La Buena Vida – Puerto Rico!

Short flight from the east coast of the USACheck.

Warm beach weatherCheck.

Cool place to stay.  Check.

No passport necessary.  Check.

Great food, drink, shopping and fun things to do.  Check.

Not going to break the bank.  Check.

Planning a surprise trip for Mother’s Day in May 2015 for me and my bestie, both busy moms who wanted to get away for a few days, Puerto Rico seemed to have it all.  Funny.  Puerto Rico was never even on my radar.  I guess I didn’t think it would feel foreign enough.  Now that I’ve been I see how silly that is.  True it is a US territory, but for all intents and purposes, you are in another country.  Duh.

As much as I travel I still have a lot of the world to see so I don’t usually plan to return, at least soon, after visiting some place.  But Puerto Rico offered SO much to enjoy we didn’t even scratch the surface in 6 days.  I’d love to go back.  Soon.

Dreamcatcher Guest House – a dream come true.  We had mad LOVE for this place.  It exceeded my expectations, as I had hoped.  The Dreamcatcher delivers on every level.  Small boutique B&Bs are my favorite type of lodging when I travel, which I do frequently.  Hands down one of my new favorites.  The staff make it special.  The decor rocks.  The food delicioso.  Location can’t be beat.  The price is nice too.

At Dreamcatcher don’t miss: breakfast, Thursday night salsa lessons, drinks on the windy beach (bring your own, buy from the dude selling them on the beach or have a fancy margarita and a bite at Uvva), lounging in the hammock on the porch.  Quiet hours are between 10pm and 8am so you’ll sleep like a baby.

My friend and I loved the neighborhood, Ocean Park, and all its quirky politics (it’s a gated community, but don’t be put off).  The surrounding streets are a mix of old-stand-bys and up-and-coming shops and restaurants.  It’s safe and fun to explore easily on foot.  And it’s a short cab ride from both the airport and Old San Juan.  Condado Beach is right next door.

Speaking of cabs This would have been helpful to know ahead of time.  Taxis in PR don’t use meters.  The fares are based on distance.  We were told this was meant to help prevent the drivers for taking the long road home, so to speak, thereby driving up the fare.  However, some fares may seem a bit high because one end of the next town may not be so far from where you start.  Either way, prepare to pay the fixed rate and don’t bother bargaining.  If you budget about $20 per ride, one way, you should be more than prepared.  We cabbed to and from the city and airport several times and it was easier and cheaper than renting and parking a car.

Dancing appears to be in the Puerto Rican blood If you take the salsa lesson at the Dreamcatcher, you’ll head to La Placita to try out your new skills on some real, live – OMG – strangers!  Even if you don’t end up taking a lesson, go to La Placita on your own.  [It’s also known as the Santurce Marketplace.]

I can only speak to the experience I had on Thursday evening, when the place is hoppin’ with live music and people dancing, quite literally, in the street.  Be warned.  Wear comfortable shoes.  You’ll observe people of all ages and dressed in all manner, so don’t worry about fitting in.  Drinks are cheap too.  There are parking lots but I would recommend a cab.  The party will continue into the wee hours, so be careful to check the hours of the lot if you drive and park.  Some close as early as 2am and you won’t want to get your car stuck overnight!

In Ocean Park area don’t miss: brunch at Kamozi and shopping at the boutique upstairs, eating Italian at Nonna, Playero Surf Shop, Len T. Juelas for vintage wear, the chocolates at Kasalta, Mexican food at B de Burro, the Walgreen’s for wine, beer and booze, or, in case you forgot it, a teeny bikini.  Take your goods back the Dreamcatcher and store them on your own shelf in the frig in the communal kitchen.  How convenient.

And, whatever you do, don’t miss kayaking on the Bioluminescent Bay.  This was our first trip to the Bio Bay with Kayaking Puerto Rico, but we hope it’s not our last.  Quiet and calm water, pleasant warm breeze on your skin.  No too buggy either.  Once you get through the mangroves, the bay opens before you and is spectacular.  As the sun sets, you’ll see the constellations above you while the water lights up below you.  Kayaking back in the dark was my favorite part.

You’ll need to get to Fajardo, the launch point.  If you staying in or near Old San Juan, it’s about an hour to hour and a half ride.  I signed up to take the group transport through Kayaking PR based on demand.  Thankfully, enough people signed up and that the transport went through.  It was only an extra $20 per person to get there and back.  Happily we didn’t have to drive or hire expensive private transport.

Hot Tip: Once you finish and get back on the ground, head straight for the food trucks if you are hungry.  KPR will give you snacks, but you may not get back to your hotel or home until past the dinner hour.  You’ll most likely have 15 minutes before the transport leaves.  Just enough to order a yummy fresh quesadilla!

