San Juan, Puerto Rico
Two years ago, almost to the date, we were on our favorite island, Puerto Rico! 🇵🇷 We’ve been to Puerto Rico twice, once in 2015 and again in 2017 for 1 week each time. We did two very different trips and I’m going to split them into two posts, otherwise it would be really long and I might skip over some good stuff. Many people don’t realize it, or maybe they do since Hurricane Maria, but Puerto Rico is a US Territory. This means that traveling there is just like traveling to any US state. You can go there without a passport and you don’t have to have a visa or anything fancy like that, if you’re in the United States that is. Just hop on a plane and head to the greatest little island I’ve ever been to and get away from the cold.
The first time we went in 2015, we didn’t rent a car and we stayed in the capital San Juan for the whole week. We did an AirBnB for the first time ever and it was the greatest experience. Our host picked us up from the airport and drove us around the city a bit to help us get our bearings and show us some places we might be interested in seeing before taking us to our home for the week. We were in the main touristy area of Condado, so there was lots of food options nearby and the bus stopped right in front of our apartment. But let me just tell you about San Juan busses for a second. They don’t run on a real schedule like some city busses. They run on a loose schedule that is mostly focused on tourists, which for us was good. For the most part. The busses that go into Old San Juan from Condado are reliable and run back and forth all day. So the first full day we were there we were able to wait outside our building for about 15 minutes and then were taken right in to Old San Juan.
Old San Juan
The city bus takes you to the bus depot in Old San Juan, but then there is a free bus that goes around the perimeter of Old San Juan all day long, stopping at the major attractions. If you can find space to cram yourself into on the bus, it’s nice to have a ride around. But in all reality it’s also totally walkable. We did Old San Juan two days, the first day we were able to get on the bus whenever we wanted no problem. We rode the free bus from fort to fort, which was nice because walking around the forts was one thing, but I had also chosen to wear the world’s most uncomfortable shoes, so the bus supplied some relief for me.
The second day we went down to Old San Juan, a cruise ship was in port and the little area was packed! There were so many people everywhere we went. We were lucky that the second day was our day to wander the beautiful streets and hunt for souvenirs so we didn’t try and squish ourselves on to the tourist bus. There was a real difference on the second day in Old San Juan. There was a policeman on every street and all the shops were ready for business. It became very clear on that day that Old San Juan is very much in business for to the tourists.
Old San Juan is a great experience, it’s worth it if you’re in the area to give it a day, especially if you want learn some of the history the little island has to offer. It’s also the first place I tried mofongo, and where my lifelong craving of it began. Mofongo is basically mashed fried plantains with sauce. Which doesn’t sound like much, but there is something that they do in Puerto Rico that makes it the most delicious thing! Our first time trying it was unforgettable, not necessarily because of how good it was, but because of the real San Juan experience we had while we were eating. It was the day without the cruise ship, so the people dining with us were locals. We found this little off the beaten path restaurant called Mojitos, I may have been drawn to it for the drinks I won’t lie. In the table across from us were 3 sweet older ladies celebrating a birthday. Listening to them chat and giggle while we waited for our food was fun, but then after we had all eaten they broke out their cake and sang to their friend. Obviously we heard them singing and laughing and politely smiled when they glanced around. That little smile brought them to offer us some of their cake. When I say offer I mean they cut pieces and put them on our table after we insisted we didn’t need any. They, in turn, insisted that the one was the greatest baker and we had to try it. I have to say, it was pretty good. But really that cake just showed us how open and warm the people of Puerto Rico are. It didn’t stop there. Basically everywhere we went, there was someone who would latch on to Mauricio and I, mostly Mauricio, and tell us their life story like we were long lost friends. It was a little bit weird at times, like when we walked with a guy for about 5 blocks and then he suddenly realized he was going the complete wrong direction because he was so distracted talking to us, but overall it was nice getting to really meet some Puerto Rican people.
