Ah, San Juan, Puerto Rico! A city full of life, history, culture, beautiful colonial architecture, and joyous people – and for five days, it was my “home”!
I had always wanted to visit but never gotten around to it and now I’m about to head back to Puerto Rico for the third time in about 1 1/2 years. In this series of articles, I’ll share my experiences with the different areas of the island and I’ll start with San Juan.
My visit to Puerto Rico was focused on Old San Juan with a one day snorkeling trip out to Isla Culebra and Flamenco Beach. My goals were to “fit in”, explore the old city, eat some great food, and relax a bit. All were accomplished with flying colors.
First, the old city is beautiful with it’s cobble stone streets and colorful colonial style buildings. In order to “fit in” and get a feeling for it, I opted not to stay at a hotel and instead found a great little apartment in the middle of the city through AirBnB (use this link to sign up and we both receive $20 credit when you travel!). The apartment was beautiful and centrally located in Calle Sol. The hostess was very welcoming and spent an hour or more with me making sure that I had no questions, sharing a map and highlighting the main things to see and experience, sharing her favorite restaurants (one was on my list from a friend’s recommendation!) – in summary, making me feel like her guest. That is one of the reasons I like staying at properties listed through AirBnB – they are mostly places being rented by locals who want to share their town and knowledge while making a bit of extra money.
As far as what to see and do in San Juan, I started off with a food tour on my first day there. I have done several of these in different cities and I find them to be a really good way to get a quick orientation to the city, get some good food, restaurant recommendations for the rest of my stay, and they’re just plain fun. The one I did is the Flavors of San Juan tour and it fit the bill perfectly. Our tour guide (Rocio) was very knowledgeable and fun.
Once the tour was over, I proceeded to do my favorite thing: wander around exploring and see what I found. You just can’t go wrong doing that in San Juan. The architecture is beautiful, the shops are interesting, and the people are very friendly and helpful.
Meals were all delicious and more than filling – and the drinks always hit the spot! I’ll summarize where I ate below, but let me just say that the most pleasant surprise was breakfast at the Hacienda Isabel Coffee Boutique. This place just confused me – I opened the door and thought I had walked into someone’s living room and walked out. Only to check again, walk in, and have a fantastic cooked to order (based on ingredients on hand that day) breakfast with some really good coffee (I bought several bags to take back home with me!)
As for the rest of the restaurants I visited, here’s a list with my personal ratings (I am not a food critic – this is just personal preference and ranking) and any comments related to them.
|Barrachina||*****||Claims to have invented the pina colada - regardless, they were GREAT. Food was pretty good too!|
|Cafe Cuatro Sombras||*****||Good coffee shop. Very good coffee shop!|
|Cafe El Punto||****||Fantastic ceviche|
|Cafe Poetico||****||Great little art shop and coffee shop.|
|Casa Cortes ChocoBar||*****||All things chocolate. Tried cheddar cheese dipped in chocolate - would have never thought of it and it was surprisingly good.|
|Dragonfly||***||I found the atmosphere to be great and the food to be slightly above average|
|El Jibarito||****||Local "hole in the wall" with traditional Puerto Rican food (very good) and very casual atmosphere.|
|Hacienda Isabel Coffee Boutique||*****||Breakfast. Great place. Worth going out of your way for.|
|La Tortuga||****||Neighborhood place serving all types of things. Went in for a "cafe", enjoyed some pastries too.|
|Pirito Pizza Rustica||****||Good pizza!|
|Raices||****||This was a good place - but it just struck me as "touristy".|
|Rosa de Triana||****||If you want to dine in an old dungeon, this is the place! Good food and different atmosphere!|
You can’t go to San Juan without visiting both forts (Fort San Felipe Del Morro and Fort San Cristobal). While El Morro is probably more famous, I actually found the Fort San Cristobal to be more interesting – with it’s broad “lawn” and unimpeded views of the ocean.
Aside from these formidable sites, one should not miss La Fortaleza or the San Juan Bautista cathedral. One area that I really enjoyed and is seldom mentioned is the gardens and grounds of the Casa Blanca. While they need a bit of tender love and care, they are still impressive and a nice area to just walk around in and get away from the normal crowds.
Keeping with the walking theme, a walk along the shore line from El Morro is a nice way to see the city – from a different vantage point. Keep in mind that there is very little shade during most of the day and the sun can be overbearing. At the end of the walk near the cruise line pier you can reward yourself with a drink at the park or walk up a block and have some great coffee at Cuatro Sombras – another fine coffee shop. Of course, there’s no better sight while walking than the old colonial homes throughout Old San Juan.
I talk a lot about wandering and exploring and what a great way to learn about a city that is. One of the things I loved about doing that in San Juan was coming across the flower vendor that goes around Old San Juan selling azucena and seeing the painting on the side of a building depicting him!
Lastly, a snorkeling day trip to Isla Culebra was a great break from being in the city. I booked a trip with Tobias Snorkel and Beach Tours and Beach Tours out of Fajardo which was really well done. Their pickup point for the drive to Fajardo was just a short walk from the apartment and then the fun really started. Let’s start off with the crew – Antonio, Chris, and the rest were amazing. Knowledgeable, courteous, and just plain fun. They made three stops which were all fantastic: Luis Pena, Tamarindo Beach, and Flamenco beach. Each had a purpose (reef, turtles, reef and BEAUTIFUL beach) and each delivered a good experience.
The food served on board was not fancy but it was very fresh, tasty and hit the spot – anything else would have been overwhelming. Perfect food for a snorkeling trip. Sodas, water, rum punch, and pina coladas were available throughout the trip.