White sand beaches, turquoise waters and lush palm trees swaying to and fro in a warm breeze. Is it just me or does the same image spring to mind for everyone when thinking of the Caribbean? Whatever the postcard worthy picture you might be dreaming of right now, I’m willing to bet it doesn’t include colorful colonial buildings and cobblestone streets that have you all but convinced you’ve been transported to 16th century Spain. Unexpected as it might be, this old world European charm is exactly what awaited us in beautiful San Juan A.K.A. the oldest city under the American flag . . .
When I initially shared that I was heading to Puerto Rico for the first time, everyone told me San Juan and particularly Old San Juan was a must see. The second stop (following Princess Cays) on our seven day Caribbean cruise you might remember that our time in this colorful city didn’t get off to the best start.
As I’ve mentioned before, Ted and I love traveling with Princess Cruises for numerous reasons but their amazing choice of excursions (many of which are exclusively created in collaboration with Discovery and Animal Planet) is one of the biggest selling points for us. Sadly, about five minutes into our much anticipated excursion in Old San Juan things hit a snag when I realized my camera was suddenly refusing to do anything except turn off and on.
Ever the epitome of cool, calm and collected, your girl freaked out. Our DSLR was a big investment for us so naturally I was worried about the cost of repairing it (if it could even be repaired) but worse still, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get the quality content I’d not only planned on but actually promised to partners who’ve been so good to me over the years.
As it turns out, this mini disaster couldn’t have happened in a better place. Confused? So was I at first but the hubby quickly reminded me of one of the greatest and most oft forgotten perks of traveling around Puerto Rico – easy as it might be to feel like you’re exploring some charming European destination you’re still technically in America meaning:
- Your cell will work perfectly on it’s standard plan – crazy roaming charges begone!
- Most everyone speaks english and is more than happy to do so.
- Ubers are both safe and plentiful – our driver was super sweet and helpful.
- Credit cards are just as easy to use as they are at home in Boston.
- Convenient (even if less than exciting) stores like Walgreens and Best Buy are relatively easy to come buy.
Apart from the more practical, we just as quickly learned that the people of Puerto Rico are amongst some of the warmest, kindest and most helpful we’ve ever met. Since we were actually near a local camera shop, Foto One, when we discovered the issue with our DSLR we decided it was worth popping in to see if we were missing an obvious problem or glitch. We weren’t (unfortunately) but I’ll tell you this, we’ll never forget the incredible people we met in that little shop.
The owner? He professionally cleaned and worked to attempt fixing our camera for almost twenty minutes. Did I mention he did all of that for free? After discovering that it just couldn’t be fixed (due to a lens related recall issue we’re now aware of – sigh) he and two clients helped us to locate the nearest Best Buy and gave us all the details on how best to get there, how long it would take etc. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see that big blue and yellow building – or to fork out almost $600 for a new camera lens!
Funnily enough, despite it’s being one of the most stressful experiences of our vacation (or any vacation for that matter) I now look back on it all very fondly. Given the positive resolution this may not strike you as all that surprising but I feel like I got to see the real, generous and open hearted Puerto Rico.
Since much of our time was spent trekking to and from Best Buy, I don’t have quite as comprehensive a list of recommendations for you as I’d hoped. That being said, we managed to squeeze in quite a bit and whatever we didn’t get to experience first hand I got details on from my sweet friend Alicia who creates amazing travel based content and just happened to be visiting Old San Juan at the very same time as us.
What to Eat
Puerto Rican cooking is best described as a multi cultural event. Spanish, Cuban, Mexican, American and Taíno flavors all mingle to create the one-of-a-kind cuisine you typically find here. Some of the country’s best loved dishes include arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) mojo isleno (fried fish with a flavorful olive sauce) and perhaps most popular of all, mofongo.
With fried, mashed plantains as it’s main ingredient, mofongo which is typically served with some sort of fried meat may not look like much but it’s a huge part of Puerto Rican culture and something I’d strongly recommend trying should you get the chance.
Having finally dealt with all of our camera related drama, Ted and I decided we needed catch our breath for a bit. Arriving back in Old San Juan we almost immediately spotted and decided to opt for lunch at Punto de Vista restaurant located on the rooftop of the Hotel Milano.
Between it’s relatively humble looks and our eagerness to just sit we weren’t expecting much but it wasn’t long before we realized we’d stumbled upon a real gem. Turns out this lively restaurant is not only known for it’s delicious take on traditional Puerto Rican dishes but it’s views of Old San Juan and we’d just been lucky enough to arrive before the lunch rush took hold.
While we didn’t get to experience the food here for ourselves, a few other spots I’ve heard people rave about include La Casita de Rones (where we did grab drinks) La Madre and Marmalade Restaurant & Wine Bar.
What to Drink
Of course, you can’t think of Puerto Rico without thinking of it’s national drink; rum – thanks Columbus! Coincidentally, Puerto Ricans also discovered one of the most delicious ways to drink rum. The piña colada (which means strained pineapple in Spanish) was invented in Old San Juan in 1954.
Extremely proud of all this, you’ll notice that most Puerto Rican bartenders and servers are eager to not only have you try but really enjoy the local rum. We definitely noticed this when meeting up with Alicia (and her lovely boyfriend Tom – #relationshipgoals) for a drink at the super cute harbor-side bar La Casita de Rones which is conveniently located just minutes from where the Princess Cruises ships typically dock.
Not realizing that La Casita is famous for it’s incredible rum selection, all four of us ordered beer and rose only to have the waitress laugh and bring us “much better” mojitos instead. One sip in and we all agreed she’d made the right call!
What to Do
It may sound silly but in a city as colorful and charming as this I often find I get the most enjoyment out of simply going for a walk. While it’s nice to have a very basic plan and/or route in mind, it’s during these strolls that I typically stumble across gems such as the amazing coffee shop only locals know about or a pretty pink backdrop for that perfect outfit shot.
Still a little frazzled from the mornings misadventures, Ted and I were wondering what to do after lunch when Punto de Vista’s incredibly sweet GM recommended heading directly to Fortaleza Street – a must see we’d all but forgotten about over the course of the day.
About a five minute walk from the restaurant, Fortaleza Street is home to the governors mansion (a blue and white confection located at the very end of the street) and more recently still the Umbrella Sky Project. With bright umbrellas “floating” above the street, this art installation was created with the intention of brining color and hope back into the lives of those people affected by Hurricane Maria.
While it’s absolutely worth visiting, I will say that Fortaleza Street was much, much busier than I’d expected which meant getting a good photo here proved extremely difficult. If you happen to be staying in Puerto Rico for a couple of days I’d highly recommend making the effort to get up early (say 6.30AM to be safe) if getting that perfect shot is high on your bucket list.
During the latter part of our self guided walking tour (that’s what we’re calling it now) Ted and I took some time to stop and explore Hotel El Convento. A 350 year old Carmelite convent that’s since been turned into a beautiful boutique hotel, it’s perfect for anyone who wants to spend their time in the very heart of the old city.
Of course, one of the things that makes San Juan so beautiful and unique are the fortresses surrounding it. The older of the two, Castillo San Felipe del Morro (dating back to 1539) is divided into six levels comprised of dungeons, barracks and towers somewhat reminiscent of Kings Landing. Even if you’re not a history buff, I’d recommend checking out this world heritage site for the views alone.
Have a litte more time in PR? Why not check out Casa Bacardi, Condado Beach or El Yunque National Rainforest where you can not only go horseback riding but take in a dwarf forest complete with miniature trees and rare frogs!