Since Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico has been on my list of places to re-visit; I had been to the island many times before for work and pleasure. When my west coast bestie mentioned that she had never been to Puerto Rico, the decision was done, we had a destination for this year’s annual trip. The two biggest surprise takeaways were the cleanliness of the island and the beautiful beach next to San Juan’s airport. (Headed to the islands off the mainland? Click for information on the islands of Vieques and Culebra )
OLD SAN JUAN – RINCON – ISLA VERDE
We flew into SJU and took a cab to the old city. ($30 with tip) We stayed at the Hotel Milano. ($143/ 2 beds) I picked this place for two reasons, one it was in a great location and two it was one of few places that had two beds in a room, which didn’t cost a fortune. The hotel is old but clean and it is family owned. The restaurant on the roof, Punto de Vista, is so yummy that unless you get there early you will be waiting for an open- table.
The old city looked new with the buildings displaying their vibrant colored facades and the clean narrow cobble stoned streets. The one thing we continued to remark on during our trip was the island’s cleanliest.
With the Fort, museums, restaurants, shops, bars and music Old San Juan is worth at least a couple of days on the itinerary. Castillo San Cristobal, the biggest European fortification in the Americas, costs $7 to enter. When you walk to cemetery you will see a beautiful green park area butted up to the cliff with the blue of the sea just beyond. It’s a great place to fly a kite, which can be purchased from the local vendor, or just relax.
La Placita is a must when in San Juan. It is the historic marketplace in the Santurce neighborhood where the nightly mix of locals and tourists turn this area into a huge block party. There are plenty of places to choose from for dinner and drinks.
For your morning pick me up stop in Mallorca for coffee. It is a local diner frozen in time. This 1950’s diner can be found at 300 Plaza San Francisco.
We rented a car at the Sheraton in Old San Juan just across from the port. It cost us about an extra $30 in city fees but we didn’t have to worry about parking and it was worth the convenience. After 6 days we retuned the little KIA that could at SJU. (Hertz $261)
Our main destination was Rincon, the town that surfers from around the world put on the map. It is located in the northwest of the island, about a three-hour drive from San Juan. Since we had nothing but time we decided to take the long way, around the island, to Rincon.
Time and the Pork Highway had us on route 184 to Guavate. This town is known for its dozens of places, right off the highway, serving pig from the spits. Guavate is about 30 miles South of San Juan, if you’re a meat-lover and you find yourself in the capital it is worth a daytrip. (PR-52 south when you near Cayey, exit 32 there will be a Guavate sign, left up the mountain PR-182 at KM 27 you will start seeing places to eat)
We continued to follow the tourist map south. The drive through central Puerto Rico was a visual pleasure. It is an easy drive on good roads with mountain views and landscape that went from deep green to arid brown.
We took a quick detour into the small fishing village of La Parguera down on the coast. Here you can rent a boat for $50 and take a tour of the mangrove canals and snorkel in the clear blue water. This is also the area where one of several Bioluminescent Bays can be found. You can never go wrong with setting time aside for a night kayak or swim in a Bio Bay no matter where you find one.
Just an hour up the road from the mangroves and Bio Bay, heading north, is Rincon.
GENERAL: A car is key here. The town is spread out with hills separating the different areas. If you would like to surf when you are there make sure you check the season because when I was there, in May, the ocean could be mistaken for a lake. I always travel with a mask and snorkel and I was glad I packed them for this trip.
We stayed in the Sandy Beach area for four nights and it had just enough places to eat and drink that we didn’t need to move the car after the sun went down.
Casa Verde Hotel was our first stop. During low season, when we arrived, the prices are discounted and the crowds are gone. The hotel has everything you could want and things you want but didn’t realize it until you heard they were available. This includes a decent parking lot, beach towels, beach chairs, umbrellas and boogie boards free of charge for hotel guests.
The Sandy Beach Café is located in the hotel and it is worth a visit even if you are not staying here. If you are originally from the Philadelphia/South Jersey area the menu includes a taste of home, Taylor Pork Rolls and Cheese Steaks. The owners Mitch and Maria serve a variety of tasty food and are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
BEACHES: There are so many that we didn’t make it to all of them. We loaded up the hotel-borrowed towels, chairs and umbrella and visited as many beaches that fit into our daily whim.
Sandy Beach: During season I am told this is a great place to surf or just sit on this long stretch of sand and watch the surfers. The ocean was flat when we were there so renting a paddleboard from the guy in the parking lot ($25 for 2 hours) was the appropriate board choice for the conditions. (See Restaurants/Bars Below)
Steps Beach: Just past the cow pastures with the ocean view you will see a street going downhill to the beach. Cars can usually be seen lining the road down to the beach. This is where you want to go with your mask and snorkel. If you didn’t bring them don’t worry you can rent snorkeling gear on the beach. ($10 an hour) Underwater you will see plenty of coral (brain, sea fan, elk) and enough colorful fish to make this marine park a good beach to park yourself for the day. There is also a food stand on the beach.
Domes Beach: This beach is just past the lighthouse. It is named for the Dome you will see on the road, an old nuclear reactor plant no longer operational.
Maria’s Beach: Apparently this beach has good surf during the season but off-season it wasn’t very impressive. As I mentioned above I was so surprised at how clean I found the entire country yet this beach was the dirtiest. (Still pretty good in comparison) There is a swing on the beach, which made for a nice photo-op for one young lady. What I liked about this place was the beach view from the stool at Calypsos, a bar and grill.
SANDY BEACH: RESTAURANTS/ BARS:
Sandy Beach Café: Mentioned above is worth a visit tell Mitch I sent you.
Kahuna Burger and Grill: Is just across the street and as its name mentions it is the place to go for a burger. The chicken quesadilla was pretty yummy too. The bar has the music pumping at night and attracts a crowd of locals.
Tamboo Seaside Grill: It is also a stone’s throw from Casa Verde Hotel and the others in the area. It is a place that would be the perfect tourist trap but the food, drinks and ambiance are so good that it is a local favorite too. The restaurant sits out right over the water. The first tacos were outstanding.
Pool Bar Sushi: It has a pool and a bar and a restaurant that serves sushi so it has been aptly named. The sushi was delicious. They have a big screen over the pool where they play surf movies.
Café 2 Go: The two “food trucks” that sit on route 413 are where the locals stop before they start their morning. The staff is friendly, coffee is strong and the food, including breakfast sandwiches and Acari bowls, is excellent.
San Juan Airport / Beach:
Isla Verde Beach: Watching the clear blue waves from the soft white sand makes you forget that an airport is just down the road. This beach is spectacular. Hotels in the area are pricey but it is worth a night or two. The beach is ideal for a long walk or water sports. You don’t need a car once you arrive because there are many restaurants in walking distance.