paradise in puerto ricoMar 22, 2016
break broke on the Island of Enchantment — four days of shattered expectations, liquid courage, and the living fear of Zika.
For college students, "spring break" translates to a limited glossary. That one movie with James Franco. Booze, bikinis, beaches. Mexico, Florida. Tanlines, followed by sunburns. In the eyes of many, Cancun — the nexus of party culture abroad — wins dream destination. That is, unless you're me and want to escape it all.
Enter San Juan, Puerto Rico.
While researching for potential getaways, Puerto Rico was initially not on my radar. Costa Rica however? Most definitely — until I discovered the horror story that is airfare prices (not too kind for the student budget). I toyed around with Bermuda at first — affordable, close to NYC — but ultimately ruled it out having visited there years earlier. Then I moved away from islands — what about New Orleans, Portland, or Nashville à la the Master of None episode where Dev whisks Rachel away on a weekend date? (If only)
But then again — why not Puerto Rico? For starters, this wasn't your cliché spring break destination, which is exactly what I wanted. You could still go shoes optional, sip on tropical cocktails, and sunbathe — all at once. But what matters is what you can experience only in Puerto Rico and nowhere else in the world. Hike in the El Yunque Rainforest, wander the alleyways of Old San Juan, kayak on a bioluminiscent bay — these are distinctly Puerto Rican, and no amount of wild, you-had-to-be-there beach parties can ever rival it.
Come tag along on my adventures in Puerto Rico!
And cue the piña coladas.
- Swap a rainy 5 AM in New York for a (surprisingly) overcast afternoon in San Juan. You will be forever grateful for that iced coffee you downed at JFK.
- Settle into your temporary Puerto Rican abode — one private room in a rooftop terrace apartment (thanks Airbnb). You'll be in walking distance from Condado — the bustling hub of bars, hotels, and touristy fare — which you initially think you can manage. Initially. Across the street, a vacant lot teeming with jungly vines and uncut grass. A nail salon down the block. You spot your first (wild?) rooster, but you will be unaware of its impact over your sleeping schedule until later that night.
- Slather on copious amounts of bug repellent lotion. Yes, lotion not spray — lotions have a longer staying power, which is especially crucial when combatting against the trifecta of mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas. Your secret weapon: Sawyer Premium Ultra 30 Insect Repellent Lotion. Zika virus, be warned.
- Catch the public bus to Old San Juan. 75 cents per ride. Coins only. An elderly woman will spark up a conversation and wish you a pleasant trip. "California, but New York" and "four days" will become part of your daily vocabulary. Coming from a city of the jaded and the cutthroat, you'll quickly discover how welcoming Puerto Ricans are to foreigners.
- Pop into Caficultura for the famed Puerto Rican coffee and Insta-worthy latte art. For the tropical tastebuds, CafiCoco is a must — a heavenly blend of coconut and caffeine goodness. Our waitress also recommends the 2 Nueces — crafted especially for the walnut lover. Order the French toast topped with pineapple jam and coconut flakes. Fluffy, dreamy, and the perfect meal to kick off an island adventure.
- Stroll along the Old San Juan alleyways. Vibrant pastels, ornate balconies, and cobblestone streets will have you thinking Disneyland, but real life.
- Attempt to visit Castillo San Cristóbal, only to get turned away because of the 6 PM closing time (this will be the first of many spontaenous traveling turned poor planning moments). Unfortunately, you will never get a chance to return.
- The next practical step? Bar-hopping. OSJ is packed full of opportunities to get your alcohol fix on — but you will start with a $10 bottle of Palo Viejo rum, purchased from a tiny convenience market in Plaza Colon because, spring break.
- Head to the cozy, urban chic La Factoría for mixed drinks and unexpected ingredients. The Lavender Mule — vodka, housemade ginger beer, and lavender infusion syrup — is creamy and sugary sweet. Your favorite will be the De Lo Mejor: tequila, housemade horchata, Barrilito rum, and triple sec. Four or five rounds pass by. Sometime in the night, you had a sip of Bacardi and Coke.
