A weekend getaway should be simple, shouldn’t require a passport and should take you down a street in a city you’ve never been in before. San Juan, Puerto Rico may not be top-of-mind for Caribbean destinations; the beaches here don’t bring images of piña coladas and sunburn. But for a city that’s thick with culture and local spots to explore, it was everything a weekend getaway should be.
I arrived early on a Friday and was greeted by the friendliest driver I’ve had in a while. She chatted me up with enough places to visit that I was near convinced to spend a month here. As she drove me to Condado, the area in San Juan where I was staying, I was already starting to realize Puerto Rico was nothing I had expected. A large lagoon surrounding Condado was full of paddleboarders and the sparkle of the ocean was visible in the distance.
Exteriod of the Condado Vanderbult Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of the hotel.
We drove up to the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, a hotel facing the ocean and decorated in a Spanish revival style that reminisces on the history of the island. I was greeted with champagne, the ultimate sign of a good weekend, and made my way to the their Ola Ocean Front Bistro. I had probably the best veggie sandwich of my life, which means a lot coming from someone who feels everything is better wrapped in bacon, and was pretty much ready to buy my “I Heart P.R.” shirt.
After a 90-minute spa treatment in a marble room that made me feel more pampered and pompous than I ever have, I went out to explore one of the areas recommended by my driver. Placita Santruce is completely injected with Puerto Rican flavor and the perfect place for a Friday night, the streets are lined with restaurants and bars and the crowd is the right mixture of locals and visitors. I chose Santaella for my first dinner on the island, a restaurant with the underlying concept of reinventing traditional local dishes. The best thing on their menu: bacon croquetas, which were life changing in a why-have-I-never-thought-of-this-before way.
A cobblestone street in Old San Juan.
The next day I set off to explore Old San Juan, the historic colonial area of San Juan and the first settlement of the island. It was like being transplanted to the 16th century without the need for candlelight and horse-drawn carriages. The streets are all cobblestone, the original stone buildings are painted in bright contrasting colors, the balconies are over-flowing with flowers and everything is saturated in Spanish colonial charm. Even the cemetery by the ocean was picturesque. As I made my way to El Morro, the castle at the edge of the fort that surrounds Old San Juan, I was completely stricken by the view. The contrast between the white of the buildings, the greenery and the blue of the ocean was worthy of my 12 Instagram posts in a row. I ended my walk through Caribbean history at El Convento Hotel in the middle of Old San Juan, where I had the most delicious Mojito de Parcha. It was only the lure of dinner that made me part ways with the bar and the neighborhood.
View of San Juan from El Morro in Old San Juan.
For my last supper on the island I chose to try the upscale and fine-dining restaurant of the hotel, 1919 (as everybody should on a mini-vacation.) I could go into the flavors of each plate, but as I did the seven course wine and food tasting, details of the meal have mysteriously left my mind. Except, of course, for the fact that it was all delicious and trying seven wines makes for a very fun dinner experience.
I saved for the morning of my last day in “La Isla del Encanto” (The Island of Enchantment) a visit to El Yunque National Forest. And my adventure there began the minute I got in the car that took me there. For those unaccustomed to driving in the Caribbean, it could go one of two ways. Either you have a calm drive on a main road or highway, or you go through the many small, rocky roads that connect all the areas of the island where drivers prefer speedy maneuvers than turning signals. With the intention of showing me the true Puerto Rico, my driver chose the latter. And although it was nice to drive between small local shops and the ocean, by the time we approached the misty rainforest I was happy for more reasons than my desire to see it.
View from "Las Cabesas" in El Yunque National Park.
However, once amongst the thick green trees from all over the world, it made whichever way I got there meaningless. It could be the extremely crisp pure air and altitude, but going into the forest was completely mesmerizing. Our first stop within the park was the “Las Cabesas” look-out point. It required a bit of climb up many steps, but once there, the view that allowed you to see all the way to the ocean was completely worth it. The continued ascend up the mountain to the point where my hike would begin was just as beautiful.
Streams leading up to a waterfall in El Yunque National Park.
The hike itself was a simple 1.5 miles. Throughout the entire path all I could hear is running water, enticing me towards the upcoming waterfall. I was engulfed in the many shades of green that surrounded me. And once I got there, the cascade was so much like something you’d see in a postcard that all I could do was jump in. The water was freezing cold, and although that meant I had to make my way back to San Juan soaked, the high I felt from being in such an alive and breathtaking place overshadowed everything.
Like the end of every good weekend getaway, I rode to the airport wishing I had more time to explore the rest of Puerto Rico. Now I was convinced I could spend a month exploring. Getting to San Juan may have been simple, but the array of memorable cultural experiences and views I could have gawked at for hours were everything but.