Around the Island: 10 Sunny Sky Days on Puerto Rico

   Including 2 nights each in Luquillo, Guanica & Utuado and 3 nights in Old San Juan

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I knew almost nothing about Puerto Rico when I came across a picture of El Morro, the 16th century Spanish fort of limestone and granite which has gun wales looking out to sea in every direction. This oldest fort in the “New World” immediately struck my interest. My husband and I love history and love traveling to historic places. But I grew up in a town that was filled with migrant workers from Puerto Rico. I always just assumed that if so many of them were leaving the island to come to Ohio to work in the fields growing nursery stock and local produce, well, Puerto Rico must not be such a great place. Further investigation however, showed me pictures of long, sandy beaches, a lush green rain forest, beautiful architecture and the charming cobblestone streets of San Juan.  I was amazed.  “This is in the United States?” In an instant I knew where our next vacation was going to take us.

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A lizard in El Yunque Visitor’s Center.

Traveling to Puerto Rico is easy. Since you’re not leaving the United States you don’t need a passport.  Visiting Puerto Rico is no different than visiting another U.S. state. ATM’s give you dollars.  For those of us living from the east coast to the Midwest, the flight is faster and less expensive than traveling to the U.S.’s other tropical island destination, Hawaii.  Spanish is the language spoken in Puerto Rican homes and among friends, neighbors and co-workers. But lots of Puerto Ricans, most that we encountered, do speak English. At the same time, visiting Puerto Rico feels like traveling to an exotic, foreign land.  It’s a vacation that gives you the best of both worlds.

Day #1:

Our Tuesday flight took off at 6:40 a.m.  After a one hour and twenty minute layover in Charlotte, we flew to San Juan landing at 1:18 p.m. Reading that some mountain roads could be a little rough, I had opted to pay a bit more to reserve a small Jeep instead of the more common compact or mid-size rental car. It was a good choice. The other wise thing that I did was to purchase the additional rental company’s no fault insurance.  It was an extra and a somewhat pricey addition to the rental car bill but it was worth the cost when we drove along jungle-like mountain roads and discovered how close trees and shrubs grew to the pavement. In many places it was impossible to stay in our lane and not have tree branches brushing the side of the Jeep. By the time our vacation was over, our rental Jeep had acquired plenty of dings, scrapes and scratches through no fault of our own but just because we chose to drive along a particular, narrow road. It was worth the extra charge not to have to worry about it but instead simply turn over the keys and walk away.

Upon landing at the San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín  airport we picked up our rental jeep at Hertz and were immediately on the road to Luquillo. We did plan to spend time in the historic city of San Juan but that would come at the end of our trip. 30 minutes away, Luquillo would be our first overnight stop.

The view from our balcony

The view from our balcony

We had reservations at the Hotel Yunque Mar.  The reviews of this hotel were mixed and I knew I was taking a chance when I booked it. This was not the greatest hotel I’ve ever stayed at but it wasn’t as bad as some of the reviews would have you believe either. It was a good choice for us as it was clean, quiet, reasonably priced, close to sites we wanted to visit and it had the added benefit of having an ocean view balcony and air conditioning.

The room had a double bed covered with only a sheet–no bedspread. There was a dining sized table but only one chair plus one more chair on our balcony so that we had to move our chairs back and forth depending on where we wanted to use them.  The floor was tiled, no carpet, which probably makes sense for a beachfront hotel. There were towels but no washcloths, typical of most hotels around the world. Everything was clean and the room was adequate for a 2-night stay. I kicked off my shoes, changed out of my travel clothes and got comfortable.  We opened the balcony door to let in the sea air. It was a pleasant 80 degrees.

Viewing tower in El Yunque National Rain Forest Park

Viewing tower in El Yunque
National Rain Forest Park

The Hotel Yunque Mar was located in a crowded residential area but had its own parking lot across the small, narrow street.  I had chosen the “ocean view” room which faces west with a view of the ocean and neighboring homes. The “ocean & pool” view rooms looked toward the east. You can walk along the beach to the Luquillo kiosks where there are many places to eat. You can see them from the hotel although they are quite a distance away, and if you choose to walk along the beach it would take about 30 minutes according to the desk clerk.

