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

Saturday, April 14, 2012

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

Travelers/Trip Type: My Husband And I
Method of Travel: Air
Would I Return: Next Time With Kids In Tow

My second visit to Old San Juan was for yet another cruise. Are you starting to notice a trend here? I must admit, I was anxious to return because I had fallen in love on my first visit and I was curious to see if I would have the same reaction on subsequent visits. This time we were smart and allowed for a day both before AND after our cruise to explore. We also decided to extend our exploration out a bit to include the Condado area of San Juan rather than just Old San Juan.

We arrived at the Marriott San Juan Resort & Stellaris Casino ($20 cab ride from airport) at 3:15 am due to a delay in Dallas (surprise, surprise). Fortunately, during our delay I had called the hotel directly to let them know about our late arrival so we didn't have any problems when we checked in (apparently in Puerto Rico they clear all of their reservations at midnight. They also give the  best rooms on a first come first serve basis). It was obvious this maneuver had paid off the moment we saw our high-floor ocean-view room.  It was a pleasant surprise because I had booked via Priceline and was only expecting a basic room.
Even though it was the wee hours of the morning at this point, we were both giddy with excitement so we decided to take a quick walk around the block in order to quell our energy enough to sleep. The first thing that immediately struck me was how hot and humid it was at 3:30 am.  I remembered that it had been humid on our last visit, but to be sweating at this hour of the morning was crazy! The second thing that made an impression on me during our middle of the night stroll was the sheer amount of activity at that hour. It was absolutely incredible how many people were out and about with no sign of wrapping things up for the night. Puerto Rico really does have a thriving nightlife! Another notable observation about Puerto Rico is the fact that everyone dresses up when they go out. If you are a t-shirt and jeans kind of person you will definately look out of place if you head out for a drink after dark. The women, in particular, are gorgeous and the fact that they are all wearing nice dresses and sexy high heels makes them even more stunning. Which leads me to another observation, the women of Puerto Rico LOVE their high heels. I am not sure where they are buying all of their amazing heels from (because I didn't see a single shoe store on either visit) but every woman in Puerto Rico wears sexy and unique heels wherever they go (whether it be a family stroll to the park, going to work or maneuvering the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan on a night out). I've never seen anything like it. Young or old, beautiful or plain Jane, dressed up or dressed down, you'd better believe that woman will be wearing some incredible heels!

We managed to get a few hours of sleep that night but our excitement wouldn't let us sleep in too much. By 10:00 am we were laying by the pool and working on our tans. It was unbearable to lay there in the sun because of the intense heat and humidity so we packed things up and headed to the beach for a swim in the ocean! An example of the humidity can be observed in the above picture. It took quite a while for my camera to finally aclimate to the humidity so our first pictures had a haze to them. Behind us you can see the beach where we swam (behind the Marriott). Swimming was incredible! The waves were perfect (big enough to "ride in" to the shore but not big enough to be scary), the water was the perfect temperature and the sand was awesome (no rocks or shells to cut your feet on). If I would have known that it would be our best swimming of the trip I would have swam much longer because I thoroughly enjoy swimming in the ocean when the conditions are this perfect. A walk further down the beach resulted in an area that wasn't as great for swimming (due to the large rocks) but perfect for pictures (below). So beautiful!

As for the Marriott San Juan Resort & Stellaris Casino: Overall I was very pleased with our hotel and I would definately stay on another occasion. The check-in and check-out process was seamless, our room was impeccable with a comfortable bed and great view, the pool area was wonderful with several beautiful pools, ample lounge chairs and sufficient towels, and of course the beach was absolutely perfect. In addition the common areas were quite nice with comfortable seating and available shopping vendors. The numerous games and activities down by the pool would be perfect for accompanying children.

For lunch we followed a tip I had learned on $40 A Day With Rachel Ray which was to ask for food recommendations from people whose job starts with a "b". From her experience bartenders, bellhops, baristas, etc.... are exceptionally savvy regarding the wonderful local hotspots that offer great food at affordable prices. So far this advice has panned out nicely. We were referred to Cafe de Angels (above right) by our bellhop which was only a few blocks up Ashford Ave from the Marriott. We were instructed to try the mofungo which is one of the local specialties. We knew nothing about mofongu other than it was some sort of mashed plantains, but decided to give it a try. It was amazing! I must admit that when it arrived  we were almost too scared to try it  because of how it looked (bottom right). If you can get past the initial sight of it and can bring yourself to actually place your fork inside your mouth, you definately won't regret it. We ordered ours with skirt steak but the grouper comes highly recommended so we will be sure to try that next time. And trust me, there WILL be a next time.

After lunch we walked up an down Ashford Ave in an attempt to walk off some of the food we had just devoured. The area was so much different than I expected. Ashford Ave (above) is one of the major streets of Condado yet it was so peaceful. The minimal traffic, friendly people and beautiful scenery made it a very enjoyable walk. I was even able to do some shopping as there were various merchants scattered throughout the area. What more can a girl want?

