San Juan is Carribean lite

Posted by jswt | Posted in Puerto Rico - San Juan | Posted on 19-11-2012

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From Florida, I took a roundabout flight (PNS->North Dakota->Philly->SJU = milage run) to San Juan, Puerto Rico on Friday the 9th of November. The muggy, warm tropical air was welcomed, and after picking up my rental car and taking a few wrong turns through San Juan’s seedier neighbourhoods, I got to our hotel and met up with Chris who had a record setting three days off in a row.

Saturday we chilled out and spent the day by the nice pool overlooking the harbour, and catching up on some work and sleep in the afternoon. The late afternoon rains kicked up and wiped away the blue skies (as they do most days at the end of hurricane season) so in the evening we had a bit of cabin fever so we went and saw Cloud Atlas at the Cafe Fine Arts cinema (a great theatre with the comfiest seats, a very polite crowd, and a cafe that serves standard fare alongside cakes, sushi, tapas plates, and where you can buy a bottle of wine to take into your theatre — civilized!).

Sunday we had breakfast and hooked up with N, and drove off in search of some non-city. We headed south east from SJ until we ended up in the Yunque rainforest reserve where we just picked random little overgrown roads and made our way further and further into the rainforest. Some nice stops and climbs up rivers to waterfalls along the way. We headed down from there, found a nice little bakery for some snacks, and then went to a beach and hung out in the sun beside the surf. Dinner down the way at a beachfront (tourist trap) joint, and then some more driving around before heading back to the city. We didn’t feel like staying in, but were feeling lazy, so we went out and caught another movie (Skyfall), this time at a mall and a much less civilized affair (note: Puerto Rican’s are a chatty bunch and don’t need to be quiet when they can read the subtitles).

Monday we hung around the hotel again and both caught up on some work and in the evening we went out to meet up with a friend, and ended up having our mirror clipped by a girl driving on a little side street. She was a young student who was crying and freaking out and even though there was no damage, insisted on phoning the police to file a report, which was interesting as it was conducted mostly in spanish. Once the officers found out we were Canadian they lightened up a bit and were both happy to show us “how in Puerto Rico we are not corrupt” while still fishing for a bribe and telling us how things can get terribly difficult – slightly unnerving while down a dark street alone in a strange place. In the end, they just seemed bored and more interested in talking about Canada than shaking us down, so after the 90 minutes to ‘file the report’ they let us go and we went to meet up with our friend and spent the rest of the night hanging out and laughing about the weirdness of the day.

Tuesday Chris was back at work, so I puttered away on the laptop by the pool, and we hit the gym when he got off work. We had a friend, M from Indy coming in to visit for a few days, so I went to pick him up at the airport, drive him into the old town to his hotel, and we went out and had some great asian tapas (Shrimp/mango/truffle dumplings = big win) before I dropped him back at his hotel.

M works remotely but was tied to his desk hours, so in the morning I went and picked him up and brought him back to our hotel where the room was bigger and the internet was faster, and we had a productive work day with a poolside interlude for lunch. After years of solo employ, it was really nice to share an ‘office space’ with someone – banter and having incentive to stay at my desk are a nice luxury. When Chris got home that evening we all hung out and chatted until it was late and I took M back to his hotel.

Thursday and Friday were similar routines, but we all had Saturday off so on Friday night we went out into San Juan’s seedy district to find some a club called Circo. Things here start late, and it was still empty when we arrived around 1am, but picked up and was packed solid by 2. I’m off the sauce for a bit, so the boys were my designated drinkers, and rose to the challenge to the point where I had to take them home to prevent more drinks from being poured on each other. Drove their drunk asses back to the hotel, and we had a 4am room service feast while they did bad karaoke to slutty ghetto tunes. Much laughter until they were passing out, so I shuttled M back to his hotel.

Saturday was a slow start as the guys had sore heads, but around 3:30 we loaded up the car with another M, and headed out for a tour we’d booked – paddling in a bioluminescent lagoon. We got there and found another group of people we knew, and all got geared up and into our kayaks and paddled into the growing darkness. You go up through a channel through mangroves where increasingly your paddling starts triggering the bioluminescent particles in the water until you’re shooting blue fireballs with each stroke. Once to the lagoon, it was a beautiful open sky of stars, and every touch of the water made it light up with a beautiful eerie blue glow – it was magical. We paddled around and played for a bit before it was time to go back down the channel which was a lot trickier than before – there were at least 4 other groups coming up the narrow channel against us, and we were being carried by the current through the pitch darkness, so there was a lot of chaotic bumper boat trafficjams, laughter and cursing, but we made it back without flipping the boat.

After the tour we stopped at a restaurant called le’Estation, which is a converted gas station that served some absolutely amazing food – everything was locally sourced, amazingly fresh, and their chef was working some magic in the kitchen. 2 orders of Mahi Mahi (done perfectly), an order of ribs (actually smoked on the grill there), and a whole red snapper (which was said to be “the best fish [m] has ever had” – which is saying something for someone who’s eaten at the best restaurants the world over). Seriously, seriously worth the stop if you end up in the north east of Puerto Rico.

After a day of paddling, Chris went to bed early, so M and I cleaned up and went out to a club where he wanted to meet some friends, and although I can’t really describe it in a family friendly blog, the club was memorable. Lots of chatting with Canadians and ex-pats made for a fun evening.

Sunday M and I headed out to do some sightseeing in old San Juan, and spent time at the old Spanish fort on the point of the bay. It was really, really cool and worth seeing, especially with M who’s got a head for history and could put it all in context for me. After that, we wandered around the old town, which was beautiful pastel buildings with happy well-fed stray cats everywhere, full of little cobblestone streets that could have been anywhere in Spain or Italy. An afternoon stop at a great little patio full of locals for some drinks led to a necessary nap while we waited for Chris to get off work. We then rolled out to meet up with some coworkers for a great dinner and some drinks at Baccarararc which claims to be the original source of the Pina Colada, and whether this is true or just good marketing, they did make the best ones I’ve ever had with fresh coconut and pineapple (good even in virgin form).

Monday morning, chris caught his flight, and I drove M to the airport where we said goodbyes before I went to the beach to kill some time before gassing up the rental car and waiting for my flight, where I’m sitting now writing this up…

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Puerto Rico. I expected a US occupied Vegas by the sea, and though you get some of that near the cruise ship area and on the beaches, there’s a lot more soul than I expected. The old town is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen, and the people are all amazingly friendly, the terrain is gorgeous and the music is vibrant and everywhere. It’s island living, but compared to other places like Cuba, it’s got the creature comforts that come with the US association.

Note: rent a car. it’s cheap here (we paid $220 for 10 days w/ budget.com – and gas is only $0.89/litre) and you can get around and out of town a lot easier (taxis operate in zone based fares and are *expensive* – the $17 each way from the airport went a long way towards the car rental). They drive a little crazy, but it’s a predictable crazy and no where near as challenging/frightening as other places.

Comments (1)

I love love love coming along on your adventures, thanks for sharing.