetery nearby. We found El Morro more crowded and smaller than Castillo San Cristobal, but still interesting. It had some exhibits on the different sorts of shot used in cannons that I found particularly interesting. Overall, the San Juan National Historic Site was quite fun and interesting, and affordable, at only $5/person for both forts!
After the forts, we explored more of Old San Juan, shopping along Calle del Cristo and eating at Barrachina Restaurant, where the piña colada was invented. This was the restaurant’s main claim to fame, but the drinks were quite good there, and the food was pretty good. We tried mofongo for the first time, which is Puerto Rico’s most famous pork and plantain dish. We also really liked a few stores in Old San Juan, including one called Spicy Caribbee that made sauces and jams and such, and another that sold handicrafts all made in Puerto Rico where I bought my vejigante mask.

After lunch and shopping, we were a little tired, so we went back to our hotel to arrange our rental car for the next three days. We rested for a while, then set out again a little before sunset to see a few more Old San Juan landmarks and stroll down the Paseo de la Princesa. We walked by the Plaza de Armas and the San Juan Cathedral and continued on to La Rogativa and the San Juan Gate. La Rogativa is a sculpture commemorating a very interesting story–according to legend, one of the times the British were attacking San Juan, a group of religious people led a procession through the streets, and the British, thinking the procession was military reinforcements, called off the attack.

Passing through San Juan Gate led us onto the Paseo de la Princesa, and also gave us a better idea of the actual thickness of the city wall around Old San Juan, as you walk through it at the gate. The Paseo is a very pleasant walkway that runs between the city wall and the bay. There were lots of other people out walking, and on weekends there are vendors and street performers and lots of dancing. There also some nice art installments along the way, including Los Raices (the Roots) Fountain, which celebrates the blend of cultures that make up Puerto Rico. It was a nice way to finish up our first day in Old San Juan, and we capped it off with a cup of mavi, which is a Caribbean almost tea-like drink made from tree bark.

Day Two: El Yunque, Luquillo Beach, and Bio Bay in Fajardo

The second day was probably the busiest of our time in Puerto Rico. We picked up our rental car and drove to El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest system. It is only about 45 minutes outside of San Juan, and the landscape slowly changes into a more mountainous, forested region on the way. I was quite excited to finally fulfill my lifelong dream and childhood obsession of visiting a rainforest.

First, we stopped at the visitor center, to get our bearings and learn a little about El Yunque. This costed I think $2/person, and the rest of the visit to the forest was free, so this was another great budget attraction of Puerto Rico. The visitor center was interesting, and it explained the wildlife and different types of vegetation of the forest, as well as why rainforests are useful. We also got directions to the trail we wanted to take, which was the one down to La Mina Falls.

After leaving the visitor center, we drove down the windy roads beneath the forest canopy until we arrived at La Coca Falls, which is a waterfall right along the roadside a ways before the trailhead for La Mina Falls. La Coca Falls is not terribly impressive, being a wide, shallow flow of water over rock face, but we stopped and looked around, and even managed to snap a picture of one of the darting lizards we glimpsed frequently (but weren’t able to photograph) on our later hike.

We continued on and parked near the trailhead for the La Mina Falls trail. It takes you downhill on a narrow concrete-and-stone path that was built during the Great Depression. The size of the plants was impressive–palm branches taller than people, large bromeliads clinging to trees, and lots of ferns and trees. Everything was very green and alive. There aren’t very many large animals in El Yunque, but we saw more of the lizards and enjoyed the plants and flowers. The path more or less follows the river as it goes down to the falls, and it is quite pretty. At the bottom was the gushing La Mina Falls and a lot of tourists. There is a pool at the bottom of the falls where you can swim, which I think is what makes it so popular. We didn’t swim, but we enjoyed watching the people and the waterfall before starting the humid, sweaty trudge back up the trail to our (thankfully air-conditioned) car.

 

After making it back up the steep path to our car, we drove to Luquillo Beach for some lunch and swimming. We aren’t really lounge-on-the-beach sort of people, but you can’t really go to Puerto Rico without visiting any beaches, and neither of us had swam in the ocean before, so, after some research, we chose Luquillo Beach. We ate first, more fried food, and I also got to check something else off my Puerto Rico to-do list–drink a piña colada out of a coconut! After changing (I think it costed $1-2 each to use the changing rooms–and parking at the beach was $4), applying sunscreen, and setting ourselves up on the beach, we headed out into the ocean. The beach was really pretty, fringed by palms all around, and the water was warm, salty, and fairly calm. We had some fun swimming and using my underwater camera for a while, and played in the sand too before we left. It was a fun few hours at a pretty, clean beach before heading on to our next mini adventure in Fajardo.

