Puerto Rico isn’t called “La Isla del Encanto” (The Island of Enchantment) for no reason. This Caribbean beauty, although tiny, offers magical, gorgeous sights and lots to do. You will indeed feel as if you’re under a spell! Pack your bags and get ready to explore famous San Juan!
Luckily for you, when you land in San Juan you’ll realize that the temperature isn’t that much of a change from Miami. Tropical and hot is what you’re used to, so you’ll be able to feel right at home! Hopefully by now you’ve also learned a bit of Spanish in the MIA to get you by—Although some people speak English here and the U.S. dollar is used, the primary language is still Spanish.
Take a look at some PR history at your first stop: Castillo San Felipe del Morro (The Morro castle). It’s one of the most popular attractions on the island! It dates back to the 16th century and was occupied by both the Spanish and American military. It provides amazing views overlooking the San Juan Bay, and you can even explore the inside, where you will discover old cannons, tunnels, prison cells, dungeons, and more. Located only about a mile walk away is another must-see: Castillo San Cristóbal. It’s said to be the biggest fortress on the American continent as it’s spread over 27 acres and includes five units connected by moat and tunnel. This fortress was built to protect Old San Juan against a land attack, while The Morro castle was to defend against a sea attack.
Now that you’ve read about the fortresses that guarded the city, visit the actual history hub yourself! Old San Juan is full of old-world beauty—from the bright, colorful Spanish colonial houses to the historic churches and museums. The city is the second oldest in the Americas, and the oldest under the U.S. flag! Begin your city trek by exploring one of the oldest structures in the area: La Casa Blanca. This home was built by Juan Ponce de León (the first governor of Puerto Rico) way back in 1521. It provides an accurate representation of what it was like to live in the 16th century, with true-to-the-time-period furniture arranged in the rooms and other relics left untouched. Juan didn’t actually live in this home, but his family did for about 250 years!
About three blocks away, you’ll find another holy site. Capilla del Cristo is a small yet renowned chapel due to an old tale that depicts a miracle. It was built in 1753 at the end of a stone cliff; that same year, a horse rider that was participating in the traditional horse race of the San Juan Batista celebrations lost control of his horse, tumbling off the cliff. Don Mateo Pratts, the Spanish Secretary of Government at the time, then screamed out, “Christ of Good Health, save him!” The rider miraculously survived the fall, and ever since then, locals pray at the chapel on a weekly basis for a miracle. Stop by to wish for your own, or simply just to marvel at the old and significant chapel.
As you walk the streets of San Juan look out for kiosks selling fried treats. Puerto Ricans take their fried foods seriously, and when you take a bite, you’ll discover why. Two main ones to try are alcapurrias and bacalaítos. Alcapurrias have a crispy, golden brown exterior that is made of fried mashed green bananas, wrapped around either beef or pork, although sometimes it can be crab, chicken, and others too. Bacalaítos are fried salt cod (bacalao) pancake-like fritters. Both are crispy and packed with flavor. This snack will definitely reward your taste buds and help you to continue your trek throughout the city!
If you’re already a bit homesick, stroll down Ashford Avenue, a street that resembles Miami Beach. Miami-style architecture, hotels, cafes, and shops provide for a relaxing walk and will comfort you with the sights and sounds of back home. Stop by Parque la Ventana al Mar (Ventana Del Mar Park) for some downtime. This small grassy park has plenty of public art statues to gaze at, as well as areas to lie down and feel the ocean breeze, as it’s right next to Condado Beach!
Condado Beach was actually one of San Juan’s first tourist zones in the 1950’s, aiming to be a mini Miami Beach. Sit down on the golden sand and take in the serene views of the blue water. High rise buildings and hotels will tower over you by the boardwalk, offering food and drinks should you desire a snack! If you’re lucky enough to spot a little kart selling piraguas here or anywhere, make sure to take the opportunity to buy one! Piraguas are crushed ice cones that are very famous in Puerto Rico, and they usually have delicious flavors that are inspired by local fruits like tamarind, coconut, mango, sugarcane, strawberry, and more. This refreshing treat will definitely cool you off from the island sun!