To get back to our apartment from Old San Juan we had to go back to the bus depot to catch a bus heading back to town. We found the one we needed, and there was no driver. We asked someone waiting there when the bus was supposed to leave. They just shrugged and said whenever the driver comes back. Yeah, that’s how their busses work. They run when the drivers feel like driving and when they feel like taking a break, whether it’s for 10 minutes or and hour and a half, they take their break. They always come back, it’s just a matter of how long you’ll wait that was the unknown. So one day we waited and chatted with an old man that neither of us could understand for almost an hour. We should have used the experience of waiting in the bus depot for 45 minutes as a reason to call a cab to get to the beach we wanted to go to the next day, but we didn’t. We had seen 2 different busses stop in front of our apartment, one was the one we had taken, that goes from Condado to Old San Juan and back. The other went further in to San Juan, and I had noticed the color of it one of the times it came by. We researched the bus routes and found that the red bus would take us very close to Isla Verde beach. So we got ready for the beach, went down to the bus stop and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally a bus heading the right direction came, it was a blue bus. I didn’t know where the blue bus went so I wasn’t comfortable getting on it. So we stayed, and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, Mauricio said he didn’t care what the next bus was, he was getting on it. So we did. I pulled up the map on my phone as we rode along, deeper and deeper into San Juan, further and further from the beach. Every-time it stopped we thought about getting off, but we’d look around and it was way too sketchy looking to get off. So we stayed on as the bus continued deeper into the city for about 45 minutes. Then we reached the bus depot in the center of the city and it was time for the drivers break. So he kicked everybody off. And there we were. In the cement bus depot, in the middle of the city, dressed for the beach looking touristy as all getup. I’ll tell you now, that was one of the only times I was afraid in all the time I’ve spent in Puerto Rico. There were no busses with drivers, no bus maps or schedules and I really didn’t know where we were. There were a few people lounging about, but not anyone we felt comfortable approaching for directions. So we wandered around a bit until we found a taxi. The driver was practically asleep, but when we asked if he was available he jumped right up and got the door for us. Mauricio told him we wanted to go to Isla Verde, he asked if there was anywhere specific and Mauricio just replied “the beach”. That taxi man literally dropped us off in the sand of Isla Verde. I was so thankful to be there I think we gave him the most generous tip we’ve ever given.
Even though our trip to Isla Verde was rough, the beach itself was great. We played in the water, Mauricio’s first time swimming in the ocean might I add, we even went parasailing. Mauricio does not like heights, so the fact that I can get him to do things like that shows how brave he is. But honestly it was terrifying. I love being up high and I thought I would love it, I was a bit shocked by it actually. Don’t get me wrong, I had a good time and I’d 100% go again but it was a lot different than I was expecting. It was really windy, which I think is always the case in Puerto Rico, but because of the wind we were really moving around a lot up in the air and I got motion sickness which doesn’t happen often. Once we got done with that I was happy just to lay on the beach and not move for a while. Overall it was a good Puerto Rican beach day. As it might go without saying, we took a taxi back to our apartment.
Another good beach day was spent on Playita del Condado, which as you might have guessed was down in the tourist area we were staying in. It’s a tiny little beach right by the bridge that leads over to Old San Juan. We took the bus over to it and had fresh coconuts and lounged on the slightly crowded little beach. Then we crossed over the road and rented kayaks to explore la Laguna del Condado. We basically rented them from a guy in a van who said he’d watch our stuff for us. It wasn’t too official, but it was cheap. Our safety briefing went like this:
Guy: “Have you used kayaks before?”
Guy: “Okay, here take this one and here are some life jackets.”
Us: “Do we have to wear life jackets?”
Guy: “Can you swim?”
Guy: “Then I don’t care.”
And away we went. There was no time limit that we rented them for and he basically just hung out on the beach with our stuff while we explored for an hour or so. Once we got back, and found our stuff still safely tucked away, we decided to head back to the apartment and get ready for a nice dinner.