We went to Fajardo for the same reason many people visit–the Bioluminescent Bay. We took a kayaking tour that left at about 8pm. You paddle out through a channel created by mangroves and try not to get your paddle tangled in their twisty roots as you go. The further you go the more you can start to see the water glow, ever so slightly, in the wake of your paddle. Once out into the bay you can really see it. The guides explained to us what causes the bioluminescence (single-celled organisms called bioluminescent dinoflagellates) and a little about the conservation efforts of the area, then gave us some time to paddle around and enjoy the bay. With the stars and moon overhead and the water glowing blue around the kayak and paddle, you could dip your hand in the warm water and pull it out, little blue sparkles cupped in your palm. It was a very surreal experience, and something that definitely shouldn’t be missed when visiting Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately the bioluminescence is hard to photograph–I would have needed a camera much better in low light situations than my cheap waterproof one, but the camera would also need to withstand being dripped on by water from the paddle, and I don’t have the budget for one of those. I really don’t think a photo can do it justice anyway, it was such a unique experience. Anyway, I don’t have any good photos of it, but I do have a photo one of the guides took of us in our kayak, below. Afterwards we drove back to our hotel (it took about an hour) and decided that we should sleep in the next day, as hiking, swimming, and kayaking had quite exhausted us!

Day Three: Arecibo

On the third day, we slept in as planned and then ate breakfast, noting that Old San Juan seemed to have come alive overnight–there were horse drawn carriage rides and stores that hadn’t been open the past two days were open now. This was because a cruise ship had come in, and it was a little strange to see how different the city was, depending on whether there were cruise ships docked in the bay or not.

We took another day trip that day, this time to Arecibo. We were going to see the nerdiest attraction on our list–the world’s largest radio telescope, Arecibo Observatory. We had to drive through some quite winding, mountainous, rural roads to find it, which was an adventure in itself. Then we walked up a steep path to see the observatory. First we explored the visitor center, but I wasn’t very interested in it. Having studied engineering in school, I would really have liked to see more of the technical aspects of how the telescope actually works, but the visitor center was small and had simple exhibits. The telescope itself is quite strange to see–it’s a giant dish in the ground, with the telescope hanging over it, and it’s surrounded by lush verdant jungle on all sides. This location has featured in several movies because of its strangeness, including Close Contact and one of the Bond films. It was for sure interesting to see, but not somewhere you want to spend hours and hours of your time, so we headed off for lunch in Arecibo, at a cafeteria-style place called Gustitos Criollos. There we tried quite a few new foods, and noticed that the condiment bottles were filled with (not mustard or ketchup but) mayo-ketchup, which is delicious on fried plantains. Ryan especially enjoyed his carne frita and arroz mamposteao there.

Our next stop in Arecibo was one of our biggest surprises and favorite places on the whole trip–Cueva del Indio. This is a cave covered in pre-Colombian Taino carvings. There are holes in the ceiling of the cave, so it isn’t dark and dank inside like most caves, and the ocean nearby was the most beautiful blue color. There are several natural arches in the lava-formed rock nearby, and it was just a really great experience.

First we drove there, parked, and paid our admission. I believe it was about $2 to park and $1-2/person to explore the area without a guide. (So again, this was a really cheap and fun way to spend time in Puerto Rico). We climbed along the rough lava rocks and watched the azure waves crash relentlessly into the rocks below us before descending down the rock steps toward the cave. From the top you can see some carvings, but you really need to go down into it to get the full experience. Unfortunately, going down into the cave means climbing down a wooden ladder, about twice as tall as a person and tied with rope at the top and bottom. Ryan went down first and then had to coax me down, as rickety ladders that lead into caves are not my favorite things, but at the bottom it was so worth it. There are hundreds of carvings, layered on top of each other, all over the walls of the cave. We would have spent much longer down there, but it began to sprinkle, and we didn’t want to be on the slippery rock steps at the mouth of the cave with rain coming down, so we went back up the ladder. We did go see one more of the rock arches (there are supposed to be seven, we saw two), but then it started to downpour so we ran back to the car and drove back to San Juan. Cueva del Indio was definitely a great experience though for anyone a little bit adventurous!

Day Four: Ponce and Guanica Dry Forest

On the fourth day we took one last day trip, this time to the city of Ponce and the nearby Guanica Dry Forest. We started by taking a hike in the dry forest, which was in stark contrast to the lush El Yunque forest, only two hours away. We saw some limestone caves, lots of trees and desert-y plants, and, instead of hiking to see a waterfall, we hiked down to see the Guayacan Centenario, a 1000-year-old tree. The tree wasn’t as large as I was expecting, but it was still strange to think that that tree has been there since 500 years before Christopher Columbus ever set foot on Puerto Rico. We also briefly visited an abandoned lighthouse and Tamarindo Beach before driving to Ponce.

