The letter of invitation arrived in the mail and moments later, my flight was booked. A wedding in Puerto Rico? Not a micro-second of hesitation went by. It was a cold, harsh winter day in Chicago when I stepped on the plane to escape to the Caribbean. Lake Michigan was completely frozen and snow boots had become a necessity to your daily work commute. A couple of hours later, I had arrived at the San Juan International Airport.
Known for its vibrant culture, traditional architecture and delicious local food, this small island will not let you down. Four centuries of Spanish colonialism and one century of American colonialism come together in Puerto Rico’s style and traditions. Today, it is a commonwealth of the U.S. This means that Americans do not need a passport to visit the island, and the local currency is US Dollars.
The island has a tropical climate, with a rainy season that lasts from April to November. The temperature is pretty much the same all year around (+- 80°F). Puerto Rico is also home to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System. We hiked through the forest on our last day, and discovered some incredible views and beautiful waterfalls. My advice for a successful trip to the Yunque: rent a car. I’m saying this because we took a Uber there, but no Ubers were available on the return trip. We had to hitchhike our way back to San Juan.
A couple of smaller islands surround Puerto Rico, but only Vieques and Culebra have all year-round inhabitants. Culebra is home to Flamenco Beach, one of the world’s top ten most beautiful beaches. Culebra is accessible by ferry and is only 18 miles away from the mainland. Not only does it have paradisiacal beaches, it is also the perfect spot for snorkeling, scuba diving and solitude.
But my favorite spot on the island? Old San Juan. This district is unique in so many ways. It offers a 500 year- old Spanish colonial architectural style characterized by bright colors, streets paved with cobbles, and beautiful cathedrals. This neighborhood is surrounded by a wall because it used to be a military stronghold. Inside, you will find various restaurants, shops, gorgeous homes, plazas, museum, churches and historic places.
When in Old San Juan, visit El Capitolio. Both the Senate as the House have their offices inside the Capitol Building. This grandiose building is filled with mosaics and galleries. It was built in 1929 and offers a variety of guided tours. When you conclude your visit, take a walk on Avenida Luis Muñoz Rivera, which you can find right behind the capitol. This street follows the coastline and offers an incredible view on the ocean. Another important stop to make in Old San Juan is at the San Felipe del Morro Fortress. This 16th-century citadel was named after King Phillip II and was built in 1589. The walls are 18 feet think and were a defense tool alongside the many outposts, dungeons and tunnels that are in and around the fortress. The admission to the fortress is $5.00 for adults and it is open from 9am to 6pm every day.
Finally, it is imperative that you visit the hotel El Convento and the Catedral de San Juan Bautista. Both are across the street from each other on the intersection of Calle Luna and Calle del Cristo. The Convento hotel was inaugurated in 1646 as the Monastery of Our Lady Carmen of San José. For 252 years it housed the nuns until its closure in 1903, and it opened back as El Convento Hotel in 1962. The San Juan Bautista Cathedral is the second oldest cathedral in the Americas and the oldest one of Puerto Rico. The Cathedral has been standing since in 1521 and contains the tomb of Juan Ponce de León.
Visiting time is over. Let’s skip to the most important part. What and where to eat (and drink)?
Puerto Rico has some of the most delicious food in the world. Here are six meals you have to try when in Puerto Rico:
1. Mofongo is their most popular dish and therefore a must-try. It is a mix of mashed fried plantains with garlic and chicharrón (pork cracklings) or bacon.
2. Tostones. They are twice-fried slices of plantains and you can get them anywhere on the island.
3. Arroz con Pollo (rice and chicken)
4. Tembleque (pudding made from coconut milk)
5. Pasteles (made with a mix of meat, vegetables and fried plantains rolled up in banana tree leaves)
6. Arroz con Dulce (some sort of rice pudding).
When in Old San Juan, stop at La Cueva del Mar restaurant for the best seafood in town. You can find this restaurant on 315 Calle Recinto Sur. My personal picks are the fish tacos, the empanadillas de bacalao, the arroz con mariscos ‘La Cueva’ and the mofongo relleno de camarones a la criolla. After that, go to La Factoria bar for some delicious cocktails; it is the best mixology bar in San Juan.