Travel blog written by an average traveler that focuses on "real" experiences. Not quite budget, not quite luxury. Real.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Falling in love with Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Part One).

Travelers/Trip Type: My Husband And I
Method of Travel: Air
Would I Return: As Often As I Can!

Meandering through the cobblestone streets in Old San Juan is truly a gift. Brightly painted buildings line the streets and various plants adorn nearly every balcony. There are so many gems to find in this compact little area that it's almost certain you'll find a new favorite with each new venture. The excitement of these potential discoveries and the warmth of the wonderful people are what made me fall in love with Old San Juan.

Visiting Old San Juan for the first time was a truly memorable experience. The cab ride to our hotel proved to be our first adventure as we sped through the narrow, flooded streets (the remnants of a passing tropical storm). Because we had arrived in the evening, the cover of darkness added additonal mystery to the unknown locale and I breathed an audible sigh of relief when we finally arrived at our hotel, the Sheraton Old San Juan Resort & Casino. Our primary reason for selecting this hotel was its close proximity to the cruise ship dock. We were set to depart on a 7-day southern Caribbean cruise the following afternoon and we wanted things to be as convenient as possible. I found this hotel to be somewhat of a disappointment considering our final bill approached $200 for one night (the hotel taxes here are quite tremendous). I can't put my finger on anything in particular to complain about, I guess I was just expecting something fancier for the price (and the fact that it was a Sheraton). The location, however, was ideal for us and there was a nice rooftop pool that offered great views of Old San Juan.  I would recommend this hotel to first time cruisers because of it's close location to the pier, but once you are familiar with the area it's much more attractive to stay in the heart of Old San Juan rather than tourist central (aka the Sheraton).

We quickly deposited our things and eagerly set off to find a place for dinner. After zigzaging through the streets we finally stumbled across Sultra 61 Cafe and Bar. It was a nice little "hole in the wall" cafe with a very relaxed atmosphere and friendly staff. For being a "hole in the wall" it sure wasn't cheap. It seemed that prices in general were a little high for dinner throughout the area. The highlight of the meal for me was the salad which included some fantastic grated cheese (goat?) and some seriously amazing salsa dressing. Oh what I wouldn't do for that recipe..... Now, I must clarify that I am NOT a salad person; at least not in the States I'm not. However, the two most amazing salads that I have ever eaten have been in the Caribbean (the other was in St. Lucia) so when I am in this part of the world I no longer skip salads like I usually do. After dinner we called it a night and got some much needed rest.

Because we had to begin our boarding process in the early afternoon, we got up bright and early to spend the morning exploring Old San Juan. Map in hand, we set out to find La Bombonera for breakfast (259 calle San Francisco). I had read about it being a popular spot for the locals so I knew I wanted to check it out. At first glance it didn't appear to be much different than back home (except for the fact that half the menu was in Spanish), but once we got our scrambled eggs, toast and milkshakes we noticed that it was definately not what we were used to. The bread was completely different (albeit exceptional), and so was the milkshake. It was a nice, simple breakfast without a lot of fuss. La Bombonera is mostly famous for their fresh pastries but after already indulging in a milkshake we decided to pass on them for the moment. On my next visit I plan on combining a hearty breakfast with dessert by ordering a mallorca (eggs, bacon, and cheese sandwiched between two pastries and covered with powdered sugar) but my stomach wasn't up for it on this particular morning.

After a satisfying breakfast we continued west on calle San Francisco and eventually north up calle Del Cristo to get to El Morro, San Felipe Castle (above). We spent at least an hour just wandering around and admiring the grounds. This is a MUST DO attraction! Not only is it strikingly beautiful against the gorgeous blue sky and equally blue ocean, but it's also fascinating to learn about its history. One piece of advice though: GO IN THE MORNING! It was only 9 am (in mid September) by this point and the the sun was already incredibly intense and was accompanied by the most insane humidity I have ever experienced. I could not imagine doing this attraction later in the day as there is an extreme amount of walking with minimal shade.  And ladies, don't even bother putting makeup on because you will sweat it off in literally 10 minutes. Just put on some cute shades and lip gloss and off you go.

After exploring El Morro we headed back to the center of town, seeking refuge in shade under various balconies and awnings when available. It was a Sunday morning and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The few people we did pass were friendly locals who welcomed us with warm smiles and gentle greetings. Some asked us if we needed directions, while others warned us not to go near La Perla (which is a dangerous drug infested neighborhood just on the other side of the wall near El Morro). My favorite local, however, was an older gentleman who interrupted his glorious Spanish singing only long enough to give us a toothy smile before continuing on his way. No hurry. No worries. Not a care in the world. At that moment I felt the very same way. The soothing sound of church music from the nearby cathedral served as our soundtrack as we wandered around Old San Juan with no real agenda. In this case it was the journey rather than the destination that was incredible and we were content enjoying whatever we happened to stumble across. Some of those things included a peek inside the beautiful cathedral itself, as well as enjoying a local park known as Parque De Las Palomas, (above right) where thousands of pigeons made their homes in the cement walls and trees. The local children would squeal with delight as they chased the pigeons around the park. My only worry at that point was getting pooped on, which was a legitimate concern considering the sheer number of pigeons. The park was located on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean so we were blessed with a stunning view in addition to the lively entertainment.  As we continued back down the hill towards the pier we found calle Paseo de la Princesa (on the other side of the wall from the park) which led us to an outdoor marketplace (entrance shown below). It was a really fun and festive atmosphere with music, dancing and lots of  talented artisans selling their crafts. I was able to pick up some amazing handcrafted souvineers at incredible prices! There were plenty of street vendors selling popcorn, piraguas (shaved ice) and various other food items to quell any hunger pains, however we were too hot to even think about eating.

After briefly watching the locals happily dance in the street, and buying as many souvineers as we could carry, we walked back to our hotel to grab our things and continued across the street to the pier to begin our embarkation process. I couldn't believe that I was actually feeling sad to leave, especially since I had only spent a portion of the day in Old San Juan. But this is a special, special place, I didn't need a lot of time to know that. I had fallen in love with Old San Juan. And my only consolation for leaving was knowing that I would definately be back.