After you’ve taken a break, gear up for one last adventure before the sun sets. Although this attraction isn’t in San Juan, it’s definitely worth making the trip. Hop in the car and ride out to El Yunque National Rainforest, the only tropical forest that’s part of the U.S. National Forest System. The forest is huge with 13 hiking trails that lead you through rivers, lush vegetation, mountains, and water falls. Plenty of wildlife reside here as well, and expect to see unique animals like the Puerto Rican Parrot (endangered), the Puerto Rican Boa, the Puerto Rican Broad-Winged Hawk, and the Puerto Rican Sharp-Shinned Hawk. While rainforests are usually quiet spaces, in this one you can expect to hear the cute chirps of the coquí, a tree frog that is native only to PR. The coquí holds cultural relevance in Puerto Rico and is considered a national symbol of the country; it’s also the official national animal.
The smells of the amazing food have been taunting you all day, and now you can finally dig in! When you make it back to San Juan, dine at Barrachina, one of the most well-known restaurants on the island. Known primarily for being the self-proclaimed birthplace of the piña colada, this restaurant also serves up traditional PR dishes and delicacies. Make sure to order mofongo (Mashed fried plantains seasoned with garlic and spices that come with your choice of pork, shrimp, chicken, and more), and a plate of pernil con arroz y gandules (Roasted pork with pigeon peas and rice). These are two of Puerto Rico’s specialties and national dishes; every Boricua, including myself, can say they’ve had these delicious plates multiple times! Once you’ve thoroughly enjoyed the food, order a piña colada! Barrachina claims the drink was created here in 1963 by their former bartender, don Ramon Portas Mingot.
What most people don’t know is that Puerto Rico also has a couple of islands right off of the coast that boast incredible wonders of their own. One of the most popular, Vieques, is off of PR’s Eastern coast. Head there by a short boat ride when the sun is fully down for an unbelievable sight that will make your whole trip even more memorable. Mosquito Bay is considered the world’s “brightest bioluminescent bay” and you’ll soon see why! Hop in a kayak and paddle out to the middle of the bay, where you will be surrounded by streams of bright, glowing blue. Tiny organisms called Dinoflagellates (dinos) exist in the bay, and when they bump into another organism, they produce a bright blue light. This is why the bay is able to achieve such a magical and beautiful color—you’ll be hypnotized as you paddle through the lovely waters!
When you dock back on the mainland, take off your sneakers and throw on your heels or dress shoes— it’s time to party! Borinquén are known for their lively personalities and their dancing skills, so try to keep up! Your first stop for the night will be the popular La Factoría, where Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee filmed their music video for “Despacito.” The bar specializes in creating delicious artisanal cocktails; these bartenders aren’t messing around! Order a few as you take in the casual neighborhood vibe and the dim trail of lights that float overhead. When the DJ begins to play, the energy in the room will become contagious as locals and tourists alike swing and bounce around with their dancing partners.
Next, head to Club Brava, located in one of PR’s most high-end hotels, El San Juan Hotel. The popular nightlife destination is also home to a casino, lounge, and restaurant, but the club is what really shines. DJs play live music to a crowd that comes ready to party. Spend your time mingling with the eclectic crowd and don’t forget to show off some moves!
Exhausted from a day full of travelling and dancing, give yourself the “ok” to retire at your hotel. The Condado Vanderbilt Hotel was originally built in 1919 and was restored to keep up the glamor. The fabulous oceanfront hotel has three pools, including an infinity pool; a sundeck, a casino, a spa offering face and body treatments, a steam room, and a Stillness Lounge; three restaurants, and four lounges. Book a suite to enjoy your own private terrace, as well as other amenities like 24-hour butler service, and a whirlpool bathtub with ocean views.
As you think back on your tropical journey, the tastes and sights of PR will surely stand out in your mind. For now, to bring back those sweet memories, blast some salsa, and if you’re craving that PR cuisine, try La Placita in Miami. Even though you will miss it, look at the bright side: it’s just a short three-hour flight from the MIA!
By Aaliyah Pasols