Tuesday, November 11, 2008

5 Puerto Rico

In celebration of the US election, Patrick's company, the VAN, flew everyone down to Puerto Rico for a relaxing staff retreat on the shores of the glistening Atlantic. Katrina was happy to tag along and do some sunbathing while Patrick was in meetings.

The flight to San Juan was the easiest we've taken in a long time. Direct, three-and-a-half hour flights from Boston are offered at low rates by many airlines including JetBlue and American. Once we arrived, we took a 15-minute, $20 cab ride to our hotel: La Concha, an absolutely beautiful beachfront hotel in the community of Condado just east of Old San Juan. Every room has spectacular, head-on ocean views and the facilities, including a number of pools and a posh pool deck (seen at right), are very modern. But the most important amenity is the gorgeous beach (seen at left) that is the hotel's backyard. The only odd thing about La Concha is that the lobby becomes a very trendy nightclub in the evenings that just oozes hip. This is great if you don't want to go far for nightlife, but the blaring music can be startling as you make your way to your room.

In addition to lounging on the beach, Puerto Rico offers a variety of outdoor venues for adventure. We took a nighttime kayak tour of Fajardo Bioluminescent Bay where dinoflagellates light up the water. The experience of kayaking through a narrow, winding, mangrove-lined canal in the pitch dark is worth the trip alone, but seeing your oars glow as they blade through the water is absolutely amazing. There are only five locations in the world where you can see this phenomenon. Try to go on a night without much moonlight because the darker it is, the easier it is to see the bioluminescence.

We did not have time to take advantage of more of the excursions from San Juan, but other VAN employees reported great things about the rainforest, and opportunities for surfing and snorkeling abound. It is very easy to arrange for transportation to all of these activities if you don't want the hassle of renting a car--many of the tour companies will pick you up at your hotel as part of the package. Plus, then you get to meet some great characters like our van driver Jose who imparted much of his local knowledge to us.
One might expect this bevy of outdoor activities from a Caribbean island, but a wonderful surprise is how fascinating Old San Juan is (seen above). Brightly colored buildings line the cobblestone streets of this historical part of the city, and there are two Spanish colonial forts good for hours of exploring. Also be sure not to miss Paseo Del Morro, a stunning walkway (seen below) that hugs San Juan Bay on the west end of the Isla San Juan. Beware however, there is apparently a huge cat overpopulation problem in Puerto Rico. All along the path we saw stray cats lurking around and signs saying "Save los Gatos!" Who knew? The path finally led us to Paseo de la Princesa, a stylish promenade home to charming cafes and dozens of street vendors and an ideal place to watch the sun set. We waited in line to buy the very popular snack of china dulce, which is a giant peeled sweet orange with the top removed to suck out the juice: a very messy treat. We also learned that while taxis are a little pricey in Old San Juan, it is very accessible by public transportation. If you are staying in Condado it is easy to get to and from Old San Juan by the C53 and B21 free public buses.
The dining scene in San Juan offers something for everyone--tapas and Mexican cuisines are popular in addition to traditional Puerto Rican fare, and it is easy to find sushi, American fast food, and a very reliable pizza joint or two (Mike and Charlie's across the street from La Concha was our mainstay). One of the most popular restaurants around is Raices in Old San Juan. We were told that this was the place to try the national dish mofongo: mashed plantains stuffed with meat or vegetables (which Katrina enjoys at left). Delicious! The restaurant is an experience in itself with waitresses in traditional dress and beer served in tin mugs, but be prepared to wait in line for this popular joint. For less of a wait and equally tasty dishes, head to Cafe Puerto Rico in Plaza de Colon. Closer to our hotel we found traditional food at the Latin Star; for the adventurous eaters, the menu is full of stews like goat and oxtail in addition to their many mofongo varieties. Patrick's favorite treat during our stay (other than an ice-cold Medalla) was limber: frozen fruit juice usually served in a small plastic cup. Without a doubt a tasty way to cool down under the hot Caribbean sun.

In the end we found this charming Caribbean island to be a great place to experience Latin culture with US comforts. It's also a whole lot of fun to enjoy the beautiful beaches and natural wonders. Taking only six hours to travel door to door from Boston, a trip to San Juan is an easy getaway worth a spot on any travel list.

5 comments:

  1. Though the ambiance is better at Raices, I enjoy the food more at Cafe Puerto Rico

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  2. Thanks for all the info. We're getting ready to head to Puerto Rico and I've been looking for tips. We'll definitely have to try the Mofongo!

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  3. Hi were you able to find these tour companies that would pick up from San Juan and transport you to Fajardo easily?

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  4. Yes....we just booked with a tour company that had a representative advertising all sort of excursions in our hotel lobby.

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