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We've been flying through Puerto Rico for years with onward connections to other Caribbean destinations and never even thought about stopping off there for even a day. In fact our attitude was pretty much: "Gee, I'm glad we're going somewhere else and not staying here." Well this time we did stop and I'm very glad we did!
I guess San Juan and Puerto Rico in general have a "bad rap." Kind of like Nassau. Yet we love Nassau and we really enjoyed our stay in Puerto Rico.
We celebrated our 30th anniversary on this particular trip and picked the El San Juan Hotel for our lodging. This is a beautiful hotel in the Isla Verde section of San Juan. When you leave the main street and turn into the driveway of this hotel you'd swear you were in Maui. Beautiful fountains and tropical vegetation of all types, colors and sizes. And the lobby of the El San Juan is a real work of art. Tons of wood everywhere giving the place a really rich flavor. You could easily spend four or five days just hangin' out at this beautiful hotel but it's not cheap.
When we checked in Cindy mentioned that it was our 30th anniversary and they immediately upgraded us to a beautiful Ocean Suite complete with semi-private swimming pool. Very nice of them. Our arrival came very late in the night (actually we checked into the hotel around 1:30am) and the lobby and casino were hoppin' with activity.
When we went to hit the sack a short time later (hey, 1:30's late for us!) we noticed that instead of placing chocolates on the bed during turn-down service they placed two casino chips worth five bucks each. Now we're not big gamblers but figured that we'd save up several of them and use them during our last night at the hotel casino. And here's the funny part. I showed up at a roulette table armed with a handful of them and asked the attendants if I could use them there. Everybody at the table howled as the attendant told us: "Those are not chips, Sir, they're chocolates. Just unwrap them and see!" I felt like a big doofus. But Cindy fell for it, too! They really looked real! Click here to see those chips. The casino was pretty small by Vegas standards but was a nice distraction.
Like so many of our trips, this was a three day weekend deal so we had to plan our activities carefully.
For our first full day we opted to just take a taxi over to Old San Juan and meander around the old streets. It's a really neat place teaming with locals. On this day there were hundreds of school children roaming around escorted by their teachers. And various squares had homemade craft shops set up. One big one was set up at the Plaza de Armas. This square was the original main gathering place in Old San Juan.
In addition to the school children in their smart uniforms there was the little old lady sprawled on the street with no shoes. She was begging for money and yelled something nasty at us in Spanish before we even approached so we didn't offer her any money. Probably should have but didn't. A number of big cruise ships including the Radisson Diamond were in port that day so the streets were crowded with tourists.
It was lunch time and it was hot, probably 90 degrees, so we ducked into the Hard Rock Cafe for a quick lunch. Turns out that it wasn't a quickie, though. The place was jammed with cruise ship people and we had to wait the better part of an hour to be seated.
After lunch we did some more sightseeing and then called a taxi for the ride back to the hotel.
Our package at the hotel included a buffet breakfast each morning plus one meal at one of the hotel's several outstanding restaurants. So we picked the famous steak place--the Palm for our first dinner. Corporate web site here. It was great. The servers were knowledgeable and courteous and the meat was thick and rare! The breakfast buffet at the hotel was so-so. Not the biggest selection and no typically local foods that are fun to try in exotic places. Probably not worth the $39 price tag for two each morning if you weren't on a package plan.
On our second and final full day we rented a car and drove to the Bacardi plant (or Bacardi "refinery" as my wife referred to it!) for a tour. It was very interesting to learn that it's still a family owned business. The "original" Mr. Bacardi got his start in the rum business many years ago in Spain. He was fond of bats because in Spain they were said to be a symbol of good luck and so forth. When he opened his first rum plant in Spain, there were bats inside the building. He considered it good luck and his wife suggested that he put a picture of a bat on his rum, which he did. Now it's Bacardi's famous trademark. The tour took us to the world's largest rum distillery, to a museum featuring old bottles of Bacardi rum and historic pictures, and then back to the "tasting" station and welcome center. There folks got to sample from a whole bunch of rum based drinks.
