I’m not sure who’s idea it was originally, but somehow my wife and her best friend and the BFF’s cousin and I planned a trip to Puerto Rico. This was a much needed vacation, if only for the vitamin D we sorely miss during the winter months here in Seattle. What follows is my attempt at chronicling everything we did, based on my notes, journaling, receipts, tweets, photographs and my spotty memory. If these 2200 words are too much for you to read, here’s the short version: we ate, we drank, we gambled, we hiked, we swam, we laughed, we loved every minute of it.
Tuesday January 31st-Wednesday February 1st
Tuesday evening the wife and I hopped on a plane for an overnight flight— went through D.C., and then on the way to San Juan we had to make an emergency landing in Orlando (medical emergency— one of the passengers was having chest pains, poor guy). We finally landed by Wednesday afternoon, and took a shuttle to the car rental place. Turns out we were delayed enough so that our travel companions from Chicago were able to also take a shuttle and meet us there. We crammed our luggage and our tired bodies into a tiny red Hyundai and drove to our hotel. I only made one wrong turn getting us to our destination.
We checked into the Conrad, in the Condado section of San Juan. Puerto Rico is not an expensive place to visit, but we managed to find a very nice hotel nevertheless. And when I say “we” I mean my wife and the others did all the research and hard work. Once we were checked in, we went to our rooms—nice, big, gorgeous views of the ocean and the lagoon—then walked around looking for food. We wound up at the hotel’s Cafe Caribe, where I had paella. At least that’s what they called it. It was delicious, but not made the traditional Spanish way… but no complaints from me. I also had one of the local brews, a Medalla light.
Afterwards the old people (me and the wife) went to our room to crash, while the Chicago chickas did some gambling. I’m told they won big. Pretty girls always win big.
Thursday February 2nd
First whole day in Puerto Rico! Ah, the sunshine. After a Starbucks, (you can take the young urban professionals out of the continental United States, but you can’t take the convenient coffee addiction out of the yuppies!) we took a cab to San Felipe del Morro, an old fortress. This place was awesome. It was built back in the day (“the day” this time refers to the mid 16th century) to defend the waterways leading to the New World from the various enemies of Spain who wanted a chunk of that South American booty. We spent a few hours there, meandering around the walls, gazing out at the ocean, taking about three hundred pictures.
Afterwards we wandered through Old San Juan, a kind of quaint touristy-trap collection of streets. And please note I do not say “tourist trap” in a negative way. Me and the wife love this sort of thing. For lunch we went to El Picoteo, a tapas place located in the Hotel El Convento. This was recommended to us by a friend who had been to Puerto Rico before, and if you know the guy I’m talking about, then you know following his advice is a no-brainer: he has excellent taste. Nor were we in the least disappointed by the food and drinks (the ladies had yummy cocktails. I had multiple beers).
(A side note—I think it was about this time that a burgeoning Foursquare check-in competition began. One of the four of us, and I won’t say who but it wasn’t me, ended this vacation with something like 544 points, thanks to all the check-ins. Personally, I earned seven badges, including The Great Outdoors (2x), Swimmies, and Player Please. Another one of us got her Hot Tamale and Fresh Brew (4x) badges, amongst others. Go ahead and laugh, but we now have a pretty cool archive of where we went and what we did while we were in PR. Very nice).
Once we were done with Old San Juan, we got into a taxi—the driver apologized, first, for the smell of cigarettes in his cab (which I could not really smell). He then asked if we wouldn’t mind his stopping at a gas station to get an air freshener. We said we wouldn’t, and none of us for a second thought this was a ruse to kidnap us and ask for ransom. Not even after he almost got into a wreck, pulling into the gas station. He bought the air freshener and then drove us to our hotel, explaining that his last fare had paid him $100 to let him smoke in the cab. I’m just glad none of us smoke—we would have used up all of the casino winnings from the night before.
Next on the agenda was a planned visit to the bioluminescent bays of Las Croabas, so we piled ourselves into the tiny red Hyundai (from now on, the TRH) for the two hour drive. Stopped at McDonalds on the way. Eventually the highways led to smaller streets and cramped roadways and just when we thought we’d gone the wrong way and got lost in a rainforest, we emerged from the trees and were there.
We waited for our boat to come back from its earlier outing, chatting with a Canadian couple who were staying at a nearby resort. Finally the boat returned, and alas, Captain Jeff informed us that the luminescence in the bay was too low to really enjoy. He was very gracious about it, refunding our money, and apologizing for our two hour drive. He did recommend to us a nearby place to eat, Ole Lelolai, so we drove there instead. I had paella again. Love me some paella.
We drove home, and I’m not sure what happened before bed. There may have been gambling, or icecream, or both.
Friday February 3rd
I got up early to get a run in, and it was magnificent. Even though it was mostly uphill, the views and just the joy of running in a new place was exhilarating. Got back in time to walk with the wife and one if the Chicagoans to the Ocean Front Hacienda for breakfast. I had a club sandwich. It was enormous.
The other Chicagoan opted to go to the pool, and once we were done eating, (since this was to be a “chillax” day) we went to join her there. Had a very expensive cocktail and got a lot of reading done. Once afternoon was approaching, and with it hunger, we decided to go into old San Juan and eat before visiting the other castillo in the city. We tried to take a bus but the driver wouldn’t take dollar bills, so we got a deal on a taxi who dropped us off the Old San Juan Food Court.