After a wonderful morning in Condado we headed to the pier to begin our embarkation process. Once the logistics were taken care of we immediately set off to explore Old San Juan once again. The verdict? Still in love..... Everything was just as I remembered it, the same charm, the same beauty, the same hidden gems, the same friendly people, the same wonderful food..... The only thing that seemed different from our last experience was the horrendous traffic. FYI, don't ever drive in Old San Juan. You will literally spend all of your time sitting in traffic or trying to find a parking spot. It was Sunday (just as it was on our prior visit) but for some reason it was much busier. Perhaps everyone else is falling in love with Old San Juan as well!

We spent the afternoon weaving up and down all of the streets, getting lost in the magic of Old San Juan. Once again we found the craft fair on calle Paseo de la Princessa but I was somewhat disappointed in the inventory compared to our last visit. Of course I still managed to find a few things to purchase. Wink, wink.  Instead of turning around and walking back the way we came (like on our last visit), we decided to keep walking towards the beautiful fountain at the end of the street. At this point we discovered a wonderful pathway (above and right) which eventually led us to the San Juan Gate and back into the heart of old San Juan. It was a lovely walk along the waterfront for just the two of us to enjoy. That's yet another treasure of this city, no matter how many people are around you can always find a special little place to sneak away for either solitude or to enjoy another's company.

The beautifully colored buildings and petal strewn cobblestone streets were the perfect subjects for my camera lens as we wandered around (below). Once we were back amongst the stores and restaurants we began our search for a careta (mask) to add to my collection. Of course we found everything BUT a careta. In particular, I found some beautiful paintings that I decided to come back for on our return trip (once I knew how much space I would have in my suitcase). Our final stop before heading back to our ship was at Barrachina (on calle Fortaleza) for one of their famous pina coladas (they were invented here). I am definately a pina colada person. My husband? Not so much. Suffice to say they were amazing and we both thoroughly enjoyed our drinks. They were pretty stiff though so watch out! I highly recommend stopping in here for at least a drink, there's a beautiful courtyard with seating on one side and an inside restaurant with a long bar on the other. If you go in-between meal times you will be able to enjoy the nice ambiance all to yourself like we did while sitting at the bar. Supposedly they will even store your luggage here if that's something you are needing. This is a free service but I'm sure they are expecting you to purchase something in return.

Our visit after our cruise began with us taking a cab ride ($15) to the northern edge of Old San Juan so that we could check in to our "hotel". I must warn you that if you take a cab from the pier to anywhere in Old San Juan your driver may be a little perturbed because it will not only be a smaller fare (versus going to the airport) but it will also result in him having to go to the back of the long line of cabs at the cruise ship dock. I felt bad but at the same time there was no way I was lugging all of our bags a mile uphill.

If you are looking for an interesting, pleasant and affordable place to stay in Old San Juan,  The Gallery Inn is the place (below). It's about as far away from the cruise ship dock in Old San Juan as you can get, in fact the wall for the infamous La Perla district (above) is on the other side of the street (which I find interesting in itself). The Gallery is definately the most unique place I have ever stayed with it's extremely eclectic decor. The various parrots perched throughout the property help to complete the look. Not only is it interesting, but it's also very inviting. The owners make you feel right at "home" and even though I am not very artsy or musical I enjoyed the place very much. The music room and art classes would definately appeal to those who are. The wine deck on top of the property offers some of the best views in Old San Juan. And yes, I did feel safe even with the dangerous ghetto only steps away. When you are inside the property you are transported into a beautiful tranquil world of relaxation and when you are outside the property and walking across the street there's a slight mixture of fear and mystery which I found strangely exciting. With that said, I never felt overly uneasy as the two worlds pretty much keep to themselves. Unfortunately I can't give a review of the breakfast because we had an early flight. I'm sure it's wonderfully delicious!

After exploring the northern part of Old San Juan we finally settled on El Jibori for lunch. It's a "locals" restaurant with delicious Puerto Rican food. The only drawback was the lack of air conditioning, but you actually start to get used to the constant sweating after a while. The food was great but it did not rival Cafe de Angels in Condado, particularly when referring to the mofungo. While our food started to settle, we walked over to El Morro to watch hundreds of Puerto Rican children fly their kites in the huge fields that make up the foreground of the fortress. Many other children enjoyed spashing around in the fountain across the street. I couldn't help but imagine the fun that my own children would have in Old San Juan.

After relaxing at our B&B, and re-visiting Barrachina for a delicious grouper accompanied by another pair of pina coladas,  I had one final agenda. Remember those paintings that I didn't get because I was going to wait until our return trip? Big mistake! After repeatedly dragging my husband up and down the streets I finally had to throw in the towel and admit that I had no idea where that particular store was. I was so disappointed! I had already picked out where on my walls I wanted those pictures to hang. Moral of the story: If you see something you like in Old San Juan, GET IT because you may never find that store again. Lackadasical strolls without agendas don't meld well with mazes of streets and dizzying heat. Eventually things start to look the same if you're not paying close attention. There are worse things I suppose. To me it just means that I have to make yet another return trip. Perhaps the next time I will have the kiddos in tow and we'll extend our exploration zone out even further. Yeah, I'm liking this idea!