BORICUA: SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO

 

“Your shoes are too nice” he said. They will definitely get ruined!

“Can I wear flip flops?” I asked nervously looking down at my new pink Nike 4.0s and wondering if I could run back up to my hotel room to change.

Our tour guide and driver shook his head and said no.

I said Very well then. These are the only sneakers I have. i’ll just walk really carefully and try not to mess them up.

I got in the van and we started making our way from the hotel in Condado to the eastern part of Puerto Rico, towards the muddy and tropical El Yunque Rain Forest.

As we drove our tour guide, Jose, began to tell us about the Island. See Jose was a rather outspoken and eclectic fellow. He was trained as a lawyer and had an interest/certification in tourism so he knew and opined on quite a bit. He told us about Old San Juan and asked if we had been there and what we thought about it.

Old San Juan is a quaint old settlement west of Condado. I had seen pictures of its colorful buildings and cobblestone streets before I got to Puerto Rico so I knew for sure I’d visit. I went there almost every day of the trip.

 

colorful buildings
The many colors of San Juan

 

The Cathedral of San Juan. The second oldest church in the Americas
The Cathedral of San Juan. The second oldest church in the Americas

I got to see the famous Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro), a military fortification built to protect the city of San Juan from seaborne attacks.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro)

 

 

Quick History Lesson: San Juan had a strategic role as a gateway into the Carribean and was also known as the Key to the Antilles. Thus, El Morro was integral to the Spanish in maintaining ownership of San Juan. Initial construction of the El Morro citadel began in 1539 by Spain, who owned the island at the time, and concluded in the early 20th century by the United States. The citadel survived attacks from the English, the Dutch, and the Americans who finally obtained the island after the Spanish-American War. This island was also strategic during the World War II during which the United States used El Morro again as a military fortification, base, and coastal artillery observation to look for German submarines and other warships.

Top level of the citadel: Notice the flags from left to right: (1) Flag of the Spanish Overseas Territories used till the late eighteenth century, (2) Puerto Rican flag, and (3) the American flag.
Top level of the citadel: Notice the flags from left to right: (1) Flag of the Spanish Overseas Territories used till the late eighteenth century, (2) Puerto Rican flag, and (3) the American flag.

 

I walked by a basketball court with Carmelo Anthony’s name on it that has been turned to a fun spot for kids, replete with bouncy castles and water slides because “who basketball don epp?” His wife is Nuyorican (Puerto Rican raised in New York) so I’m guessing this was a gift from him to the city. I wonder if he knows what they did with his endowment. Oh well.

Carmelo Anthony probably doesn't know about this
Carmelo Anthony probably doesn’t know about this

Finally, I had dinner at the famous Barrachina restaurant in Old San Juan where the Pina Colada was invented. At Barrachina, I had Tostones Rellenos de Pollo (chicken and plantains), the Puerto Rican Delight, and the famous must-have Puerto Rican dish called mofongo. Mofongo is a plantain dish served with meat, vegetables, and shrimp. The three ethnic groups that comprise the modern day Puerto-Ricans are the Africans, the Spanish, and the Taino (the natives who were there first). The palates of these three groups are evident in the derivation of mofongo as well as other facets of the culture of modern day Puerto Rico.

 

 

After recounting my experiences at Old San Juan to our El Yunque tour guide Jose, he had a few choice things to say about Barrachina. It’s a lie! The Pina Colada was not invented at Barrachina. It was invented at the Caribe Hilton. Barrachina is a tourist trap with overpriced food!

Now, the Caribe Hilton is a nearby hotel that also claims that the Pina Colada was invented there. I really couldn’t be bothered at that point; I just know I had a refreshing Pina Colada after trekking up and down the streets of Old San Juan. I also put it on Snapchat that I was at the birthplace of the Pina Colada so I’ll just stick to the Barrachina story.

We got back in the van but it wouldn’t start. A few knocks of who-knows-what with a wrench, and the van sputtered to life! Voila, we were on our way! Chugging our way down Highway 66. We finally made it to El Yunque and I was ready to go. Jose asks, How fit is everyone in this van? Can you do a 45 min hike to Mt. Britton Tower to see a view most tourists don’t get to? I said, Of course! I work out six times a week so I was itching to go.

