Rediscover San Juan, Puerto Rico for the Very First Time
I’m an avid traveler. I’ve been to so many extraordinary places from Seoul to Barcelona, and yet there’s one place I had never been but always dreamed of going to: Puerto Rico. I don’t know why I had put off going — the stars never aligned, I suppose, until now.
Ever since Hurricane Maria ravished the island, my heart yearned to go, to help, to do something for the people of Puerto Rico — I just didn’t know how. Donating to various causes and organizations is, of course, crucial, and it’s still very much needed. The Trump Administration continues to push back on giving Puerto Ricans the federal money that they rightly deserve. I went on a recent trip to San Juan to take in the island and all its beauty but also to talk to locals and see what the tourist situation is like today.
Only six months after the hurricane, tourist agencies boasted that “Puerto Rico is back in business!” Were they right, despite so many Puerto Ricans still reporting power outages and lack of essentials? The answer falls somewhere in the middle.
Most of the locals I spoke to were happy to talk about the beauty and rich history of Puerto Rico. They dealt with issues like flickering lights (or losing power altogether), and with the slow rebuilding process with such grace. The faults of the island only made them thrive that much more, and you could see it in their smiles, warmth, and welcoming conversation.
So, if you’re wondering where your next vacation should be, take it from me: You will fall in love with Puerto Rico again or for the very first time. Here are some magical places I explored while visiting San Juan.
1. El Yunque National Forest: Have you ever walked through a rainforest? It’s definitely not easy unless you are willing to venture out to the Amazon River Basin in South America or the Congo River Basin in Western Africa. There is only one rainforest in the US: El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in our national forest system. It boasts 28,000 acres with peaks that rise to 3000 feet, and you can hike through it.
People are welcome to drive to El Yunque, but if you’re not a fan of winding roads and narrow parking, I suggest taking an organized tour like El Yunque Tours. These tour leaders are great about navigating through the area and giving interesting information about the rainforest. They’re also very entertaining. Significant points of interest include the Yokahú Tower, La Coca Waterfall, Cascada La Mina, and the Angelito Trail that leads to a swimming hole. Just be sure to take a swimsuit and water shoes because there’s a lot of rocks.
2. El San Juan Hotel: When you’re on vacation, the last thing you want to do is be couped up in a hotel room — but what if the hotel is a historic hot spot? Such is the case with El San Juan Hotel in Carolina, Puerto Rico. This legendary hotel — designed by Miami Beach architect Morris Lapidus — opened in 1958 and is overwhelmingly stunning with its opulent interior wood columns and ceiling. Walking into this hotel makes you feel like you are royalty thanks to their massive chandelier, which is the third largest in the world and made of 7,000 individual pieces of crystal.
El San Juan Hotel took an entire year to reopen after Hurricane Maria, and for several months the location acted a refuge for responders and relief workers. Now that the hotel is back in business under Curio Collection by Hilton, it has a perfect balance of history and modern accommodations. One can easily get lost in the 40,000-square feet property. There are 16 restaurants, bars, and lounges, a dance club, an impressive wellness center, a spa, and, of course, several pools, and the beach. There’s literally always something going on at the San Juan hotel, even music videos.
3. Historic Old San Juan: Speaking of historic San Juan, the downtown area is probably one of the most magical places I have ever seen. The architecture, delightful restaurants, and overall ambiance are charming and breathtaking. I was informed that one of the reasons it has taken a while to rebuild Puerto Rico, especially after the Hurricane, is that many of the structures in Old San Juan have to be reconstructed up to actual code. The buildings have to be painted specific colors, have proper moldings, etc., and all that costs a lot of money.
When you’re strolling around Old San Juan, here are some points of interest: The Castillo San Felipe del Morro Lighthouse, the San Juan Bautista Cathedral, the Puerta de la Bandera Historical Landmark, Fortaleza Street (pictured above), Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud on Calle del Cristo, and Bastión de Las Palmas de San José. That’s just naming a few!
4. Flavors of San Juan Tours: A fun and tasty way to experience Old San Juan is by going on a tasting tour. Flavors of San Juan takes you on a fascinating journey of great restaurants and provides much insight on the historical aspects of the city as well as information on how businesses are recovering after the hurricane. Some of the restaurants, cafes, and dessert places the tour include are Cuatro Sombras coffee shop (best Puerto Rican coffee), Cafe El Punto (where you’ll be able to get a lot of touristy shopping done), and Chocobar (just like the name suggests, it’s a restaurant devoted to chocolate). They’ll also take you to eat the best mofongo (A Puerto Rican dish with fried plantains) ever! They have various options for tours, so I’d suggest doing more than one to really experience San Juan.
5. La Placita de Santurce: For a taste of how the locals live, check out La Placita de Santurce — located between Calle Canales and Calle de Los Hermanos. It’s a perfect place to venture to in the evening where you’ll find lively action at every turn. Visitors will enjoy live music, bar (and restaurant) hopping, dancing on the streets, and eccentric characters. Some standout locations to eat: Eter Rooftop & Lounge, Asere Cubano Kitchen Bar, Chicharron, and Tasca El Pescador.
6. Pública: Since you’re in the area of Santurce, a new spot to check out is Pública. This cultural center is a collective space that recently opened to enhance the city’s creative movement and local talent. Pública’s mission is to create community, establish dialogue, and spread creativity. The space includes multiple art galleries, yoga classes, a restaurant, and work-sharing capabilities. If you’re curious to meet local Puerto Ricans to speak about what they’re doing to revive their city post-Hurricane Maria, this is a great spot.
7. The Beaches: Yes, there’s more to Puerto Rico than the fantastic food, historical sights, and lively people, and that has to be the beaches. There are several beautiful ones in Puerto Rico, including everything from the Playa Peña to Condado Beach, Ocean Beach West, and the Carolina Public Beach. They’re all gorgeous and the perfect place to tan, catch some waves, and relax until your heart’s content.
(Photos via Araceli Cruz)