On any given day, I could dole out a list of places I’d like to visit and prior to last month, Puerto Rico wasn’t on it. It’s not that I had anything against the island — I simply knew very little about it. The oddball connotations I had with Puerto Rico were: West Side Story(!?), birthplace to J. Lo and Ricky Martin, and cruise ship port. Luckily, my travel “To Go” list is easily expandable, as is my willingness to learn! When my husband booked a job there in May, I figured it was the perfect opportunity to discover more about this United States territory.
Founded by Christopher Columbus in 1493, Puerto Rico is comprised of Spanish, African and indigenous Taino cultural influences with a heavy dose of American colonization. It’s an easy destination for US travelers as there’s no need for a passport, most everyone speaks English, the dollar is accepted, cell phones work as they do back home and there’s a Walgreens (or Walmart, McDonalds, KFC, CVS, etc.) every so many miles. Luckily, for all of the interspersed American-isms, there are plenty of areas that still feel foreign. And on a positive note, it was a comfort that driving there was more like The States than say Mexico or India!
Generally when we accompany my husband on his photo shoots, we don’t have the luxury of picking our own hotels. While most of his jobs are usually at nice resorts, they aren’t always the character-driven places that I would have painstakingly chosen. Luckily, our accommodation at the historic El Conquistador Hotel was pretty good. For what it lacked in decent dining and perhaps dated surroundings, it completely made up for itself with its private Palomino Island. A short, 8 minute ferry ride whisks guests away to one of the prettiest stretches of beach I’d seen in a long time. (Sidenote: Palomino and the tiny, neighboring Palominito Island (seen in the distance above + below) made appearances in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.)
While my daughter snorkeled and I floated my 7 months pregnant body through heaven, my son was enthralled with wrangling iguanas, lizards, geckos, snails, mollusks and hermit crabs. My sincere apologies to the various reptile families that were displaced and/or disrupted because of him.
When we weren’t lounging beachside (or at the hotel’s Coqui Waterpark), we tried to explore other parts of the island. Just outside of Fajardo, in the Luquillo Mountains, is the only national tropical rain forest, El Yunque. We spent several hours hiking through it one day. On a funny note, I’d read somewhere that Puerto Ricans “don’t really like to walk or get their shoes dirty”, so the whole park has a series of paved hiking trails. It wasn’t the most spectacular rainforest I’ve ever been to, but it was nice to be amidst the greenery and out of the sun for an afternoon.
As far as dining in Puerto Rico is concerned, there seemed to be three main options: very traditional Puerto Rican fare, American fast food chains and a handful of modern and trendy restaurants (mostly found in San Juan). I played it pretty safe, as I wasn’t feeling too adventurous this late in my pregnancy. Sadly, it wasn’t until our last two days that we ate some really good food. If you find yourself in the Fajardo area, I’d highly recommend Pasion por el Fogon. The children and I had a fantastic meal there on our last night at the El Con.
And for a little cultural integration, we stopped at the “Luquillo Kioskos” for some authentic street food on our way to Old San Juan. We had driven past them several times and I’m glad we took the time to visit. They’re a series of 60 dilapidated kiosks that serve food and drinks as well as sell souvenirs and trinkets. They look a bit dodgy by day, but come dusk, they are packed with people and boasting loud music you can hear from the road. I didn’t realize they butted up to a public beach, until I wandered out the backside of one of the kiosks and saw a massive string of cars, wave runners and beach-goers lined up all down the coast.
As I’ve said before, I have a tendency to visit a place once and then scratch it off my list as “DONE.” However, I don’t feel like I saw everything I wanted to in Puerto Rico. Some of this was due in part to being so pregnant. Here’s what we missed:
I would have liked to visit Bio Bay with it’s luminescent waters, but kayaking in the dark with two children and an enormous belly didn’t sound so appealing! We also tried to take the ferry to Culebra Island to visit Flamenco Beach, supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Unfortunately, the public ferry system in PR was akin to a DMV in a Third World country. ¡Ay Caramba! I was also bummed we never got over to the west coast and more specifically, the city of Rincon, which is famous for it’s surf. And finally, I speak for all of us when I say, we must go back to the lovely city of Old San Juan. Our unforgettable stay there deserves a post or two of its own (The Gallery Inn and Old San Juan.)