San Juan, PR 2015

Standing in line at the train station this evening, El looked at me and said "we are on vacation". While technically true, since had both logged off of our respective work computers, we weren't at the point that I like to be at to feel that I am on vacation. But soon enough, I will.

Growing up in the Morrell family we were fortunate to have had, for a time, an apartment in San Juan. This allowed us to take a few family trips to the island of Puerto Rico. All told, I think I visited the city six times. I recall having fun each time. I know that my parents, mom especially, would vacation there every year and do a bit of exploring each time, bringing reports of new places that she had found or experiences that she thought would be of interest to us- should we ever make it back. As each of us kids graduated college, mom took us to San Juan for a weeklong vacation- just the two of us. Somewhat of a congratulatory gesture as well as a final moment to spend together as we each began our lives, possibly to have difficulty in our future of getting enough free time to have this opportunity again. That said, besides that trip where mom and I would decide what we wanted to do together or alone, most everything we did was with someone else. In a good way,  of course. I have fond memories of dad taking me to my first casino to show me how to shoot craps or taking the tour of the Bacardi factory with mom. Side trips to St. Croix and snorkeling off Fajardo were also highlights. But now that I am older, a bit more well traveled and more comfortable in exploration of new places, I am especially interested to see how this vacation with El will compare to the times I visited San Juan doing, mostly, the things that my parents wanted to do. El has never been to the Caribbean and this seemed like a good year to cross that portion of the atlas off the to-visit list. As with every year, we look to take our winter vacation at the end of February/beginning of March. Essentially, we have found that this is around the time that we officially become sick of the New York winter weather and need to get to some place a little warmer. We booked the trip in December and little did we know just how trying this winter would be. Today is 2/27 and the news this morning was that this has been the fifth snowiest Albany February on record and that we are also .3 degrees off the record for the coldest February in Albany's history. I won't complain, but it has been a bit of a difficult winter, weatherwise, for many of the people in the area. We are on a train now headed to NYC. Our flight leaves tomorrow morning from Newark airport. We will spend the night in New York, but probably make it an early night since we have to catch the shuttle bus from Grand Central Station close to 5:00 am. 

I have a terrible night's sleep. Not because of nerves, just a restless evening. I am glad we stayed in last night, but I am not sure what difference it made. We wake at 4:15 and having gotten our bags together earlier, after a quick shower and putting away our bedding we are out the door shortly. We walk up to the bus stop near Grand Central which is just about 10 blocks. At this hour, even the city that never sleeps is pretty much in for the night. This makes for an easy walk dragging our rolling bag behind which can get tricky when the sidewalks are busy. The shuttle arrives when it is supposed to and we make it to Newark Airport around 5:45. We are in good shape for our 7:30 flight. A few lines of checking in and security and we are at our gate at 6:30 waiting for our boarding call.

Although we have made some arrangements, much of our trip will be figured out on the fly. Instead of a hotel, we have opted to try the hostel option again. The other thing we have committed for is a food tour- one that includes a van (taxi) as opposed to just walking. We were a little concerned at the price, but the amount of rave reviews we saw made us take a chance. Also, El was able to find a 10K run that she will do tomorrow. In fact part of our first day agenda is to navigate the public bus system. Anyone that knows my dad would not be surprised to learn that I have never once taken a public bus in Puerto Rico. El and I aren't scared to try to figure it out. I understand the bus to the hostel should run $.75 each which is a far cry less than any taxi fare. We will see if there is any correlation to price and sketchiness. I don’t oppose taking taxis, but probably want to wait until it is necessary- like late night. We will arrive around noon today and will take the bus to the hostel and then figure out how to get out to the Roberto Clemente Coliseum where El needs to do her packet pickup for the race. Hopefully, by then we will figure out if it is practical to get to the race tomorrow by bus. One thing is that this race is scheduled for the evening, so we have all day to figure it out. She will dictate the plan tomorrow. By then we may have a better sense of our week and the things we may do.

