Memorias del Viejo San Juan

Puerto Rico may be an island, but it is a big and diverse island.  And San Juan is also a big and diverse city.  As I’ve expressed before, I travel slowly, so when I only have a few days in a place, I want to get to know its locals and corner stores, its bodegas and quirks.  Therefore, in San Juan I stuck only to the hood of Old San Juan, or San Juan Viejo.

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El Viejo reminded me of living in Quito in a way, or of my time Lima or Valparaiso, where the old Spanish colonial has morphed with the newer colored paint and modern bustle of latin american life.  However, San Juan is indeed unique and even somewhat confusing.  It took me awhile to get my bearings –to realize that to use Spanish or to use English is up to my discretion –to realize just how friendly puerto-riqueños are –to realize people are more than willing to talk about issues ranging from the USA-Puerto Rico territorial debate to the emerging prevalence of gay rights and activism on the island (yay!) — finally, to realize this place is not like any I’ve been before, and yet I feel very comfortable.

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My stay was along the waterfront cobblestone roads, which was a treat in itself.  Waking up from a mid-afternoon seista to the sound of waves crashing against the old Spanish fort out my window seemed to promise that the each evening would always be a lively one.

Indeed, never did they fail.   Just two minutes out the door on my first night, I came across a dance party that had quite literally taken to the the streets.   Encouragments of “Baile! Baile!” found me in the middle of a swarming body of dancing men, women, young, old, foreign and local, all swaying and clapping as the sun set just beyond us over the spanish-built wall into the Atlantic.

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The following days were a blur of delicious mofongo (a fried plantain-based dish typically made with fried green plantains mashed together in a pilón), stuffed avocados, concha and crab salads, and Don Q rum out of plastic cups;  afternoons climbing dizzying staircases and taking in massive vistas atop spanish fortresses; art galleries and shops stuffed with anything from cheesy tourist magnets to traditional island wares to original works by local artists.

My final day in El Viejo served as a perfect reflection of the confusing beauty of the neighborhood and of my experiences here.  Whilst eating helado de coco (coconut ice cream), I spent an aimless afternoon wandering throughout the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, Old San Juan’s coastal graveyard.  This idealic, slightly melancholy scene was punctuated by the sounds of children playing soccer, just feet from the stark white angles residing over their ancestors graves.

IMG_1058IMG_1050IMG_1032IMG_1033IMG_0928IMG_0837 I don’t have much more to say for San Juan, because it was such a brief and simply pleasant experience.  What sticks with me is the feeling of warmth and communication that buzzed the street of Old San Juan.  People ready to talk and share and question.  People ready to dance and eat and probably drink a little, too.

The last night walking home in the rain, looking toward the Spanish fort and listening to the fading sounds of yet another nightly dance party, I felt just as confused and yet comfortable as I had the first day arriving.  It was a nice feeling, really.  And one I encourage you all to pursue…..perhaps even here in El Viejo.

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Culebra Bonita

Ahhhhh, Culebra.  Just thinking about it right now, I feel more relaxed.

When I decided to spend time in Puerto Rico, I have to say I had some apprehension.  Whenever I think of the Caribbean islands, I have visions of huge cruise ships, tropical shirts barely covering protruding bellies, swarms of tourists loudly complaining there are no signs in English, and a general annoyance.  Hey, I’m an American, I shouldn’t be so judgmental.  But man, we can sure be annoying.

That being said, I set up an itinerary that gave me space from the tourist scenes.  I only had a little over a week, so I decided to split that into just two places, with the majority of my time being spent on the small island of Culebra.

For those who like rustic but funky accommodations, leisurely schedules, drinking before noon, and general casualness, I’d recommend this island.  It is not fancy.  It is not luxurious.  But it is beautiful, and friendly, and lively, and slightly odd, and did I mention beautiful?

My suggested Culebra lifestyle is as follows:

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Take the flight from the mainland.  Air Flamenco has flights from Isla Grande multiple times a day that run about USD $70/roundtrip.  It’s a bargain considering the fabulous view from the little eight seater plane that jets you over the sparkling Caribbean waters and lush palm beaches.

When you arrive in Culebra, walk down the road from the airport to the Carlos Jeep Rentals and get yourself a golf cart.  It’s super cheap (about USD $25/day) and is all you need to get around the island.  It is also SO MUCH DANG FUN!

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Next, head to your little home for the week.  I used my favorite way to find affordable local accommodations, the peer-to-peer rental website Airbnb.  Our house, named Casa SuMarco, was absolutely picturesque and cheaper than any hotel.  Plus, look at the view that welcomes you…

Okay, get settled, then get back in your golf cart….it is BEACH TIME!  Beaches not to be missed include Flamenco Beach, Tamarindo Beach, Zoni Beach, and Manques Beach.

Flamenco was my favorite, which I did not think it would be.  It is the most popular, although even on busy weekend days it is hardly full.  Flamenco tops my list not only because it is lively and spacious, but it has food kiosks featuring delicious stuffed mofongos (mashed and friend plantain balls), ensaladas de pulpo (octopus), and ensaldas de concha (conch).  And honestly, the best beach drinks I have ever had.  Four rum punches later, Flamenco and I were quite good friends.

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Zoni is an untouched sanctuary.  Don’t plan on swimming or snorkeling, as the tides are strong.  Simply walk along the beach and pick a spot to sit and enjoy the view.

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Tamarindo wins for its snorkeling opportunities.  There were only three other people there the whole day we snorkeled.  For USD $12 for a whole day of snorkeling equipment, you can see sea turtles and tropical fish in water the temperature of a soothing bath.  Seriously, heaven.

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Finish that last rum punch, throw on your sunglasses, and head back for a much “deserved” nap.  Bonus points if that nap includes a hammock…

Shower.  Back into the golf cart.  Dinner.  For me, nothing beats the Dinghy Dock for happy hour, salty expat converstaions, chill music, and delicious food.  There are definitley some other good options including Zako’s Tacos and Amy’s, but for the best vibe and most memoriable characters, Dinghy Dock has ’em all beat.

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Cruise around in that little golf cart a bit more, sit on your porch with a good book, and fall into a sound sleep amidst frogs and the occasional mesquito buzzing.

Wake up.  Repeat.  And repeat.  And repeat…….

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