Wednesday, March 24, 2010

San Juan, Puerto Rico, Part 1

At the beginning of January when it was cold and icy, Joe and I were trying to figure out what to do and where to go for our spring vacation. We tossed around several ideas but none seemed to pan out. We were talking about cruises, but to go on a cruise that went to ports that neither of us had been to, we would have to leave out of San Juan. But then, why not just go to San Juan? I did a quick search and found some affordable VRBOs and reasonable airfare, and our decision was made. San Juan seemed to provide just about anything we want in a vacation: interesting history, sight-seeing, relaxation on a beach, a metropolitan city, great live music, and good food. Plus, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. Territory, there's no messing around with changing money or bringing a passport or having trouble using your cell phone. Both Joe and I love Latin American and Caribbean culture, and San Juan was a great blend of the two.

Our first day, we arrived in San Juan around 2 pm after a short connection in Charlotte. The travel was remarkably smooth, and we quickly got a taxi and headed for our apartment in Condado, about 10 minutes away. The owner was waiting for us in front of a white, 10-story building. This was no luxury hotel or condominium tower, but we were right in the middle of everything. The accommodations were clean, and we had just about the room we needed. The owner had left us maps, and the apartment had an outfitted kitchen, and beach gear. After getting settled, we decided to roam around Condado and get our bearings. Our first stop was the beach, a mere block and a half away. As many people will tell you, San Juan is not the most beautiful part of Puerto Rico, but the beach was wide and well-maintained, especially for a city beach. The water is technically the Atlantic, which can be a bit rougher than the Caribbean for swimming, but it was still warm.

We exited the beach and walked towards the main strip of Condado, an area full of the best shopping in Puerto Rico and a multitude of restaurants and hotels. For people who are less adventurous eaters or who just want a taste of home, American chain restaurants are plentiful. The streets were bustling, and Joe suggested that we hop a bus and go into Old San Juan. Once we determined how much bus fare was ($.75 a person) and obtained quarters, a bus came driving up. Taking the bus into OSJ is very easy as there is a large transportation center there. It is the last stop going west. We got off in view of the piers and the docked cruise ships and followed some other people up into the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.

Of course, I did not have any maps with me, so finding the tourism office was a bust, but we walked down the main street of San Francisco and basically just wandered for a while, occasionally coming upon plazas where people were gathered. We passed a small alleyway and spotted a few tables with people drinking some beer, so we stopped and bought a couple Medallas, the local beer. It is a light lager, perfect for quenching our thirst. After conversing with a few friendly members of the, ahem, local color (aka the resident drunks), we meandered on. We stumbled upon another bar that had been recommended to us, Nono's (100 Calle San Sebastian). Nono's is a very relaxed atmosphere, almost an overgrown dive bar type of feeling. After finding a few places at the bar, I asked the woman next to us what she happened to be drinking. A couple pina coladas later, we moved on to figure out something to eat.

One of the things I noticed and appreciated about San Juan in general and Old San Juan in particular is that there seems to be a good amount of both public parks and public art. This is the Plaza de la Rogativa, and the sculpture commemorates a religious procession led by the women of the town that had the unintended consequence of frightening away the British who thought the torches belonged to additional Spanish forces.

A lot of the food in Old San Juan is on the pricey side and a little fancy for what we wanted. We were craving some good Puerto Rican comfort food, and with some luck, we managed to stumble upon the perfect place, El Jibarito (276 Calle Sol). The place was busy, filled with the sounds of large groups laughing and enjoying their food. We were seated and handed a hand-written menu. I ordered the pork and plantain tamales with a side of mofongo (essentially mashed plantains). Side note: it is nearly impossible to eat vegetarian in Puerto Rico, so I didn't even try. Like many Spanish cultures, pork products play a large role. Joe chose the small bits of pork in a plantain sauce also with mofongo. When it arrived, it was precisely what we had been craving. A little on the fatty and salty side, but what good comfort food isn't? We then caught the bus back to our place just as it began to rain.

The next day we ate breakfast at La Patisserie de France in Condado and received enormous breakfasts for only $4.99. Then we hit the beach for lounging, reading, sunbathing, and some swimming. For lunch, we walked to the local grocery store and bought some fresh baked bread, cheese, and chorizo. Our evening plans involved dinner and salsa dancing in Old San Juan at The Latin Roots, a place that appeared more tourist-y than it ended up being. We arrived early, and the salsa instructor wasn't there yet. Our waiter was perfectly accommodating when we informed him that we were planning to stay for the music that started later. Our courses came out slowly, just as we requested, and he even brought us complimentary plantain chips with some delicious dipping sauces. My bistec encebollado was perfectly cooked, and Joe's mofongo with fried pork was even better than El Jibarito. Then we took some brief salsa lessons until the band took the stage. We danced the night away as the place got more and more crowded with people. Joe was very impressed with the band, and I got mistaken for a famous writer (though I'm not sure which one). Exhausted, we took a cab home to rest up for the following day of sight-seeing.


Cara said...

Sounds like an awesome vacation so far! Puerto Rico is a destination we have never considered but maybe we will now. Looking forward to reading more!

Lisa said...

Hey - great post! We went to San Juan last May and I posted about it on my blog too. We loved Old San Juan and had some great food while we were there. Looks like you have much nicer weather than we did - it rained on and off the whole time almost. Anyway, enjoy the rest of your trip and I look forward to your future PR experiences!