Thursday, May 20, 2010

San Juan Puerto Rico Part 2

It's taken me a while to finish up our San Juan trip. Here is Part 1 if you missed it.

Our second full day in San Juan was designated as our sight-seeing day. However, we woke up later than planned and spent a while waiting for the bus to go into Old San Juan which meant that we didn't arrive in OSJ until nearly 11 am. Having read about Cafe La Mallorca, I wanted to eat breakfast there. I ordered the namesake food, a mallorca, which is kind of sandwich. Mine was made with ham and cheese and then sprinkled with powdered sugar. It's a little like eating a french toast sandwich. Somehow the sweetness and saltiness complement each other beautifully. After we saw the window full of pastries, we decided to get one to split for the road.

We definitely needed the fortification (pun!) for the rest of the day - traipsing around OSJ visiting the forts! Our first stop was Castillo de San Cristobal. The forts are run by the National Park System, and you can buy a pass to both forts for $5 a person. Although El Morro is the more famous of the forts, San Cristobal is much bigger. We were awed. We didn't take an official tour but just used the maps we were given to navigate around. There is also good signage in Spanish and English around the forts.

Even if you're not that into history, the forts are totally worth it for the views that they afford. You can see all of Old San Juan and down the coast and across land to the cruise ship terminals. We spent a lot of time just enjoying the view and taking pictures of the garitas (the sentry boxes that San Juan is known for). San Cristobal was built to prevent land attacks on San Juan, and the oldest parts of the fort date back to the 1600s.

One of the interesting things about San Cristobal is that it was used by the United States during World War II to look for German U-boats in the Caribbean. You can see how some of the architecture does not exactly match the rest of it. Having a vivid imagination, we spent some time playing in the sentry boxes imagining spotting everything from Dutch war ships to U-boats. Of course, most of the time, the guards didn't see anything except a vast expanse of ocean and the occasional trading vessel. I can imagine it would get pretty lonely in there.

This is a view of the other fort, El Morro, from San Cristobal. In between the two are the slums known as La Perla. In the bottom left corner you can see the Devil's Garita. The legend says that sentries were known to disappear from this sentry box as if they were snatched away by the devil. Because we're hardcore, we decided that we wouldn't take the tourist trolley to El Morro but would walk instead. It's a good hike, but we were walking along the coast.

El Morro gets all the glory, but we honestly liked San Cristobal best. The neat part about El Morro is that it guards the entrance to San Juan Bay, so you can see pretty much all of the bay and watch boats enter. It makes it clear how awesome of a natural bay San Juan bay is. The area on the other side of the entrance to the bay used to be a leper colony. Now it's a recreation area. The other very cool part of El Morro is that, in the oldest part of the fort, there is part of a shell stuck in the wall from when the US attacked San Juan during the Spanish-American war in 1898. Very cool.

Dorky side comment: You know how in the book of Joshua, Rahab, the prostitute who helps the Israelites enter Canaan, lives in the city walls? I never really understood how she could live in the wall until I saw the walls around San Juan. Look at how thick they are! You could totally live in there.

I was trying to figure out we could get down to the Paseo de la Princesa from El Morro, but I kind of messed up. We still had a nice walk and entered the Paseo once we got to the city gates. In my mind, I could see the ships landing after a long journey from Spain and the dignataries entering through the city gates, straight up to the Cathedral to give thanks to God for a safe journey. We take for granted how safe and easy travel is nowadays! From the city gates we walked back down to the docks, basically completely circling the perimeter of Old San Juan.

Before we boarded the ferry for the Bacardi distillery, we stopped by the tourist information center for a free rum drink sponsored by Rums of Puerto Rico. The bartender was very knowledgable and turned Joe on to some sipping rums. Then we headed next door to Casa de Don Q, an informational museum about Don Q rums, which also had a tasting bar. I had read that you could get one drink, and I assumed that meant that we would get a ticket. However, it is much more laidback than that. We did buy a few bottles of Don Q's coconut and mojito rums though, so it paid off for them!

Finally, we bought our tickets for the ferry to Catano, across the bay where the Bacardi Distillery is located. The fare was something like $.50-$1 per person. Then you can catch a publico (public taxi) that will take you to the Distillery for about $5 per person. The tour at Bacardi is free, and you get two drink tickets. Unfortunately, we were there during Spring Break, so while we were interested in the tour, most of the sunburned college students were only interested in the free drinks. As tours go, it wasn't that great, though you do get an in-depth look at the history of Bacardi, but they don't dwell on their method for making their rums. Bacardi is not originally a Puerto Rican company. They started in Cuba and then moved after Castro took over. We decided to stick to drinking Don Q, a real Puerto Rican rum.

One benefit is that you get a great view of Old San Juan from across the bay. After taking the ferry back across, we decided to head back to Condado for dinner where we ate at a comida criolla restaurant close-by. Having done all of the tourist things, we were ready to rest our feet and consume some mofongo and a nice cold beer.

The next morning, another planned beach day, we woke up and found it was raining. We stayed in bed hoping it would let up, but it didn't appear to be going anywhere. After doing some quick research, I determined that we were within walking distance of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. On the way, we ate a filling breakfast at Bebo's. The art museum was a really nice way to spend a few hours, particularly if it's raining and you don't have a car. They had everything from 17th-century religious art to modern protest art and a sculpture garden.

By the late afternoon, we were determined to spend some time on the beach, and the rain looked to be letting up. We took a walk down the shore and then enjoyed the little bit of sun that came out right before setting behind the buildings. Because it was out last night in Puerto Rico, we wanted to have a big night out so we went back to our condo and got ready to go out.

We first started with drinks at the Atlantic Beach Hotel. The Atlantic Beach Hotel was one of the few hotels we could see that had an oceanfront bar with a patio. It's also a well-known gay hangout. We enjoyed our beers and talked about where we might go for dinner. Only a short bit down Avenida Ashford was Ummo, where we ended up eating dinner. Joe was keen on a place that had live music, but I was tired of comida criolla. This ended up being absolutely perfect.

We started off with a tasting of 3 different red wines and some corn and goat cheese empanadas. Then, we decided to order the Parillada Gourmet for two people. It was brought out to us on the table that you see in the picture that had coals inside to keep it warm. It also came with two sides, and we ordered the mashed yucca and creamed spinach. All of the meat you see above includes blood sausage, chorizo, filet mignon, sweetbreads, pork loin, and short ribs along with two sauces for the meat. We were stuffed. Everything was absolutely delicious and flavorful. My only complaint was that the pork was slightly dry. It was one of the best dining experiences I have ever had: the service, the music, the food, and the atmosphere was just perfect.

The next morning, it was raining just a bit, so we grabbed breakfast in Ocean Park. By then, the rain had mostly stopped, so we headed to the beach one last time. We were very, very sad for our vacation to end. We loved San Juan and Puerto Rico so much that our next vacation will most likely be to another part of Puerto Rico, probably Vieques. Before this vacation, we had always talked about retiring to Mexico, but I think those plans have now changed to Puerto Rico. The beauty of the island, the friendliness of the people, and the combination of cultures is really something to behold. We can't wait to get back to Puerto Rico!

1 comment:

Ashlee said...

so jealous of your fabulous vacation! looks gorgeous :)
for the grits and greens casserole, we each had a link of chicken sausage and some wedges of beefsteak tomato with s&p, easy and delish!