San Juan, Puerto Rico: Since the pandemic started, I’ve waited for an extremely long time to get out of the US mainland, just to visit any new place…ANY NEW PLACE. I know many traveled during the pandemic. For me, traveling with uncertainties, like PCR tests and Covid related restrictions, didn’t really make me want to travel much.
I decided to fly to Puerto Rico solo at the end of last year and chose this place because it was a US territory and no test/quarantine was required. Plus, it was in the Caribbean…almost felt like visiting a new country and culture. First I asked my sister, then a few other friends, and then my cousin to join the trip. It ended up being 8 of us girls all together who went along on this trip (and 1 other friend who tested positive for Covid 2 days before we left and had to stay behind).
So, Puerto Rico…wow, what an enriched Caribbean island and…the birthplace of pina colada (eh, had to mention that somewhere). If I only knew that this place is packed with that much history, natural beauty, rich culture, laid back days, and crazy night life, I would have gone to Puerto Rico sooner. Nevertheless, I made it there and it was hard to leave this island behind.
Puerto Rico became part of the USA at the end of the 1800s and San Juan is the oldest city under the USA jurisdiction. With its centuries old architectural features and heritage, cobalt blue beaches, and rainforest, there is something for everyone in this Caribbean gem. This is a melting pot of Latin and Spanish cultures, mixed with African and Taino traditions, with a touch of American influence.
San Juan is the capital and the largest city of Puerto Rico. It is also the financial capital of this island. Unlike other capital cities, people here are very festive and laid back. I personally like to call it “The City of Cats” or “The City of Murals”…the number of cats you’ll see on the streets are insane (reminded me of Istanbul). Being a cat lover and a owner of 2 kitties, I loved those street cats. And you’ll see murals almost everywhere you go.
If you are on the East Coast, plane journeys are way shorter than the ones on the West Coast. Direct flights from D.C or NY are very common and take only a few hours, which would make a great weekend getaway.
Let’s get you some practical information on Puerto Rico now. Uber is super efficient and cheap here. Seriously, 8 of us stayed in San Juan for 4 days where we used Uber many times to visit all those places I’ve mentioned below and our combined Uber cost was about $407. Not bad at all. Keep in mind, you can rent a car in PR, but as one of the Uber drivers was saying, the parking fees for rental cars are huge everywhere you go. Not to mention finding a parking space in some places in San Juan is a big headache. Also, if your hotel/AirBnB doesn’t have a safe garage for your rental car, parking your car on the street can be dangerous as petty thefts and car break-ins are very common here.
Being a US territory, USD is the currency here and English is spoken and understood by most of the people. Knowing Spanish would definitely help since it’s the dominant language in Puerto Rico. Also, as a sign of respect to the locals and their culture, knowing a few basic Spanish words will go a long way.
Our AirBnB: Since it was our first time in Puerto Rico and we were not going to rent a car, we wanted to stay close to OSJ. Our AirBnB place, called “Guava House” on Las Palmas, was a great location because most of the places we wanted to see were close by and the airport was only a 7-8 minutes drive. Yes, the neighborhood was a bit sketchy but I’d go back to that house over any resorts any time in Puerto Rico.
Our AirBnB was not just a home, it was an experience with unique decorations and interesting layouts. Nothing was fancy or luxurious in this home, but we had 9 bedrooms, an open dining area, an enclosed kitchen, stairs to the rooftop, 4 bedrooms with attached baths and a general area with 3 more bathrooms and 3 showers. This was better than what I expected from the descriptions and pictures. Oh, and the sound of roosters every morning was terribly annoying but charming at the same time.
Time of Travel: We were in Puerto Rico the weekend before the Memorial Day holiday in 2022. The temperature during the day was somewhere from 90-95 degrees. We didn’t get much rain, except for the day we were leaving PR.
Sunscreen and bug spray are highly recommended here. All of us got mosquito bites and sun burns. Carry a hat and a comfortable pair of shoes for any outdoor activities, especially if you are planning to go to El Yunque Rainforest or just for walking in OSJ.
Eating and Shopping: Plantain is a very popular and staple food in Puerto Rico. But to be very honest, I have had better plantain dishes in South or Central America. Mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican to try that’s made with plantains. I tried some shrimp mofongo from my friend’s plate, and man, it was good. Tostones are deep fried plantain chips that I’ve tried a few times…can be a bit dry and somewhere flavorless, if you are eating it just by itself. Seafood was something I felt was very underrated but so fresh and tasty. I had seafood for most of my meals and they couldn’t have been any better. Fresh red snappers and lobsters are very common here. Almost all the restaurants had options of ceviche and empanadas in their appetizers. And rice and beans will show up in many Puerto Rican entrees.
Flamenco show dinners are a somewhat popular activity among the tourists. Make sure to make reservations ahead of time in these restaurants that offer flamenco shows while you are having a meal.
For our first lunch, right after we arrived in San Juan, we went to a food-court-style place by the water, where multiple vendors were selling different cuisines. This was near Condado Beach and we just wanted to grab a quick bite. I just had a vege pizza but the location was fabulous.