After the long travel day, we chose to drive to the kiosks instead. We opted for a late lunch/early dinner at a place called La Parilla that had great reviews. Wow! Was this ever a great place!  It was the best meal of our entire trip.  John had stuffed red snapper and I had a traditional mofongo with chunks of steak in mushroom gravy. Coco flan followed for dessert.  The food was fabulous and our waiter was talkative, charming and fun. We sat in the back of the open-air restaurant where we had a view of palm trees blowing in the breeze and of ocean waves lapping against the shore.

With little sleep the night before our flight (no matter how much I travel I am still always too nervous to sleep the night before a trip) we spent the remainder of our evening at the hotel walking along the lonely beach and relaxing. There seemed to be few guests at the hotel. It was extremely quiet. So quiet in fact that we ran into a French speaking couple trying to check into the hotel who had been unable to do so because no one was working the desk. We looked all around the lobby and throughout the hotel but could find no one, neither a worker or even another guest. It was somewhat eerie and caused me to wonder about hotel safety and security. John and I eventually retreated to our room, leaving the foreign couple sitting in the lobby to wait for the return of the desk manager. The evening was peaceful with only the sound of ocean waves disturbing the silence.

Day #2

I awoke early and took my novel, “Death in Precinct Puerto Rico” along with my book light out onto the balcony so as not to disturb John who was still sleeping.  The night, which it still was, was warm and quiet. I watched the sky turn from deep purple to pink and blazing orange then soft blue as the sun came up.

We had two great sites on our agenda for the day.  First on the list was El Yunque National Rain Forest Park. We stopped at the open air visitor’s center where they have an information desk, restrooms and the typical gift shop. We delighted in watching lizards running through an indoor/outdoor garden.

Resting bench on the trail from La Mina falls

Resting bench on the trail from La Mina falls

The drive through the rain forest was filled with winding roads, beautiful trees, jungle foliage and flowers. John found a snail and picked it up by its huge shell. I’d never seen one so big.  There are stopping points along the road, good places to take pictures and take in the views. At one stop we climbed to the top of a viewing tower.  At another we walked a trail to the La Mina waterfall. The hike took longer than we expected, about 45 minutes one way, but it wasn’t a difficult trail and it was shaded, winding through beautiful jungle foliage.  When we reached the waterfall, many people were there swimming in the pooled water at the bottom of the falls. We sat on the rocky edge and dangled our feet in the icey water. The walk back to the car was somewhat uphill but we took our time and stopped occasionally to rest, sitting on fallen logs or one of the provided benches along the trail.

La Mina Falls

La Mina Falls

Back in Luquillo, we had dinner at Lolita’s Mexican Restaurant. After reading a reviewer who said this was “the best Mexican food I’ve ever had!” I was excited to check the place out. Parking was limited but we found a place right next to the front door. Once seated, the traffic noise while sitting at one of the front porch tables was so annoying that we immediately opted to move inside where the atmosphere turned out to be very nice. Two dinners, two margaritas and a side order of chips were all good and inexpensive. That being said, I must add however, that this was not “the best Mexican food I’ve ever had!”  It was Americanized Mexican food — the typical taco/burritos, rice and refried beans that you get at any chain place across the U.S. – places like Chi Chi’s or Don Pablos. Having eaten at some really great Mexican places I was a bit disappointed. But for what it was, it was very good. No complaints here.

A giant snail in the rain forest

A giant snail in the rain forest

We had a 6:30 p.m. reservation at Kayaking Puerto Rico Adventures in Fajardo for a tour of the bio luminescent bay. I was a little apprehensive about taking this tour since neither John nor I had ever before been in a kayak. Exacerbating the situation was my fear of water and the fact that I can’t swim. After reading all of the rave reviews though, I knew we couldn’t pass this up. We went early which was a wise decision since it turned out to be a not-so-easy place to find. There are several turns that need to be made and we had to turn around once or twice after missing them. Once we finally arrived, we checked in.

With a good 30 minutes or more to spare before our tour time, we wandered over to the beach and sat down on a bench. In the distance, we saw a man walking his little dog along the water’s edge. When he reached us, the little dog ran over to us and we struck up a conversation with his owner.  Like all of the other native Puerto Ricans we had so far met on the island, this man was very friendly We talked for nearly a half hour learning all about his dog, his family and his life on the island as well as years he had spent in New York City where he worked as a police officer. When it came time to meet our tour group, we reluctantly said our goodbyes.

