Where We Stayed: In a small, no-frills AirBNB in a killer location. Ocean Park is far enough of the tourist track to be quiet and not too crowded. The apartment was in the perfect location and had everything we needed for a week vacation.
What We Did:
Day 1: Arrived in the evening, got settled at our AirBNB, walked around the neighborhood and ate dinner at Bagua, which is only a block away.
Day 2: Old San Juan
A: Of course the day we choose to go into the old touristy part of town is the day three cruise ships dock and 9000 additional tourists flood the street. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful part of town with lots of interesting nooks and crannies to explore.
Day 3: Bacardi Factory Tour + Beach
A: I didn’t know what to expect of the Bacardi tour, but it turned out to be one of the most fun and interesting days. We learned a ton about the rum making process but also about the history of the city. Our tour guide, Yaris, was knowledgeable and very funny. Even though I don’t love rum as much as Justin, the tasting was informative and tasty. Definitely would recommend the Rum Tasting Tour.
Day 4: Drive about the island, from San Juan, west to Aricebo, through the mountain roads west to Mayaguez, down south to San German, east to Ponce, then north up to San Juan.
A: Even though my shoulders are still tense from the drive through the twisty, treacherous, pothole-ridden mountain roads, I think this was my favorite part of the trip: seeing so much of Puerto Rico, from the rundown home with a single, scrawny horse eating grass in the yard and the brand new homes featuring balconies and large satellite dishes, to the bad roads full of blind spots and wide enough only for one car. Our drive about definitely took us off the beaten path and there were plenty of areas where I might not have felt comfortable stopping, but there were also gorgeous vistas of the islands and we got to see something no tour guide in San Juan would show us.
We took a pitstop in Mayaguez and had a (very strong!) drink at a locals bar which was situated on the side of a street, the tables and stools spilling into one of the lanes. This quick stop let us meet a local who was more than happy to talk to us about that part of Puerto Rico and where we should get some food.
After grabbing a delicious dinner (a whole red snapper! shark bites! coconut shrimp!), we headed south to San German, the oldest city in Puerto Rico, home to the oldest church in the Americas. We drank some award-winning mojitos at a new bar, Lola, where the manager and bartender shared with us local history and tried to convince us to visit a nearby small town for a coffee festival! We weren’t feeling all that spontaneous (we didn’t have any overnight items with us), but perhaps if we’d had more time on the island, we could have opted for some spontaneity.
(Click on any of the photo circles to enlarge and see captions.)
Day 5: Exploring El Yunque + late lunch in Fajardo
A: Hiking the ‘easy’ trails in El Yunque might be the most naturey thing I’ve ever done. Definitely got my dose of cardio for the day (hitting more than 5 miles on my pedometer!) and my legs are still sore, as if I did dozens of squats.
Day 6: Relaxing and Beachtime!
Day 7: More beaching, relaxing and exploring the Ocean Park neighborhood.
Day 8: Beach, packing up and heading home.
A: The location of our AirBNB was super convenient since there were five restaurants within 2 blocks, three of which were directly across the street from our apartment. Great tacos at La B de Burro, great drinks and pizza (and fries and pulpo!) at Pirilo, great coffee and tirimisu at Kasalta Bakery. We ate twice at Mango’s and were disappointed the second night, but they had a house cat who loved us so that made up for it. Hands down, the best meals were at Bagua. I had the Waikiki salmon the first night in town and it was cooked perfectly. The second to last night in town, I had the grilled pulpa (octopus!) – so tender and full of flavor. Their yucca root chips are also perfect, as are their sangrias. Bagua also had the best service of any establishment we we went to.
A: One of the most interesting things was seeing the juxtaposition of really poor, old and rundown with brand new, modern and sometimes posh.
J: My first thought when we arrived and walked around was “is this a bad area of town?” The sidewalks are all busted up, the homes are falling apart and there’s graffiti everywhere. But after a while, it became normal. That’s just the way San Juan looks. At first it seems threatening. If you were to drop off a suburban family who hasn’t traveled much at the corner of Calle Pomarosa and Calle Loiza, they’d look around and wonder if it’s safe. Then you meet locals and eat local and fall in love. It’s pretty in its own way.
A: We saw a lot of that as we drove around – the “bad area of town” look and feel, but then we’d get out of the car and take the most beautiful photos overlooking a cliff. The beauty of the surrounding area contrasts starkly with the poverty of many of the areas.
J: Driving in San Juan isn’t recommended Lol. We managed to get the rental car back unscathed but our blood pressure hit new highs. As nice as the locals are–and they are very welcoming–they are unforgiving and ruthless drivers. Passive-aggressive doesn’t cut it in this city.
A: I’ve driven once in LA, once in NYC and once in Boston, and all three of those experiences were terrifying. The first time I drove in ATL, I white-knuckled the steering wheel the whole time. I can handle Atlanta now and can deal with the crooked streets of Boston. But the drivers of Puerto Rico are a whole other level of crazy. Absolutely no regard for lanes, speed limits, blinkers (not sure they know what they are); no respect for rules of the road or general driving etiquette. No fast or slow lanes, just “drive however the fast or slow you want” lanes, leaving everyone else to weave in and out of traffic quickly and within inches of car bumpers. We’ve driven our way around the island, keeping up with the speed demons in San Juan, navigating the perilous twists of mountain roads from Aricebo to Mayaguez, shaking our fists at slow drivers in the left lane headed north from Ponce, and fighting Valentine’s Day traffic in Fajardo. We only ended up with one parking violation (on a curvy, hilly road in the National Forest El Yunque…. parked like dozens of other people…. hope they got tickets too!) and have not been hit or fallen off a cliff. All in all, a successful weekend of exploring the island. We were very relieved to drop off the car!
J: If only everyone just rode horses….
A: When we were in Mayaguez, I felt like we’d time-traveled with all of the horses we saw! Horses in yards, horses tied to the side of the road, people riding horses down the road. We saw it in San German, too, those teenagers on their horses, meandering down the roads, looking at the screens of their phones. Another interesting juxtaposition… this seems to be an island of contrasts.
J: It has Dissociative Identity Disorder. The rundown houses share streets with beautiful, modern villas. The locals mix Spanish in with English regularly in conversations with each other. It’s not a state yet still part of the United States. Everyone is really nice until they get behind the wheel.
Read Justin’s write-up about our trip at his blog: Coming Soon!