It had been a while since I had gone anywhere; the last time I had found myself in a airplane seat was mid-June for a work trip to a city that I’ve been to many times over. As August continued on, I figured I should get out of town for Labor Day weekend. With a $350 Delta Gift Certificate to use, I wanted to find somewhere new and potentially far off to get some rest and relaxation away from the office after a hectic few months. I looked at many places domestically and internationally, but the best bang for my buck that I could find led me to my destination: Puerto Rico.
I had never been to the Caribbean before despite the fact that I live in Florida and it’s relatively close by. It probably is partially a product of my desire to avoid cruises and other organized travel after some of my experiences with a tour group I took to Italy in High School (generally a lot of fun, but we wasted so much time at “hand-picked” shops and staying in less-than-ideal hotels nowhere near the city centers). Anyways, I figured I needed to finally see the Caribbean and where better to start for a formal introduction than somewhere that is part of the United States. I ventured out to the airport one afternoon after work and booked my ticket.
Friday, August 31
The 7:05AM flight to Atlanta came early. Originally, I had planned to take a later flight in the day, but as I was booking the ticket I decided I needed to just take the whole day off from work. Besides it would get me to Puerto Rico much earlier in the day. The flight up to Atlanta was the usual short flight where my upgrade to First Class was confirmed in advance. With an hour and a half on the ground in Atlanta I made my way to Delta Sky Club near Gate B10 – which is actually one of my least favorite in Atlanta mostly due to it’s small size which means it gets crowded easily and quickly. However, for grabbing a cup of coffee and some fruit it does the trick. My time in the lounge was limited before I made my way to the gate. The ATL-SJU flight was operated with a Boeing 757, and I did not have an upgrade clear in advance. Actually, as I boarded, I was #1 on the list for 0 seats. When that happens, one always hopes that someone doesn’t make a connection so you can get moved up at the last minute. Luckily, that exact scenario played out and I got the last seat. Win!
Delta flights to the Caribbean are operated just like any other domestic flight. There is no difference in service or anything else, despite the front cabin being called Business Class (but not BusinessElite) versus First Class. As such the service was not any different than the dozens of other domestic long haul First Class flights that I’ve had this year. Service was good, and there wasn’t anything that stuck out for better or for worse. Being as that it was a morning flight, the meal would be Breakfast, of which there would be two options: Cereal or an Omelette, both of which are served with fruit and a choice of bread. I’ve had both options before and despite what one might think of an airplane omelette I always side with that as opposed to the cereal (unless cereal is the only option like on some shorter flights). It’s just nice to have a warm meal. Overall it was ok, nothing to exactly write home about, but did the trick in holding me over until I got to San Juan.
It’s an Omelette
The flight arrived on time and in no time I was out of the terminal and on the bus to the Hertz facility to pick up my rental car. They didn’t have a dedicate #1 Club Gold service here (or even a display board), so I had to wait in line to find out which car would be mine. Turns out the Hyundai something-or-another SUV they assigned me lacked keys, so they switched me over to a Ford Focus hatchback, which I actually kinda preferred anyways. Luckily they also switched me to a car that had a GPS unit installed; which is fantastic because I had assumed the Google Maps Navigation worked in Puerto Rico like the rest of the US (spoiler alert: it doesn’t). With the address of my hotel punched in I took off on the Interstate (Seriously, they technically have Interstates in Puero Rico, they just are not signed and often more resemble surface streets) towards Old San Juan.
Booking my hotel at the last minute proved interesting; I wasn’t able to get a Starwood property for the entire duration of my stay, so I wound up using points on a stay at the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel and Casino for my first night. At only 7000 SPG points and it being right in the middle of the Old San Juan action, it was a steal. Even better was in my confirmation email there was a link to where you could request an upgrade to a suite for $25. While as an SPG Gold member I do get upgrades to an ‘enhanced’ room at check-in, it doesn’t include suites; from what I could tell however is that suites had balconies and faced the waterfront. This seemed like a no brainer, and ultimately an awesome decision, because they never did get around to actually billing me for the upgrade.