The trail to La Mina falls

The trail to La Mina falls

Equipped with insect repellent (I didn’t see any mosquitos, but there must have been a few because I got a couple of bites through my shirt where I hadn’t sprayed) we got into our life jackets, received some brief paddling instructions, and then climbed into our neon orange kayaks, two persons to each. I was both surprised and dismayed when I saw that the kayaks were being placed IN THE OCEAN. This was supposed to be a bio-bay tour. I had expected to be on a small body of water and hadn’t realized that we would have to paddle across an expanse of the ocean to reach the entrance to the bay. Nervously, I took the front seat with John sitting behind me so that he could “keep an eye on me” ready to scoop me out of the sea if I fell in. Fortunately, at no time did I ever feel like the kayak was going to tip. It was stable and quite easy to maneuver. Despite this, I hated the trip across the open water with the ocean waves lightly hitting the sides of our kayak, knocking us to and fro as we paddled toward the distant entrance to the bay.

I had taken the advice of reviewers and booked the early tour so that it would still be somewhat light when we started out. This was a good idea. It let us see the mangroves along the shore and allowed us to see what the bay area looks like in the light, or rather the dusk of day. It also allowed us to see how we would need to avoid the mangroves on the return trip–since by that time, the channel from the bio bay to the ocean would have to be navigated in complete darkness.

Reaching the middle of the bay, our guide showed himself to be filled with great information. As we waited for it to get dark, he explained the science of the bay to us, telling us about the luminescence and how it is caused by tiny microorganisms.  These creatures sparkle like tiny bursts of light whenever the water is disturbed.  Puerto Rico doesn’t recognize daylight savings time and within a few minutes of our arrival it grew dark. We stirred the water beside us and watched it glow. We cupped water in our hands and allowed it to run down our arms to our elbows. Tiny flashes of glittering light streamed down our arms. We tossed handfuls of water into the air and it looked like Fourth of July fireworks against the black night sky! I was so glad that we had taken a chance and had not passed by this opportunity. It was an amazing and one of the most unique experiences ever.

Getting out of the bay was a bit of a trick in the dark. We followed each other in single file, unable to see anything except a small flashing red light that was on the back of each kayak. The guides were careful to move slowly and keep everyone as close to the middle of the channel as possible to prevent becoming entangled in the mangroves which could possibly flip a kayak. I couldn’t help but wonder what else might be lurking on the dark jungle shores – snakes maybe. Big snakes. Leaving the bay and the mangroves behind, we had to cross the ocean once again to get back to the beach where we’d begun. It was even scarier crossing such a large and deep expanse of water in the dark and I was relieved when we finally reached the beach.

Afterwards, on our drive back to the hotel, we took a wrong turn and got completely and hopelessly lost, driving many miles in the wrong direction. Having no idea where we were or which direction to head, we stopped outside a nightclub where several people were sitting on the steps outside the front door enjoying the night air. John rolled down his window and called out, asking for directions to the highway. One young woman spoke English but not well enough to give the complicated directions that we needed.  She ran inside and brought back a young man who spoke better English. He directed us back to the highway and we eventually managed the long way back to our hotel.

Our Mary Lee's living room

Our Mary Lee’s living room

Day #3 —

Thursday. We checked out of our hotel and drove the coast road #901 to Maunabo and the Punta Tuna Point Lighthouse.  It was difficult to find at first. We never saw a sign and the lighthouse is at the end of a narrow street where you would never expect to find anything as large as a lighthouse. The area was filled with houses and trees and we couldn’t really tell that we were near the ocean.  But we did eventually find it. The lighthouse was closed but it does have a nice view from the cliffs.  I wouldn’t make a special trip to see it – I don’t think it gets many visitors at all – but since we were passing by it was worth a quick stop.

From there we drove on to Guanica.  The twisting drive was interesting and it was especially fascinating to see the many cement block homes that are built clinging precariously to the steep hillsides.  We stopped to buy some groceries before heading to our home for the next couple of days – a place called Mary Lee’s by the Sea.