Some of us had empanadas while our vegetarian companion had a tofu wrap in next door Cafe Berlin. Let me say this about travelling with people who have a dietary restriction: they keep you from settling for just any old thing (the visit to McDonald’s yesterday doesn’t count) and you end up getting a better meal than you might have otherwise. Kudos to her for that.
We spent about as much time in Castillo de San Cristobal, the other fortress in old San Juan, as we had in del Morro. This fortress was built once the Spanish government realized that their enemies would be more than happy to attack by land if they couldn’t by sea. Just so you know, the cost for seeing both fortresses—as many times as we wanted in seven days—was five dollars. My wife felt like this was not enough, and donated some more money to one of the restoration and upkeep boxes.
After that we wandered around Old San Juan again, because wandering around with no agenda is a rare luxury for on-the-go types like us. We stopped by Vaca Brava to get a shirt for my brother (it’s where the Hard Rock Cafe used to be), and had a few beers and cocktails and appetizers at the only craft brewery in PR,. Dinner was at a different-friend-recommended placed called Tantra. This was a place that serves Indo-Latino cuisine, which was pretty darn good, especially thanks to the two dozen martini varieties they also served.
I don’t remember how we got back to our hotel. Blame Tantra’s martinis for that. But I do remember the ladies wanted to walk to Casino del Mar for some hot gambling action. Their game was craps, and I could have written “some hot craps action” but that just doesn’t sound right. While they rolled dice, I sat in a nearby chair, reading a book and pretending to be a hug muscle-bound bodyguard for a collection of wealthy Indian princesses. We all vacation in different ways.
Saturday February 4th
This was set to be a big day out, and didn’t disappoint. Did the Starbucks thing again, and climbed into the TRH for a drive to El Yunque, the only rainforest in the U.S. Just for the sake of consistency, we stopped at the McDonald’s again on the way there. At El Yunque itself, we paid a few dollars to stop at the Portal (visitor center), to get recommendations from the guide.
Thanks to his advice, we started off by driving up to Yokahu Tower, climbing the 96 steps for the view—you could see all the way to Luquillo from up there. After that we hiked the Bano de Oro trail, about 45 minutes, not too difficult, and I wore my Vibram Five Fingers just to make it all hipster and cool.
The most fun was after we hiked to La Mina falls— the water was cold, but the pounding of the falls warmed us up, quick. There’s something nearly indescribable about wading beneath a waterfall. We were, each of us, moved by the experience.
After that we drove to Luquillo beach, and called the bio-bay people to see if the luminescence was any better, since we were in the neighborhood. But it was not to be. Me, I blame the recent solar storm and the full moon. At Luquillo itself we got some junk food (fried and bad for us and delicious) at the nearby kioskos, then went to the beach to play in the surf for a bit, at least until it rained.
Back in San Juan, we got cleaned up, and as tired as we were, we felt we deserved margaritas. So we walked over to a cute little Mexican place for dinner called Cielito Lindo. We had many many margaritas. How many margaritas? Your mom had margaritas, that’s how many.
Afterwards, some more gambling, at the Marriott, and then back to our rooms to hang out and play cards. Eventually all the hiking and laughing and drinking got the better of us, and we snoozed.
Sunday February 5th
Started off Sunday with the a trip to the Bacardi factory for a tour (drove there in the TRH). Pretty darn cool if you ask me. Bacardi has a lot of history, and it was fun learning about where they came from and the different varieties they cask. The wife and bought a bottle of the Reserva Limitada, which you can only get there at the factory— this is a sipping rum, and almost tastes like a fine whiskey.
Lunch was at a place one of the Chicagoans found in downtown San Juan, Abracadabra. The accordion player on stage was amazing, although a bit loud, so we opted to wait for a table a little less close to the stage. Worth it. The inexpensive meal came with coffee and juice, and my croque monsieur was mucho tasty.
Back at the hotel we chilled at the pool for a bit before the Super Bowl, which we watched in the Eternal lobby lounge. We set up one of those betting pools, where folks win based on the last digit of the scores per quarter. We felt a little bit shady, since one our own won three out of the four pots. Just goes to show ya. I told you pretty girls always win.
Monday February 6th
Last day of vacation. I woke up “early” to run a three miler from our hotel up all the way to Del Morro. So glorious. The view of the water, the buildings, the churches, the castillos themselves. I would gladly go back to Puerto Rico, just to run some more.
We spent most of the morning in the pool, playing on the waterslide like little kids, but having almost more fun than on the entire trip. The wife had brought her innertube floatie, and we kept trying to find new ways to abuse the waterslide—and ourselves—with it. Two of us would hold it at the bottom of the slide, while a third person would shoot through it.
In retrospect, it seems like the most fun we had on the trip were all about water: Mina Falls, Luquillo Beach, and the waterslide. Oh, and the margaritas…
But eventually it was time to go. We got packed up, popped into old San Juan for lunch at a dive called Moreno’s Spot, and then returned the rental car. Took the shuttle to the airport, checked our bags, went to our gates. Our Chicago friends had to board first, so we said goodbye. For the record, I would gladly travel with either or both of them again, anywhere. Puerto Rico was awesome, and they made it awesomer.
Then it was our turn to get on a plane, and 11 hours later, we were home again.
One of my all-time most-favorite vacations.