Our second lunch was at a restaurant in Playa Luquillo, called Edelweiss, where I had freshly fried whole red snapper. Other girls tried lobsters, stuffed avocado, sampler platters, and etc. A fresh glass of pina colada was always something I ordered while in Puerto Rico. The restaurant was beautiful too, decorated with lots of umbrellas on the ceiling.
Our first dinner after the El Yunque trip in San Juan was at Casa Emilio. I was actually looking for a live flamenco show with dinner but only this place actually picked up the phone and took our reservation. We made a reservation for this place about a month ago, since they have live music only on Friday nights. It’s popular among the rich local Puerto Ricans who enjoy posh platters and live music by local artists. Though there was no actual flamenco performance by professionals, the ladies in the restaurant eventually got up at one point and started dancing to the songs the artist was singing. That was a lively environment and a fun experience. I had beef steaks with tostones. The food is really good but can be a bit pricey.
Next day, for lunch we sat down at Singular, near the cathedral. I had ceviche and some chicken empanada (not my favorite in that restaurant). This is another small but very cozy place for meals or drinks and located at the heart of OSJ.
That night for dinner, we came back to the above “Singular” restaurant vicinity where another restaurant called “Hotel El Convento” is located. It’s a restaurant inside the hotel I’m guessing. I had some tostones again, bite side mofongo, and some tuna pods (raw tuna cubes).
The next day, our lunch was in Santurce at a restaurant called “The Mangu Place”. They had some of the best yet cheap local food. I had some fried fish and curry style fish with simple white rice. It was really good. The restaurant is mainly for locals and workers barely spoke any English but it was a nice experience to try some places outside touristy areas (thanks to my cousin for suggesting it).
Our last dinner in Puerto Rico was a treat from one of our friends. It was at this trendy place in Carolina, called Corchea. They had a variety of seafood option. I had this fish called “wacko” or “whacko”…a white fish, also known as “queer fish”. Other people in the group tried fried red snapper, seafood paella, muscles, dumplings, and etc. This is a really good place to try if you are in the Carolina district.
Try some fresh coconut or pineapple juice in Condado beach or near El Morro. I also had some fresh hibiscus juice from a street vendor near El Morro. And Puerto Rico being the birthplace of pina colada, this is a must try while here.
If you are traveling with kids, many American chain fast-food places are almost everywhere in the city. For fancier or local eateries, La Placita is another place that was recommended by one of our Uber drivers where you’ll find dozens of restaurants and cafes, unfortunately we couldn’t make it there.
For shopping, Old San Juan (OSJ) is one of the best places to find some unique and authentic Puerto Rican souvenirs. Yes, they can be expensive depending on what you are buying and which store you are buying from. But while walking around OSJ, you’ll see lines of stores from generic souvenirs to more artsy type souvenirs.
I personally bought ground coffee, cigars, some jewelry for my kids, a couple wood curved baby Groots, and a hand painted glass vase to bring back home. Wooden gift items are very popular here, especially mortar and pestle. If you are an art/painting lover, OSJ has some exclusive art galleries where you can find paintings by local artists for some hefty money.
Places We’ve Visited: We stayed about 3 ½ days and 4 nights in Puerto Rico and focused mainly on San Juan this time. For next time, maybe exploring some nearby towns and districts would be the aim. San Juan and its surroundings have tons of stunning beaches, historic sites, museums, old ruins, and etc to fulfill everyone’s taste buds. Of course there are many water related activities for the adventurers.
Other than what we visited, a few things you can also check out in Old San Juan are Santa Maria Cemetery which we saw from Castillo San Felipe Del Morro…but didn’t really go there. Also, La Perla where the first part of the “Despacito” song by Luis Fonsi was filmed.
One thing that everyone recommends doing in Puerto Rico is the Bioluminescent kayak tour at night, which none of us did – you get to see the microscopic organisms glowing at night under water while kayaking in the mangrove forest. I’m not a big water activity type of girl and I preferred staying in the city looking at colorful buildings in OSJ. Fajardo Bay is where the kayak tour starts after dark. Many other outdoor and water adventures start in the Fajardo Bay area. We wanted to go there even though we weren’t going to take the kayak tour, but it was too far from San Juan, almost 40 minutes drive, so we ended up skipping it.
If you want to get out from the chaos of San Juan, an exciting day-trip is to take a ferry to Culebra island and spend some time on its sandy and much cleaner beaches. This is another trip we couldn’t do due to a shortage of timing.
Below are the places we saw during our stay in Puerto Rico:
A proper dress up and an extra set of clothes for visiting the rainforest is highly recommended. It rains frequently here (although we got none). Being somewhat fit and able to do medium hiking/walking is suggested too. We didn’t want to go for the advance/longer hiking in the rainforest. Therefore, this was perfect for us to just enjoy and explore the rainforest with a little bit of exercise and water slide/swimming while not getting too tired from all the activities. El Yunque is covered with lots of tropical plants and trees. I wouldn’t recommend touching some of those trees, since some can give you real itchiness while others may have fire ants.