If you’re looking for a five star (or even a three star) hotel you’d better keep looking.  This quirky place was quiet, charming and what you might call “shabby chic.” Mary Lee’s is a collection of small houses and apartments and each is decorated in a unique and funky way with hand sewn cushion covers, curtains and what, I assume, were lots of flea market finds. We stayed in a one bedroom unit called “Contenta” with a living room/dining room, an equipped kitchen, bath, bedroom, outdoor dining room with a thatched roof, patio and a large deck with lounge chairs and yet another dining table.  At the time, the entire unit was decorated in lime green and turquoise but current photos of the place lead me to believe it has lately been redecorated. In any case, the place was nothing less than fabulous!

Our deck at Mary Lee's

Our deck at Mary Lee’s

We unpacked our bags and our groceries and settled in, we wanted to start the grill on our patio but discovered that we had forgotten to buy lighter fluid.  I walked to the main house and knocked on the door. explaining our dilemma to Mary Lee’s daughter, who had checked us in, She was very accommodating, and went through their storage closet finding us a partially filled can of lighter fluid that a past guest had left behind.

After a nice dinner, I found a good paperback in the collection supplied in our living room and we spent the evening reading on our large private deck where we could look out at the water and watch passing boats. When the darkness came, we enjoyed the starry night sky.

Dining area

Dining area

Day#4 —

On Friday we drove to Ponce to spend the day. I had wanted to visit the art museum to see one of my favorite paintings “Flaming June” a copy of which was hanging on my office wall at the Arts Center. Unfortunately when we arrived we discovered that the museum was closed.  I was disappointed but there was plenty more to do. We never looked back but instead hurried on our way.  We found a metered parking space and, as we walked around the town square, we spotted and were drawn to the wild looking, red and black striped, Parque de Bombas, an interesting building that turned out to be an old firehouse.  Inside we found a tourist desk with very enthusiastic workers who offered bus tours for $2 or $5.  I had no idea what the difference was and the workers spoke little English, but I “splurged” anyway and bought two of the deluxe $5 version. For the cheap price of our tickets, I was more than a little skeptical and worried about what we might be getting ourselves into.

Ponce cemetery

Ponce cemetery

A few minutes later we were directed to climb onto a small bus with five other tourists. No one seemed to have any idea where we were going or what we would see. Like us, everyone was interested to know what a $2/$5 tour would turn out to be. We all expected a 20 minute drive through the city streets. It turned out to be so much more.

 

 

 

 

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Our Mary Lee’s kitchen

Throughout the drive we stopped at different places where we could get out to take additional little tours. Not realizing this though, we missed the first stop, which was a market, because we all misunderstood the driver when he asked if anyone wanted to “stop at the market?” Everyone on the bus thought he was asking us if we needed to make a stop at a grocery store to buy bottled water or anything else.  We all said “No” and he drove on.  What he was really suggesting was that we get out and have a tour of one of Puerto Rico’s traditional markets.  We all would have loved to do this and we realized later that we had missed the first tour stop. I finally caught on at the second stop when he asked if anyone wanted to “See cemetery?” When no one moved toward the bus door the driver began to look a little perplexed.  That was when I realized that he expected us to get off the bus.  I stood up and said “Yes, I want to look around” and moved toward the door.  A big smile crossed his face and the rest of our group followed me out to the sidewalk. (This turned out to be the Panteon Nacional Roman Baldorioty de Castro). The driver walked us through the gate and gave us his prepared historical spiel about the cemetery.  He then gave us some time to wander around.

Our Mary Lee's deck

Our Mary Lee’s deck

Our Mary Lee's deck

Our Mary Lee’s deck

There were some workers doing lawn work and someone in our group asked them if there were any plans to “fix the place up” since most of the tomb stones were falling down having been vandalized over the years and many of the graves were open.  The oldest of the men came over to us and explained that they were keeping things this way on purpose to show the history of the place. It is now considered to be a museum of sorts.  The older man began telling us more about the cemetery’s history and some of the famous figures buried there.  He was filled with interesting stories.  The others in our group wandered off to look around on their own and Doc followed them as he was deep in a conversation with another man from our group. I found the old man interesting though and followed him as he enthusiastically led me around and pointed out various graves and told me more and more stories.  At one point, the old man even reached into an open grave and pulled out some bones! He was so friendly that I totally lost my senses and realized once I was back on the bus and headed toward the next stop that I had completely forgotten to offer him a tip. It bothered me throughout the entire rest of our vacation.