- At La Taberna Lúpulo, the envrionment will noticeably change. Music is louder, clientele is rowdier, but you don't remember what you ordered. You understand why locals suggest this spot, though the crowd still seems decidedly American. According to Yelp: this is the best hole-in-the-wall for Caribbean beer.
- Realize that Puerto Rico isn't New Yok and that the bus has since stopped running. Wander aimlessly around OSJ and ponder on how to get home. Download Uber app to discover that Uber doesn't exist on the island. Google Maps says you can walk — for an hour or more. Decide you need nourishment to continue on.
- You're not sure exactly why, but you end up at Señor Frog's — otherwise the ultimate nightmare when sober, but a potential haven when inebriated. Fate intervenes and the hostess says the kitchen has closed for the night — your dreams for cheap pizza and greasy fries now dashed (the next morning, you will be relieved you never wasted a single dollar at such an establishment)
- Somehow flag down a taxi that appears safe and unassuming. Rattle off address. Your driver will drop the ultimate bombshell: your street and area is known for prostitutes. You decide to worry about this piece of news later.
- Collapse in bed, ready for beauty rest. Two hours later, the rooster from across the street will start calling. And every hour after.
- It's a miracle — you wake at seven AM sans hangover. For the first time in months, the bikini makes an appearance. Neoprene. Open toes. The unmistakable but familiar scent of sunscreen. More bug lotion. Your new uniform will be comprised of denim cut-offs and off-the-shoulder blouses. Goodbye winter knits.
- The race for breakfast begins. Your tour bus is on the way — you've booked a rainforest and kayak combo package with Bespoke Lifestyle Management through Viator. There is a Subway on Ponce de León avenue — out of the question. Luckily, there will be a fruit stand on the street over. You will muster the courage to use the 1% Spanish you know. Fresh plums and ripe bananas for your morning grub. Gracias.
- "What are you wearing?" your tour guide will text you. Moments later, an energetic man will jog up to you on the street and smother you in a surprise hug. This is your tour guide — Jerry. His enthusiasm and charisma: contagious.
- The drive to El Yunque National Forest begins — the only rainforest in the US National Forest System. There will be one stop along the way at a convenience store. You discover the beauty and addictive nature of plantain chips — and the fact that Puerto Rico is not a US territory, but a US district.
- The moment you enter El Yunque is the moment you leave behind reality. No cell service. Gray skies, no sunshine — this is a rainforest after all. The air is pure, refreshing. It will no longer feel like Puerto Rico, strangely enough. Jerry reassures the whole group: mosquitoes will not be a problem. Snakes and monkeys? Only in Costa Rica. Slippery Spanish moss will be the only root of your concerns.
- Trek through the trails but linger behind to snap endless photos. The hike will not even be a "hike" — painless, flat, and innocent (I've had worse in Morocco). The destination: a tranquil waterfall pool, tucked away from the touristy La Mina Falls below (warning: it will essentially be a public bathhouse there) Shed clothes. Wish you hadn't lost your GoPro charger. Dip toes in rushing water — colder than expected, but with time becomes comforting. A few brave souls will dare to dive off the cliff into the waterfall pool. When in Puerto Rico, right?
- Venture up eighty steps to the Yokahu Observation Tower. The view is spectacular, complete with intense Jurassic Park vibes. Emerge out of the rainforest, sneakers drenched in mud.
- Pause for (late) lunch break at a local family-owned restaurant in Fajardo. Housemade mojitos, grilled steak, tostones, maduros, rice and beans — nothing will ever be able to compare back in the city. You will now hit food coma status and fall dead asleep on the bus ride over to part two of the tour.
- Welcome to Fajardo. About an hour away from San Juan, Fajardo is the heart of Puerto Rico's bioluminescent bays — one of the few environments in the world where you can experience water luminescence. The cause? Oceanic plankton that emit glistening, blue light — magical in photos, and potentially magical in person, but the visibility depends on the intensity of the moonlight. Mode of transportation can either be through kayak or motorboat, but the time will always be nightfall.