SATURDAY FEBRUARY 28

One of the iconic guard towers at El Morro

On the 3.5 hour plane ride, I am able to spend some time looking through the guidebook and some of my own research to make a mental outline of what we might want to do for the week. It is looking more and more like we will have to spend at least a day in Old San Juan. I expect we should put this closer to the beginning of the week and hold off any further spots like day trips for closer to the end of the week. Some promising food places and some out of the way spots give me hope that we will have no problem filling our time the way we like to travel.
It is still weird to me that of all of the flights I have ever taken, I cannot think of a single other time (other than every time we came to or from Puerto Rico) that everyone on the plane claps upon landing. I mean we have flown to China, Australia, and Israel without a peep, yet every time to and from San Juan, the pilot gets a round of applause. After grabbing our baggage we search for the ground transportation area to try to get a bus map. We have directions on which buses to take, but I would be more comfortable with a map in hand. We ask and get directed, even better, to a tourist info center in the airport. We tell her where we want to go and ask for maps. She shakes her head as she hands me the maps and says, there is no way we will be able to ride the city buses with our rolling suitcase in tow. She continues to give us the useful info we are after, but reiterates a couple of times that a taxi really is our best bet to get to the hostel. While I wouldn't mind testing if the driver had a heart to let us on with the bag, I worried about the fact that we knew we would have to change buses and the last thing I wanted was for driver one to allow it and then have driver two hold his ground and not let us on. The taxis are flat rate by zone and we get one from the line of them waiting for the next travelers to exit the terminal. It costs us $17 plus a bag surcharge and he drops us in front of the hostel. After seeing the neighborhood, it would have taken us forever to find on our own. We go to check in around 1pm. The check-in time is technically 3pm and, naturally, our room is not ready. That said, the people working there seem helpful and accommodating enough. They give us the keys and let us put our bags in the room and change from our New York clothes to our vacation clothes. We ask the staff about getting to Roberto Clemente Coliseum which is where El's packet pickup is for tomorrow’s race. One tells us he doesn't know how to get there by bus, one tells us he thinks we might be able to get there by bus, and tells us where the nearest bus stop is. The third guy tells us he rides his bike everywhere and cannot help us. That said, we start walking to the closest main street which is Ponce de Leon and find the bus stop. On Saturday it seems the buses run a more limited schedule than during the week. After waiting awhile we look at the map and the way the streets are laid out, it is difficult to tell if we want the westbound or eastbound bus. I go to a shop and ask which general direction we want and get pointed to the opposite side of the street- good thing we asked! We walk along looking for an eastbound bus stop and notice that the first one (and all others) seem to have no route information on them. We ask a guy, and I start to recall my days in Ukraine and Lenara saying "if they want to hear you, they will hear you". I ask telegraphically "metrobus? Roberto Clemente Coliseum?" and point (as in, am I going the right way?) I am told that he does not speak English. I reiterate "Roberto Clemente Coliseum?" I mean he has to have heard of that, right? I get a half nod which is enough for me to keep walking in this direction. Next we come upon some kids at the next bus stop and one tell us that we can take the M3, but that we will have to switch at the train/bus terminal at the end of the road. We wait for an M3 and I realize that if we will be taking multiple buses, we will need enough change for each trip as dollar bills are not accepted and each ride is $.75. As I get on the bus I confirm that this bus route. "Roberto Clemente Coliseum?" to which the driver replies "no English". So I slow it down for him and over enunciate "ro-ber-toe cle-men-tay col-o-see-umm" and all of the sudden he understands my Spanish! He tells me “yes”, this is the direction, though I can't get more than that. We take the bus several blocks- a few miles I guess and all of the sudden everyone stands up and exits the bus, so we figure this is the end of the line and get off too. We realize that we are at the rail station that we had read about called Segrado Corazon. We go in to see that there is an information desk and the worker is very interested in getting us where we need to go. We tell him Roberto Clemente Coliseum and he asks which one?! El knows that it is the one near the mall and now we are lucky though that his English is good enough to direct us properly and shortly we are on our way. We take the M2 bus to the mall Plaza Las Americas which is across the street from the coliseum. As is common at packet pickups there is a showcase of companies selling running related items. Unfortunately (or fortunately for me) there is an entrance fee for non-runners. This gives me a few minutes to update my journal outside while El goes to get her packet. When she comes out we are both hungry and thirsty and standing right in front of us is a cart with a guy selling Caribe Ice- a cross between ice cream and snow cones. Like creamy ice or gelato. We each get a coconut flavored and enjoy it in the shade. After the packet pick up we head back towards the hostel. I want to know that I can find the hostel from the bus route. We again find ourselves at the same train station where everybody on the bus gets off and not knowing any better we follow suit. Our friend at the info desk is still working and now we ask for directions to get to the hostel from the train station. He tells us that our bus/route map is seriously outdated and gets us on our way, again. While we are in the train station a rainstorm barrels through. It does not last long, but it comes down in sheets. Really heavy and really brief. We head out to the bus stop and wait for the next M3 bus. Our evening plan is to head to the Condado which is kind of the touristy area and has a lot of restaurants and shops...and, oh yeah, there's a beach there too. We take the bus to the hostel and pick up our rain gear that we didn't think we'd need when we left a couple hours ago. There is an expressway that runs between the hostel and Condado and we need find a place to cross it either with a pedestrian tunnel or an overpass. We find a street called Calle Condado which takes us right into the heart of the area. On the walk we discuss our mutual need for food and decide to get some beer and maybe some appetizers and then decide where to head for dinner. As we get to Condado near Ashford Avenue we see a place with a sign that reads "ceviche bar". Well, that fits the bill! We will go in for a ceviche and a beer and see where the evening takes us. We are seated and appear to be the only two in the place (though I think there may have been an area around the bar with people that I couldn't see when we came in). Our waitress recommends the chef special which is a cold seafood salad on top of a curry sauce and a grilled beef skewer. We get both, a couple of beers and a dish of red snapper ceviche. Although I prefer my ceviche with a little bit of a jalapeno bite, these dishes were a bit mild, but tasted really great. There is way more food than we expected when we ordered, but this is a great way to be welcomed to the food of San Juan. During dinner we read about a bar in the area called Small Bar. On the way out from the restaurant we ask if anyone knows this place and one of the waiters says he knows it and that it has closed. We press on with no destination. We walk around the corner and see a rooftop bar advertising cheap beers as well as a place with a British flag on the awning. There is no sign indicting if it is a bar or what, but it looks closed whatever it is. We press on and stroll around the Condado beach area. As we walk along the sidewalk we take a couple of the passages down to the beach to remind ourselves what it is like to stand on a beach in the tropics. As we head towards Old San Juan it starts to mist and eventually it turns to downright rain. I have my rain gear with me but am either too lazy to put it on or am relishing the glory that I am walking in rain at 75 degrees vs. the sub-freezing temps we left at home. We get to a point though that it looks like we are making a real commitment to stay on this route towards the old city. We opt to turn around and head back to the British flag and cheap beer places to get out of the rain and see if we can find some wifi. As we walk we are getting soaked and before we know it we are drenched. We get to the cheap beer place first and the door is locked, so we go a few more doors down to the British flag place. As we walk up the stairs the stench of urine is strong and pretty much guarantees diviness. Though the door says they open at 8:00, at 7:00 the owner opens the door and welcomes us into his place. They have wifi and beer. All is good. The owner gives us the iPad and tells us to choose the music we like as we drink our first beers. We chat with the owner as we are the only people here now. He tells us they are only recently opened and that they used to be opened next door. When we ask him for the wifi key he tells us it is "smallbarpr"! That's right, they used to be Small Bar, but now they are London Bar. We stay here for a couple of beers and discuss our plans for tomorrow and the rest of tonight. We leave around 9pm and decide to head back towards the hostel. We understand the hostel is not in what is considered the best of neighborhoods and don’t want to walk through after midnight, just the two of us. It is not too late, so we figure having seen a couple of bars in the area of the hostel we would head back there and either stay out for more beers or call it a night- either way we would be close to the room. As we get within a block of the hostel we spot a food truck offering fried foods. The menu: fried chicken wings, fried "meat", some unidentified fried vegetable-like substance. El guesses taro and I guess some sort of fried dumpling. Nonetheless, not drunk, but having been drinking, we are both ready for a shot of food. El gets the chicken and I take the "meat", both are served with a side of the mystery ingredient that turns out to be mashed plantains that are breaded and fried called tostones. It is a little more expensive than I expect for street food ($7 per plate) and I get the sense that it tastes better the more beer you have had. We press on up the block to an open front bar on the corner called El Royalito

El Royalito - not sure if it is scarier during the day or night

The Latin music is excruciatingly loud inside and dulls to just obnoxiously loud once you are on the street. We grab a table on the sidewalk and order two beers while we eat our fried vittles. Thankfully, El had the forethought to grab some Pepcid. With every bite I realize I won't be sleeping well if this goes undigested before I call it a night- hell, it is already sitting uneasy. As I watch our waitress make her way to us through the crowd to serve our cans of beer she endures an unwanted hand from an overly friendly, overly drunk patron and the look on her face is not exactly one of giddiness. I tip her a couple of dollars for her service of a couple of cheap beers, assuming this joint does not bring out the high tippers- strictly the local domino playing crowd. She smiles and retreats towards the crowd- probably not knowing where the next unwanted pinch might come from. As we sit eating, drinking and joking at the volume of the music, one of the patrons can’t seem to be bothered with the formality of a bathroom and uses a car parked out front as his cover to relieve himself. El points out that she thinks some of the waitresses are "selling a little more than the beer." During our second beer El confides she is fading and at this point I think I have probably seen all I care to see as well. I finish my beer and call it a night. Luckily- we don’t have far to go. Our walk back does not leave us feeling uneasy and we probably will keep doing it until it does.

the entire expanse of our hostel room

SUNDAY MARCH 1

The hostel told us when we checked in that we were going to have to move rooms today. This means we will have to pack all of our stuff into the bags again and leave them at the desk until the people in our new room are checked out and the room cleaned. As we pack our bags, we find a trail of ants has infiltrated some of our luggage. El does what she can to segregate the contaminated from the non. An overnight windstorm blowing our metal shutters and an obnoxious barking dog ensured we both got somewhat lousy sleep. Regardless, we do our duty and are on the road by 9:30. Not sure if we will come back, we pack all of El’s race gear in our packs so we can just head to the race if we need to. We walk down to Condado and then towards Ocean Park which is the next section of the city from where we are. Because of the race, El is dictating our food schedule today. She spots a Starbucks so that she can get her breakfast. The line is significant and I don't really want Starbucks, so we decide to just find a breakfast place nearby. In the next block we see a Crepemaker shop and decide that is what we want. Crepes and coffees are exactly what we both needed. After breakfast we walk down to where my parent's apartment was. We walk down to the beach and discuss what if they still owned the place. 