The sort of furniture you'll find at Mary Lee's

The sort of furniture you’ll find at Mary Lee’s

Following some more of the driving tour our next stop was the Museo Francisco “Pancho” Coimbre. We had no idea where we were when the driver stopped and indicated that we should get off the bus and follow the man waiting on the sidewalk.  No matter.  We were all feeling good about the tour now and we blindly exited the bus and followed the sidewalk man inside the building. This turned out to be a small sports museum. A sports museum didn’t interest me in the least and it seemed like an odd stop to make, but I realized that the city of Ponce and their tourism team were attempting to make their city interesting to tourists using what limited resources they have. Doc and the other three men from our bus loved this place.  The tour guide was filled with stories about Puerto Rican sports figure of both the past and of today as he walked us through the museum that is filled with photographs and some memorabilia.

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The bus returned us to Ponce’s square and most of us headed for Kings Ice Cream.  King’s has all sorts of flavors including some very strange ones such as “corn” and “avocado.”  I’m willing to experiment but some of them didn’t sound at all appetizing.  Not wanting to settle for the ordinary however, I had a scoop of coconut which I’d never tried before.  It was delicious.

Day#5 — Saturday: After another great night at Mary Lee’s we reluctantly packed our jeep, checked out and headed out.  Before heading into the mountains we drove through the Guánica State Forest (Bosque Estatal de Guánica) a 1000 acre dry forest that has been designated as a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve. While an important site environmentally it would not have been a pleasant place to hike on a morning when the temperature was already approaching 90.

Tibes Indian Park, Ponce

Tibes Indian Park, Ponce

Not the easiest place to find, it was worth the search to get to the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center which stands on the site of a 1500 year old Taino village.  We looked through the small but nice museum and had a great guide who led us on a tour of the reconstructed village and ball court.  He told us all about the Taino and how they lived. He also was well aquainted with the local flora and was able to identify trees when I asked about unusual ones that were new to me.

The drive up into the mountains was beautiful and we stopped several times to look at the views.  Somewhere along the route we found a roadside waterfall.  Lunchtime had come and gone without our seeing any restaurants.  We were clearly a long way from town.  We sped past a house where people were sitting at a table on the porch having a drink and Doc thought it was a restaurant.  I was skeptical.  It hadn’t looked like a restaurant to me.  It looked like a family having drinks on their porch and I hadn’t seen a sign.  A restaurant would have a sign, I argued. Never one to miss a meal and grumpy when he does, Doc insisted that we go back to look. We parked the jeep alongside the road and walked back to the driveway.

El Cemi museum

El Cemi museum

I had read that the people who lived here in the mountains tended to value their privacy and were the least likely to speak English. There is also more crime and drugs here than in other areas of the island. Halfway up the driveway it became clear that this was a family home and not a place to eat, but at that point what were we to do? We couldn’t turn around. The two men, one woman and small child on the porch were now staring at us wondering why two tourists were walking up their driveway. I felt like I was reliving a scene from “Romancing the Stone” when Jack and Joan approach the house of the “bell maker.”

View from the highest point on the island

View from the highest point on the island

With no other option that I could think of, I forged on.  I was glad not to see any guns. Doc followed as I walked up to the front steps and used my not-so-great, newly learned Spanish to ask “Donde es el restaurante mas cercano?” Or “Where is the nearest restaurant?” (I think).

The older man looked at us with suspicious.  The younger man looked suspicious too, but seemed more at ease. He asked in English “You are looking for the restaurant?”

A roadside waterfall

A roadside waterfall

“Yes!” I answered relieved not to have to come up with anymore Spanish words.

“It’s down the road,” he pointed in the direction we’d been driving. “About 10 more miles.”  Doc and I both smiled, offered a very friendly “Gracias” more than once, turned around and scurried back to the Jeep, feeling all those eyes burning into our backs. We hopped into the Jeep, locked the doors and sped down the road all while trying to “act casual.”

Riverwalk Hacienda, Utuado

Riverwalk Hacienda, Utuado

Ten miles on, we found the restaurant which was more like a roadside stand. With a quick peek to make sure we hadn’t been followed by a band of jungle bandits, we ordered lunch from a menu of pictures at the counter and sat down to eat at the picnic tables outside.  No one here spoke more than the most basic English and as I said before, my Spanish was pretty basic as well.  We had no idea what we had ordered or what we were eating.  Our plates came filled with what seemed to be an unusual version of barbecued chicken,  something we guessed to be a sort of potato or turnip and another thing that we determined to be vegetable. Red beans and rice were also included.  Whatever it was we were eating, it was delicious.

