San Juan, Puerto Rico
VANICHI Magazine Travel Essay
Many times, when traveling to a new place, it feels like a piece of me always gets left behind. And no matter what, I seem to forever be in an attempt to retrieve it. My husband and I first visited Puerto Rico in April of 2013, when he and I had just gotten engaged. We bypassed San Juan, Puerto Rico and the main island as we were summoned to the island of Vieques, just off the coast of Puerto Rico, to film a wedding TV show (long story). Upon arrival, we were whisked away to a beautiful villa tucked in the hills, overlooking the entire island. We were in heaven, mesmerized by the clarity and warmth of the waters, the cozy humidity, and friendliness of the residents. Although we spent most of our time filming, we still managed to fall in love with the comfort of the island and all of its amenities. We never forgot how amazing it was to be there, and how relaxed we were when we returned home. Once we were officially married the following year, we decided that we had to make our way back for our one year anniversary, and “redeem ourselves,” so to speak.
Resting east of the Dominican Republic in the northeastern Caribbean, Puerto Rico contains a series of islands. There’s the main island (Puerto Rico) and then many smaller islands such as Vieques, Culebra and Mona. Since we had already been to Vieques in this United States territory, we agreed to set our sights on the mainland, specifically the capital city of San Juan.
To save money, we bought tickets nearly 6 months in advance, and researched where to stay. Our trip began in the middle of February, so we expected a bit of rain and packed accordingly. It is very humid there most of the time, so the rain didn’t cause very much discomfort. We stayed near the airport in the downtown area, which was located near plenty of tourist traps and local eateries. We chose a smaller hotel, instead of a big franchise, so that we could get a better deal and also be closer to the native culture of this beautiful city. With the sandy, vibrant beaches just steps away from our hotel, there were plenty of opportunities to dive into the city as soon as we landed.
Upon arrival, we realized that there were an overwhelming amount of visitors in town for the Electric Daisy Carnival, an international music festival for all ages, which features electronic dance music. Per usual, there are always many celebrations taking place in San Juan at any given time. As we were repeatedly told by locals, we had just missed their annual “Carnaval de Ponce,” which is a huge celebration similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and takes place just before Lent. Thankfully, the EDC festivities were slated to last a few days, so we had plenty to do in the area, in addition to our pre-planned curriculars.
During our stay, we had a very well-rounded view of the city. We took cabs to local bars, frequented the beaches, tried the local delicacies, visited Old San Juan and Castle Cristobal, and even attended a jazz festival in the park. But our favorite adventure was the voyage into El Yunque Rain Forest in search for the Cascada La Mina (waterfall).
Per the guidance of the forest rangers, we are directed to take a short hike through the forest on a well-beaten path. An intriguing, yet slightly challenging hike for the average person, the waterfall makes it well worth the effort. Once we near the end of the trail, we hear the sound of splashing and cheering. Upon turning the final corner, we meet the brink of the watering hole, which is filled with travelers from near and far. But most exciting was the view of the waterfall itself, in all its natural glory, bellowing about and filling up the stream. Although the water was very chilly, our hike motivated us to embrace it. The waterfall force was so powerful and the water was cool, but we had never felt more alive. We had met this challenge with open arms, and it was exciting and fun. We had conquered Cascada La Mina.
Our trip to San Juan was amazing, but there is still so much more land for us to cover in Puerto Rico. We plan to visit again soon, and we highly encourage others to visit. You surely won’t regret it.
Here are a few recommendations in and around San Juan.
Hotel: Coral by the Sea
Not the most lavish of hotels, but it is clean and centrally located. You’ll likely want to rent a car, as it is cheaper than taking a cab everywhere.
What to eat:
MOFONGO! It’s basically mashed plantain (not sweet), topped with meat sauce. Most traditional Puerto Rican places served this. Give it a try. Very tasty.
Where to eat:
- 24 Marketplace (Open 24 hours, with liquor store, deli, full bar, and diner menu)
- El San Juan Hilton Hotel (bars, clubs and restaurants)
- The Waterfront Restaurant (Full bar on the beach, in Loiza)
- Hipic Cache (Local restaurant in Loiza with delicious skewers)
- Edith Café (Open late and has a pretty good menu)
- Piu Bello (Cute diner with decent food)
- El Alambique Bar & Grill (Awesome bar on the beach with great, cheap drinks and food)
- New Taste (Decent sushi in the downtown area)
What to do/Where to visit:
- Old San Juan (Great place to buy unique souvenirs)
- Billiard Palace Café (pool hall with full bar)
- Parque Del Tercer Milenio (Park, has a free jazz fest at the end of the month)
- The Castles (Castle Cristobal)
- Cascada La Mina (El Yunque Rain Forest, Rio Grande, PR)
- Yokahu Tower (El Yunque Rain Forest, Rio Grande, PR)
VANESSA BEARD-PRINCE is a writer, host, mentor, and business consultant in the Los Angeles area. She is the host of “Untamed Talk” radio and Youtube channel, and founder of the Untamed Ladies, a social group for natural hair and women’s empowerment. Vanessa resides in West LA with her husband and daughter, and has an MBA from the Graziadio School of Business, Pepperdine. FB/Twitter/IG: @untamedladyvee