Bacardi is actually headquartered in Nassau in the Bahamas where the family business is run. I think they chose the Bahamas for the tax break. Anyway, if you'd like to see that "famous" bat and find out more about Bacardi, click here.
With Bacardi behind us and a few souvenirs in the trunk it was off to El Yunque, a jungle like park that is home to the only true rain forest in the United States. Unfortunately traffic was awful coming from the Bacardi plant and it took us more than two hours to travel there. We waited for more than fifteen minutes at one stoplight alone. We simply didn't have enough time to do any hiking and it's too bad because this place is incredible. Even from our short encounter it was beautiful with mountains covered with a frothy fog. For nature nuts this place is full of exotic birds, flowers, trees and other neat stuff. You might even encounter a rare Puerto Rican boa snake, but probably not. These snakes get up to 7 feet long!
The beach town of Loquillo was just down the way so we stopped there briefly to check it out. From what we saw, it was nothing to write home about. The nearby Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Country Club there did look fabulous, though.
From there it was a more direct route and quicker trip back to the El San Juan. Drivers, by the way, aren't all that bad in Puerto Rico although they do have this nasty habit of drifting from one lane into another then back. Lines on the roads don't mean a whole heck of a lot. But they were very courteous.
At nearly every stoplight as cars mount up, street venders approach selling everything from bottled water to candy to newspapers to lottery tickets. Back at the El San Juan we were beat and chose to eat at another hotel restaurant that night--Back Street Hong Kong. It was "okay" but not nearly as good as the Palm restaurant.
We usually don't like to eat at hotels preferring to sample the local food but we simply didn't have a chance to on this trip. I can give you some recommendations that were given to us by some locals for good, native food. Folks raved about a place called La Mallorquina. Also drawing good reviews was a place called Ajili Mojili. Again, these were suggested for good, simple "down home" Puerto Rican dishes. We can't vouch for them personally but a number of people made the same recommendation so they've got to be doing something right.
Our hotel is said to have one of the nicest beaches in that part of Puerto Rico. And while it certainly was nice, it wasn't the drop dead beautiful Caribbean beach you've dreamed about. The waves were fairly big (maybe 4 or 5 feet) which is a good thing if you like to play in the water. But visibility was very poor. No snorkeling opportunities there. I'm told that there are some great snorkel tours involving short boat rides.
One thing you'll notice if you go to Puerto Rico is the night time serenade of tree frogs. These are tiny guys--an inch long or less--and just before sunset they start their whistling and it goes all night long. It's almost deafening. They're called Coquis (pronounced ko-keys) and I challenge you to actually spot one! We did our best and couldn't find one. We even scanned the tropical vegetation with the night vision feature of our mini-cam but to no avail.
There were many parrots flying in and out of the tops of the palm trees at the hotel. They're very loud and funny to watch.
I guess one of the reasons we had put off a visit to Puerto Rico was safety. I've heard stories about high crime and so forth. On this trip, however, we didn't feel even slightly uncomfortable. The signs were there, though. Nearly all houses, apartments and businesses had steel bars. Many were decorative but they were there for a reason--to keep crooks out. And even the hotel's own safety information brochure recommended against going out on the beach at night, even at the hotel.
It stays warm in Puerto Rico all year long. Get this. The coldest temperature ever recorded in San Juan was a balmy 68º!
I'm very glad we chose to spend some time in San Juan and that we got to see a tiny segment of Puerto Rico. We liked the place and we'll definitely go back when we can spend some more time there!
PUERTO RICO IS IN THE U.S. SO NO PASSPORT IS NEEDED FOR U.S. CITIZENS. A PASSPORT IS ALWAYS GOOD OR A PASSPORT CARD OR ENHANCED DRIVER'S LICENSE. A BIRTH CERTIFICATE WITH RAISED SEAL SHOULD ALSO SERVE AS PROPER FORM OF I.D. DRIVING IS ON THE RIGHT BUT ODDLY DISTANCES ARE SHOWN IN KILOMETERS. CURRENCY IS THE U.S. DOLLAR.