A windy morning at mom's old stomping grounds

We keep walking on expecting to see De Diego St. so that I can show her the first apartment the family had in San Juan. But, we miss it and wind up walking well into Ocean Park. At some point we think it might be best to just grab a bus to take us out to Playa Piniones and we walk to the nearest stop to wait for the bus. I had read about Playa Piniones having some of the best, authentic island food and wanted to try to get there by bus. Since my mind changes like the ocean breeze, we are only standing there waiting about two minutes before I think the better of the plan. Since El is not able to eat much until her race is over, it dawns on me that she will not be able to eat any of the food that we are heading out to the beach for (our guidebook recommends a specific place at a specific beach). Within a matter seconds we have a new plan. We will continue to walk around Ocean Park and make our way back to De Diego that we missed earlier. It takes us a good 15 minutes to get back to De Diego and we are able to see the first apartment that my parents bought. I was a little surprised at how little of the neighborhood I recognized. I know I hadn’t spent all that much time there and it was over 25 years ago, but still, the rate of development in this part of town was enough to make me start to question if I remembered what I thought I did. Once I saw the building I was sure I was in the right place and that is when I mentally remarked on the development. We kept walking once we passed the apartment and made our way all the way up to Ponce de Leon to catch the bus to Segrado Corazon train station. El thinks it is better to try to get to the race earlier than later and that we can spend some time exploring the neighborhood near the race. We are able to take the commuter rail train down to Pinon. The cars and stations alike are really clean and new. The ride only lasts about 10 minutes and we exit the station. We are starting to see other people wearing their race tshirts and hats, and follow them. Once we see the shuttle buses, we just jump the first that will take us to the race. They have actually closed off and expressway and runners will run right down the highway. It is entirely too early for El to line up (I cannot go into the corrals) so we walk around together to try to determine the best place to meet after she is done. There is not much in this area in terms of cafés or eateries. A couple of guys peddling the "caribe ice" go by and I grab one for myself. It turns out we got here so early that it is bordering on painful to kill the 5 hours before the race. It is not like we could really grab a shuttle bus back to the train station and hang there. And unless you want to try to win a jeep or eat some fried food, there is not much in the way of offerings to either runners or spectators here. At about 4:30 El heads to her corral leaving me to the spot where we will meet after the race. At this point in the day we can really see how the midday heat would make running any distance a bit dangerous. Now, closer to the 5:30 start time, it is much more comfortable for both runners and their support teams. After the race, the plan is to head back to Condado for some dinner. Our plan is to get up early to head to Old San Juan for the day tomorrow. I think after dinner, we may head back to our sketchy $1.50 beer joint on the corner to try to catch some of the sleaze we saw last night. After the run is done, we meet at the agreed upon spot. Though I did try to get to the street to see the runners (El) run by, there were just too many people cheering their runners on for me to get even a glimpse of her. I went back to the parking garage and waited. She did great and met me just a little over an hour after she started the race. 

El, right after finishing the "worlds best 10K"

Knowing that we had the competition of thousands of other runners and their supporters, we tried to get to the shuttle bus line as soon as we could. As we got to the shuttle line we heard an announcement that hotel shuttles would be at the end of the line. A quick discussion and we decide that instead of taking the shuttle to the train, the train to the bus, and the bus to the hostel and then walking to Condado for food, we would just take the hotel shuttle that would leave us off at one of the downtown hotels- for free. It was a no-brainer. What we didn't count on was that the train shuttle ran about every 30 seconds and that the hotel shuttle only ran once an hour. If we knew then what we know now, we totally would have taken the bus/train/bus option. We get off the shuttle near the Marriott since we know there is food in that area. We find and Argentinian steakhouse called Buenos Ayres. El gets the asado and I get a cheeseburger. Not sure why I am not as hungry as I should be, but I can’t even finish the fries. The burger is really pretty good and El likes her steak. After dinner we walk back to the hostel and get checked into our new room. It looks the same but is another flight of stairs up, otherwise, I am not sure why they moved us at all. We take another stab at El Royalito the place with the questionable...everything really. We drink our two beers and call it a night. A big day tomorrow and we want to get an early start.

Let's talk about the hostel. And let's just say the saying "you get what you pay for" certainly pertains here. The room is $60 per night ($30 each) which is at least half of anything else we found and a might less than the places along the Condado.  Mind you we have not had a problem, but the amount of people who question our choice to stay in this neighborhood- my ignorance is weighing on my conscience. I cannot say I recall the last time in America that I was woken up by a crowing rooster. But, it has happened two days in a row now. The hostel itself is far from the best I have ever stayed in (also not the worst). Ponder this question, would you rather have bugs (like ants) in your room OR hot water in your shower. This morning there is no hot water in the shower and yesterday was the bugs (we have had two different rooms). Who knows the challenges we will find tonight. We ask what the trick is to getting the hot water in the shower to work and we are told that you have to sacrifice pressure for heat- though both people that said that immediately suggested just taking a shower in the common room. Jess, one of the workers, tells us she will call a repair guy- not sure if he is a pluming repair guy or an electric repair guy, but she is on it. We come back from our day out to find that someone has been in the bathroom (in a good way). The shower head looks new and the shower curtain that was resting inside the shower tile is now on the outside and the window shutters have been opened. I immediately try the water...all cold. No warm?? I resign to shower in the common room, but will ask the staff if there is a trick to getting the hot water to flow. I don’t see anyone between the room and the shower, so I shower and head back to the room. El asks later if I saw anyone about the water and she did see Jess who confirmed that the problem is a lack of enough energy to the water heater that is causing the issue and reiterates...”shower in the common room”. Now, I have showered in a few common rooms in hostels and this set up isn't the worst, but the fact is that I paid for an ensuite bathroom, thought they will tell you I got the ensuite bathroom and they didn't say anything about the temperature of the shower. In all fairness to Jess, she did offer to move us back to the original room we had, the one with bugs and right next to the patio that has some lively conversation going on well into the wee hours of the morning. I feared it was a lesser of two evils situation and that I would rather shower in the common room than have bugs. I shut my mouth.

MONDAY MARCH 2

We head to Old San Juan on the M3 bus. We arrive just as a downpour descends. We stop at a food truck for a small breakfast. I get a ham, egg, and cheese wrap. While in line the rain starts coming at an amazing rate. Standing under the awning so as not to get wet while waiting for the food, it is now coming at a real downpour pace. So much so, that after a few minutes, a wave of water comes barreling down the space where the pavement meets the curb and instantly floods the intersection. We are now seriously drenched (even in our rain gear) and now our food is ready. The rain starts to lighten up, but is still coming at a level that challenges the eating process. We do the best we can to stand under a tree to avoid direct rain, though so much has already fallen, the trees are dripping as much as the direct showers from the sky. El spots a café across the street and we decide to grab a coffee there and wait the storm out. Of course, as we walk the 50 feet to the café, the rain stops and the sun comes out. Such is the weather in San Juan. We walk up to the tourist information office across from Plaza De Armas. We get some good directions and some great maps. We have some time to kill before our food tour at noon. We head from the tourist office up to San Juan Cathedral to see what we are led to believe is a mummified saint. We find it and see the story of how the mummified remains of an Italian saint came to be resting in the cathedral. The thing is that instead of looking like a creepy mummy, it looks like a ceramic cast. So, either I am missing something in the story or I am just not as impressed with mummified remains and their stories as I used to be. Our next stop is the equally unimpressive "tiny house" which basically is where someone converted an alleyway into an apartment which is about 5 feet wide. We take our been-there, done-that photo and move on to the San Francisco Cathedral which is said to have catacombs in the subterranean level. We walk down the stairs to what appears to be a small room with larger than normal marble plaques lettered with names and dates (birth and death) of those interred. There is nothing really creepy about it and we don’t recognize any of the names painted on the stone. Upstairs in the main part of the church is a wooden cross that was recovered from a shipwreck off the Puerto Rican coast and brought to the church by some faithful locals. We don't need to spend much time here and continue towards the Plaza Colon to meet the tour. Our last stop is a coffee shop called Caficultura. We think we will stay, but opt to get a cup to go instead. My coficoco is decent. It is coffee (espresso) with a shot of coconut flavor in it. It has a hint of artificial flavor to it- a little flavoring could work better, but too much is a little weird. Anyway the coffee is OK and we take it to the plaza to wait for the group. Today’s food tour is a company called Spoon Food Tours. Our guide is Paulina. Everyone arrives on time and we get a quick introduction to each other and Paulina tells us about the food journey we will take today. We all jump into a waiting taxi van and head to Ocean Park for lunch. Spoon Food has a couple of places that they partner with to bring tours in to sample local foods and get some history at the same time. This first stop is our lunch portion at a place called La Cueva del Mar. We start off with a local rum drink. The choices are rum with fresh squeezed orange juice, rum with fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, or rum with grapefruit and orange juice. The drink is served quickly and is quite refreshing. Then we get fish tacos made with locally caught grouper and slaw with a side of empanada. I choose conch and El opts for land crab. Everyone enjoys the lunch. We get back into the taxi and, coincidentally, head out to Playa Piniones which is where we were trying to get to yesterday when we aborted and headed to El's race early. The ride is about 15 minutes and brings us exactly what we were looking for. We each get a cup of mofongo which is basically mashed plantain and topped with some sort of stew. Our stew is shrimp prepared with garlic and white wine sauce (like scampi). The drink is coconut water direct from a fresh coconut. The mofongo is very tasty-better than I thought it would be and the three shrimp are good as well. The coconut water is not so much to my liking. It tastes like salt had been added, though I am assured none was and that coconut water does have a taste of salt- though in varying degrees of salinity. 