That being said, after parking my car (choose wisely when it comes to parking garages, the one I left my car in overnight, cost me $36!) and getting checked in I made it to my room on the 6th floor. The suite was relatively huge, however it was also relatively empty. Lot’s of room in there that wasn’t being utilized at all. That’s fine by me as I wasn’t going to be spending much time in the room anyways.
Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel – Suite (Living Room + Balcony)
Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel – Suite (King Bed)
After dropping my suitcase and lightening my bag a bit, I first had to find myself somwhere to get a memory card for my camera as I had somehow managed to forget that at home. Luckily I ran across a Radio Shack in Old San Juan which saved the day. Afterwards, I started my afternoon exploration stroll through the old city streets. I wasn’t using a map nor did I look up anything in advance. Ultimately, I would find myself passing through public squares and back streets before winding up at the edge of the water, however unlike in front of my hotel here were the fortifications that once protected this city and provided entrance to it. I followed the old city wall until ultimately I was led to the Castillo San Felipe del Morro.
Public Square in Old San Juan
A Garita On The Old City Wall Looks Out On The Bahia de San Juan
Castillo San Felipe del Morro Off In The Distance
One of the two forts that are a part of the San Juan National Historic Site, it was constructed in 1539 and retired from use as a US Army post in 1961. It really is quite massive; it doesn’t necessarily look that way from the outside, but as you explore the different levels it becomes apparent. That probably helped it adapt over the years to the changing aspects of warfare; although modifications were apparent as during World War Two the US Army added more modern observation posts
Looking Out To The Caribbean Sea From Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Flags Of The United States, Puerto Rico And Spain (Historical) And The Lighthouse That Was Built On Top Of The Fort.
Once the exploration of that fort was over it was time to hop on the tourist trolley ran by the National Park Service over to the other major for in in the San Juan National Historic Site, Castillo San Cristobal. This one did not have nearly the same crowds, although according to what I read it had been the largest fort built by the Spanish in the New World. For whatever reason, it felt smaller than Castillo San Felipe del Morro; perhaps I didn’t explore all of the fort?
Inside Castillo San Cristobal
View Of Castillo San Felipe del Morro From A WWII US Army Observation Post At Castillo San Cristobal
Once done with touring the forts, I made my way back through the streets of Old San Juan at a casual pace before returning to the hotel to figure out my game plan for the night. Since I couldn’t decide (a common occurrence for me) I just walked around for a while until I eventually settled down at a restaurant that had outside seating. It wasn’t until after I ordered a drink, I realized I was at an Italian restaurant. Whoops.
Calle Marina And The Cruise Ship Piers From My Balcony At The Sheraton Old San Juan
It wasn’t bad or anything, just a total fail for eating Caribbean or Puerto Rico food. I feel like I let myself down a bit, but on the bright side at least I didn’t get dinner from McDonald’s.
More time was spent outside including at the bar at the front of the Sheraton. I was introduced here to a local microbrewery (Old Harbor Brewery, which is supposedly the only one on the island) and their Pale Ale which would lead me to eating at their brewery two nights later so I could try other varieties. Being up since 5AM, I wasn’t looking to stay out really late especially since I had a big day planned for the next day. So I wrapped up in the hotel casino playing a few games and ultimately walking out with $53 from a slot machine. Not bad for only putting $5 in.
Saturday, September 1
Part of me had wanted to get up early and head out to a beach somewhere as the sun rose, but the part of me that had wanted to sleep in won out in the end. By the time I got up and out the door it was mid morning and I was going walk around Old San Juan for a bit before finding breakfast. My wanderings took me to a small public square on Calle San Francisco where I found the Cafeteria Mallorca. I had seen something about this place the night before, so I figured why not give it a try. I went in to the small, but crowded establishment and ordered a Mallorca which is a sandwich of sorts. It has ham and cheese and is dusted with powdered sugar. It’s almost like a funnel cake sandwich in a way. A little messy, but definitely delicious.