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Riverwalk kitchenette

Our home for the next two nights was at the Riverwalk Hacienda in the lush jungle mountains outside of Utuado.  This turned out to be another gem of a place.  Easy to find, it is right across the street from the Casa Grande Hotel.  We parked our jeep at the street and walked down a staircase surrounded by tropical flowers and plants to a charming little guest house, reasonably priced and just right for two. It is one room with a small bathroom and even a little kitchenette with a refrigerator, coffee pot and microwave. The only down side was, as I feared when I booked the place, sleeping on a futon. Just like the one I have at home, it was very hard. If you like a firm mattress you might not mind, but being a waterbed girl, I’d have been a lot happier with a regular bed. Other than that, everything was wonderful. It was a nice, secluded place to get away from it all.

Inside Rio Camuy Caverns

Inside Rio Camuy Caverns

This tiny cottage is owned by Marlene who moved to Puerto Rico from the mainland a number of years ago. Marlene keeps the place spotlessly clean. Nestled against the hill below the highway it is surrounded by papaya trees and other tropical foliage and you can hear the river running beside the cottage plus the coquis singing all night long. We had stopped along the road and had a non-descript dinner before arriving but we now found a bottle of banana liquor in our fridge and we had a refreshingly cold after dinner drink.  When we checked in, we had invited Marlene to come by after her evening farm chores. She now stopped in and brought a bottle of wine. The three of us sat outside on our tiny porch and talked the evening away. It was fun hearing her interesting story about how a mainland girl had come to be at home on an island so far from where she grew up.

Riverwalk Hacienda

Riverwalk Hacienda

Day #6 – Sunday: We had planned a couple of day trips so we were up and on the road early and our first stop of the day was to the Parque de las Cavernas del Rio Camuy or Rio Camuy Cave Park. This is a huge cave system and underground river, most of which has never been explored.  The 268-acre park is one of the most popular natural attractions in Puerto Rico. We rode a tram down to the cave. At the entrance, we followed a path which circled through a gorgeous and HUGE cavern with streams of water cascading down a  moss and fern covered wall where a “skylight” opened up above letting in shafts of sunlight. At one point along the trail, you get a view the underground river which people go tubing on, according to the road signs which will point you to the cave tubing establishment.

Arecibo Observatory

Arecibo Observatory

At the end of our cavern exploration we climbed back onto the trolley, sharing a car with a young family.  When we asked where they were from we were surprised when the answer was “Blackfoot, Idaho,” Doc’s hometown!  Upon further discussion we discovered that the man was a co-worker of Doc’s cousin Randy! The world seems to get smaller and smaller all the time.

We drove a long and winding road to Arecibo to see one of the largest radio telescopes in the world. I’m not sure most people who are not science buffs would appreciate this stop.  I read a lot of reviewers who called the site “boring.”  But this was one of the places on the island that I most wanted to see.  And not because I remembered seeing James Bond running from one end of it to the other!  I found this place fascinating.  The telescope’s dish covers a massive 20 acres and I found it fascinating.  The exhibits are simple to understand and the movie gave a good explanation of the history, purpose and operation of the telescope.

Boat dock to Rancho Marina

Boat dock to Rancho Marina

Dinner time was approaching and we had a long drive back to Utuado.  Mileage-wise, we it shouldn’t have been that far. But time-wise, well, the twisting roads that wound their way up and down the mountains put the day’s sights further away than a day trip should be.  Had we planned better, we would have booked a different hotel for the evening, one much closer to Arecibo.  As it was though, we had to go back to our Utuado rental.

Checking our map we thought that instead of returning the very long way we had come, it looked like we could take a short cut through the mountains. The map showed a paved and numbered road. But this was not a great idea!  The paved road started out just fine.  But after a while, we noticed it getting narrower and narrower.  I checked the map again and again. We should still be on a numbered highway. Soon, the road was less than one lane wide and we were convinced we had taken a wrong turn and gotten on to someone’s driveway.  When the pavement turned to gravel we got really worried.  There was no place to turn around.