- You will "kayak" through a lush mangrove forest in pitch black darkness. Emphasis on "kayak" as one of the tour guides will end up attaching his kayak and row the entire way for you. You will silently be ashamed yet thankful for your lack of upperarm strength. Your tour guide will attempt to communicate in Spanglish, resulting in nervous laughter and moments of I don't understand what you just said but I will pretend I did from both parties (he will, however, let you touch his biceps at the end of the night)
- The ride through the mangrove forest will feel surreal. The soundtrack is assorted — lapping water, mysterious buzzing from mangroves, the occasional scuffle of bumper to bumper (kayak) traffic. You will look up and witness a rarity: a black sky fringed by mangrove branches, the moon playing a game of hide and seek.
- Let your hand graze the water. It is unexpectedly warm — like bath water. Your eyes may be fooling you, but you see a hint of luminescence, but certainly not the sparkling blue you had imagined. However, all is forgiven.
- Return home. Shower. Change. Survive the seemingly endless walk to Condado at one in the morning. Spend $70 on drinks — watermelon sangria and tamarind and coconut mojitos to be specific.
- Sleep. Peacefully, this time.
- The original plan: catch the ferry to the neighboring island of Vieques for your designated beach day. Scratch that — you will hit snooze twice, miss the 1 PM ferry, and must devise a backup plan on the spot. Where else to for white sand, crystal clear waters, and freshly cracked coconuts? You will want to escape San Juan, so back to Fajardo it was.
- Fork over $100 for a taxi ride. Lament at how the concept of a"budget" no longer exists in Puerto Rico. The driver, however, will not know what Playa Seven Seas is — you'll speak with his friend on the phone, who will make the translation (he will also call you "oriental", but that's another story)
- Seven Seas will be the opposite of your Caribbean beach dreams — in both good and bad ways. Expect more locals, less foreigners. More mangroves, less palm trees. Waters are calm, but drenched in kelp. No sight of coconuts. A slight campground vibe.
- You will forget to bring a towel and use your shirt as makeshift one (after your trip, your shirt will still have remnants of tanning oil and you will regret everything)
- Almost fall asleep while jamming to your Spotify "island grooves" playlist. Almost. Cross your fingers and hope that you will be at least one shade darker. Your proposed beach read — The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick — will never go beyond page one.
- Retire from sunbathing at the one and only restaurant nearby. Order a piña colada — the island's national drink for it was invented in Puerto Rico. You will fail to taste the rum, but that won't matter because it will read more like a pineapple/coconut milkshake. Whipped cream is a must. Sand is everywhere.
- Wait for your taxi driver to return — he'll say it'll be an hour until he arrives. Marvel at the sunset on the beach. By now, most people will have left and only a handful remain. Seven Seas will feel even more private now. When night falls, you will retreat to the parking lot. The wait is eternal. Sand is still everywhere. Your scent: sunscreen.
- You will never see parking lots the same way ever again.
- As told by the locals: skip Vieques and head to Culebra for the true paradise beach experience. Keep in mind for next time.
- The day has come. You will have to pack your life into a suitcase again, and this time, drag it all the way to Old San Juan. Bid farewell to your Airbnb. Vow that if Puerto Rico round two were to happen, you will book a hotel in OSJ. Nowhere else (well, perhaps Culebra)
- Last ride on the bus. Another 75 cents.
- Your last meal of the trip will be at El Jibarito, where you realize what it means to save the best for last. You'll show up to the restaurant half an hour before opening (thank you Yelp) with luggage in tow. The waitress will most likely feel pity for you and seat you early.
- It's officially opening time! Order the rum punch. Looks will be deceiving: this will appear innocent on first sip — that is, until you drain the glass. Start with the beef empanadas, fried to golden perfection. For the main course, opt for bistec encebollado with mofongo and arroz guisado — cube steak with mashed plantains and yellow rice. Reviewers raved about the restaurant's house hot sauce and fortunately, the sauce will live up to its hype. Rating: five stars.
- There will be some time to kill, so why not finally bite the bullet and get the coconut you've been coveting so long for? It will only cost $4 from the vendor in Plaza Colon and will satisfy all your island cravings just in time for the flight back home.
- Knock out for the majority of your three hour flight (and consequently miss much of Sicario in the process). Wake up to bug bites on your legs — how, where, when, and why?
- Dream of reuniting with your bed. And shower. And aloe vera.