fresh coconut water and shrimp stew mofongo

As the end of the meal- they offer to cut the coconut for anyone who wants to scrape the meat with a spoon. It is not like dried, flaked coconut, but still better than the water that I just drank! We take some pictures and hear some stories from Paulina our guide. Her enthusiasm is infectious and she does make for an entertaining guide. The van takes us back to Old San Juan and we get dropped off at El Morro. We walk around the corner to a building that does not look like much from the outside, but has a large, empty courtyard. At one corner we find Don Ruiz coffee shop. It is a place that offers Puerto Rican grown coffee. The tour rests and enjoys lattes. Next, we walk down to our last stop on the tour which is called Hecho en Casa (home made/made in house) for ginger flan. Way better than I expect. The tour breaks from there and El and I head up to the cemetery near El Morro Fortress. Unfortunately, the cemetery closed at 3:00pm. We take the free circulator trolley to get off at the tourism information office again so that we will be near another bar that we had read about. We stay on the trolley for a while waiting for the stop, soon realizing that it has just made the entire circle without hitting our stop! We wind up at El Morro again and now that we know the route, we know where we want to jump off. That said, we get off near the pier and walk up to Fortaleza Street which seems to have a lot of food and drink options. We head for Barrachina which is one of two places who claim to have invented the pina colada. When you are in New Orleans you go to Antoine's where they invented Oysters Rockefeller and when you are in Puerto Rico you go to where they invented the pina colada, right? Well, though El likes hers, I am unconvinced. I have read (disappointingly) that they use a mix and add rum. Whatever. It tastes too sweet for my liking and not strong enough either. Nonetheless, we came, we drank, we left. I find a couple of places I wouldn't mind drinking at, but most don’t open until 8pm and being only around 4:30, I just need to pick our places carefully. We walk up to San Sebastian St. to El Patio de Sam. Their recommended dish is fried cheese balls. We get one order with a pitcher of sangria, catch up on our journals and discuss plans for the rest of the week. It is only 6pm and I am not sure if we will stay in Old San Juan for the rest of the evening or head back to Santurce and go more low key. The buses run until 11:30pm so, at this point, it could go either way. After finding an ATM we head to another bar on San Sebastian called La Taverna Lupulo for a beer. The beer selection is great and the music really to our liking. Sadly, no wifi, so this may limit our time here. Not that we can't find something to talk about while we are here, but if we can connect it does open up options and can be the difference between bar hopping and staying in one place all night. It is now 8:30pm and we are both full from all of the food and this beer isn't helping to lighten me up. Even though I could stay and explore this neighborhood all night, I am thinking that we might just call it a night and come back either tomorrow or Wednesday and try to work our way further down the block! One of the other options I would like to look into is the other food tour of Old San Juan. I was talking to the guide today about the options and if the stops are radically different, we just may do that later in the week too. The possibilities are limitless when we are on vacation!

El enjoying the coconut water in her first hammock rest ever!

As for Old San Juan, this place reminds me so much of our trip to The Azores a few years ago. It is a very walkable town with a pretty small area of only a few blocks paved with blue cobblestones. We walk along these streets as we call it an evening and walk back to catch an M3 bus back to the hostel. As we walk along Calle Paseo, I see three people sitting on a bench. Earlier today I know I saw an M3 bus on this street, so I asked the bench people where we can find a bus stop and surprisingly they tell us that this building they are sitting in front of the bus terminal! Nice. We go in and find the bus we need and wait for him to leave making his first stop inside the terminal. I confirm that he stops along Ponce de Leon Street. We take the bus and although I would have waited until we actually hit our cross street and then pulled the stop cord, he tells me that this is where we should get off. We get off the bus and start walking. I know exactly where we are in relation to our hostel (it is only 1 block down), but El does not recognize the neighborhood in the dark and for a moment, considering our surroundings, starts to question our decision to exit the bus. The amount of burned out buildings, graffiti riddled roll down gates over store fronts, vacant lots with the odd cinder block or shopping cart laying on its side, or the presumable prostitute exiting a car while adjusting her clothes makes us recognize the potential for problems, though we have not seen any menacing faces on the street. El Royalito is within eyesight and I point out to El that she knows where we are, even though it looks less savory in the dark than during the day. On our way to the hostel we stop in for our usual...a $1.50 can of Medalla light beer. As we arrive a rain shower passes through and we grab a seat inside. There aren't as many people tonight as in previous nights, but dominoes is still the focus for several patrons. We are well out of our element and straddling the comfort zone for sure. We only stay for one beer tonight and call it an evening. We head back to the hostel and tell them that we are interested in a ride to the rainforest. They say they will call in the morning for us. We head to bed.

TUESDAY MARCH 3

soaking in the sun

We wake around 8:00 and are out around 9:00. We both have the best sleep of the trip so far and wake somewhat refreshed. We tell the desk that the lack of hot water in the room is disappointing and that if there is something they can do, that it would be appreciated. Jess is on it! We sign up for another food tour on Thursday and today we will explore the community of Ocean Park and Isla Verde. We walk down De Diego to Luiza St. and our first stop is a café called Kamoli Kafe & Butik. A quirky little breakfast place with antique treadle style sewing machines for tables and pages freshly ripped out of magazines for placemats. Lots of juice bar offerings on the menu. I get 2 fried eggs served with some potatoes, multigrain bread and homemade pumpkin jam- which is a little weird, but edible. El echos my sentiments remarking that the coffee is very good here as well. Our breakfast runs $20 and we get some wifi time where El gets a good street map on her mobile, since most of our maps detail Old San Juan and Condado exclusively. After breakfast we walk down to the public beachfront. We have no real “gear” like blankets or swim suits, though I did grab my slippers so that I wouldn't have to walk in the sand in my sneakers and my rain jacket doubles as my blanket. I sit, listening to my iPod while El goes down to get her feet wet. We stay at the beach for about an hour. The beach is not my favorite place in the world, but we are in the tropics so I guess it is something that you do and I won’t keep her from it. We walk through Ocean Park which seems like two worlds. There is the small street that runs along the beach separated from the water by only sand and high priced beachfront real estate. Then there is Calle Luiza which is more of the business district. There are the shops that have been here for ages- like the metalworking shops or hair and nail places, but this is also an, I don’t want to say up and coming neighborhood, but a locals neighborhood that is attracting more and more business like trendy restaurants and boutiques serving not only the tourists, but the residents as well. That said, do you know who Jean-George is? Well, when someone said to us, "do you see that place? It is a stationary food truck and the chef was an executive chef for Jean-George for years before returning to open his own place", I knew that was going to be our lunch plan today. Tresbe is a yellow, metal box that reminds me of the stands where you buy french fries at the beach. It sits on the corner of Luiza and Las Palmas and the menu is small, but varied. My lunch is an octopus empanada with tamarind sauce, fish tacos with a pineapple slaw, a bowl of ceviche, and a glass of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. I tell you that you probably never had food truck food this good! I probably could have done with a little more spice in the ceviche, but the very cold fish with lime juice was really refreshing sitting in the shade on this hot afternoon. 

