Hello, my friends! Oh my, it’s already October, which means it’s autumn! You know what, though? I’m going to hold onto the last taste of summer by sharing M. Cheesemonger’s and my recent trip to Puerto Rico (this week) and Miami (next)!
This was our first visit to this part of the world. For some reason, M. Cheesemonger and I don’t do a lot of beach-focused, tropical vacations! Maybe that will change, though. We absolutely loved Puerto Rico, and would definitely want to visit again. Here’s how our trip happened, including an unexpected twist. I’ve included a list of our favorite spots at the end.
We arrived in San Juan before noon, so we had some time to wander the old town to take in the sun and rain, brightly painted buildings, numerous local cats, and food. We went straight for the mofongo, a garlic-infused, Puerto Rican staple made of mashed plantains that is often topped with meat or seafood. Our first stop, and only real tourist trap, was Barrachina, a lively bar and restaurant (well, I assume it’s lively in the evenings) where the piña colada was created. We were pretty tired from our red-eye flight, and so turned in early to take on bigger adventures the following day.
We pulled ourselves out of bed early to rent a car at one of the large hotels close to the airport. Breakfast was found at a popular local joint called La Pradera that hummed with the sound of people grabbing a bite before work. There, I discovered the magic of the Puerto Rican Mallorca: a hot breakfast sandwich made with sweet rolls, filled with egg, cheese, bacon, and ham, served with a dusting of powdered sugar. GENIUS. I couldn’t eat enough of these during our visit!
We spent the morning in the El Yunque National Forest, a rainforest. With Zika in mind, I generously sprayed myself with bug spray before we headed off to see the Yokahú observation tower and the La Mina trail leading to an idyllic waterfall and bathing spot. Along the trail, we saw orchids, air plants, lizards, and even a mongoose (definitely stay away from them, though, since they can carry rabies).
Since we were out by some of the prettiest beaches on the island, we had to stop to visit. We had lunch at La Parrilla, where M. Cheesemonger enjoyed maybe the favorite fish dish of his life: fresh grouper in butter. So fresh, so simple, so delicious. The lobster pastelillos (turnovers) quickly won me over. From the restaurant’s open-air patio, the brilliant aqua sea called to us, so as soon as lunch was complete, we rushed to put on our bathing suits and get our feet wet. Amazingly, the beach was practically empty, so we could float in the bathtub warm, azure waves in peace. That evening, we found another excellent restaurant in old town San Juan, Pirilo, serving up small plates, pizza, and lots of specialty beer.
It was my birthday! We planned to visit a museum or two before heading off to the west side of the island, so we started with the forts along the edges of the old city— the Castillo San Cristobal and el Morro. There, we learned about the role this island played throughout history was we explored the structures and magnificent views. Afterward, we visited the Museo de las Américas, which I enjoyed immensely. Just as we were visiting the last exhibit room, though, all of the lights suddenly went out. M. Cheesemonger and I quickly made our way to the outdoor hallway and waited for the lights to turn back on. Several minutes later, a museum employee said they weren’t sure when they’d get electricity again, and offered a refund for our visit. We declined, and made our way to back to our apartment. The power was out everywhere in San Juan. When we reached home, we couldn’t access our building because it was locked with an electronic keypad. M. Cheesemonger had thought it safer to leave the keys in a lockbox upstairs. Bad luck!
We made for a couple local restaurants to find a place to wait it out, only to find they were closed because of the outage. Finally, we found one bar that was still open (but still out of power). There, it was confirmed the power outage affected the entire island. Rumors of sabotage were swirling, but as far as I know, have never been confirmed. The island has been in a recession since 2006, and public debt is piling high. The island’s infrastructure is not exactly up-to-date, and I have read that locals are increasingly frustrated—hence the sabotage rumors. What I do know is that a fire at one of the power stations downed two transmission lines, which led to the system shutdown. I opted for a mojito in the hopes that the electricity would return by the time it was gone. The island would be out of power for three days.
Luckily, we still had some cell phone power, and were able to coordinate with the landlord to open the main gate. We stopped by the grocery store to grab local cheese, bread, meat, and candles before hunkering down on our rooftop terrace. The local cheese, called Ausubal, was made by Vaca Negra in Hatillo, PR. This semi-hard cheese, made of cow’s milk, had a balanced hay and earth flavor and slightly granular mouthfeel. It was at once familiar—reminiscent of Emmenthaler—and unknown—with tropical fruit notes. I wish I had gotten a wedge of other Vaca Negra cheeses.
Night fell, and we took to watching the activity around our block from above. The police strengthened their presence around the governor’s mansion, traffic moved at a sluggish pace in the absence of streetlights and dark, narrow streets. Music played on rooftops. A large cruise ship shone brilliantly in the harbor and put on a fireworks display later that night. We had actually lost running water before the power outage, so to stock up, M. Cheesemonger filled gallon jugs at an open apartment downstairs that was for sale and open to visitors. What a birthday that was.
The next morning, after quickly scanning through news reports about the power outage, we decided to leave for Miami. M. Cheesemonger wasn’t confident that the power would return the next day (he was right), and we didn’t want to find ourselves without any means of communication when our phones eventually died. We used the last of our phone power to call for a cab and change our plane tickets, and then managed to get ourselves checked in manually at the airline counter. By the time we touched down in Miami, I was ready for some real relaxing.
Alas, Puerto Rico, it was a short such a short trip! I would have loved to visit the observatory, Ponce, the west coast, your other museums . . . M. Cheesemonger and I enjoyed ourselves immensely.
Here are the places we loved in PR during our short stay!
Deaverdura: a small, family-owned place with simple, good food. You can get fresh coconut, and then enjoy whatever daily specials are being served. Calle Sol 200, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901
Pirilo: The upstairs part is gorgeous and so spacious! There’s a large beer selection—currently, following popular taste, there are many IPAs available. We got a selection of tapas, and enjoyed every part of our meal here. Calle Fortaleza 201-2, Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901 La Parrilla: A meal practically on the sand of one of the bluest beaches I’ve ever seen. The seafood is fresh, the portions are generous. We’ll be back. Luquillo Beach, Kiosk 2, Luquillo, Puerto Rico 00773
La Pradera: This place is perfect—no frills, simple, good food. Portions aren’t huge, but it’s so cheap, you can get seconds if you’re really hungry. I loved it, and it’s clear that locals do, too. Ponce de Leon Avenue, Caribbean Office Plaza, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00926
El Yunque National Forest: You can spend as little or as much time as you’d like outside here, and still have a wonderful time. There are picnic areas, and folks selling snacks and souvenirs in the park (for better or for worse). We rented a car to drive to the forest, but I’m sure there are tour options available.
El Museo de las Américas: This thoughtful little museum shows us the native populations of the Americas, the history of Puerto Rico, and the island’s cultural influences. A great way to beat the sun, and also appreciate island life. Adult admission: $6.00. Children, students, seniors: $4.00. Calle Beneficencia, San Juan, 00926, Puerto Rico
US National Historic Sites: The Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) and the Castillo San Cristóbal. These imposing structures guarding San Juan are a must-see in Puerto Rico! They are within walking distance of each other, but I think there are little shuttles between the two as well. Maintained by the National Park Service. Admission: $5.00 for both sites. Children 15 and under: free. Old San Juan.
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