This Christmas my wife and I decided to take a trip back to the Caribbean.  We really enjoyed our first experience last year in St. Lucia for our honeymoon, and we wanted to get away from what has been a wet and dreary New York City winter.  After a week down in Puerto Rico, here are some of the highlights.

The Playa

Private beach in Ocean Park

We stayed in a gated community in San Juan called Ocean Park.  One of the benefits of this location was the proximity to a private beach.  To get to the beach, we took one left from our guesthouse and walked about 200 feet south.  It was a (max) two minute stroll, and when we arrived we were welcomed with the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean sea, and miles of beautiful white sand.

In addition to the sea and our serene surroundings, there were multiple options for food and drink along the beach.  Whether it was a full fledged restaurant or small huts that served piña coladas and snacks, we were able to leave the guest house with just our towels and wallets and have a great time.

Watching the wind surfers on the beach was a lot of fun as well.  There were decent wind gusts and the sea was really choppy along the coast.  What amazed my wife and I were how far out the wind surfers would venture into the open ocean.  With my untrained eye, I’d say some of them got out at least a mile off-shore.

The Comida

Dining in San Juan (proper) was different and challenged my “meat n’ potatoes” up-bringing. We could have taken the easy road and only dined at the typical American fast-food joints, but we chose to embrace the opportunity and taste some local cuisines.

Mofongo

The first night we were in Puerto Rico, we ventured down the road to a local restaurant called “La Cueva Del Mar”.  Jo got something called “Mofongo”.  We are still not sure what exactly it was made up of, but it was some sort of stuffing-like consistency with seafood, rice, and shrimp… instead of breadcrumbs and gravy.  I enjoyed some fish tacos and chicken fingers, mostly because I couldn’t pronounce anything else on the menu.  The Coronas (I could pronounce those) were $1.50 a piece, so I had to make sure those tasted the same in Puerto Rico as they did in the states.

On another night during the week, we ventured into Old San Juan and dined at Trois Cent Onze.  I found this amusing because we managed to pick out a French restaurant in the middle of the Caribbean.  Funny enough, it was the best meal we had the entire vacation.

We started with bread, and also some beef carpaccio which was excellent.  For the main course, Jo got the Shrimp and Red Pepper Risotto, and I had two Lobster Tails with rice. The Risotto was cooked perfectly and the shrimp and seasoning was subtle and didn’t over-power the rest of the dish.  The Lobster tails out-performed my admittedly low expectations. Grilled while in the tail, then bathed in a wine / butter / vinaigrette glaze that was incredibly smooth and savory.  I didn’t even touch the rice, the main dish was filling and satisfying enough by itself.  We coupled the dinner with wine (Jo) and Puerto Rican beer (me) and had a great night.

One take-away that we caught onto after a few interactions in restaurants down there.  Service on the island is much different than back home in Manhattan. It’s much slower. It’s much less frequent.  We usually only saw our server / waiter three or four times all night, including taking our drink and food orders.  They also don’t like it when you flag them down to ask for something.  I came close to losing my patience trying to adapt to that part of our new surroundings.

Old San Juan

Overlooking level one artillery deck

This was one of my highlights on our trip.  Jo put together an incredible walking tour for us, and we visited both historical landmarks and also some plazas within the city walls.  All in all I think we covered close to five miles trekking around the city perimeter.  Walking through old look-out towers and war-ridden forts was an eerie but also educational experience.  As we went in to different barracks and different overlooks of both the open-sea and the island, we tried to envision what soldiers of the past saw and felt.  I imagined that back in the day, young soldiers stood their posts and monitored the seas for ships like those in “Pirates of the Carribbean”.   It must have been one hell of a rush of adrenaline and fear when they finally saw one and needed to jump into action.

After we got done with the history lessons and tours, we went into the city center.  Old San Juan had it’s fair share of random stores and shops.  We found it hysterical that one of the highest traffic stores in all of Old San Juan was none other than Marshall’s discount clothing.  I guess hunting through clothing racks and searching for deals on designer brands is a shared phenomenon.

Latté at Caficultura

On a second trip into Old San Juan we had the pleasure of stopping for brunch at a place called Caficultura, which had some amazing food and coffee options.  I had already downed a few cups of coffee in the morning before Jo woke up, so when we got a table at Caficultura she grabbed herself a latté while I munched on something small.  The best part of this place was the outdoor seating, where we could people watch while not being overtly obvious about it.  Old San Juan has a nice mix of locals, and clueless tourists like ourselves.

“Hola, me llamo Mark”

The local Puerto Rican’s ability to distinguish who they should speak English to, and who they speak native Spanish to, was on full display with me.  Case and point, I attempted to use a few spanish phrases with some local business owners, and they answered me directly back in English, politely indicating that my effort was appreciated, but unnecessary.

e.g.

Mark – “Hola, dondé está la plaza de armas?”

Local Business Owner – “Ah, go down to that street and take a right”.

Mark – “Gracias señor!”

Local Businss Owner – “Ok, not a problem have a good day”.

In my interactions from that point on, I did my best to give Spanish a go and put my Syracuse University education to work.  Most of the time it ended in us both speaking English and leaving me feeling like an idiot.

El Yunque National Forest

One of the last excursions we went on before heading home was visiting El Yunque National Forest / Rainforest.  The ride from the guest house was about 45 minutes, and once we arrived everything was up-hill and twisty.  The small road sizes and minimal room to manuever reminded Jo and I of the St. Lucia roads we almost lost our lunches to.  I give credit to all the tour guides and bus operators that have to navigate that exaggerated walking path all the way up the mountain and fight for parking.

Cool looking tree in El Yunque

The rainforest was a lot of fun.  We expected there to be an over-whelming presence of mosquito’s and flies, but there were hardly any.  Even deep into the heart of the rainforest we never ran into any overly buggy areas.  It was damp, but it was explained to us that the cool air and altitude kept most of them down by the ocean.  We visited a waterfall by the side of the road to begin our tour.  After that, we parked and then hit a trail-head that pointed us to another waterfall but one deeper into the rainforest.  It was about an hour hike, and primarily down-hill.

Once we got to the waterfall, it was badly over-crowded.  Jo stayed up on the observatory deck, and I took my goPro down to the water to see how cold it was.  I would have taken some time to swim around or explore more, but there were toddlers and little kids all over the place and I was getting impatient.  We sat around for a few more minutes and caught our breath, then started our way back up the way we came.

Here is some footage of our trek.  It also happened to be the first time using the goPro and head mount.  Maybe someday I’ll edit this with some fancy transitions to make it less boring.

Final Thoughts

Our first trip to Puerto Rico was a great time.  It gave us some awesome memories and it was exciting exploring a place with new tastes, smells, and scenery.  Not sure we will go back to the specific guest house we stayed at (minimal wi-fi, minimal amenities, small rooms) but we definitely want to go back and see Vieques and a few other spots on Puerto Rico we didn’t catch this time around.

Here’s a video from the rainforest, enjoy!




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