Now that hike was no joke! It was steep, muddy, and slippery. I walked gingerly trying not to ruin my shoes but then I stepped in mud and just gave up.

After about 40 minutes of hiking and looking at all sorts of foliage of the El Yunque, we finally made it to the Mt. Britton tower. We walked up another flight of never-ending stairs (Hello leg day) and saw the most amazing view of Nothing! The fog prevented us from seeing much but I got this picture of the dense foliage.

 

We made our way back down but stopped at another tower, the Yokahu tower from which I was able to see Los Picachos and the El Yunque peak (pictured behind me below).

Juan Diego waterfalls
Juan Diego waterfalls

Churrasco al Chimichurri arepa with steak, shrimp, cilantro, mofongo,
Churrasco al Chimichurri arepa with steak, shrimp, cilantro, mofongo,

At this point, everyone was exhausted and ready to leave. We got in the van and headed west, back towards Condado, through the town of Luqillo once more. This time we stopped at the Luquillo kiosks and went to a kiosk called Wepa Arepa. This was definitely one of the highlights of my trip to Puerto Rico. I had a fresh, made-to-order Churrasco al Chimichurri arepa with steak, shrimp, cilantro, mofongo, and some heavenly sauce. This arepa was so good that I had to have another.

As we drove back west towards Condado, Jose showed us the barrios and low-income housing. He pointed out what used to be a school with barbed wire around it to keep out thieving drug fiends. He discussed how Puerto Rico’s financial crisis was leading to a mass emigration out of the island to the U.S. He described how the status of Puerto Rico as a territory and not a state was detrimental to its economy. He chastised his leaders for being corrupt and thus responsible for the bankruptcy and severe financial woes the country was facing. I listened to his frustration and anger but could still sense the optimism and hope he had for his island. Our tour guide was very conscious and it was an interesting experience to glean all that I could from him.

Finally, we were back in familiar territory, Condado: our oceanfront community with its palm trees, almond trees, and high-end stores on the main street, Avenida Ashford, right across the Condado Beach. At the hotel, I hopped out of the van, thanked Jose, and walked to my room. I wet a towel, I sat in the tub, and I got to work, cleaning the mud off my pink Nike shoes.

Favorite things
The Arepas.
Mofongo
Old San Juan. Everything about Old San Juan.
The walk up to Castillo Del Morro. So serene and beautiful at night!
The almond trees in Condado.
The bars in La Placita, Santurce.

Least Favorite things
– The taxi drivers. They are literally a mafia. They overcharge. They’ve been kicking against Uber coming to Puerto Rico. They terrorize the golf cart drivers. They basically gang up on any competition. They don’t negotiate either. It’s just not worth the hassle. Rent a car!
– The empanadas were disappointing. I thought they’d be like the ones I had in Colombia but I really shouldn’t have been comparing them. It’s probably like comparing Nigerian Jollof rice to Ghanaian Jollof rice.
– The Condado beach wasn’t great. May not be worth it to be in Condado for the beach. La Placita was really great but you could just stay in Old San Juan. Go to a nice beach once (there are quite a few), party in La Placita once, and enjoy Old San Juan.
– I didn’t see anything when I snorkeled! I actually brought my snorkeling gear and got in the water but nope! Nothing to see.
– The taxi drivers again! They get another post.

Recommended
Try to eat Lechon if you can. It’s another famous Puerto Rican dish but it’s hard to find in the cities.
Visit a bio-luminescent bay.
Take bug spray.
Rent a car.
If you want to snorkel, book a boat trip that includes snorkeling.

Author

2 comments

    1. Hello Temitope,
      You don’t need a tour guide to see Old San Juan. When you get there, you can walk around the streets and see the monuments on your own. There is also a trolley that can take you from El Morro to the central parts of Old San Juan.
      I don’t remember the tour guide company for El Yunque because the hotel booked it. I could try to get that information for you though but there are a number of tour companies that will take and guide you through the rainforest.
      Regards,
      Wendy A. Okolo

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