Rancho Marina Restaurant

Rancho Marina Restaurant

Ever since we’d entered the mountains, we’d had the problem of trees growing out into the roadway and scraping the side of the jeep as we attempted to not go too far left of center to avoid them.  Now, the trees and jungle foliage closed in on us from both sides, scraping the sides of the Jeep. I was oh-so-glad that I’d had the foresight to pay extra for the no fault insurance through the car rental company! No fault insurance is pricey to be sure and in most cases unnecessary since both my own auto insurance and the credit card I used to rent the car covers any damage.  But in Puerto Rico, even if you don’t go that far off the beaten track, you are sure to scratch up the rental car because even in towns no one, it seems, trims the trees.  I’d rather pay the $17 a day than have to put up with the inevitable standing around at the rental agency for who knows how long, as I try to get the issue resolved and paid for.

Newphotos2009_0621(042)Moving ahead we could only hope wouldn’t meet another car coming from the opposite direction. The “road” went on and on and we followed it through the jungle passing not so much as a single house or sign of human habitation. Finally, we came to a crossroad and discovered we were exactly where we thought we should be.  We had been on a numbered road afterall!

Marlene had recommended that we eat the Rancho Marina.  The best way to reach the restaurant was by boat unless you made a very long, out of the way, journey by car. We parked in the parking lot and walked down to the marina where we climbed onto the boat.  The ride was pleasant with great views of the surrounding mountains. When we reached the restaurant we were greeted warmly and shown to a table. The restaurant was gorgeous and everything we sampled tasted wonderful!  The waitress assigned to our table was new on the job and she was extremely nervous.  We saw her standing in a corner looking petrified and heard the older waitress telling her “It’s alright. You can speak English.” The girl just shook her head and looked as if she was ready to cry. The older waitress ended up waiting on us and told us the new girl was afraid that her English would hold up. Later, the young waitress was smiling again as she was given a table of locals to serve.  We lingered well past sunset and then took the boat back to our car and our vacation rental where we fell into bed exhausted.

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One of many pretty streets.

Day # 7 – Monday: Monday morning breakfast was a papaya that we plucked off the tree outside our door. Ah, tropical heaven!  We headed to San Juan via the coastal highway, stopping here and there to check out a quiet beach.  When we arrived at Hertz we parked our very scratched up Jeep in the Hertz parking lot, handed the keys to the lady at the desk, and walked away.  No questions. No fault.

A taxi drove us into Old Town San Juan to the El Convento Hotel.  This was the splurge of our trip and is arguably the nicest hotel on the island.  The ambiance here was fantastic and we absolutely LOVED this place. Gorgeous architecture, iron railings and greenery everywhere, it was worth every one of the $600 bucks it cost us for three nights.  To this day, this is still my all-time favorite hotel.

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View from the pool

View from the pool

Hungry, we went into the Patio del Nispero, the hotel restaurant which is situated in a large, indoor court yard that is overlooked by two stories of rooms. This turned out to be our favorite restaurant in Old San Juan also.  We tried some others but kept coming back here.  The atmosphere was beautiful and the food fantastic. I ordered a Cuban Sandwich for lunch that was to die for!  It was so good, I had a really hard time not ordering the same thing the second day. Instead I chose the chicken spinach wrap. Another fabulous sandwich. We also came in for breakfast the next morning and had the banana nut pancakes. Delicious!

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One of the best features of the El Convento was the pool. It was a very small pool but beautifully situated on the 4th floor roof overlooking the city and the sea. Anytime we went to use it, there were few people there and we even enjoyed a couple of private swims and soaks in the adjacent hot tub as we relished the views and watched the sea traffic including the arrival of a large cruise ship.

El Convento pool area

El Convento pool area

As soon as we checked in, I’d called and made a reservation for the “Night Tales of Old San Juan” walking tour with Legends of Puerto Rico. We were to meet at the Sheraton at 6 p.m. Our tour guide, Debbie, led us through the Old Town telling us many old legends and histories that you don’t read in the tour books. She showed us many important and interesting places.  Debbie was fun and seeing the Old Town at night added an interesting dimension to the tour, not to mention the fact that the evening was much cooler than it would have been walking in the heat of the day. The tour was a brisk, two-hour walk that covered a lot of territory, but we were pleased when Debbie ended it at our hotel (the whole group that night happened to be staying at the El Convento) instead of returning us to the Sheraton. We love to take walking tours on our vacations and this one was as good as any we’ve ever had.