OLD SAN JUAN

Although the city is old and the architecture will take you back in time, Old San Juan’s charms don’t overshadow its modern cuisine, shops both quaint and exclusive, bars boasting craft beer and cocktails and dance clubs where tradition reigns supreme.  Why mess with tradition?  This is what I would call the swanky side of Old San Juan.  We spent the better part of a day exploring the cobblestone streets on the hunt for something that struck our fancy.  Here are a few of our favorite places.

  • Pure Soul Boutique & Pure Soul Living – Soon to be online, the boutique sells unique women’s clothing with a distinctly laid back, yet chic vibe.  Think linen and lacy frocks, flowy sexy blouses and easy-going pants and dresses.  The jewelry selection is nice too and lots by local artisans.  The “Living” shop sells more of the home goods line that’s a step above the usual pedestrian bric-a-brac found in the most souvenir shops.
  • Costazul Surf Shop – We thought this surf shop had the best selection of T-shirts we saw.  And the staff was super friendly (and let me use the restroom)!
  • The Butterfly People – I’m not sure who would buy these large pieces of butterfly art, BUT they are cool to see.  We were told the shop has been here for decades and everyone knows it.  Think of it more as a museum worth taking a peep.  There’s a cool shop nearby Luca that sells some interesting clothing by local designers.
  • La Taberna Lupulo  – What weary shopper wouldn’t love to take a break at a funky craft brewery that’s sort of spaghetti western meets Zoro?  That’s what we thought!  Many brews are on tap including ones made in PR.  The staff are terrific and knowledgeable.  The food is nothing to write about and they don’t serve wine, if that’s your poison.
  • La Factoria & Factoria Vino – two places connected on the inside serving craft cocktails (La Factoria) and wine and wine cocktails (Factoria Vino).  Bow tied bartenders serve up these tasty drinks while crazy cool music provides the score to this very appealing scene.  Nice work.
  • Café Cuatro Sombras – Lucky stroke that we asked a local if there was a good coffee shop nearby and she replied, “Oh, the best!”  Yeah!  This is the real deal.  The name refers to the four types of trees that provide shade to these locally grown beans.  They also serve quick yummy food, organic options as well.  Clearly a favorite, as it was busy indeed (but no so busy that we waited long and easily got a seat).
  • Dragonfly – The scene of our final stop for the evening.  These shoppers needed a break and some great grub before heading back to the ‘hood.  My friend had read about this Asian fusion restaurant and we opted to give it a go.  HOT TIP: Just in case you are ready to head home, and it happens to be raining (as it was at the time) a taxi stand right outside the restaurant.

Castillo San Cristobal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Okay, so even if “hiking” – albeit light – isn’t your thing (like me) you gotta visit these Forts if you are in San Juan.  The Spanish colonialists spent centuries building these things!  And, the park one of only 20 National Parks included in UNESCO’s World Heritage list.  I recommend reserving a few hours, and don’t necessarily plan on exploring all of Old San Juan in the same day.  My friend and I went shopping, eating and drinking on a different day, reserving the tennis shoes and athletic pants for the Forts.

You will learn a lot about the history of the area and the grounds are well maintained.  Bathroom facilities are also up to snuff and clean.  There is water available for purchase in all the gift shops.  The views are pretty amazing.  It’s windy!  There is a $5 entry fee, but your ticket is good for several days.  Well worth it.  We did the self-guided thing, and with the map and paying attention to the signs I’d say we didn’t miss a thing.

Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery

This is a working cemetery founded in 1863, not associated with the Forts which are run by the Parks Service.  It’s open to the public (as long as it’s open) and there is no fee.  If you are seeing the Forts, and I hope you do, start at San Cristobal, then walk along the water’s edge enjoying the architecture along the way.  Before you arrive at Del Morro, pop down to see the cemetery.  You have to walk under and underpass which is just one lane where cars can pass too, so just mind your step.  It’s a beautiful spot by the sea.  Then, head up to the Morro and continue your historic adventure in Old San Juan.

Hot Tip: The park service offers a free trolley from one Fort to the other, just in case you are not up to making the mile long, yet easy, walk between them.  This trolley is not to be confused with the city’s free trolley that stops all over town.  Pick up a free map and hang out at one of the about 20 trolley stops for quick tour around the Old City.

If travel for you, is as much about the people you meet along your way, as it is about exploring new worlds, Puerto Ricans rank up there as some of the nicest folks you’ll ever come across.  Ask almost anyone to point you in the right direction and they may even offer to take you there.  We found the coolest stuff by simply conversing with local people.  Hotel staff and guests, waiters, cab drivers, passersby on the street, no matter.  Treasure awaits the curious and friendly traveler in Puerto Rico.

Even if you don’t speak Spanish.

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