There are short and long hiking trails in the rainforest. Know how fit you are physically and go accordingly. We booked the Puerto Rico Instagram tour using Viator app and this was the focal point of the guided tour. Total cost of the tour was $100 per person, which included Old San Juan, El Yunque, and Playa Luquillo. The whole tour was from 6:30am to around 2pm.
The Island of Puerto Rico was founded in 1509 and by 1783, Old San Juan was fully encircled by masonry walls. These 42 feet walls are very imposing and were built mostly by the African slaves. But for many San Juan residents in the 1800s, the defensive walls made them feel like prisoners. Local officials finally convinced the military authorities to demolish a section of the city’s walls in 1897 to allow the overcrowded city to expand beyond the walls.
Most of the landmarks or tourist spots are within walking distance in OSJ. This is a place which you will enjoy early morning, mid-day, or at night when the city comes to live.
San Juan National Historic Site is a protected section of OSJ which includes Colonial era forts, some sections of old city wall, and few other landmarks. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has some of the oldest and best preserved Spanish fortifications of the Americas. These sites offer stunning views of old architecture and are one of the top ranked in the whole Caribbean. This is also the home of art galleries, and museums.
La Perla is a small, ocean-side neighborhood in Old San Juan that we saw from El Morro where we were planning to go but eventually didn’t. If you are a big Latino music fan, this is where the song “Despacito” was filmed partially. This is a bit of a slum district where a lot of illegal activities take place since no police presence is there. While many seasoned tourists may not advise you to go there, some locals (including our El Yunque tour guide) will highly recommend you to check this place out during daytime.
Below are the places we saw/passed by in Old San Juan and would recommend to anyone traveling there.
We ended up coming to Old San Juan almost everyday during our stay in Puerto Rico. But the first time when we came was with our Instagram tour guide and it was in the early morning. That was probably one of the best times to check out its serenity…empty alleys, quiet locales, and best of all, no tourists to block those gorgeous views.
It offers a commanding view of San Juan harbor and the sea. The extensive hillside, once a battlefield, in front of the citadel is a popular place for kite flying. If you can’t fly a kite here…then, you just can’t fly a kite. You have the sea on one side and the city on the side and with green pasture in the front…even if you don’t go inside El Morro, just being there will give you some breathtaking scenery of the surroundings. It was a 10 minutes Uber ride from Condodo to El Morro. We spent a couple hours outside the fort in its big green field, since it was already closed for the day. Admission to the fort closes at 4:30pm. But even walking around outside of El Morro was very enjoyable in the late afternoon. The view of the city, water, the old part of the town, and the cemetery from every corner was breathtaking. This is also a great place to catch a memorable sunset.
San Cristobal, another landmark of OSJ is within walking distance and can be seen from El Morro. If you buy ticket to El Morro, that would cover San Cristobal as well.
This was definitely worth a visit since I got to see some paintings and sculptures by the local artists. This place gave me a better understanding of their culture and tradition through different forms displays. The museum presents an impressive overview of cultural development in not only Puerto Rico but in the Americas.
The ticket was $6 per person and took about an hour and half to see all the exhibitions. There are three permanent collections and a few temporary exhibitions in Museo De Las Americas.
The statue in the middle of the fountain at Plaza De La Princesa represents that Puerto Rican people are a blend of three different cultures. First, Taino Indians who populated the island for thousands of years before Columbus arrived. Second, the West Africans who were forced to labor as slaves for centuries on different plantations. And finally the Spanish, who ruled the island until it gained its independence. Three proud people in one.
This is closed on Sunday and other days, it’s open until 4:30pm. Do make some time to go to this mansion and enjoy its different pockets of tranquil gardens with a variety of tropical trees and old fountains.
By the time we tried to find the entrance to Casa Blanca, we walked too far away from it. Eventually only 3 of us went back up and the gate was almost closing. One of our friends requested the guard to let us in for 5 minutes just to see the surroundings. Thankfully, he not only gave us some minutes to look around but also mentioned visiting the rectangular fountain in one of the gardens. If we only had some more time, we could have easily spent an hour or two looking around this historic “White House”
You can see Plaza Colon and other parts of OSJ from different corners of San Cristobal. Enjoy the grand view of San Juan Harbor from this fort too.
You can easily spend a couple hours here going through all the underground tunnels, upper viewing areas, and climbing old stairs. The ticket is $10 to enter the castle which covers San Cristobal and El Morro. The fort closes at 4:30pm.
Isla Verde is in the district of Carolina. This is where a lot of the big brand name resorts and ocean view hotels are located. If you are trying to get away from OSJ scenes or just San Juan’s busy life, this is a great place to stay, especially if you are traveling with kids.
Overall, Puerto Rico is a place where I’d go back again with my kids one day or just make a solo trip to relax for a few days. Having my friends and sisters on this trip made it more memorable in many aspects. The ease of traveling there, Old San Juan’s sweet and savory energy, astonishing natural beauty, and vibrant city-life are all I need when I’m on a vacation and Puerto Rico has it all.