Tresbe

octopus empanadas

It is about 3:30 and we are kind of done with Ocean Park. Thinking that though, we don't need to leave, we may just wander along towards Santurce, maybe stopping for a beer or two along the way. While full from lunch, we start to think about dinner at another place we have read and heard about. It is called Jose Enrique and they do not take reservations. We hope that a Tuesday evening will be our chance to check it out.
We get a call from the hostel that we are striking out so far on a rainforest tour. One guide broke his leg and won’t be giving tours for a while. Another's vehicle is broken down, so he is out. One company said we were too short notice, while another asked us to leave a message and they would get back to us- which we did, but they haven’t. There is a tour company office in Old San Juan, so we can go tomorrow and try to sign up for Friday if we don't have something nailed down by then. On our way out of Ocean Park, El thinks that we should go to one of the Condado hotels and ask about their rainforest tour options since we have been striking out on that front. We walk to the Ambassador Hotel and Casino- bringing back the memories of my first gambling experience all those years ago. The concierge is at lunch, so we pass the time walking through the casino. Though not opposed to throwing a few bucks away, this place isn't exactly as I remember it. Of course, we are only talking 4:00 in the afternoon, but there is exactly one roulette table, exactly two blackjack tables, exactly zero craps tables, and about 500 slot machines to round out the options. Maybe they offer more games in the other casinos in the area, but I am not in need of playing games, so we just walk through until the concierge returns. One of the things I think is weird is that none of the slot machines accepts coins. So, even though there are nickel and penny slot machines, you have to insert either a bill or a casino card to play the game. I mean, it can be fun as you are walking through a casino to slip a couple of nickels in a slot and hope for the best, but in this case, you would have to insert a dollar bill, play your spin, get your receipt for 95 cents credit, take that receipt to the cash desk and have them cash you out. Obviously designed to get someone who wants to spend a nickel to spend a dollar, but in my case someone who wants to spend a nickel to spend zero, which is what I did. We meet the concierge who gives us the rainforest options of half day easy trip, ¾ day difficult hike, or full day excursion of half day easy trip and half day stop at Luquillo Beach- perfect! We sign up on the spot for the full day excursion leaving 9:00am tomorrow. We press on. There is a heavy metal bar in Santurce called La Respuesta that I would like to check out. The concierge is able to give us a printed map with the location on it and we are off. We walk back to Santurce and find the club. I wasn't sure if it is a bar that has bands or if it is a concert hall that serves beer. It turns out to be the latter. We find the place, but it is clearly closed at this hour. I take a couple of photos and we head up to a dinner spot that has had a couple of recommendations called Jose Enrique. The thing is that this place does not take reservations. It is a bit of a popular place for quality cuisine and we want to at least stop by to see what it is all about. We find it on Duffaut St. There is no sign and we did pass it the first time. 

Jose Enrique Restaurant with people waiting to get in

We walk in and ask for a table and are immediately seated. Our dinner is: a half carafe of white sangria, prawns in white wine garlic sauce, seared sea scallops on a bed of red lentil stew. Then for entrée we split the filet empanaodos (deep fried filet mignon) with a side of rice and beans and each order the salad appetizer to accompany the half of the entrée. Washed down with a glass of pinot noir. We both really enjoy our meal and by the time we leave they are up to an hour wait at the door. We pass on dessert and decide to just head to El Royalito for a can of Medalla light before heading back to the room. As we get back to the room it starts a brief downpour and we are glad to be in for the night. It is only 8:30pm now, but El's health gizmo tells her we walked 8 miles today, plus with the sun, we are exhausted and have an early day tomorrow for the rainforest. We will watch an episode of Jeopardy on YouTube and call it a night...because that's how we roll!

WEDNESDAY MARCH 4

Instead of the air conditioner, we have opted to sleep with a small fan running. It acts like enough white noise to block out most of the sounds coming from the other side of our door. We both got a mostly decent night's sleep and wake just before the alarm. Today is our trip to El Yunque (rainforest) and Luquillo Beach. The trip leaves from Ambassador Hotel on Ashford, so we plan accordingly. To meet the group around 9:00 we leave the hostel with plenty of time to get to the hotel and grab some breakfast on the way. The lobby of the hotel has a coffee cart and I get a hot chocolate and a muffin, while El runs across the street for a bowl of healthy granola, fruit and breakfast grains. We inhale the food waiting for the tour. It is a small group of only six of us and we are on the road punctually. First stop: El Yunque rainforest. On the way we have a very talkative driver who gives us some history and anecdotes. Our forest tour has four stops. The first is a lookout tower that gives a great bird's eye view of the surroundings. The second stop is a short hiking trail. 

waterfall in the rainforest

in the rainforest, overlooking the valley below

It only takes about a half hour and we walk along a trail while the guide points out some unique items in the forest. Next is a waterfall that makes for a picturesque backdrop for those getting their picture taken. The last, on the way out of the forest, we stop at a snack shack/gift shop to get some food before heading to the beach. At this point though, I remark that it is ironic that we are in the only rainforest that is part of the U.S. Park System and I have yet to see any rain! Luquillo is not really that far from the forest and we are there in no time. Having done the beach yesterday, I opt to sit in the shade while El stakes a spot in the sand to do her knitting. It is 1:15 and the driver says we will meet at 3:15 and head back. All of the hotel drops are in Condado but a drop off at the hostel in is not going to happen. Not sure at this point if we will go to Old San Juan again tonight.
Today, while the driver was talking to the group he mentioned mofongo. He then asked if everyone or anyone had tried mofongo and El and I were the only two that said yes. He asked where we had it and we told him Playa Piniones, to which he told the rest of the group that we were "real locals". Anyone who knows Playa Pinones knows where to get real food- he tells them! This is not the first time on this trip specifically that others have commented/complimented the way we travel. I mean the tourism we do, I don’t necessarily think of it as that adventurous. I mean we did not choose the hiking tour of the rainforest, but just the overview tour. We don’t do the ziplining or rappelling ecotourism. We aren't renting a car to visit other cities on the island. These are all things that people I think are adventurous do. However, we have met several people that will tell us that they have spent their whole vacation on the Condado or in Old San Juan. We met a group that had been in town for two days and eaten at the same place both nights- suggesting that we would absolutely LOVE the place. But, when we went for drinks, they were more show than substance (Barrachina). Not really impressed, we figured we would stick to the suggestions we had that were more inline with our tastes. While those that choose to hike to the peak of the rainforest, or El and I, or the ladies who probably choose the Olive Garden over other local options, the one thing we have in common is that we all will probably look back fondly on the time we spent in Puerto Rico. The driver drops us back at the Ambassador Hotel and we ask the desk for the bus that will take us direct to Old San Juan. The 21 or 53 and the stop is 2 blocks down. As we approach the stop we see the 53 pulling away. We sit and wait for the next one. We wait. And wait. And wait some more. We wait so long (probably 20 minutes) that a car comes and parks. The driver gets out and goes into the pharmacy. When she exits we are still there. She sees me looking down the street to see if another bus is forthcoming. She stops and says that the bus must be taking a while (since we are still here). We concur but tell her we are on vacation and as long as the route hasn't stopped for the night, we will be fine waiting for the next bus. She proposes that we get in her car and she would be willing to take us about half the distance to Old San Juan. We thank her, but politely decline, citing that half way wouldn't do much for us since we would still have to wait for the next bus and to put her out for that effort didn't seem to make much sense. "That is so kind of you to offer, but we are good to wait" we tell her. She stands and thinks for a moment and then says that her offer did sound like only half a job, and that she would be willing to take us all the way into Old San Juan. She gives us no time (or reason) to decline the offer and after her telling us at least two times that she is not crazy, we get in. As she sits in the driver’s seat, her door ajar, she is making sure that the front seat is cleared off for El. Then, she goes to pull her door shut to find a homeless man standing in the arc of the door and preventing it from closing. I begin to panic internally for a moment until he bends down to look into the car. Once his face is visible to her, instead of shooing him away, she says "Enrique! Como estas?" a brief verbal exchange ensues and she hands over of a couple of cigarettes to him. "Tell them I'm not crazy" she commands Enrique. He obliges and tells us what she wants us to hear. We set off on the couple mile journey from eastern Ashford Ave. to Old San Juan. Within moments we have almost all of  Danielle's life story that includes being born in North Arlington, NJ and growing up in Kearny (where my family is from). I will spare all of the details, but it was just a really fun, chance meeting, small world kind of ride. It only lasted 20 minutes or so, and true to her word she dropped us off at Plaza Colon. El is hungry and we stop at a tapas pace for sangria and patatas bravas. A quick bite sets us on our way. As we exit, we run into Paulina who was our food tour guide on Monday. We talk to her for a few minutes and head off to shop, walk and drink. She gives us a couple of 2 for 1 drink coupons that we promptly use on San Sebastian St. Our first stop is Nono's Bar where we each get a couple of pineapple and Don Q (rum). The 80's hair metal is flowing like the drinks- pretty much 50% of the good stuff and 50% of the stuff I don't like. The open front allows a gentle breeze making this a place I don’t mind relaxing in. As AC/DC comes on, we decide it won’t get any better than this and agree to leave after this song is over. Since it is getting dark now, we head up to the building where Don Ruiz Café is to take a photo of the lit up courtyard.