The Powdered Sugar Made It A Bit Difficult To Eat…
Once breakfast was settled I walked around a bit more, before heading back to the hotel to check out. The plan for the day was to make a loop around the eastern side of the island at a rather casual pace looking for places away from the tourist crowds in San Juan. The first order of business however was getting my car out of the garage I had parked in overnight directly behind the hotel. Upon presenting my ticket I found out that it had cost me nearly $40! To me that is just beyond absurd, but then I probably only have myself to blame for not noticing a sign with rates or something else.
I made my way along PR3 quickly putting San Juan behind me, but never really feeling like I was leaving a built-up area. That is until I turned off of the main highway on to PR191 and headed South towards the El Yunque National Forest. This particular forest is the only tropical rain forest in the National Forest system and seeing as how I’ve never been to a rain forest, I figured it might be a good place to visit. A stop at the visitors center was in order to get my bearings set straight. I didn’t really know what I could see or do here, so after getting a map I decided on a few waterfalls and an observation tower. I wasn’t prepared for a decent hike and as such decided against trying to peak of El Yunque. I made my way up the mountain roads going deeper and deeper into the rain forest; the road has quite a bit of turns and twists with less traffic than I had expected. Along the way there were waterfalls, an observation tower, and other places to pull over to stop for a moment. I had planned on a short hike, however, when I got to the trail head it turned out that it was closed for maintenance and that if I wanted to go to La Mina Falls, I would have to take a longer route. I wasn’t adequately prepared for a hike, and decided to abandon my pursuit.
An Observation Tower (“Yokahu Tower”) In El Yunque National Forest
View Of Mountains And Rain Forest From The Top Of The Tower
Waterfall In El Yunque National Forest
After taking in the rain forest, I continued east until I hit Fajardo. This is where some of the bioluminescent waters are, although in the daylight I don’t think you are really able to tell. This was supposed to just be my stopping point for lunch, so I didn’t plan to go out on the water. The first place I tried I was completely ignored and despite it being at a place right across a quiet-ish street from a beach, I wound up backtracking to a stand I saw on the way into town to enjoy a quick, cheap snack.
Beach In Fajardo
Again, it was time to continue my leisurely drive, taking the Autopista east and eventually south along the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. Eventually I got off the main highway, and headed for the coast where I was hoping that I would find a secluded beach or something to hang out at for a bit. The first one I stumbled upon was just along PR-3 between Naguabo and Humacao. The beach itself wasn’t exactly the finest, with some trash and water that was churning up seaweed, but the palm trees and the cool blue waters a little further out made it a nice shaded relaxation spot for a bit. A little further down the coast I would find a little nicer of a spot near the end of PR-53 an oil terminal. Locals seemed to be wading out in the water, which was nicer here, but I still didn’t go in. I was contempt to hang out by the palm trees to read a book. Between these two stops however, it became apparent – I need to get a travel hammock for these situations.
Boats Just Off The Beach
Secluded(ish) Beach Near The Oil Terminal/Port
After watching the water, I got back on the road to follow PR-3 up over a mountain between Yabucoa and Maunabo – the drive here lended to some great views on the way up of the interior of the island and on the way back down as the coast came into view. Unfortunately there wasn’t any good spots to pull over to take a picture. As I got back down to sea level in Maunabo, I encountered closed off streets and no signs giving me a detour route. Apparently there was some sort of street festival, for what I have no idea. I thought about trying to wander about on foot, but I couldn’t find anywhere to park that didn’t seem like a bad idea so I continued along the highway to the coast.