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San Juan National Historic Site: El Morro

Day #8 – Tuesday: On Tuesday we breakfasted at La Bombonera before walking and walking and walking in the heat to El Morro in time for a ranger led, English speaking, tour.  Rising 140 feet above the ocean, the fort is a massive structure. With tower lookouts, tiny rooms and long passageways the fort was fun to explore and we spent several hours here before leaving to wander the streets of Old San Juan to see what other treasured places we could find.

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Entering El Morro

We stumbled into the Café Berlin for lunch, an interesting place with a mostly veggie lovers menu. The atmosphere is sort of funky and interesting. We are not vegetarians. In fact. I don’t think Doc has eaten a meal without meat in over 50 years, so we were a bit apprehensive when we looked over the menu. It turned out to be fine. Doc ordered a philly steak sandwich (at least one thing on the menu contained meat) and I had the small veggie pizza. Both meals were really good.

Dinner was at the Ostra Cosa. We had stopped in earlier in the day and had been told that there would be live music in the evening and told what time we should return to hear it.  There was only one other couple in this nice outdoor courtyard and only one waitress it seemed when we arrived for dinner. No one ever arrived to play music and our meals were disappointing. We paid the bill and went on our way.

El Morro

El Morro

Day #9 – Wednesday: Another day of touring Old San Juan.  We visited the San Juan Cathedral which was built in 1540 and where Ponce De Leone is entombed.  We walked past squares and looked at fountains.  We did some souvenir shopping.

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The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

That evening, we passed through the city gates and went outside the walls where we walked along the ocean on a beautiful walkway where lots of people were out for an evening stroll or to watch the sunset.  We walked to the Café Carli Concerto where we had reservations for dinner. To be fair, this is probably a fantastic restaurant but it turned out to be the biggest disappointment of our trip. Since I had read such great reviews, I called as soon as we arrived in San Juan to ask about reservations and the music schedule. Live music is always tops on Doc’s list when we travel.  This restaurant is owned by jazz pianist Carli Munoz who played with the Beach Boy as well as other famous musicians. He is also the restaurants main performer.  Since live music in most places we found around San Juan started much too late for us – often not beginning until 11 p.m. I was happy to find that it began at 8 p.m. at Café Carlis. I was assured that music was on the schedule for Wednesday and so I had made a reservation.

Ponce DeLeon's tomb is here in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

Ponce DeLeon’s tomb is here in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

We arrived at 7:45, ordered drinks and an appetizer (and since the long walk had made me thirsty I also asked for water–which I was surprised to be charged $7 for. But okay, it’s that kind of place and I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that water would come in a fancy bottle–not a big deal). At 8:45 as we were ordering dinner, I finally asked when the music started since no one had made any moves toward playing. That’s when we were told that there would be no music as the owner was on vacation! The food and service were very good and I was willing to pay $150 for dinner when an evening of great music was going to be included, but I was more than a little ticked off to find I was paying that same amount for my dinner without the entertainment. If they had at least posted a sign on the door—something like “Sorry, tonight’s music canceled”— I would have had some warning but at this point, dinner had already been ordered and half eaten. To top things off, at about 9:00 p.m. a family came in with a preschooler whose constant screaming became very annoying very quickly. We hurried to finish our dinner and returned to the El Convento where we ordered dessert from room service. I think this could have been the best evening of our entire trip but unfortunately it was our biggest disappointment.

Outside the city walls

Outside the city walls

 

Day #10 Thursday: Flight day.

Puerto Rico felt similar to the islands of Hawaii, only less developed and more rough around the edges. Rarely do Doc and I visit the same place more than once.  The national parks of the Western U.S. and the Hawaiian Islands being the exceptions.  I’m sure we will be adding Puerto Rico to our return destination list too. Of all the places we’ve traveled, our vacation in Puerto Rico was tops.  There were so many great things to see and do, the distances to drive from place to place were doable, the places we stayed were all marvelous, and the people win the prize, hands down, for being the friendliest we’ve ever met. Puerto Rico was an unexpected surprise as well as an amazing adventure.

Some great, light reads for getting a good feel for Puerto Rico and its small towns are the series of books by Steven Torres including “Precinct Puerto Rico,” “Death in Precinct Puerto Rico,” and “Message in the Flames.”

The San Juan port

The San Juan port

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