Typically when we go on vacations we try and eat like the locals and like we would eat at home. We don’t do a lot of fancy dining at home, so we don’t while we vacation either. But we usually have one night that we find a nice place to splurge a little. On this trip we decided on Pelayos. It was the #1 recommended restaurant in our area on TripAdvisor, and yes I use TripAdvisor religiously when we vacation. I’m sorry to say that Pelayos is currently closed due to damage from Hurricane Maria, but I think they are working hard to re-open. Since I used TripAdvisor to decide on going there, I pretty much knew exactly what I wanted. They were highly praised on their paella, and the pictures I’d seen made my mouth water. Unfortunately when we looked at the menu we didn’t see it. We decided to ask our waiter about it and that was 1000 percent the right choice.
As soon as we told him we had seen it on TripAdvisor we started getting red carpet service. The chef sent out some free appetizers for us and brought our meal out to us personally. He told us all about how he made paella and was just the nicest chef who had ever come to my table. To this day he’s the only chef that’s come to my table like that, but it still made me feel pretty special. I’m pretty sure he did all of that so that I would leave a good review, and I have to say it worked. I mean here I am years later still talking about that meal. It was the first time we tried paella and we fell in love. We haven’t gathered the courage to try and make it ourselves, I think we’re afraid of it not being good enough.
Mofongo on the other hand, I made for the first time just a few weeks ago and I must say it turned out pretty good. It wasn’t as amazing as it is in Puerto Rico, but it cured a bit of my craving for the island food.
The final thing I want to share about our San Juan trip is the Bacardi House. I had seen that you could do tours of the Bacardi House and it was just a ferry ride from Old San Juan, so we decided it would be worth an afternoon to go over and see the rum factory and have some drinks. We got directions from the tourist center in Old San Juan. They basically told us to take the ferry across the Bahia de San Juan, get in a cab and they’ll take us right to the Bacardi House for $5. That might work if you don’t stop to use the bathroom when you get off the ferry. The ferry ride was just fine, it was pretty much full and when we all got off it was like a mob of people walking out of the terminal. Mauricio and I stopped to use the bathroom and when we came out we were literally alone. We went out to the street and there was no people, no taxis. Nothing. The Bacardi factory is in an industrial, factory, area. So walking from the terminal to the factory was hardly an option. So we basically just stood there, lost. After a minute or so, two other people came wandering up to us. They were just as confused as we were. The four of us just stood there wondering where all the taxis and people had disappeared to so fast. Then a van with no windows, literally a kidnapper van, pulled up and asked if we needed a ride, $20 for all of us to go to the Bacardi House. We all looked at each other and said silently agreed that we were not getting kidnapped that day. The other two started walking in the direction of the factory, while Mauricio and I pondered what to do. We had just about decided to just get back on the ferry and go back to Old San Juan when a legit taxi pulled up and asked if we were going to the Bacardi House. He charged us more than we were expecting, something about how there was only two of us, but we made it to the factory. A few minutes in to our drive we saw the people we had been waiting with walking along the road, and hoped that we would see them later at the factory. Don’t worry, we did.
The Bacardi House itself was alright. There were a few different options for tours and we opted for the cheapest one at $12 per person. That $12 got us a drink and about an hour tour of the factory. It didn’t take us in to the actual factory though, just an area that was an example of what the factory was like. It was a little underwhelming, the drink was good though. I think the longer, and more expensive, get you in to the actual factory itself, and maybe another drink. Getting back to the ferry terminal was a lot easier than getting to the factory. There was a line of taxis waiting to take people back and they would load as many as they could into their car and take us all, for $5 a pair. Moral of the story, if you take a ferry to an industrial side of town, wait to use the bathroom until you get where you’re going.
We absolutely loved our time in San Juan, and we could tell there was a lot more the island had to offer. So when the day came to leave we were sad, but I think we both knew that we would be back.