I wasn’t sure of my destination; I had wanted to find somewhere on the beach that was a bit remote to enjoy a cerveza and some Puerto Rican food as I watched the sun go down. I saw a several places along PR-3 that looked like they might have been good along with a place (that I could never find) that my guide book recommended, but kept on going until I decided to pull into a place who’s name I cannot even remotely remember. And since Google Maps doesn’t have street view in Puerto Rico, I cant even cheat that way. Oh well. For what it’s worth, the location was the perfect place to watch the sunset over the Caribbean while enjoying a beer and chowing down on Mofongo. Yes, I realize I live in a beach town in Florida, but I guess it somehow becomes better (at least in my head) when you are somewhere else that has the exact same thing. I sat here for a while until it got to the point where I realized that as the sun was going down I wanted to get back to San Juan or at least to a well-lit expressway before night fall.
Dinner (Mofongo) From A Litlle Place Squeezed Between The Road And The Beach
Not A Bad Spot To Kick Back For Dinner After Busy Day Of Exploration
The GPS in my car had me routed through the mountains again, but not the same way I had come before. These looked like they were secondary or worse types of roads as opposed to the two lane highway that brought me to the southern side of the Island. I figured that I would go for it as the other option would have been me backtracking the same route I came in on and that just seemed boring.
The opposite of boring was what I got as I made my way up into the mountains and the interior of the island. Going up PR-759 which eventually merged into PR-181, was for the most part fun in the Focus. Twists and turns everywhere, small villages/towns, great views of the valleys below, and so on. I will say at one point through, I thought I was going to become the next GPS case (you know where people find themselves driving into a lake or up a goat path on a mountain, etc), because at one point I found myself thinking that the road had abruptly ended ahead and slammed on the brakes! Like that the pavement ended and I thought maybe the road had been washed out or just was no more. I creeped the car a little bit forward and found that there yes the road a bit washed out, but there was a bridge and it was otherwise safe looking. Felt like the underside of the car took a slight hit, but hey it was a rental. I continued on and generally trying to get off of this mountain road as soon as possible. I didn’t want to try to drive on this road in the dark, especially after that experience. Luckily I made it through to the town San Lorenzo before it got dark and from there made my way to PR-52 which is a straight shot into San Juan.
Once in San Juan I headed to my next hotel, the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel and Casino, which would be home for the next two nights. Located next to the Puerto Rico Convention Center, this hotel is much larger, more modern, and trendier than the Sheraton in Old San Juan. I think it opened in 2009 and featured several restaurants, bars/lounges, the casino and an infinity pool on the fourth floor looking out towards Old San Juan. The room itself was nice and what you would expect from a not-to-old Sheraton property. From what I can tell, it didn’t look like that I got an upgrade, but that was find with me. I’m sure given how busy that the lobby was, I was probably edged out by other folks.
Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel and Casino
The rest of the night I stayed on the property. I tried my luck at the casino, but apparently my luck from the previous night had worn off. Since I figured I might as well get something in return for my money I sat down at the lounge in the bar and had a few drinks before bed; of which I would have had only one of had I known that a beer cost $8/bottle! You would think I would know better by now right?
Sunday, September 1
Getting up the next morning actually wasn’t that bad; I didn’t sleep in super late as I had a few hours drive ahead of me to far southwestern corner of the island to Cabo Rojo: home to apparently nice beaches, salt flats, and numerous small towns. The route mostly involved highways, and I thought about stopping in Ponce, but decided to skip the tourist sights there so I could spend time at the beach.
The drive there wasn’t anything spectacular for the most part; it was mostly freeways until I got much closer to the far corner of the island. From there, like the other areas I found myself going down less-than-busy roads through small towns. I made a few wrong turns on my route, but eventually I found myself at whatever the Puerto Rican equivalent of a state park is at Boquerón Beach. Being a holiday weekend, I expected the place to be rather busy, as would a similar beach/park back home would be. The opposite was true however; the parking lot was nowhere near full and the beach not overcrowded. That meant that there was plenty of space for me to set up shop on the sand before going for a swim in the Caribbean.
