Sunday, March 24, 2013

- San Juan

I went to Puerto Rico.  Then I made the stupid mistake of coming back to Minneapolis.  In the nearly two weeks that I've been back it's snowed like 5 times and we had two days of negative windchills and hold on a second while I catch a plane back to San Juan.

Spring break has never been a thing that I needed in my life.  Being from the coast of a pretty mild state will do that to you.  Plus, I was too broke in undergrad.  In grad school you don't get spring break because that's just more free time to run experiments.  Or I went home to prevent having a nervous breakdown.  The one time I did travel during our actual week of spring break I went to Lake Tahoe, which kind of defeats the point.  Although it was gorgeous and I did have a ton of fun.

But after living in Minnesota for two years, I totally GET Spring Break.  And in my quest to make this year completely awesome, I felt like it was time to do things right and shell out some money to spend a week parked on a gorgeous white sand beach surrounded by turquoise water.  So I rallied some friends from work, Kayla and Christine, and that is sort of kind of exactly what we did.

We actually had a pretty active vacation - but that's what I like.  I love being a tourist.  And even though Puerto Rico is small - it's a pretty big island as far as caribbean islands go.  In 7 days, we only covered the northeast corner.  Which is fine, because it leaves lots to do on my return trip.  Next year.  I'm not kidding.

Anyways, we took a 6:30 AM flight on Wednesday morning which landed around 3:30 in San Juan.  Generally I'm totally not into early flights, because I hate everything in the morning.  Except vacation - and getting there ASAP.  But a 6:30 flight meant that I had to be up by 3:30 in order to meet up with the other girls, load the car, drop off all the animals, and park.  And of course I didn't go to sleep until 12 because that's how long it took me to pack because no matter how excited I am about vacation I'm still a procrastinator.  I thought I would be able to sleep on the plane, but on the flight from ATL they showed Hitchcock, which I really wanted to see, plus once it looked like this out the window, I was too excited to sleep.
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That's the sky, a small island, and the Atlantic.  See if you can tell where the sky meets the sea.

We had just enough time after landing to check in to the hotel, throw on bathing suits, grab some Medalla (Puerto Rican beer) and head to the beach before we lost the sunlight.  We laid there watching the waves and kitesurfers until it was time to head back for dinner.  While waiting for a cab we heard the call of the coquis for the first time.  They're small little frogs endemic to Puerto Rico that make a really loud chirping sound (for which they were named) once the sun starts to set, and they kept us company for the rest of the trip.  We never actually saw one, despite a week long hunt, youtube tells me they look like this:
After reading this on Travel and Leisure I was really interested to try out 1919 and I thought a fancy dinner would be perfect for kicking off our vacation right.  It was.  The roasted organic carrot salad I was perhaps my favorite thing...along with the desserts.  We made a point to each order something different and pass everything around, so I feel pretty confident saying that the menu is stellar.  The only problem was I made an 8PM reservation because I wanted us to have time to explore before dinner.  So after having a cocktail, and a four course dinner we were nearly falling asleep at the table because we'd been up for so long.  We headed back to crash early, because we planned to have a full day in old San Juan on Thursday.
from: http://swotti.starmedia.com/tmp/swotti/cacheC2FUIGP1YW4=Q2L0AWVZLURLC3RPBMF0AW9UCW==/imgsan%20juan4.jpg

As you can see, Old San Juan is not a very big part of the city, but it has all of the great historic sites that are "must sees" because it is the part of the city that was originally colonized by Spain in the 1500's.  Christine had a guide book that coworker had lent her for the trip which included a walking path through Old San Juan that we decided to follow along.  Our cab dropped us off at San Cristobal fort around 9 AM, but instead of stopping there first we started a loop that went down by the cruise ship docks, and along the outer wall of the city up to Fort San Felipe del Morro.  The walk along the old city wall was one of my favorite parts: 
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Self timer extraordinaire.

We passed through one of the old city gates and walked through a bit of town before getting to El Morro.
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Walking through the gate really highlights how massive the wall is.  It's like 15 feet wide and filled with a layer of sand, which happened to be a pretty awesome shock absorber.
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El Morro.

I had heard that a lot of times there are people flying kites out on the lawn, so I was kind of disappointed that no one was doing that.  But we did stuble upon a "gato", one of the few spanish words I remember for four years in high school...it means cat, stalking something on the lawn.  We were pretty stoked to see that they were green parrots - and I managed to catch them in flight.  
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Photo credit: my camera.

Then we headed into the fort:
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The views from the top are definitely one of the best parts...despite all of the stairs and ramps that you have to climb to get there.
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We always have to put Kayla in the middle, otherwise it looks weird.
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The lighthouse was a later addition and went through 4 versions before ending up like this.
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San Cristobal is in the distance of the second shot.
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Rainbow sun halo.

After exploring we were overdue for lunch and a bit hot, so we bought a flavored ice and let this fountain splash us a bit.  I'll have to admit, it felt pretty great on my feet, since they were a bit out of "flipflop shape".
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I took a lot of pictures trying to capture the vibrance of the city, but this is one of my favorites that I got right after leaving El Morro and heading to find food.  We went to Raices for lunch which was recommended by a friend.  Aside from experiencing mofongo for the first time, which is amazingly delicious and now one of my most favorite things ever - the highlight was the ice cold water served in metal cups.  Walking around in the sun for the entire morning meant that we were in desperate need of some hydration.  

Our next stop was San Cristobal fort - which had even more spectacular views at the top.  The city views highlight exactly why Old San Juan was recently named one of America's prettiest towns by Forbes.  With all of the bright colors, spanish architecture, and the ocean never far from view - it really was an amazing city to experience. 
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From there we headed over to the docks to catch a ferry to a nearby island for a tour of the Bicardi factory.  This whole part of the day worked out so well because we just happened to show up right in time for the next ferry, which dropped us off right in time for the next tour.  It was pretty interesting to hear about the history of Bicardi, and to learn more about rum which none of us really knew about, or drank that much.  Trust me when I say, that's changed.  

We didn't hang out for too long after the tour because we had signed up for a progressive dinner tour with Flavor of San Juan and had to meet up with the group by 4:45.  Luckily we had just enough time to pop into an art shop and purchase prints of paintings by a local artist that really capture the color of the city.  We all chose a different scene of somewhere we had been during our walk around the city.  

If the day had ended there, it would have been a tremendous success, but the icing on the cake was the dinner tour, which was one of the best tours I've ever taken anywhere.  We went to four different local restaurants and had so many great dishes and drinks along the way.  But what made it even better is that walking in between restaurants we got to hear a lot of the history behind all of the sights we'd seen earlier in the day.  They did a really great job delivering the information in a completely entertaining way and highlight some things that I don't think you would regularly get to hear about.  
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Raices fountain at the end of Paseo de la Princesa promenade.  We passed it earlier in the day on our own, and at night for the walking tour - when the lighting was more dynamic.

Of course by the time it finished up at 8pm we'd been in Old San Juan walking around for 11 hours so to say we were ready to relax is an overstatement.  We had kind of a hard time getting a taxi out of Old San Juan and I'll admit...I fell apart a little bit.  If I had been watching the Amazing Race before the trip as much as I've been watching it now, I totally would have known what to do and not gotten the slightest bit frustrated.  But anyways, we ended up in a cab with a really great driver and headed back to our hotel to grab some beer and spend some time resting our weary bodies in the pool and hot tub.  

The next day we allowed ourselves to sleep in a bit before checking out of the hotel and heading over to the east coast of the island for the "beachy" portion of the trip...