the courtyard at the Department of Culture. it is all open and the lights change color every few moments

We take a couple of photos. Both having had a little too much drink with not enough eat, we decide to head to El Jibarito for food. It reminds me of a cafeteria style place with wait service. I order sangria and a plantain tamale. El gets something called a Christmas dinner with pork ribs, rice, tamale and fried plantains. Of the locals I asked about this place, one person recommended it while the other said it was better in the past. Overall, we both agree with Trip Advisor: decent food with spotty service. My tamale is decent while the sangria is terrible (most likely made from a mix or syrup of some kind). Just dreadful. I like the rice as well. Afterwards we head to our last stop on San Sebastian for one last rum and pineapple juice at La Balcon above Nono. The drink is good, the music is terrible. We finish up and decide to call it a night. We walk back to the bus terminal knowing that tomorrow is another day that we will probably spend in Old San Juan again. This is definitely our kind of place. Of course when the bus brings us back, we stop at El Royalito for the usual. The ladies of the night looking as primped as always and the clientele as menacing as ever, and the place as seedy as last night. We finish our beers and head back to the hostel for the evening.

THURSDAY MARCH 5

walking along the city wall from Princesa to El Morro

Our only commitment we have today it the second food tour at 3pm in Old San Juan. We set no alarm and are out around 10am. We decide to walk back to Ocean Park to breakfast at Kamoli again. The relaxation factor is very high here and the food is good too. We ponder the idea of taking a day trip tomorrow to either Culebra or Vieques Islands, but it is looking a bit more complicated than we are willing to undertake on our last day in town. There do not seem to be any options from San Juan as all ferries to the islands go from the town of Fajardo which is an $80 taxi or car rental away. We will probably just do the Bacardi Factory tour, but keep our ears up for other options. We start off walking in the same direction from the hostel as we have the previous several days. As we walk along Ashford toward Ocean Park coincidentally the elusive trolley pulls up next to us. We lean in and ask the driver if he goes to Calle Luiza and he affirms. We get on with our bus fare in hand and he waves us on, telling us it is free! After a few minutes we are on Luiza and pull the cord for a stop. Little do we know that the stop is right in front of Kamoli! We could not have planned that better! We keep our eyes open for buses headed towards Old San Juan for when we are done- but they seem far between. After a breakfast that includes bacon pancakes we walk out of Kamoli and go to the closest bus stop. It is so hot, that after about 10 minutes we decide to walk down to De Diego to stand at a bus stop that sits across the street from another so that we could see if a bus was coming from either direction, doubling our chances at getting one- or so we think. As we stand in the shaded spot, a young man crosses the street and asks..."weren't you just waiting at the other bus stop?? Where are you trying to go?" He tells us to follow him to another stop for our best chance to get a bus to Old San Juan. As we walk we get most of his life story as well as the story of why buses run so infrequently. Mostly, it has to do with corruption he tells us. The buses travel the tourist routes infrequently so the taxis will get more fares. Also, he says, tourists do not take the bus, only the locals who work on the Condado do…and they don’t get out of work until much later. Once he realizes that we know our way around Condado and Santurce, he agrees that our best bet is probably to walk up to Ponce de Leon and take the most reliable M3 bus to Old San Juan. This is what we do. With all of the walking and waiting, it takes us 1½ hours to get from Kamoli to the bus stop on Ponce de Leon. It then takes less than 5 minutes for the M3 to arrive and take us to Old San Juan. We take the bus to the terminal and walk along the pier. There are three cruise ships in port today and the piers are just overrun with tourists. We walk into CVS to get a bottle of water and find ourselves in line with many boat people buying their souvenirs (at a pharmacy??). While I am happy that people who take cruises are able to get out and see another art of the world, at the same time I am conflicted by the amount of business that caters to the people getting off the boats. When you arrive to San Juan Bay by boat, the first thing you see is Senor Frogs…and it is packed. I cannot help but think that that is NOT the way I want to travel. I, for one, don’t want to go to Paris to eat McDonald’s. I don’t want the duration of my stay in any foreign land to be limited to American chain restaurants and the impulse rack at CVS. We pass this mobscene by and start to follow a self guided walking tour along the Princesa promenade. We look at the statues and fountains and take some pictures of the city wall. We even go to see the jail cells that are still standing from the time when they used to imprison people outside of the walls of the city. We continue on following the course of the wall towards El Morro eventually entering the city through the last standing city gate. As we sit in a shaded resting spot, we overhear a woman telling another couple about the courtyard in El Convento Hotel. This is an old convent that has been converted to a luxury hotel. As we enter through the gate we see the hotel on the left and decide to go in and see what she was talking about. We make our way into the courtyard which has been converted to the restaurant and café. We each get a coffee and relax waiting for our tour to begin a few blocks away. The rooms in this hotel are more than $300 per night, yet the coffees are only $3.50. We head down to meet our food tour for the day. After a brief introduction and plan we start our 6 stop walking tour. First, is a café for a cup of coffee and a Mallorca sandwich which is a grilled ham and cheese on sweet bread sprinkled with powdered sugar. 