We began our exploration of Ponce with lunch at Lola, near the Plaza las Delicias. We perhaps should have planned to visit Ponce first, and hike in the afternoon, because Lola was a little fancier than we anticipated and we were wearing hiking clothes to lunch. However, the staff was still very courteous and the food was really great there–Ryan had the mofongo and really liked it, and I had lobster ravioli. After that we explored Plaza las Delicias, which was one of the coolest parks/plazas I’ve ever visited. There is a cathedral in the middle, and behind it, the iconic Parque de Bombas building–an old fire station turned symbol of the city. The plaza has plenty of trees, benches, and fountains, and 16 lion sculptures, each painted differently by a local artist. I’m rather an enthusiast of lion statues, so I really enjoyed going around to see all of them. Ponce is named for Ponce de Leon whose symbol is, of course, the lion (lion/leon). It was a really pleasant plaza, and we went around and saw all the lion sculptures, shopped in a few of the stores, and had delicious ice cream from King Cream. Mine was coconut flavored, and it was fantastic. Ponce is a quite pretty, artsy city, so after the joys of Plaza las Delicias we were able to head over to the Ponce Art Museum.
I was quite impressed with the Museo de Arte de Ponce. There was a traveling exhibit about the Vienna Secessionists which was fascinating, and then we saw the wall-sized “Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon” by Edward Burne-Jones and the museum’s piece de resistance, “Flaming June” by Sir Frederick Leighton. There was a nice balance of European and Puerto Rican art on the first floor, and the second floor was all European art and sculptures. I really enjoyed it, and I think Ponce is a great stop if you have time for a day trip from San Juan while in Puerto Rico.
Our last stop on the way back from Ponce was along the Pork Highway (Route 184). They are famous for their lechon asado (roast suckling pig), even being featured on the Food Network. We got there a little late in the day, and the first lechonero we visited was all out of the meat. We asked where else to go, and the guy said to go to El Rey up the road, saying “if El Rey ain’t got lechon, nobody’s got lechon”. I’m not sure if that’s really a sign of quality, but we headed up the road until we found El Rey. There were all sorts of lechoneros along the way, but most of them seemed to be closed for the evening. El Rey was still lit up though, and they did have lechon, though they microwaved it for us. For a more authentic experience, it’s probably better to get there around 5pm, or be there on a weekend. The food was still pretty good though–lechon tasted more like prime rib than pork, and the sides were tasty too.

Day Five: Old San Juan

For our last full day in Puerto Rico, we decided to just chill out around Old San Juan, revisit a few places that we liked and just have some fun. We ate at Cafeteria Mallorca again, then took the ferry across the bay to tour the Bacardi Factory. It was 50 cents per ride per person to ride the ferry across, and $3/person to take a van to the factory. The Bacardi Factory tour name is a little misleading, as you don’t actually get to tour the factory or go inside the “Cathedral of Rum”, but you do get two free drink tickets each, and you learn a lot about the history of the company and how the rum is made. They also have a really nice gift shop there, and an awning area that is supposed to look like a bat. (There seem to be quite a few abstract sculptures around, and they are all supposed to look like a bat in flight). It was a fun way to spend a morning, but it wasn’t so much a “factory tour” as a 45 minute long commercial for Bacardi.

Once we headed back across the bay to Old San Juan, we decided to eat at our favorite restaurant again, Punto de Vista, which had amazing churrasquitos, fish tacos, and arroz mamposteao. We also did some more shopping in Old San Juan and walked around town.

Last Day

On the last day we left early, and we could see the sun rise from our balcony. We’d had a busy week in Puerto Rico but were ready to go home.

Puerto Rico is called the “Island of Enchantment”, and I can definitely see why. Where else in the world can you visit forts, art museums, bio bays, beaches, a rain forest, a rum factory, see colonial architecture, and eat great food? The island is pretty small and compact too–only takes an hour or two to drive across it.

I’ve also heard Puerto Rico described as “Latin America for beginners”, and I agree with that too. English is widely spoken, the US dollar is the currency, you can drink the water and flush the toilet paper–everything is up to American standards–but you still get to experience another culture, with great history, food, and traditions. You don’t even need a passport! I think it’s a great travel destination that more people should explore. I know we certainly enjoyed our time there on our honeymoon!

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