San Juan, Puerto Rico for A Whirlwind Weekend

Landing at San Juan airport after a smooth four flight from JFK, a round of applause broke out. We giggled and joined in as we realized this must be a Puerto Rican tradition. Cab rates are set in Puerto Rico, no meters here, so we paid $19 plus tip for a fifteen minute ride to the Quality Inn in Condado. Too early to check in, the front desk associate Domingo traded us a map and friendly advice for our backpacks that he stashed in the back room until our room was ready. We walked the two short blocks to the ocean and plopped down in the sand to study our map and surroundings. A short time later as we strolled east on Avienda Ashford, the main tourist drag through Condado, we decided to lunch at The Place where we discovered our first Puerto Rican speciality – Medalla Light, the PBR of Puerto Rico. After lunch we were able to check in and decided a siesta was in order. As the sun when down, we got up and decided to try our luck at the nearby casinos only two blocks away. My intention was to win enough at blackjack to pay for the trip. We found crowded tables at the Marriott, so moved on to $5 tables and friendly Florida tourists at the Radisson. I didn’t lose money after some time on the table, but $8 wasn’t going to pay for our trip. We discovered Orozco’s for dinner where I fell in love with mofungo pescado, a Puerto Rican specialty of mashed plantains encapsulating a rich soupy seafood filling.

The Quality Inn El Portal serves free breakfast with an stunning view of Condado Lagoon from the open-air 8th floor balcony. After a very American selection of eggs and sausage, we walked two blocks to the bus stop. From Condado, $.75 gets you an air-conditioned, comfortable ride to Old San Juan’s cobbled streets and mighty fortresses. If you enjoy exploring historic areas, plan on spending all day here. While in old town, we strolled for hours through the many levels of Castillo de Morro, shopped at the Central Market where I bought a pair of sea glass earrings, and indulged in pina coladas at Barrichina’s, which claims to be the originator of the rum, coconut and pineapple cocktail. With tired feet and sun-tinged shoulders, we hopped back on the bus to Condado and El Portal, and enjoyed our second siesta of the trip. Our evening foray took us to Stop & Go, which is not a gas station. We snacked on shrimp empanadas and Medalla Lights in an open-air dining venue with fascinating people watching. We lingered for a long time, soaking in the scene as early evening played out and delighting in the number of fanny packs the locals sported. To cap off the night, we returned to the Radisson to test our luck again, and although this time losing our bets, we enjoyed running into the same Florida family from last night. Strolling back to the hotel room, we encountered my favorite Puerto Rican specialty, the endearing and romantic Puerto Rican native-the Coqui frog. This little guy has a powerful mating call, “KO KEE, KO KEE” hence the name. The sound will always take me back to that warm evening on the streets of Puerto Rico…

We checked out of the hotel after breakfast and took a cab back to the airport where, this time, we picked up a rental car. El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, is only a short half hour drive from San Juan airport. We scouted the Visitor Center for maps and history, then drove up the mountain into the lush environment. We visited Coco Falls, Yukahu Observation Tower built in 1963, and hiked less than a mile to La Nina Falls on the Big Tree Trail. Leaving the national forest, we continued east to Luquillo Beach, a beautiful stretch of sand and calm sea just minutes from El Yunque. Luquillo Kiosks are a great stop for local food and handicrafts. We savored crab and lobster tacos and I purchased yet another pair of earrings.

Our reservation for the last night was at Fajardo Hotel. Make sure to have GPS if traveling around this town…it’s narrow streets and twisting lanes were confusing even with technology’s help. This hotel is one of the few in the area, and I might recommend trying somewhere else. The pool area was a dirty disappointment and the squawking aviary was an uncomfortable feature at best. However, the room was clean and spacious and the front desk staff very friendly. We scheduled a kayak tour of Laguna Grande, a bioluminescent bay, with Kayaking Puerto Rico for our last evening on the island. We launched shortly after dark and paddled our way through the mystical mangroves. As we entered the bay, we started to notice streaks of green light with each paddle stroke. As we moved farther into open water, the colors got brighter, fish could be seen streaming away, and dragging my fingers through the water produced glowing, trippy tracers. With a stretch of stars above, the dinoflagellate’s lights below and the glow of Fajardo in the distance, we couldn’t have enjoyed a better ending to our whirlwind weekend in Puerto Rico.

Up early the next morning, we set off back to San Juan airport. Our flight departed at noon and as we landed back at JFK, a round of applause filled the cabin once again….

Insider Tip

If possible, travel to Vieques off the coast of PR by small plane or ferry, I certainly will when I go back. The bioluminescent shows and beaches are reported to be much better. And try mofungos! My biggest regret was that I had that pleasure only that one time

Where I stayed / started

Quality Inn El Portal, Condado, Puerto Rico

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