Mallorca finger sandwich with a Puerto Rican latte

The bread was good, the ham and cheese was good. The combo, not so much. The coffee remains good. Next stop is a popsicle shop that makes all of their popsicles in house using as many local ingredients as possible. With offerings like pineapple and banana- strawberry, I go with the pistachio (probably not locally grown nuts) which is very good- though an odd order since we haven’t had any main course yet. We eat our popsicles while standing in a shady public square and getting some local history from the guide. Next stop is an appetizer stop. We are served a deep fried plantain and beef empanada that is a little overcooked for my liking. Tasted OK, but the over frying makes it a little tough. They also serve us a single bite of grouper ceviche with a cube of avocado. Very tasty. Next stop is the main course. This place lets you make your own mofongo. They serve you a mortar with some butter and sautéed garlic, and then filled with fried plantain. You then take a pestle and gently mash the ingredients together to make a paste (like mashed potatoes). 

mashing our mofongo

They serve us a plate with rice and beans and a dish of stewed chicken. The idea is to put the chicken on the mofongo and have a side of rice and beans. The taste is good. We are all now pretty full and the next stop is dessert. We go to Cortes’ Chocolate Shop. This is a Puerto Rican family building a chocolate empire that they expect will eventually be made of 100% Puerto Rican grown cacao. Today, much of it is grown on other Caribbean islands and processed here. We start with a slice of cheddar cheese and a square of milk chocolate. We are also served a cup of hot chocolate. The idea is to dip the cheese and chocolate together into the hot drink and eat. The chocolate is melting too quickly for my interest in dunking it so I eat the combination without the dunk. The cheese is not a sharp variety and is a little on the warm side making it a little soft and a touch oily. My mouth gets the consistency of the chocolate and cheese, but I only taste the chocolate. The hot chocolate is very good and I would drink it quick if it wasn't so hot. As I sip and wait for it to cool down, we are served fresh fried churros to dip in the drink. The churros are hotter than the drink and make a lovely combination. I love churros as long as there is a sink nearby to wash my hands! The next and last stop of the tour is a pina colada at the Mezzanine Bar on Calle de Sol. The guide gives us a little history on rum and explains the difference between the younger and the older varieties. (young/white is for mixing, old/darker is aged for sipping). We drink our pina coladas and say goodbye to our guide. As the tour disbands El and I head upstairs to the third level of the place. They have a bar called Alfresco which is an open air terrace. It is happy hour and they have a selection of $4 wines by the glass. No sooner do we start drinking our wine, when a manager comes to tell us it is now 6pm and that at 6:40 we will need to move inside to make room for a private party who have reserved the deck. Instead of moving inside at 6:40, we pay and head up to San Sebastian where there are several bars and eateries. We are pretty full from the food tour and we opt to hold off on drinking for a while due to fullness. I nurse one beer at Taberna Lupulo just so I don’t feel weird sitting at a table with nothing served. The music is not as strong as the other night when we were here. The beer selection is great, though they have no wifi. I catch up on the journal and El knits. There are ceiling fans and the 10 foot doors are open to the street creating a comfortable breeze. This is still my kind of place. Our adventure just in finding a bus to get here today pushed a lot of our sightseeing plans off until tomorrow. It is only 7:30, but we are both pretty beat and will probably call it a night after this beer. The more I think about the fact that we are coming back to Old San Juan tomorrow, the more I begin to miss the vacations when we would do one city for three days and then go to a completely different city for three more days- deciding if we would want to go back to either of them again. This trip we are spending 6 nights in one city. Though we got out of the city yesterday, for the most part we are doing one city for the week. I don’t want to make it sound like we are scraping the proverbial barrel, but I feel like any more time we spend in Old San Juan will be seeing stuff that I would be OK missing. We will decide tomorrow. That said, I really like this town and there are a lot of things about it that I appreciate- though I will leave feeling that there would be no reason for us to ever need to come back here without the expectation of exploring more of the island and, at this point in my life, I feel like I would rather spend a vacation on Jamaica or Aruba than going to Ponce or Mayaguez. Time will tell I suppose. We finish our beer here and head back to El Royalito for our Medalla Light nightcap and then to the hostel for the night.

FRIDAY MARCH 6

Today is our last full day in San Juan. Again, no alarm, but not looking to get too late of a start. Because of the water situation in the room, we both shower in the common room at the hostel. It is a single bathroom with shower stall, so it is private, and at least there is warm water. Not sure where we want breakfast, we decide to text Paulina (our food tour guide from Monday) to ask for recommendations. She gets back to us with either Caficultura or Cortes' Chocolate. Having been to both already, we make a decision based on what we have already had and choose Caficultura. From the hostel we grab the M3 to the terminal in Old San Juan which is just blocks away from the café. I get mocha pancakes (made with espresso infused buttermilk) and a latte. The breakfast is really good. For our first tourist stop today we decide on the cemetery near El Morro. We grab the trolley and take it to the entrance (which looks like you are walking into an underground parking lot) and walk through the cemetery. 

I always love these grave sculptures

cemetery overlooking the sea

I must admit that I have seen some of the world’s most impressive cemeteries and what makes this one special is not the sculptures (which everyone will tell you it is), but the view overlooking the ocean. While we are there, somehow some school kids made it into the cemetery and acted in quite a disrespectful manner. They were loud and obnoxious and clearly unsupervised. We tried to distance ourselves from them. We are able to get some photos of the sculptures and view. When the cemetery was founded and the first people interred there, there was still quit a lot of mystery surrounding death (well more mystery than today) and they buried their dead on the outside of the wall as a buffer between invading forces and the residents. There was also something about giving the dead access to the ocean in the afterlife, but I missed that part of the explanation. After the cemetery, which isn't all that big, we walk up to El Morro. The $5 entrance fee to the fort is good for seven days in both El Morro and San Cristobel. There is not really much to see inside the fort and after a quick once-through I opt to sit in the shade rather than the sun. It is getting hot and I take to the chapel to journal. El keeps on inside the fort taking photos including a picturesque vista from the ladies restroom. There are a lot of school kids taking tours of the fort today, so the sound level is a little more than I am interested in. El wants to buy some Puerto Rican coffee, so after the fort we will walk down to Don Ruiz coffee shop for a cup and a bag of coffee. We sit in the air conditioned shop sipping our iced coffees and getting ready to head down to a spice shop we had seen yesterday on tour food tour and then to San Christobel. We are able to get online and get dinner reservations at Santaella for 5:30 tonight. I am hoping to be able to come back to Old San Juan for some bar hopping afterwards. We head over to San Cristobal to take advantage of having paid the entrance fee at El Morro. The setup is pretty similar with a couple more tunnels. We don’t stay too long and decide to head back to the hostel to get ready for dinner. Even though it is about 80 degrees out I still think I will put on some long pants for this dinner. The menu looks great and I am excited to try it.  After changing at the hostel, we take the city bus to Santaella. 