I find it interesting that I live in Florida, not more than a mile from the beach, but I almost never go there. Then on the other hand, I go to somewhere like Puerto Rico and I find myself at a beach; don’t get me wrong we have very nice beaches in Northwest Florida, but I think I’m just too used to it or something. I just find that interesting. Anyways…
I floated around on the water for a good while, enjoying the beautiful weather before heading back to shore to hunt for lunch. I saw what looked like a town at the far end of the beach; so I figured I’d throw my gear in to my backpack and make way in search of food and drink. At the far end of the beach was Boquerón, which is indeed a small town, but filled with restaurants and bars for the beach-going crowd. I found a counter service place that looked like it had some decent eats so I grabbed lunch, a beer and sat down at the water next to one of several short piers. It was exactly peaceful, but ti was relaxing; after exploring a few of the streets I made my way back across to the beach and the park where I packed everything back up into the car so I could continue my western circuit of the island.
There was only one other thing that I wanted to do on this side of the island and that was to visit the Salt Flats in the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge. The plan had been to go to the lighthouse on the tip of the cape and the relative non-tourist beach for a bit, but that turned into something that was going to happen. Once you get on the Refuge, the road becomes a dirt/sand one lane road that takes you out to the point. The Focus took a few hits and bumps, but the disappointing part was that once I got to the end of the road at the lighthouse was that there was no parking whatsoever. In fact it was so crowded I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to get turned around and back out…I think it took about 15 minutes for me to get out of there. I did try parking at one point up the road a bit, but after hitting a post and realizing I was taking up a lot of the road, I just figured I would bail on this activity. On the way out however, I did stop at the observation tower, so I could at least see the salt flats from above.
Cabo Rojo NWR – Salt Flats + Road To The Lighthouse
From this point forward it was just me taking my time getting back to San Juan. I didn’t have any other stops in mind, and I didn’t really stop anywhere either. The rest of the day was uneventful, and I made it back to San Juan just after sunset.
I decided that I would go back to Old San Juan for dinner, and while Puerto Rico is known for Rum, I decided to go to the only microbrewery on the island (what can I say, I like my beer), which also had a restaurant. The Old Harbor Brewery was located near the docks and the hotel from my first night on the island. After enjoying a decent burger and sampling a few of the local brews, I made my way back to the Sheraton Old San Juan for the casino. I figured I would try once more to see if I had any luck, but alas I did not. Oh well. In the end I didn’t walk out any richer or poorer, so at least there’s that. Since I had mid-morning flight out the next morning, I just returned back to my hotel by the convention center for the night and quickly passed out.
Monday, September 2
The day of my departure; I couldn’t get out on the 2pm flight so I found myself on a 10am flight out of San Juan back to Atlanta. As a result I did not have an opportunity to do anything that morning before my flight, on account me wanting to sleep in a little bit. After checking out I simlpy made my way to the airport to drop my rental and get checked in for my flight. Unfortunately, on this flight I would not be getting the upgrade to First/Business and so I found myself in an Economy Comfort seat instead. The flight wasn’t too bad and since it was an aircraft with seat-back entertainment it meant that I at least something to occupy myself with for the 4 or so hour ride to Atlanta. The rest of the day was pretty much non-descript as it was a very normal layover in Atlanta and flight home to Panama City. If there was something to report, I would, but there was just nothing.
Anyways, I’m glad I took the trip to Puerto Rico and got my first sampling of the Caribbean. It was a good introduction to the region and the culture, but most importantly it got me away from work for a short while – which is always good for recharging and refocusing so you can tackle new challenges and problems. I certainly wouldn’t mind going back in the future and maybe staying away from San Juan, perhaps on the south side of the island. However, the next time I go to the Caribbean I think I am going to try some of the Dutch islands…those have been on my list for a while now.