the first thing we were served at Santaella, a glass of water

It is only a 5 minute ride and a one minute walk from there. On the way we run into the guy who tried to help us yesterday getting to Old San Juan from Ocean Park. We chit-chat for a few minutes and press on. We arrive to the restaurant a couple of minutes early for our 5:30 reservation, but they seat us immediately. For my first course I get ahi tuna tacos with chipotle oil served on top of guacamole. It is really tasty. El starts with croquettes with mushroom and brie and she too thinks they are great. Next up is a salad of organic tomatoes with parmesan cheese ice cream. The ice cream is served as a scoop and tastes more like soft serve vanilla ice cream than parmesan- but it does go well with the tomatoes. For my entrée I get a roasted poussin stuffed with sausage and Mallorca bread on a bed of red and yellow peppers in a sherry cream sauce. It too was tasty- though the chicken was a little bit difficult to navigate with the blunt knife I was given. There were several flavors going on in the dish that worked well by themselves, but didn't work as well together. All in all I was happy with the food. Some of the extraneous situations, though, I was not as impressed with. We arrived just before 5:30 and there are only two other parties seated at that time- meaning there are about 15 empty tables in the room. The very next party of two arrives for their 5:30 reservation and are seated- right next to us. It was like being the only people in the movie theater and having someone sit right next to you. There was plenty of room and I know the room was going to fill eventually and we would need to be sitting next to someone, but really? Next...assholes on their cell phones. Hang it up! If someone calls, let it go to voicemail! There are so very few circumstances that I can think of why someone needs to be on their telephone at the dinner table in a restaurant. It is rude to the people in your party and to the other people in the room. Pay attention to the here and now and use the phone after dinner. Lastly, when we arrived the music in the room was more of a soft piano, but as the place filled up they switched it over to Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra standards, but at a volume not conducive to the size of this place. In fact, on the way out I stopped at the men’s room where the music was also playing and it was so loud, I thought someone may have forgotten to adjust the volume in there! We take the bus back to the hostel, change our clothes, and pick up our barhopping gear, walk back to the bus stop and bus back into Old San Juan for our last night in town. Our first stop is La Taberna Lupulo again. They will have a DJ starting at 9:30, so we will be sure to be out well before then. Also, El brings her camera hoping to get some good night shots of the guard towers on the fort, so we will probably head there before our next drinking stop. The beer selection at this place is great, but I think El wants to switch to wine and wouldn't you know it, there is a wine bar across the street. We walk over to El Morro which is closed, but lit up at night. El works her magic with the camera and we have an evening photo session that lasts the better part of an hour. We walk back over the San Sebastian to try the Factoria Wine Bar. This place is split into three different bar rooms. The first is a trendy kind of bar where the bartenders are wearing matching hats and vests and working in sync that it is like watching a show just to get drinks made. The second room is a cocktail bar that is going for the upscale clientele. The bartenders are wearing bow ties and making manhattans and martinis.  El goes with a glass of rosé and I, cava. The bill is a little more than I expect for 2 single glasses of wine. We peek into the third room (which was probably more our speed), but at this point it is too late. We grab our bags and head out. Our last stop is at a bar on San Sebastian that is empty while all others are teaming with customers. The drinks are cheaper, the music just as shitty, and the bartender just as nice as the other places. They have no wifi, but I journal while El knits for the duration of one pineapple and rum. It is 10:15 and though the night is still young, it is close to the end for us. We will head back to El Royalito for the last time and have our usual Medallas to cap off the evening. I wouldn't have asked for it to have gone down any other way.

a guard tower at El Morro at night

SATURDAY MARCH 7

Our flight does not leave until 5:30 this evening, so we do have most of a day to kill. We have found on days that the time does get away from us sometimes- you think, "hey, we have 8 hours until we have to do something" (like dinner reservations). Then before you know it, you are like “hey, we need to get a move on if we are going to make this commitment!” So, as we get up around 8:30 and it seems like we have hours upon hours until we need to call the taxi, I also know it won’t feel that long. We have done Old San Juan so many times on this trip that we are looking to try something a little different for our last morning. We have decided against taking the Bacardi factory tour, but think that we would like to take the ferry from Old San Juan pier #2 to Catuna- which is how you get to the Bacardi factory. As you get off the ferry there is a fleet of taxis waiting to whisk you around the corner to Bacardi for $20- for all the cruise ship people who do not know the difference. We, on the other hand are not going to Bacardi and can now see why the taxis expected us to...at first glance there is nothing to do here besides Bacardi! We walk along the town streets looking for some place to get coffee and light breakfast fare. We see a couple of closed up bars and that is about it. We walk to the end of the street where we can either turn left or right. We go left just to walk along the waterfront (expecting that if we were to find a café, it would probably be near the water). To no avail, we walk along the water all the way back to the ferry terminal that we just came from. Across the street we see a local food place with an old lady selling some turnovers, fritters, and other assorted fried things. If she has coffee, we will find something to eat here and make this our last meal on the island. Sadly, she has no coffee. We were already compromising with the food, there would be no compromise on food and drink. We keep walking to a bar that is like a family kind of place serving lunches and coffee (as well as liquor). We get two coffees and drink them on the porch. While El checks Yelp for some other food options in the area, I look back on our trip comparing the list of things that I thought we could do and checking off what we did vs. what we didn't have time to do. I see something on the list called La Placita and El remembers hearing that name associated with the mercado which is like a farmers market in Santurce and a lot of local restaurants (like Santaella and Jose Enrique) get some of their ingredients. With Yelp not turning up anything promising, we decide to head back to the ferry and go to the mercado (only a few blocks from the hostel) and see what we can find. We meet some more characters on the bus and they tell us exactly where to get off on Ponce de Leon. The market is only a couple of blocks down, easy to find, smaller than we thought, but what is there does look like fresh produce. There is no shortage of eateries and bars surrounding the market building- from high end restaurants to divey bars and everything in between. We walk around the block looking into all of them. Of all the places, we don’t see one that appears to be specifically breakfast fare. We move to plan B and look for a lunch place. There is a sign ahead that has the word "lechón" which is roasted suckling pig. 

mmmm, roast pork baking under heat lamps in the midday sun...very tasty

There is a display case on the sidewalk under the front awning. It has Plexiglas sliding doors so you can see inside. There are three things in the box. Hunks of roast pork, some, what appear to be blood sausages, and a machete. We walk into the room and order two lunches. Mine is roast pork, rice and beans, and a Medalla light beer. El's is similar. The food is simple and good and runs $17 for the full lunch for two. We walk back to the hostel, making a brief stop at a bus stop to give two women waiting for the M3 my prepaid bus card. I hand the card to one and tell her to buy hers and the other young lady's bus fare. There are a couple more dollars on it and I can’t use it. We get back to the hostel and change our clothes from tropical to NYC compliant- long pants and long shirts. Once we get into NYC we will have to readjust again- this is just to get us from the airport to midtown where our winter coats await us. The guys at the hostel call us a taxi and we are taken on our first step back to reality.

leaving the island of pineapple and rum until the next time

As we leave the island I am trying to sum up my feelings on this vacation. This has been a particularly brutal winter for us temperature wise and the heat, while a little more than I usually find comfortable, not one soul heard a peep of complaint out of me. We were able to pack so much into this week that I really can get impressed with ourselves sometimes. One thing that I have known all along is that El and I travel very well together and I think that adds to our mutual contentment on the trips we take.  We have had a couple of conversations this week about traveling, ours and others'. For example, when we were on our Spoon Food tour, one of the other tour takers told us that we sounded well traveled. Then, when we went to the rainforest, one of the ladies also told us that it sounded like we travel to a lot of places. I guess it is one of those things that adds up, like a collection. You start off with a couple of ceramic turtles and pick up another every couple of months at an antique shop or flea market and you always think of your little collection as just that, little. Until one day a friend comes to visit and tells you your turtle collection is huge and you take that moment to mentally reevaluate your collection and say "though I still want more, I guess my collection isn't so small anymore." I still have those people in my life whose bookshelf of traveling guides is much bigger than ours, but I think it is time for me to start admitting that we do travel a lot and need to continue to expand our collection of guidebooks.
This morning I asked El if she felt that she needed to come back here again. As in did we see everything we wanted to or are we leaving thinking that we could take another trip here to see what we did not do or see this time around. She replied with the answer, that we do not need to come back to see things we missed, but that she would come back to see some of the same stuff again. I say, there is plenty more Caribbean to see and we can check this island off our list. Been there. Done that. Have the guidebook on the bookshelf. As we leave, I look back to the list I made of things to see and do that before we arrived seemed like an impossibly big list, but that seems to become way more manageable as you get more familiar with the layout of the city. From our first night exploring the neighborhood of the hostel and Condado to our final morning eating lunch at a place that sees way fewer tourists than most any other spot we have been to on this trip. We learn about new things along the way (asking tour guides and other travelers alike for recommendations) and stumble upon a few gems of our own. Not just on this trip, but all of them, and that is why I love travelling with El. 

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